Chair, Executive Committee


Kaarin Taipale is a Finnish architect and urban researcher. At the time of this video interview, she was the Chair of the Executive Commitee of ICLEI - the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which has since changed its name to ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability. This is an international association of local governments, and national and regional local government organisations that have made a commitment to sustainable development. As of April 2019, its members now include over 1,750 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. in over 100 countries.

ICLEI's basic premise is that locally designed initiatives can provide an effective and cost-efficient way to achieve local, national, and global sustainability objectives. It provides technical consulting, training, and information services to build capacity, share knowledge, and support local government in the implementation of sustainable development at the local level. Agenda 21 was the international sutainable development action plan for the 21st century agreed by 100 Heads of State at the Earth Summit in 1992.

Kaarin Taipale is now Senior Visiting Fellow, Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research (CKIR), Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, and has also been chair of the UN-led Marrakech Task Force on Sustainable Buildings and Construction on behalf of the Ministry of the Environment.
Half the world population now lives in cities, and most of the consumption of resources and production of wastes takes place in cities. Do you think it is really possible for mega-cities like New York, Cairo, Mexico City, or Sao Paolo to become ecologically sustainable?
That's a most un-easy task, but there are some encouraging examples. The urbanists love to debate whether the cities should be dense or not. As you mention New York, I would say it's probably not one of the worst examples because it's very dense. And it has to have fairly good public transport because of its density, so many people in New York are used to taking the subway, because they know they won't get anywhere with the private car. That's a much bigger problem in the cities that are spread on a large surface, where the planning is based on the private car. That is the terrible heritage we have from the great invention of Mr. Ford, and then the huge excitement from building big roads - and separating, disintegrating the city which is the sad heritage of functionalism. They wanted to take the functions of the city apart, so they thought one would work in the centre and live somewhere outside the city in the beautiful greenery. Now we know of course that outside the city centre is just the highways in order to get to the little tiny house somewhere far away.

Tell us about ICLEI.

ICLEI is short for the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. We like to add that it's cities implementing sustainable development. It was founded 1990, but I'm always saying that if ICLEI was founded now, it's name would certainly not have the E - for Environment - because today the emphasis is clearly on sustainability, you can't separate environment. ICLEI is a democratic association of cities and associations of local authorities. We have about 400 members all around the world. We still have a majority of European members, but we are focusing a lot of work to get more membership on all continents.

We work as an advocacy organisation for the role of cities, especially in the lead up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where our job was to speak about the role of cities before the nation states. Please don't think that the nation-state can solve these issues alone; it will need us, cities, local governments, communities, and people. That's one part, the advocacy. But our main job is to help cities build programmes for themselves to become more sustainable, and to help cities network and exchange experiences with each other, so we are an information exchange as well. And actually our main work is through campaigns, programme frameworks whose contents differ from place to place. You can't have one programme being the same in New Zealand or in Sao Paolo. We have campaigns for Local Agenda 21 which is where we actually were born - that's our birthplace. We have a water campaign. And a very exciting success story, the Cities for Climate Protection campaign.

In the implementation of Local Agenda 21, how important is it for the community stakeholders to define a shared common vision of the future of their city? Have there been any success stories where a top-down plan was made by the mayor or local authority?

I think the exciting news is that at every level, even at the global level, decision-makers are noticing that it's much wiser to listen to more voices, and to those voices who are actually doing the job on the ground. This is as much true for a city as it is, let's say, for the United Nations or the World Bank or any big company. We are all learning the same lesson: listen to more people who bring you more knowledge. It's always wiser to be informed than not to be informed.

ICLEI's Local Agenda 21 Planning Guide, published in 1996, recommends a set of Local Agenda 21 Campaign Milestones, starting with the formation of a multi-sector stakeholder group, performing a sustainability audit of the city, forging a shared community vision of the future, implementing the vision, followed up by community-based monitoring and evaluation. Do you still recommend this approach?

Definitely! Because it makes a logical process. At first you identify groups of stakeholders who are connected to your goal. Let's say if you are talking land-use development: then you want to know what those people will want who will be living there, the teachers and the schools maybe, maybe the farmers who used to be there or who are living adjacent, maybe the traffic planners who have to figure out how it's connected to other places, the businesses, what kind businesses are going to be there, what kind of employment is going to be created there, and what kind of education system are you going to have in this place, what kind of people are going to be there, what are they going to need? Cities are an incredible concentrate of everything that there is, so that's why actually city planning is so terribly difficult because there are so many things you should be thinking about at the same time!

How important is it to identify a set of indicators that all the stakeholder groups will agree as being valid, in order to perform a sustainability audit of the city at the start of the process? In other words, after you form the stakeholder groups, then...

Then, then you make an analysis: where are you? And then you describe your priorities, and where you want to go. And then you also ask for a political commitment for this action plan, for the goal, the vision. Because you want the politicians to be committed, otherwise it's just one more paper. But for the follow-up you of course need the indicators so it's part of the decision-making there, in order to check up in two years or five years or ten years - did we go anywhere? - that's why you have to have the indicators as part of the vision.

Can you give me some examples of cities where this process was most successfully done, where a shared community vision was actually created and then put into action?

One of my favourites is the city of Calvia in Spain, it's actually on Majorca. You can imagine that tourism is really the main business in a place like that. But we are also very well aware that wherever there is too much tourism it actually kills the tourism! And this was the kind of problem that the city of Calvia was facing. So in order to solve the problem, it was obvious that they had to talk with the tourism business, with the hotels, the transport, the sight-seeing groups, the restaurants and so on. And they actually ended up demolishing some hotels - in order to make more space, and to create a better place where those remaining hotels were, to create a more pleasant atmosphere and environment for those who wanted to come there!

What about the capital cities in Europe? Are any of them following ICLEI's advice and doing a real multi-stakeholder consultation process?

Well I would like to say that Barcelona is a capital [i.e. of the province of Catalonia in Spain], it's very much a capital without being Madrid. For many in Europe and for many in the world, Barcelona is a prime example of a city that has gone through extensive Local Agenda 21 projects and that also has a leadership which is very committed to sustainable development and constantly keeps setting new goals for itself. I would say it's not only one process, it's many simultaneous processes that the city commits itself to accept.

What are the main obstacles in doing Local Agenda 21, the main things that hold it back?

Oh there are so many, where should I start? Well for many, one of the obstacles is still this E, that people think it's only about the environment, and then think that environment is marginal, that it is only about planting trees and being pretty. Of course that's an extremely childish view, because sustainability is really about how these issues come together, employment, security, long-term future sustainability, and so on. Short-term thinking is maybe the next thing. Councils change every four years, so if there is policy change, it's difficult to think long-term. And of course business interests are very often short-term; you want to have your return in six months, or twelve months or twenty-four months and that's not really sustainable thinking!

And strangely enough, I think the stakeholder participation is a very difficult process before your learn how to do it. First of all because, maybe in the first stage of enthusiasm, the stakeholders have this feeling "Oh we can do everything," and "now they are going to listen to us and that's the way they're going to do it," and "you have to do it the way we think it should be done". That's of course, not the point! Because there are so many stakeholders, and until the stakeholders realise that they all have to listen to each other, it has to be a consensus which is always difficult to create. That's very very painful. And of course because in the multi-stakeholder dialogue it tends to be that even the stakeholder representatives sometimes are not very democratically elected, in a way. They may be actually representing a very small - but very efficient and very loud - very small minority. I think the concerns are partially legitimate. So it's very difficult to create a really balanced and just participatory process.

And there is an almost ironic detail that I've also watched from afar, how politicians may be jealous: that, "well, aren't we the local elected politicians, aren't we the democratic representatives of the inhabitants, of the citizens? So what is this other parallel democracy there? Why is their voice now being heard and not the politicians' voice?" So also for the elected councillors, it's a process to learn how to listen to their constituency and use them as stakeholders.

How do you feel, personally, about the state of the world since Rio?

I think that bottom line local government view - my personal view and local government view tend to co-incide - is that because there are so many encouraging examples there is no other alternative than to be optimistic. Yes, this is very idealistic, but if you bring the news to the people that you can change your own environment but you have to act yourself and you have to take responsibility yourself, there is huge space for, room for improvement! And that's why we are so excited about this basic strategy of good examples, of best practices and so on that are collected and published so that people can get inspired by the example of others.

What is the Action Project that you launched here at Johannesburg?

While local governments were preparing their 10-year review of the Rio Agenda for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in the fall of 2002, we looked at what's been achieved within the framework of Local Agenda 21. We found at least 6,500 Local Agendas - but we are certain there are much more - that have been implemented or started since Rio. And then we were wondering if we now keep talking about Local Agenda, people will say "Well, what's new? We've done it. It was 10 years ago!" We realised that for those cities which have gone through the process of Local Agenda, we need to have a new vision, and we need to convince them that this is a correct road you started, but the road continues. So we said we are going from Local Agenda 21 to Local Action 21! Now it's not anymore writing the action plans and talking, but also moving, putting it into action, making it real.

At the same time we are very conscious of the fact that millions of villages and towns and cities in the world never started with their Local Agenda 21. So we are not saying that it's past and over and forget about it, we are saying there is something for every kind of city. Others have done already something so they can move further and look for new tools. It's a simple as that!
Why is it so important to make our cities sustainable?
It's become a focal concept now, after we realised globally that people are moving to cities, people will be living in cities, and they are going to move to cities extremely rapidly, so that cities will grow enormously within a very short time frame. That creates problems that we never had before: transport, climate change of course as a result of transport, getting freshwater and energy to people who are moving in. And oftentimes as you well know people move to informal settlements if the city is not prepared to take the newcomers in; this is especially in the developing world, but we see it also of course in the developed world In most European countries the urbanisation has often reached a fairly high level - about 80% - but in my own country [Finland] we're still very agricultural so we know that, even in our very scarcely populated country, we will have a bigger growth of cities than normal.
This is the transcript of a video interview produced and directed by Michael O'Callaghan at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, in 2002.
Full transcript (2,265 words, slightly edited for clarity).
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