Author Archive: Gregory Scruggs

The UN’s Top Environmentalist Isn’t Afraid of Cities

A couple in Beijing takes a selfie on one of the city’s rare “blue sky” days. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

There may be better known climate evangelists like Al Gore and Bill McKibben, but in the clubhouse of environmentalists with the ability to effect real change, there may be no more prominent figure than Erik Solheim. As the head of the United Nations Environmental Programme, the former Norwegian minister has one of the world’s foremost bully pulpits to talk about the importance of environmental action.

For centuries, cities have been seen as environmentally destructive, choked with air pollution and industrial runoff. And while many still struggle with the ecological repercussions of bad development, others—even famously polluted Beijing—appear to be turning a corner, implementing greener policies and building for a more sustainable future. Today, in fact, it’s often said that cities are the world’s best chance at averting the catastrophic effects of environmental decline. At World Urban Forum 9, Next City checked in with Solheim to find out whether he agrees, and how an environmentalist views the future in an increasingly urbanized world.

Are urban dwellers the best environmentalists?

There’s a lot of truth in that. You can much more easily use most transport systems if you live in a city. It’s much easier than having a private car. People also tend to use less energy, because it’s more energy efficient living in a building where a lot of the other people are living.

Former UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos was fond of saying “urbanization is a tool for development.” Do you think that urbanization is also a tool for environmental sustainability?

The huge global population can only be accommodated by most people living in cities. If you take Africa as an example, where we have the most rapid population growth, people have to be distributed. There are huge environmental benefits by urbanization.

But most importantly with this strong global trend towards moving into cities, we need planned energy-efficient cities with mass transit systems and a good system for garbage. There are huge opportunities for people moving to cities. And no nation will move into prosperity without urbanization. We should not at all be afraid of urbanization.

Is there a flip side to urbanization’s role in environmental sustainability? Groups like C40 claim that cities are responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions, which is why they argue cities should be the ones to act first. Is urban living with economic growth compatible with a low-carbon lifestyle?

It’s absolutely compatible. The idea that we can defeat environmental problems while stopping economic development and growth is completely flawed. In the developed part of the world, we have had a basically complete de-coupling of all polluters, except the climate polluters, from economic growth. Norway has doubled their GDP in the last 20 to 30 years, while pollution is less.

As natural disasters increase in frequency, cities seem to be abandoning mitigation talk and focusing more and more on climate adaptation. Should mitigation still be just as important as adaptation?

It should be, and it is. The most amazing fact at the moment is that the price of solar, wind and other renewable energies can now compete with coal anywhere in the world, and in America there are five times more jobs in the solar than in the coal industry. China and India are shelving a huge number of planned coal plants, simply because they can go solar. Next month, Prime Minister Modi in India will be launching the global solar alliance, and President Macron of France will try and drastically reduce pollution in big cities to improve air quality. But it’s very good for climate at the same time. There’s no choice to be made between adaptation and mitigation. You need to do both.

I’m hearing less mitigation talk from cities, though, and more focus on adaptation.

I want to challenge that opinion. It’s exactly opposite of what’s happening in huge parts of the world—in China and India, close to 40 percent of humanity—so what’s happening there is of incredible importance. Look at the number of cities now moving into electrical mobility and bike sharing. In Norway, one-third of all cars sold are electrical, 50 percent of all cars are electrical plus hybrid. Europe is moving into restricting private cars, like Mayor Anne Hidalgo in Paris. Ten years back in Paris, there were motorways along the Seine.

There’s a huge move, maybe as much driven by the ambition to make cities green and livable as by climate issues, but that’s fine. China is drastically reducing coal, which, again, I think is more motivated by livable cities and less pollution than it’s about climate, but the result is the same.

Do you have a vision for what cities will look like when they’ve abandoned this kind of fossil-fuel infrastructure? There are two gas stations in sight of each other along the commercial corridor closest to where I live in Seattle, and everyday I walk by wondering if they will still be there in ten years.

I’m fairly sure they will not be there, because you see a drastic and rapid movement towards electrical vehicles. All car makers in the entire world, whether it’s General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, or the Chinese, they’re all making electrical vehicles. At the end of the day, it will be government action and city action that defines how fast the transformation comes, because you need charging stations, market regulations, and price incentives. But I think it will come very fast, just that some cities will do it first and then when that happens, all will follow.

Sometimes of those moves leave people behind, though. The Port of Seattle is facing a walkout because truck drivers—largely immigrants earning near minimum wage—view tighter emissions regulations that require more recent engines as a cost burden that’s putting them out of business.

More often than not, this is a completely false idea. Electrical mobility is, throughout the lifespan of the car, cheaper, and in the future it will be much, much cheaper.

But we pay for this technology upfront at a higher cost.

Upfront costs may sometimes be higher, and that may sometimes be a big issue for low-income people, but that’s just a matter of organizing the financial market so that you pay over time.

There will always be resistance to change—that’s been throughout history. Nokia went from the biggest phone maker to the tenth biggest in a year and a half because they didn’t believe in smartphones. Those that try to oppose this change, they’re going to lose. If people in some parts of the U.S. oppose the change, the market will go to China, India, or to other parts of the U.S. You need to embrace change, but change in such a way that it will take care of low-income people.

Can a City Famous for Its Sound Quiet Down?

I heard the low rumble of bass even before I passed through the gate. Descending dark stone steps cradled by tropical vegetation, I rounded a corner and the source of the music came into view: an imposing stack of amplifiers, four speakers wide and twice my height. This was no hodgepodge collection of audio equipment, but a fine-tuned, custom-built sound system.

On a Sunday night in November, the tower of speakers, named Rockers Sound Station, was playing reggae and dub music for the weekly music session known as Dub Club. Perched high above Kingston in the residential Jack’s Hill neighborhood, Dub Club takes place on an expansive hillside veranda overlooking the city’s twinkling lights below.

The club was packed with a mix of locals warming up before heading out to other parties, diehard reggae and dub fans, white expats from the embassy crowd and foreign music tourists like myself who paid the JMD$500 ($4 U.S.) cover charge to smoke a spliff and marinate in the music. The sound system stood sentry at one end of a concrete courtyard where off to the side, the owner and operator of Rockers Sound Station, Gabre Selassie, commanded the scene with turntables, a mixer and a microphone.

“Music that’s bold to rock up your body and soul,” Selassie rhymed on the mic before dropping the needle on a vintage 12-inch vinyl record. The sound of dub washed over the crowd until around 2 a.m., when the night ended peacefully and the fans filed out to negotiate with taxi drivers for the ride downhill.

Uneventful endings to such parties are no longer a guarantee in Kingston. Today Jamaica’s world-famous music culture, a main driver of the city’s economy, is under threat due to heavy-handed enforcement of a 1997 law called the Noise Abatement Act. The legislation allows the police to shut down amplified sound events in response to anonymous noise complaints.

In Kingston, amplified sound is a near constant, from car stereos to loud storefronts to parties known as street dances that blast more contemporary forms of Jamaican music like dancehall. But those parties, popular among lower-income Jamaicans and a dedicated cadre of foreign fans, are facing increasing scrutiny, in part because of their proximity to residential neighborhoods in a city that doesn’t strictly zone such activities.

A rendering of one of Kingston’s proposed entertainment zones. (Credit: Dorraine Duncan and Jhordan Channer)

In April last year, the police showed up around 11 p.m. and asked to see a permit for Dub Club. Forty-seven-year-old Selassie, born Carlisle Lee, showed one from the municipal government, but the cops demanded to see one from the police department, too. Lee had applied for the police permit but hadn’t yet picked it up. When the police told him he would have to leave mid-party and go with them to the station, he refused. Tempers escalated, and the police tasered Lee and fired tear gas into the crowd.

Lee was arrested but the charges were later dropped when the police determined he did have a permit. While street dances are regularly halted without garnering much official response, the Dub Club dust-up was an embarrassment for authorities seeking to cultivate a positive image of a city with a crime-ridden reputation, as the Sunday night session has international renown among white foreign tourists and is endorsed by the Jamaica Tourist Board.

Olivia “Babsy” Grange, minister of culture, gender, entertainment and sport, spoke out against the arrest. Ultimately, she believes the relationship between the police and music community needs to improve.

“His work has grown out of a desire to promote our culture and he should be praised for that,” she told the Jamaica Star. “The support his event gets from Jamaicans who love roots culture, tourists who come to Dub Club each Sunday night, as well as those who follow it online each week, underscores how world famous our culture is.”

While a 20-year-old law continues to stifle music events, a group of advocates from academia, politics and the music scene are pushing for a solution: dedicated entertainment zones in which amplified sound, the lifeblood of Kingston culture, isn’t subject to shutdowns by the police. They hope Kingston’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Music will push the current central government administration to finally amend the Noise Abatement Act. While the proposed zones don’t sit well with everyone in a music culture often suspicious of authority, they may be the only hope to keep the music playing in the birthplace of sound system culture.

Jamaica’s Gift to the World

Jamaica is the only country on the planet to have invented eight genres of music in the second half of the 20th century. That’s according to Sonjah Stanley Niaah, a cultural studies professor at the University of the West Indies who directs the Reggae Studies Program. She rattles off the eight genres with pride: mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dancehall, dub, nyabinghi and EDM. (The latter requires an asterisk: Niaah argues that Jamaican producers’ pioneering studio techniques in the 1970s laid the groundwork for how today’s EDM producers make chart-topping hits, and superstars like Skrillex and Diplo openly acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Jamaican musical innovation and incorporate Jamaican vocal samples into their work.)

Sonjah N. Stanley Niaah speaks at a conference.

The country’s cultural impact may be immeasurable, but Jamaican music’s economic contributions are both quantifiable and impressive. According to Niaah, Jamaica’s annual music exports are worth nearly $100 million, or over 8 percent of the country’s total exports. Based on permits issued between 2012 and 2016, the economic impact of the Jamaican entertainment sector is estimated at over JMD$71 billion ($56.7 million U.S.) annually.

Kingston has always been the hub of this economic sector. An estimated 6,000 people work in the music industry, the vast majority of them in Kingston. Niaah described the city as a “crucible” where musical creativity from the countryside — like Bob Marley, who was born in rural St. Ann parish — converges on the capital. “This city cannot survive without these creative impulses,” she said.

That statement rings true after a week immersed in Kingston’s music scene, where dancehall reigns supreme and both reggae and dub are enjoying a resurgence after years of having fallen out of favor among local music fans. I witnessed the exuberant dancehall moves that get copied by Justin Bieber and Drake, the rising reggae crooners breathing new life into the genre that made Bob Marley one of the most popular musicians on the planet and the sound system yards strewn with spare speaker parts that cobble together some of the world’s most powerful audio rigs.

“The sound system is our national instrument,” Niaah argued. She cited a 1974 report to the prime minister by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson who recommended that every village in the country have its own sound system.

But not everyone is as optimistic that Jamaica’s government believes music is crucial to the country’s future. Damion Crawford was the minister of entertainment and tourism from 2012 to 2016. It was the first time the government’s entertainment portfolio was placed in an economic rather than a social ministry, which Crawford hoped would boost a major export industry for a small country with limited industrial resources. Right off the bat, though, he had to fight for a budget to fund entertainment industry projects.

“That is because entertainment is seen as recreation, and dancehall is seen as idling,” he told me, lamenting how attending music events during his time in government was viewed as frivolous while education and health ministers received praise for visiting schools and clinics. “That divide is because dancehall came from bottom-up and government came from top-down.”

As a result, Niaah believes the impact of Jamaica’s musical contribution to the world is “something our leaders have not fully grappled with.” Instead, they fear it. The signing of the Noise Abatement Act coincided with the growing popularity of dancehall, a kind of digital reggae with a faster tempo and harder rhythms than the soothing sounds of dub. Samples of gunshots and airhorns pepper dancehall tracks, as do lyrics about narco-trafficking, violence and frank sexuality. (They also have a reputation for homophobia, though that is slowly improving.)

Like gangster rap in the U.S., dancehall’s brash subject matter does not sit well with some more conservative parts of society even though it fuels a huge local culture with a global influence. It has produced popular stars like Sean Paul, Buju Banton and Bounty Killer, but has also landed others in hot water — the reigning king of the dancehall, Vybz Kartel, is serving a life sentence for murder in a U.S. prison.

By the act’s signature in 1997, dancehall events, which just as often take place in the street as in enclosed venues, were also taking place in more affluent Uptown. In a city with a stark divide between low-income downtown neighborhoods and rich uptown enclaves, that shift brought the late-night sound of dancehall through the windows of the business, professional and political classes, who responded with the law.

The legislation was enforced with renewed vigor after the 2010 arrest of drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke. The most popular street dance, Passa Passa, which spawned copycats around the Caribbean and its diaspora, was held in Coke’s stronghold of Tivoli Gardens. Following his capture by the Jamaica Defence Forces and extradition to the U.S. with the help of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the police initiated the current wave of crackdowns.

Increased enforcement seems at odds with other priorities. In 2008, the central government declared February as Reggae Month in a bid to boost local awareness and encourage music tourism. “[Visitors] expect to see a city thumping with music,” Niaah said. “It’s ironic the only type of regulation we’ve had seeks to ban [music] versus having productive conversations about Kingston as a creative economy going forward.”

Ultimately for Niaah, the very terminology of the law is a reflection of a colonial-era attitude that does not valorize indigenous culture. “‘Noise abatement’ needs to shift in terms of a philosophical framework from the articulation of noise to the articulation of sound,” she explained. “We have not given the world noise, we have given the world sound.”

City of Music

In 2013, while Jamaica was gearing up to nominate the Blue and John Crow Mountains as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, government officials like Crawford uncovered another UNESCO program: the Creative Cities Network. Started in 2004, the initiative seeks to unite cities from across the globe through creative industries. Cities can apply to become designated in one of seven creative fields, including music. In 2015, Kingston successfully bid to become a UNESCO City of Music, one of a handful of Global South entries joining the likes of Varanasi, India; Salvador, Brazil; and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

UNESCO’s program, which launched two years after the publication of Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, takes its cues directly from that book’s philosophy: that creative industries are the driver of 21st-century urban economies, but that plenty of cities are not harnessing the potential of their creative sectors. By placing cities into networks based on their creative industry strength, UNESCO hopes to help cities meet United Nations sustainability ambitions enshrined in the global goals and New Urban Agenda.

While many cities see the UNESCO designation as a marketing opportunity or a chance to raise the flag for a less-than-obvious attribute — who knew Paducah, Kentucky, was the quilt capital of the world, or that Seattle is a City of Literature, despite its large tech scene? — the opportunity in Kingston was to use an international stamp of approval to persuade the powers that music is important to Kingston’s prosperity.

Damion Crawford was Jamaica’s minister of entertainment and tourism until 2016.

“We wanted to use the creative city to influence investment and decision-making from the government side to invest in music infrastructure,” Crawford said.

The government changed hands in February 2016 and so far, the new administration appears to be taking Kingston’s City of Music designation seriously. In November, Niaah, along with colleagues from the University of the West Indies and the Institute of Jamaica, organized a three-day conference, Imagine Kingston, to focus dialogue on Kingston as a Creative City of Music.

Gillian Wilkinson-McDaniel is a senior official at the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. (The ministerial portfolio shifted slightly when the new government came in.) “It resonates well with Government House when you say, ‘look, Kingston has been designated a creative City of Music by UNESCO and so we plan to do these things,’” she told the crowd of 50-odd architects, planners, music scholars, business leaders, government officials (including the mayor), curators and artists who gathered at the University of the West Indies campus. The UNESCO designation, she said, “gives you a gravitas.”

As part of the application, the municipal and national governments agreed to pursue four concrete initiatives over the next two years, when the City of Music appellation comes up for renewal. They will renovate downtown’s historic but dilapidated Ward Theatre, establish a walk of fame in a public space, create a “reggae loop” connecting historic sites related to the genre and designate entertainment zones.

The last component is Crawford’s pet project, which he believes is the key to solving the Noise Abatement Act’s dilemmas. He envisions four categories for the city: a 24-hour zone where music is permitted non-stop; places where last call is at 4 a.m. instead of the current 2 a.m.; so-called “community zones” where a neighborhood petition signed by 60 percent of the residents can designate a certain time and day of the week when music is allowed; and one-off zones for communities that might celebrate a special event once a year.

The community zone system in particular is designed to provide a legal avenue to preserve the tradition of street dances, which Crawford said represented two-thirds of entertainment events that sought government permits in 2014. Even relatively tame street dances, like the city’s longest-running sound system event, the Rae Town Oldies Dance, have fallen victim to the Noise Abatement Act, with complaints sending the dance out of its namesake neighborhood to an empty lot next to the national cricket stadium.

Before he left office, Crawford’s team declared the 24-hour zone in an empty stretch of land near the airport called the Palisadoes, though it has yet to become a hotspot in the city’s dancehall geography. They also got as far as sound testing nine different surface parking lots downtown and suggesting six as good candidates for late-night music without bothering neighbors, but the zones were not officially declared before the election last year.

Almost two years into the new administration, there appears to be minimal progress toward implementation of the zone proposal. “Work on the demarcation of zones and associated regulations began but were interrupted by the change in administration,” said Grange, the culture and entertainment minister. “I now have this opportunity to complete the job and I am working hard to ensure that the zones and regulations are developed and implemented by the relevant authorities.”

Niaah, who continues to sit on the entertainment advisory board, is nevertheless hopeful. “There is potential to have downtown be a driver of entertainment events,” she said. “That’s where they started so it’s quite logical to move historically and futuristically into that endeavor.”

Stage Needed

In the meantime, the music community is eager to see something done to improve the state of brick-and-mortar music facilities. At Imagine Kingston, the curator of the Jamaica Music Museum lamented that his permanent collection has no permanent home. Music scholars decried the death of the vibrant record store culture on downtown’s Orange Street, once a vinyl lover’s pilgrimage site known as “beat street,” where in an ironic twist, funeral parlors are now the main business. The new generation of Jamaican musicians is more likely to distribute music digitally but they still need somewhere to play. Protoje, known for his steely-eyed realism in songs like “Kingston Be Wise” and “Blood Money,” is a singer leading the so-called reggae revival.

“Kingston does not have one up-to-date, state-of-the-art live music venue,” he said. “That’s absurd for the music capital of the world.” When he plays a show at home, he told me that he must personally invest upwards of JMD$1 million ($8,000 U.S.) in sound equipment to deliver a show up to his standards and hope that ticket sales will recoup the cost.

The Ward Theatre’s renovation, one of Kingston’s City of Music obligations, could be the answer. Built in 1912, the 830-seat venue sits empty and abandoned in the heart of downtown. The municipal government committed JMD$7 million ($56,000 U.S.) to renovate the facility, a project that Mayor Delroy Williams told me is on track for completion in March, though I saw few signs of refurbishment when I toured the venue in November.

Williams, however, is hanging his hat on the renovation. “The day the Ward Theatre is up and operational, that would be for us the start of Kingston taking its rightful place as the capital of the Caribbean Sea, pearl of the Antilles,” he told me in his City Hall office.

Others are more skeptical of the timeline on the promised renovation. Noting that the city government still hasn’t delivered on a promise to replace parking touts with meters or paid stickers, Christopher Lue, president of the Jamaican Institute of Architects, told me, “Just like everything else in Jamaica, talk and no action.”

In the era of the Noise Abatement Act, venues are a vital concern for up-and-coming musicians. Sevana, a 26-year-old rising star who is Protoje’s protégée, moved to Kingston at age 16 to be in the heart of the music industry. She charted internationally two years ago and is poised to ride the reggae revival wave, but just hosting a show locally is a challenge. On a Saturday night, I attended her fundraiser concert – a clothing donation was the price of admission. It ended at 11 p.m. — very early for Kingston. Held at an outdoor bar and restaurant on a residential side street in Uptown, the event attracted a more sophisticated crowd. Glasses of red wine mingled with the usual Red Stripe bottles and two Benzes were parked out front. But even with the comparatively low volume of an acoustic show that wrapped up before midnight, the evening’s MC made sure to call out some special thanks: “Big up the police for not locking down the dance.”

Stress Relief

On a muggy weekday, I stopped by Jam One Yard, one of Kingston’s few remaining sound system yards where self-taught audiophiles coax new life out of old parts. Like many of Kingston’s musical wonders, Jam One was not obvious to outsiders, hidden behind a concrete wall topped with barbed wire at the end of a rough-paved, dead-end side street. But inside a zinc metal gate, a gravel enclosure that’s half a football field long revealed the raw material of Jamaican sound system culture. Under the shade of ackee trees, four men wielding power tools built amplifier racks while dancehall played in the background. Nearly a dozen people hung out at the Jam One Lounge, a bar and restaurant.

In an air-conditioned office filled with neatly organized bins of audio parts and stacks of turntables and DJ mixers, Jam One’s proprietor, Tony Myers, took a break to chat. A custom sound system starts at JMD$3 million ($24,000 U.S.), he told me, and sound system aficionados from Europe, Japan, and China come to his yard to observe the craft firsthand.

Alanna Stuart, a Torontonian of Jamaican heritage who records as Bonjay, spent several months in Kingston on a research and production residency, including an apprenticeship of sorts at Jam One. “Kingston is to music as Silicon Valley is to technology,” she said, arguing that a “sustainable innovation system” is at work in the city. “I could have learned what I wanted from YouTube videos, but it was my daily studio visits that taught me what the unofficial motto — ‘music is life’ — really means.”

Paris Dennis of Kingston band The Indiggnation performs. (Photo by Yannick Reid)

Such praise reflects Kingston’s international validation, but the day-in, day-out reality on the ground is difficult. Simply put, the Noise Abatement Act is bad for business, so Myers founded the Jamaican Sound System Federation to represent the industry. “We started the Sound System Federation to save the business,” he told me. “We have to lobby.”

Myers’ federation has about 70 members, down from a peak of 500 members in the now defunct Sound System Association of Jamaica, though he believes there are more out there who choose not to join.

On the wall, a poster outlines the four permits necessary for a legal event: Jamaica Music Society, Jamaica Association of Composers Authors and Publishers, Jamaica Constabulary Force, and Kingston St. Andrews Municipal Corporation (city government). The first two permits are for payment of royalties for songs played out by the sound system; the latter two are for permission to hold the event. Between hiring a sound system and paying for the permits and a liquor license, Myers estimates the cost to host a dance — even before paying for performers — at about JMD$45,000 (US$360), or about two months’ pay for someone making Jamaica’s minimum wage of JMD$140 ($1.12 U.S.). But with the 2 a.m. last call, he says there’s no way to make a living in Kingston’s late-night party culture.

“The session is gonna start at 2 o’clock,” he said. “No money is that gonna make.”

Myers doesn’t have a strong opinion about the entertainment zone proposal, except for one overarching priority that he believes should guide policy: “If poor people don’t make money, what do you think will happen?” he asked rhetorically, citing the economic activity that circulates around Kingston music events, from vendors selling beer, cane juice, and jerk chicken outside the dance, to the hair stylists seeing packed salons the day of, to the professional partiers (or “influencers”) who are paid by party promoters because their presence will bring the crowds.

Economic opportunities in the Kingston music scene provide employment in a tough economy and even drive down violent divisions known as “tribal war” between “garrisons,” poor neighborhoods usually ruled by criminal strongmen that have pledged fealty to either of the main political parties.

When it comes to the urban poor, Myers said, “If they’re not making money, we’re going to be in serious trouble.”

A street vendor named Carol concurred. I met her outside Weddy Weddy Wednesdays, one of Kingston’s longest-running current dances. It takes place on an Uptown block populated by bars, restaurants, a strip club, a pediatric clinic, a primary school and a tire shop. There appeared to be just one house in the immediate vicinity.

A single mother, Carol said that 11 years of vending chewing gum, cigarettes, lollipops, lighters and rolling papers has helped put four daughters through college. When the police shut down the party early because of noise complaints, she said it kills her business, but on a night like the one I attended, when the cops relaxed and let the 2 a.m. curfew run closer to 3 a.m., she can make decent money. Overall, she thinks dancehall culture is good for society.

“Sound system keeps down the crime,” she said. “It takes the stress out of your head.”

Premature Death

A few days after soaking up the vibes at Dub Club, I returned to chat with Selassie. A devout Rastafarian, he was cultivating three dozen cannabis plants under grow lights on the veranda, empty of visitors on a Wednesday night. From the city below, the sound of a church preacher percolated up the hill. The sound system was quiet, tucked under a cover to protect it from the rain.

He claims to have invested millions of Jamaican dollars in building up his sound system — a never-ending project. Six years ago he began opening up the space, which is also his home, to guests.

Dub Club’s growing reputation has sparked a cluster of sorts, with a half-dozen guesthouses and hostels now operating along this scenic stretch of the city. The night after I met with Selassie, a venue called the Reggae Legends Villa hosted Grammy-winning Jamaican dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, fresh off a U.S. tour.

Since the April incident, Selassie has gotten a tavern license for Dub Club and he hopes to get a club license. Those would at least stave off future police encounters over per-event permits, but they still don’t solve the dilemma that anyone, anywhere can file an anonymous complaint.

“The law is set up in a way that anyone can fuck up your thing,” Selassie griped. “The sound system is a dying culture in the land of its origin because of the Noise Abatement Act.”

That said, he recognizes that some people have a legitimate right to complain about music in a residential neighborhood, and as a fan of rasta roots music he wouldn’t take kindly to all-night dancehall or calypso next door. Still, he believes sound system culture deserves special consideration.

Mayor Williams is sympathetic but equivocal. “You have a culture that has developed, it’s our heritage, which is street dance. We’re wrestling that with the desire of our residents to enjoy the quiet of our homes,” he told me. “We can’t take actions that will rid our culture of events and activities that are central to the culture. You have to maintain the culture because the culture makes the city unique. It helps to identify the city.”

While the final decision is up to the central government, Mayor Williams at least seems to have been convinced of dancehall’s legitimacy: “Street dance is a Jamaican thing, it’s a Kingston thing, and it’s important to us.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

The Year Philadelphia Hired Diversity Consultants

I’m wearing an octopus-shaped hat and clutching a beer when I hear a drumbeat strike up alongside a wailing sax. Ahead of me, a troupe of musicians in bright, feathered costumes with plumage nearly as wide as the narrow street attempts to clear a space and perform a quick number. The crowd surges all around, freely drinking in the open and casually walking up and down to watch the different ensembles in this informal parade. Every house along the way has a front row seat and partiers lean out of windows or cluster on balconies to take in the scene below.

I could be at Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in cities across Brazil. But instead of a sultry tropical party, it’s freezing cold on New Year’s Day and I’m on Second Street, ground zero of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. An annual folk tradition in the City of Brotherly Love for more than a century with roots in old European customs brought to the New World, the Mummers take over the streets every January 1st for a parade down Broad Street, the city’s main drag. It later becomes a street party in South Philadelphia on “2 Street,” as it’s known locally, in a tightly packed neighborhood of rowhomes. Many of them double as club houses for the dozens of “brigades” that will spend the better part of the year stitching costumes, designing elaborate floats, brainstorming skits, choreographing routines and rehearsing over and over for their short spotlight in front of Philly’s City Hall.

The Mummers Parade has all the trappings of a carnival, which is a huge global industry for tourism and entertainment. Rubadiri Victor, a Trinidadian arts activist, estimates that Caribbean-style carnivals alone are worth $15 billion. But the homegrown Mummers Parade is very much a local affair — by Philadelphians, for Philadelphians — with deep roots in several of the city’s largely white, working-class neighborhoods.

Like so many civic institutions, the Mummers come with their share of cultural baggage.

For decades, the group has grappled with a history of racist practices, including performing in blackface. The minstrelsy tradition of entertainers darkening their face and playing caricatures of African-American culture for laughs had its heyday around the start of the 20th century, the same time the Mummers turned from a raucous series of uncoordinated New Year’s celebrations into an organized parade. James Bland, for example, the black author of “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” an 1879 ditty that serves as the Mummers’ theme song, worked the minstrel circuit.

Members of the Quaker City String Band perform during the 2016 Mummers Parade. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

Increasingly, people deemed these attempts at humor to be racist, however, and under pressure from the NAACP, parade organizers officially banned blackface in 1964. It crops up regularly nonetheless, with social media serving as a new platform for blackface spotters to call out offenders. And institutional memory, it seems, does not run very deep. A 2013 skit glorified the minstrel era and featured cardboard cutouts of a leering Sambo face. When it prompted outrage, the group that put on the skit seemed genuinely surprised; seeing it as a Mummers homage, they professed to have no idea how these images are tied up with Jim Crow-era sensibilities about race relations in the U.S.

More pointedly, a group of “wenches,” a type of male Mummer that dresses up in women’s clothing and usually gets rip-roaring drunk, held up signs in 2105 that read “Wench Lives Matter.” Wenches are known for riling up crowds with their antics, but there was no innocent defense here. “That’s making fun of poor black males getting killed by police,” says Leo Dignam, a former deputy commissioner for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, who has overseen the parade since 2006. (The city holds the parade permit.)

That same year, Sabrina Vourvoulias, a Philadelphia journalist and former editor at Philadelphia’s bilingual weekly Al Día, tweeted a picture of a Mummers skit featuring a white man wearing a Barack Obama mask and holding a sign that said “Illegal Aliens Allowed.” Her 41 characters read: “This. Is. Why. #Mummers. Need. Diversity.”

Indeed, the city of 1.5 million that will be marking the start of a new year on Broad Street come Jan. 1 is 63 percent people of color and 35 percent white, according to census data. It is an increasingly young and multicultural city and one that voted overwhelmingly against the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump.

“One of the biggest challenges for the Mummers: Their parade does not reflect Philly [today],” says Rue Landau, executive director of the city’s Commission on Human Relations.

That includes those very neighborhoods that are the heartland of Mummery. Today, the white ethnic neighborhoods where the tradition was born are crowded with taquerias and pho houses. Many of the Mexican restaurants serve mole poblano, a dish native to the region where an estimated 18,000 of the 25,000 Mexicans in Philly come from, according to the Mexican Cultural Center. A majority of these immigrants come from San Mateo, a small town in Puebla state, which has its own parade ritual.

Like the Mummers tradition, Carnaval de Puebla is an indigenous celebration of place, albeit one that comes with a more nationalistic origin. Carnaval de Puebla is a reenactment of the May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla — better known as Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. — when the Mexican army fended off invading French forces. Parade participants dress in elaborate costumes fashioned after the various battalions that fought in Puebla and embroidered with patchwork designs of Aztec gods, hand-stitched Virgin Marys and quilt-like scenes of ancient sacrifices. The costumes are made by hand in Mexico and shipped to Philly, where restaurant workers making minimum wage may spend up to $1,000 on a colorfully beaded outfit.

The parade, which attracts Poblanos from across the country, and increasingly from Puebla itself, winds through the neighborhood, marchers dancing as a brass-heavy band belts out banda music and vendors do a brisk business in tacos and tamarind sodas. Homesick immigrants first organized a Philly version of their parade in 2006 and it has been building momentum ever since.

“This is our carnival representing Puebla,” says David Piña, president of San Mateo Carnavalero, as the costumed masqueraders are formally known.

Marchers with San Mateo Carnavalero lead the Mummers parade in 2016. (Credit: Philadelphia Mexican Cultural Center)

Plainspoken Piña is a classic immigrant success story, climbing up the ranks in back-of-the-house restaurant jobs before opening his own establishment, Tamalex, a short walk from the South Philadelphia neighborhood where the Mummers were born.

The Carnaval is a chance for the neighborhood’s busboys, dishwashers and line cooks, the invisible workforce that powers Center City’s booming restaurant scene, to celebrate their culture in broad daylight.

At the start of 2016, nearly a year ago, these two worlds just blocks apart finally converged when San Mateo Carnavalero opened the 2016 Mummers Parade, making its debut on Philadelphia’s biggest civic stage along with a drag queen troupe, an African-American drill team, and a Puerto Rican bomba and plena ensemble.

High hopes were attached to this symbolic gesture toward a post-racial Philadelphia, a first-of-its-kind effort at consciously including groups historically left out of the parade. Jesse Engaard, captain of the Rabble Rousers, a Mummers brigade that tackles socially conscious themes, helped broker the Carnavaleros’ participation. “The Mummers have a history of inclusion,” he argues. Successive waves of immigrants — Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian — landed in Philly and added their own masquerading traditions to the Mummers’ cultural stew, largely rooted in English, German and Scandinavian custom, as these new arrivals mingled as neighbors. To his mind, the Mexican community was just the next logical step in that history.

But just a few hours after the goodwill of the parade’s opening acts, the scene on Broad Street took a turn for the worse. A group of Mummers known as “comics” offended yet again by satirizing Caitlyn Jenner, the transgendered former athlete once known as Bruce Jenner. Side-by-side displays depicted Bruce on a Wheaties box and Caitlyn gracing a Froot Loops box. The spoof prompted condemnation across the board, including from Mayor Jim Kenney, himself a former Mummer, who wrote on Twitter: “It was bad. Hurtful tomany [sic] Philadelphians. Our Trans Citizens do not deserve this type of satire/insult. #Berespectful.” A few days later, he called on Landau and the city’s LGBT director to come up with recommendations to improve future parades.

Elsewhere that day, a family brigade dressed up like Mexicans by painting their faces brown, wearing sombreros, and wrapping their children in taco and burrito costumes. They were panned on social media, where the Philadelphia-based Latino advocacy group Juntos declared, “If this is what the Mummers mean by ‘handing down tradition,’ it needs to stop.”

Like the Sambo moment, the perpetrators claimed they had no idea this might be offensive. They reportedly thought it was a friendly gesture to their Mexican neighbors in South Philly, according to Rich Porco, president of the Murray Comic Club, which sponsored the family’s performance. “They didn’t do nothing to offend anybody,” he told me recently. “It was just little kids doing the Mexican Hat Dance. Comics would never make fun of another culture.”

Antonio Fernandez, who works at a Mexican restaurant on the corner where the family in question reportedly lives, recalls that one of them came into the restaurant three days after the parade to apologize. Fernandez insists no offense was taken. “There’s no problem. If the Carnavaleros could enter, then there’s no problem.” Tom Sammarintano, whose family performed the skit, declined to comment for this story.

The Carnaval is a chance for the neighborhood’s busboys, dishwashers and line cooks, the invisible workforce that powers Center City’s booming restaurant scene, to celebrate their culture in broad daylight.

Such culturally appropriative themes are typical of the Mummers Parade, and the global grab bag approach is not uncommon in carnivals elsewhere. From personal experience, I can recall dozens of costumes that would be considered offensive in the U.S. but are considered part of Carnival’s topsy-turvy satirical tradition on the streets of Trinidad or Brazil.

Nick Spitzer, a Tulane anthropologist who studies American folk traditions, agrees that such temporary suspensions of the normal rules are part and parcel of Carnival traditions. “There are forms of humor and satire that don’t conform to certain contemporary ideas of what is acceptable social behavior,” he says.

He contrasted Philadelphia, which he studied as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, with his current home of New Orleans. The latter is a Carnival town year-round, the former, not so much. In New Orleans, the response to something insensitive would be to satirize it right back — and better. To that end, he sees the inclusion of the Carnavaleros as the real answer to the problem.

“It’s extremely healthy to focus more on introducing more diverse groups and give them a little of their own satire back at them with a wink and a smile,” he says. “I don’t think you win people over browbeating them. Carnival has a lot of license in it.”

He cites the proliferation of parade “krewes,” in Mardi Gras parlance, that cater to different interest groups, like young professional women or the LGBT community, in response to the white, old money crowd that dominates the parade’s most pedigreed clubs. “You can be vocal against something, you can shun something, but it’s always better if you can add something,” he says.

On the first day of 2017, that theory will get tested on Philadelphia’s biggest civic stage. It will be a second try at integrating divergent parts of its cultural patchwork and a loud and very public Rorschach of how a changing city celebrates itself.


Danielle Redden, a former community organizer, has a day job as program manager for a historic garden, but spends a good chunk of her free time immersed in Mummery. She captains the Vaudevillains, which is headquartered in a grungy Chinatown collaborative art space, rather than one of the old boys’ clubhouses on Second Street, and brought an infusion of neon spandex, ’90s rave anthems and psychedelic floats to the stodgy parade. Together with Engaard, the Rabble Rousers captain who believes the Mummers have a forgotten history of inclusion, she organized a public discussion last year that helped set the current reform wave in motion. Both white and from the Philadelphia area, the two stumbled onto the Mummers’ race problem.

“The Mummers was a way to feel part of the city and join the party,” Engaard says. Raised in the Philly ’burbs, he moved into the city to attend film school. Redden, who was born in the city, remembers attending the parade as a kid, where some of her uncles were in wench brigades tied to trade unions.

Soon after getting involved with the organization, they decided to try to change the parade from within. They led by example with their respective brigades, which turned traditional Mummer heads when they began winning their division, and tried to share their sensibility at Mummers meetings — old-school affairs that begin with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Progress was slow. Redden says she didn’t sleep for a month after the 2015 “Wench Lives Matter” debacle. Engaard describes it as “dancing on the graves of people who have been killed by police violence.” But that moment prompted them to start a civic conversation on social inclusion in the parade. The two hosted a public meeting, “Mum” Is the Word: Let’s Talk About It in February 2015 at a community art school in South Philly, not far from the Mummer heartland.

The forum was one part in a chain of conversations across government, cultural groups and grassroots activism that would lead the city to make changes in policy that would have been unthinkable in prior years. Over the course of 2016, the Commission on Human Relations hired diversity consultants to train Mummers leadership and the city’s LGBT affairs director met with over 300 Mummers to discuss gay and transgender issues. Actress Jennifer Childs led a workshop on satire. “You punch up, you don’t punch down,” says Dignam. “You make fun of something above you, not below you.”

Members of the Aqua String Band perform during the 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

The conversation on LGBT issues resulted in a contingent of Murray Comic Club members marching in the city’s pride parade. “A lot of club members talked about family members who are gay or transgendered,” Redden says. But not all minds were moved. Engaard recalls a sense of apathy and resentment about the workshops. “There was a … feeling they’d been lectured or reprimanded in some way,” he explains.

Most dramatically, the city is reviewing every skit ahead of time to avoid any unwelcome surprises. While that may sound draconian, public intervention in a cultural event like a parade is not unprecedented. Spitzer recalls an African-American city councilwoman who sued white-only Mardi Gras krewes in the 1990s, resulting in a consent decree that they must integrate. The krewes, Momus and Comus, refused to sign and have not paraded since, holding private, indoor balls instead.

Both Engaard and Redden called this year a “turning point” but hardly the end of the road. “So much of this year was about conversation,” Redden says. “There’s definitely a new recognition within traditional Mummer clubs, but it’s still a longer path.” What will happen in just a few days’ time is anyone’s guess, meanwhile, “everyone is a little bit nervous about this year, but I’m feeling hopeful and we’ll see what happens,” she adds.

Vourvoulias, the Latina journalist who made the first Twitter appeal for a more diverse parade, doesn’t hold out too much hope. “I have no idea what to think about ‘cultural sensitivity’ training the Mummers have gone through this year. Maybe it’ll have an impact, maybe not, but I’m not holding my breath,” she writes via email. “There are Mummers who get so angry even at the hint that the groups might need to cultivate cultural sensitivity.” She directed me to a tweet responding to her initial message in 2015, from the captain of a Mummers brigade who used a gender slur.

Piña is looking forward to New Year’s Day and even planning a spin down 2 Street.

After last January’s parade, he got some flak because of the perceived racism against Mexicans from the family dressed in brownface. Even if the family’s neighbors didn’t mind, the images — and the media firestorm that followed — made waves in the broader Mexican community.

“Some people asked us, ‘How can you participate?’ because of that incident,” he explains to me in early December, while taking a break from a busy Saturday afternoon lunch rush in his 10-table restaurant. But the appeal of being on Philly’s main stage remains strong for other Carnavaleros who are planning their route for New Year’s Day.

“We’re already part of Philadelphia,” Piña says. “The Mummers is a Philly tradition, so of course we should participate.”

After leaving Piña to serve his hungry customers, I walk a few blocks to the Mummers Museum, a colorful building at the top of Second Street housing a collection of Mummers paraphernalia — winning costumes from decades past, newspaper clippings, diagrams of parade routes. Inaugurated in 1976, the dusty museum doesn’t look like it has been touched since, but the clock ticking down the minutes until New Year’s Day still works. It isn’t hard to imagine that an updated exhibit might someday include a Carnavalero costume explaining what transpired in 2016.

Along Second Street, nearly every block advertises a Mummers brigade clubhouse — a flag flying in the breeze, an emblem emblazoned on the facade, a cornerstone laid in the brick. A few have people coming in and out, perhaps there to put last-minute touches on costumes or hash out logistics. On a block where a sign proclaims “Ye Olde 2 Street” in cursive script, a cluster of rowhouses is going up — the new construction that has propelled the rebirth of South Philly as with many of the city’s close-in neighborhoods. From atop the wooden frame of the houses, workers call to each other in Spanish, with a distinctly Poblano accent.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

How a Former Mayor Became the World’s Urban Planner

This story originally appeared in Citiscope and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.

As cars and taxis whizzed by on Second Avenue, Joan Clos hunched over a curb. He reached out to touch the steel coating on the curb’s concrete corner, something you see on sidewalks all over Manhattan. “If you put in this metallic protection, it’s a very good investment,” Clos said, ignoring the loud traffic as his shock of silver hair nearly scraped the sidewalk. “You protect the stone and it can last for much more time.”

Clos is a former mayor of Barcelona. For the last six years, he’s been head of UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency that handles issues related to urbanization — a post that makes him something like the world’s urban planner. Touring the streets near his UN office, dressed in a pink dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and peering through neon-green framed eyeglasses, Clos was full of precise observations and lofty insights into how best to design and manage a city.

At a busy corner on 39th Street, Clos went on more about sidewalks. In long strides, he measured out the width of the walkway, with such determination that office workers on their lunch breaks swerved to avoid bumping into him. He wanted to show me New York’s uniform standard of roughly five-meter wide sidewalks — a good size for accommodating heavy pedestrian use, in his view. Clos further pointed out that street commerce on this block — in this case, a mobile cart piled high with bananas, oranges and apples — was aligned with the gaps between a honey locust and a gingko tree, so as to not disrupt the pedestrian flow.

Clos doesn’t love everything about New York. Near a smelly heap of garbage bags piled on the sidewalk, he shook his head. Barcelona, he boasted, has moved the mess underground into below-grade trash collection systems. After we rode down Second Avenue from his office with help from New York’s bike share program, he offered a blunt assessment of the city’s street infrastructure: “very bumpy.”

But in general, Clos admires the way New York mixes all of life’s needs in close proximity, making walking easier than driving. At a corner on 33rd Street, he nodded approvingly at a two-story building, home to a Chipotle restaurant, Coffee Bean java house and New York Sports Club gym. In front was a small plaza with cement stools and planters holding shrubs in full summer bloom. Next door to the squat retail complex stood a 40-story brown brick apartment building. “Here you have residential, commercial and even a public space in just 20 meters,” he said in a thick Catalan accent. “That makes the combination very, very productive.”

During our short journey, Clos frequently quoted Jane Jacobs, the self-taught critic of modernist master planning who rose to prominence with her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Writing at a time when western cities were going out of their way to accommodate cars, Jacobs celebrated walkability. Human connections on sidewalks were more important than moving traffic on streets. Invoking Jacobs has been orthodoxy among North American and European planners for several decades.

Now, Clos is trying to bring Jane Jacobs to the rest of the world. Next week in Quito, Ecuador, heads of state and ministers from around the world will convene for the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development — known simply as Habitat III. The dignitaries are set to adopt a manifesto on urbanization that Clos, more than anyone else, is responsible for shaping. This “New Urban Agenda” strongly reflects his views on cities with its calls for compact urban cores, transit-oriented development, reining in sprawl and robust public space.

Although the agreement will be non-binding, Clos hopes it will create momentum for better urban planning around the world. Especially in Asia and Africa, cities are growing at a breakneck pace. By 2050 more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Far too often, unplanned urban growth produces informal settlements on the metropolitan periphery, choking traffic congestion, unchecked pollution and severe inequality.

All of this, Clos hopes, will begin to change in Quito. The UN’s Habitat conferences take place only once every 20 years. Clos sees this moment as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the global conversation about the future of cities. He wants mayors to come away from Habitat III inspired to take urban planning and efficient local administration more seriously than ever. And he wants national leaders to adopt coherent urban strategies that see well-planned cities as one of the essential ingredients of a more prosperous future.

“Taking care of the city,” Clos said, “is good business for a country.”

“Everything on the street”

Pushing cities as the solution is a harder sell than it sounds. In many countries, urbanization is seen primarily as a problem: the cause of poverty, malnutrition, air pollution, infant mortality and low life expectancy. Historically, the UN’s worldview has a rural bias — think of the dusty African villages pictured in fundraising pitches for UNICEF or the World Food Programme. Forty years ago, at the first Habitat conference in Vancouver, the whole subtext was that urbanization was basically a hazard to be avoided. “It is of paramount importance,” the 1976 Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements stated, “that national and international efforts give priority to improving the rural habitat.”

It’s a big leap from that view to the central premise of Habitat III — that the future is urban so let’s make better cities. Sixty-seven-year-old Clos isn’t the first global figure to come to that conclusion. But his role as the leader of both UN-Habitat and of the multi-year process leading up to Habitat III has given him the world’s largest stage to make the case. If history judges Habitat III to be a success or a failure or something in between, that assessment will reflect largely on Joan Clos.

As a reporter covering the Habitat III beat for the past 18 months, I’ve heard Clos address audiences in Cuenca (Ecuador), Mexico City, Montréal, Nairobi, New York, Prague, Surabaya (Indonesia), Tel Aviv and Toluca (Mexico). This account is based on interviews I conducted with him at several of those meetings.

There are some points he came back to again and again. The first is that a successful city needs “rules and regulations” in the areas of planning, legislation and finance — what Clos calls the “three-legged approach.” The result, he said repeatedly in private interviews and public speeches, is urban development that pays for itself. That is to say, if local governments are empowered to collect revenue in well-planned cities that operate under the rule of law, they will easily recoup investments in infrastructure.

The second is that spatial planning matters. Too often, he says, discussions about development priorities — such as where to place schools or health care facilities, for example — take place in a vacuum. It’s as if it doesn’t matter where these things get built, whether the people who need them can walk or take public transit to get there, or whether development makes urban life better or worse. This disregard, he believes, drives cities to sprawl outward, what Clos calls “bad urbanization.” By contrast, he likes to say, urbanization done right can be “a tool for development.”

But after our walk and bike ride in New York, Clos framed the issues in a way I had never heard in his usual stump speech.

He made an analogy between the New Urban Agenda and the Athens Charter, the 1943 urbanism manifesto published by the Swiss modernist Le Corbusier. The document called for cities to be segregated by building type — high-rise housing in one district, commerce in another — with private automobiles zipping along highways in between. The Athens Charter had an outsized influence on post-World War II planning, from the bulky tower blocks that sprang up in a rebuilding Europe to U.S. urban renewal schemes to the master-planned capital of Brasília.

Clos respects Le Corbusier and his cohort at the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne​ for their ability to stake out new intellectual ground boldly and decisively. (Ironically, Le Corbusier and his disciple, Oscar Niemeyer, designed the UN’s compound in New York.) “The Charter of Athens was the utopian vision of the time,” he said. “The car was the star. That was the utopia of individual mobility.”

But like many contemporary urbanists, Clos vilifies the results. “We need something as disruptive and transformative as the Charter of Athens,” he said, “but of course much better. Because the Charter of Athens and the modern movement has been proven a failure.”

The Corbusian vision of the city is often summed up in the phrase “tower in the garden.” I asked Clos what four words could neatly encapsulate his vision for the New Urban Agenda.

His response: “Everything on the street.”

“The tower in the garden, it’s an isolated icon,” he said. “You live in a flat and you don’t interact. Then you take the car and you go away. The problem is that has destroyed street life, the dream of Jane Jacobs.”

The challenge Clos faces is that for many of the 193 UN member states, the idea of building skyscraper tower blocks and highways remains plenty appealing. The West did it, after all. And it’s good for the booming business of real estate developers, construction companies and car manufacturers. So why not them?

Clos makes his case forcefully, with a vision sharpened from his years running Barcelona. But the style that made him an effective mayor does not translate seamlessly to the realm of global diplomacy.

“He has his own approach on cities that comes from his experience in Barcelona, and it seems as if he wants to extrapolate it to the world,” Arab Hoballah, a high-ranking official at the United Nations Environment Programme told me. Hoballah was UNEP’s delegate to the New Urban Agenda negotiations. “You cannot extrapolate this to the world.”

Catalan Roots

The world’s urbanist-in-chief grew up on a farm. Clos was born in 1949 to parents who raised dairy cows and also farmed wheat, corn and potatoes. They lived in the inland village of Parets del Vallès, 14 miles (23 kilometers) north of Barcelona over the Serra de Collserola mountains. Now a 16,000-person bedroom community, back then it was an agricultural town. “My infancy was totally rural,” Clos remarked. “I am not ignorant of rural life.”

He and his three brothers labored on the farm as children. The oldest died in a car accident 20 years ago, and the other two remain in Parets, working in architecture and construction. The farm was sold off, “swallowed by the expansion of Barcelona and the metropolitan area,” in Clos’ words — and, to his mind, an example of his firsthand knowledge of the issues at play in the urbanization debate.

Later in his childhood, Clos attended a Catholic boarding school in Barcelona. But it was hardly an opportunity to explore the big city — students were allowed out just three hours per week, and always with a chaperone. As a young man, he came of age at the end of the Franco regime in Spain, and took part in several anti-dictatorship marches. His political awakening came about in the city, not from his upbringing. “The political uprising and demonstrations, they were always urban,” he said.

Clos studied medicine at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and went on to practice anesthesiology professionally. He liked the social side of medicine — dealing with patients one-on-one. But he also grew interested in public health at a more macro scale: “If you improve the sewer system or if you vaccinate, you affect populations,” he said.

The revelation that he could go from treating single patients to treating society was fundamental, spurred by the social ferment of the anti-Franco movement. The dictator died in 1975. Clos was 26. “For me this was when my life changed,” he said.

Clos began pursuing graduate work in epidemiology. In 1977, with savings from his medical practice, he enrolled in a public health master’s program at the University of Edinburgh. Clos returned to Barcelona in 1979, still not quite 30 years old, and took a job with the city as Director of Public Health.

That year he met his wife, Angels Bitria, a nurse, to whom he is still married. They have two sons, an economist and an engineer. Although Clos hasn’t practiced medicine for decades, he remains “Dr. Clos” to many who know him in Barcelona, as well as his staff at the UN.

The Pull of Politics

After four years gaining experience in municipal government, Clos won a seat on Barcelona’s City Council. He represented the old city, Ciutat Vella, a district that includes Barcelona’s most visited tourist attractions: the bohemian Raval neighborhood, the medieval warren of the Gothic Quarter, the iconic Las Ramblas pedestrian mall.

But Barcelona in the early 1980s was a far cry from the sun-splashed destination that attracted nearly 9 million tourists last year. Then, it was known as the Manchester of Spain. “It was a gray city,” Clos recalled. “It was industrial, with the façades of the buildings always dark from the soot and smoke of the city.” Following the 1979 oil crisis, local unemployment and national inflation alike hovered at an untenable 22 percent.

Clos described his early efforts to improve Ciutat Vella as an extension of his public health work. “It began as a sanitation improvement,” he said, “but it ended up being a social rehabilitation.” While representing the district, he focused on creating jobs, renovating public spaces and working with neighborhood groups. By all accounts, his efforts were successful. Some might say too successful — many locals now complain that Barcelona attracts so many visitors that tourism is hurting their quality of life.

Four years as a city councilor turned the public health specialist into a political animal. Clos disavows the medical metaphors that crop up in the urban planning literature. He says people are being naïve when they compare parks to a city’s “lungs,” or streets to a city’s “veins,” or describe small interventions as “urban acupuncture.”

“The city is a political construction,” he explained. “It’s about people living together and creating coalitions to defend their own agendas.” That mindset hardened during his career with the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), which governed Barcelona for more than three decades. PSC’s politics are social democratic — center-left by Catalan standards, and opposed to independence from Spain. Clos remains a federalist to this day.

In 1990, Barcelona’s legendary longtime mayor, Pasqual Maragall, appointed Clos as deputy mayor of finance and budgeting. The job came during what was arguably the most important time in Barcelona’s recent history: the run-up to and execution of the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Today, hosting the Olympics has become almost synonymous with bloated budgets, corruption and controversy. Yet Barcelona ’92 stands out as a model for how the Olympics can catalyze an urban renaissance. As the city emerged from a long slumber under Franco, Barcelona leveraged the games to make huge investments in roads, sewers and parks. A construction boom sparked big gains in employment.

“Not only did Barcelona react well to the Games,” says Ferran Brunet an economist who has studied the era. “It succeeded in maintaining the growth generated, on a scale never seen before.”

As the city’s finance director, Clos was right in the middle of it all. In his former district of Ciutat Vella, old industrial buildings along the waterfront were knocked down to create a sandy beach that became popular with locals and tourists alike. Over time, factories that produced chemicals, textiles and food products yielded to a stylish destination for conventions, music festivals and medical care.

“We decided to transform the city into a post-industrial city,” Clos said. “The games were the excuse in order to get the investment from regional government and the central government.” According to a 2004 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Barcelona came out of the Olympics about $3 million U.S. in the black.

I spoke to several Barcelonans who watched this period closely. Their praise for Clos’ handling of the city’s finances was unanimous.

A Catalan journalist who preferred to remain anonymous because he continues to cover local politics called Clos “an excellent financial manager.” Josep Roig, the Barcelona-based head of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), an umbrella organization for local government associations around the world, called Clos’ accomplishments “obscure work but very important.” Clos was president of UCLG’s sister network of major world cities, Metropolis, during his mayoral tenure.

Ramon Seró, a business administration specialist who was one of five experts called in to help Clos revamp Barcelona’s finances, told me the the city previously had “historically bad accounting.”

“That was the innovation: professionalizing the management of the city,” Seró explained.

Leading under a long shadow

In 1997, Maragall stepped down before the end of his fourth term to take a teaching position in Rome. He handed the keys to Clos, who Roig called “not an obvious successor because he was less of a politician.” Nevertheless, with the Olympic tailwind behind him and the support of the PSC — which by this point had a machine-politics grip on city hall — Clos was elected outright in 1999 and reelected in 2003.

Clos continued Barcelona’s post-industrial transformation. In another aging industrial neighborhood, Poblenou, he helped establish 22@Barcelona. Old cotton mills were torn down or converted into airy lofts, while edgy architecture gave the skyline a postmodern sheen. Train tracks were buried and pedestrian-friendly streets took their place, all served by a tramline. The area, which covers 115 blocks, has drawn 4,500 new companies since 2000, roughly half of them start-ups. It’s become one of the world’s leading examples of what Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution calls an “innovation district.” Clos considers it his greatest legacy as mayor.

But Clos also presided over what became Barcelona’s biggest post-Olympics flop. The 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures was conceived as a 141-day “cultural olympics” to further burnish the city’s growing reputation as a global trend-setter. It attracted a range of speakers to address topics such as sustainable development, globalization, freedom, security, human rights, cultural diversity and peace. But the event was plagued with problems and controversies.

One was the displacement of a poor Roma community from the neighborhood that was redeveloped for the Forum. Another was the prow-shaped building constructed for the event, which had to be temporarily shut down because parts of the ceiling collapsed.

More fundamentally, the business model did not work. The frenzy of corporate sponsorship that is an accepted part of the Olympics formula was viewed at the Forum as a sinister effort by multinational corporations to latch onto culture and social justice. Greenpeace boycotted the event as “an attack” on the Mediterranean coast. Amnesty International pulled out, and French anti-globalization activist-farmer José Bové declined a speaking invitation.

The event, which cost an estimated €2.3 billion, fell at least 30 percent short of its projected 5 million visitors. “It was a disaster,” the Catalan journalist told me. “Clos lost support in the Forum.” Roig agreed that the Forum “hurt his public image.”

Clos himself admitted that the Forum became mired in politics — between the Olympics and the Forum, the national government had been taken over by a center-right party that only increased the acrimony when problems began. “Culture is much more politicized than sports,” Clos proffered.

Despite the criticism, he believes the Forum paid long-term benefits. The site continues to host the annual rock music festival Primavera Sound; a convention center and five-star hotel were built there atop a water treatment plant. The urban planner in him was proud to see the project extend Avinguda Diagonal to the sea as the city’s monumental boulevard was originally envisioned in the 19th century. Although for an admirer of Jane Jacobs, the projects also represented a lot of the sort of top-down city-hall driven planning that Jacobs would have rejected.

Roig described Clos’ mayoral style as “managerial” and called him “pragmatic” and “efficient.” But Roig agreed with a common view among the Barcelonans I spoke with: After 15 years of charismatic leadership from Pasqual Maragall, Mayor Clos had a hard time escaping his predecessor’s long shadow. When I asked Roig in Spanish if Clos had his own identity as mayor, Roig paused for a moment and sounded like he was still thinking about it as he let out an elongated ‘s’ sound before concluding, “Sí.”

Ramon Seró told me Clos “was always loyal to Pasqual Maragall.” This became a bit awkward in 2003, when Maragall returned to politics as president of the Catalonia regional government. Maragall’s office on the Plaza de Sant Jaume sat directly across from City Hall.

“They had to look at each other across the plaza,” Seró said. “It was very difficult to mark his own style …. Maragall had a grand grand grand image that Joan didn’t have.” Josep Rull, the current Minister of Territory and Sustainability in the Catalan regional government, is more blunt: He told me Clos “was a great number two, but not a great number one.”

While Clos spoke at length in our interviews about his time under Maragall, he was generally muted about his own administration — when the subject first came up, he couldn’t remember if he had taken office in 1996 or 1997. But he mounted a spirited defense of the Forum as “very important” because it “was a continuation of the Olympic Games to extend the transformation of Barcelona onward from what we could rehabilitate for ’92.”

In 2006, with his support eroded, Clos left office before his term expired to become Spain’s Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism. According to Roig’s interpretation, the cabinet — once again socialist — needed a Catalan for political balance, and the region is known for its industrial know-how. Two years later, Clos got his start in diplomacy when then-President José Zapatero sent him to Ankara as Spain’s ambassador to Turkey, and later Azerbaijan. In 2010, he was nominated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take over UN-Habitat.

New focus in Nairobi

Within the UN system, UN-Habitat has long been a runt in the litter of agencies. Based not in New York or Geneva but in Nairobi, Kenya, UN-Habitat was only elevated to “programme status” — roughly akin to a cabinet-level agency — in 2002. With a core staff of 400, the agency has less than half the headcount of its Nairobi neighbor, UNEP, and less than half the budget of UNICEF, much less any of the PR firepower supplied by celebrity UNICEF ambassadors like Katy Perry and David Beckham.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left) swears in Joan Clos as the new executive director of UN-Habitat in 2010.(Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

As UN-Habitat’s Executive Director, Clos has made a concerted effort to change the agency’s focus. Traditionally, UN-Habitat has pursued a “sites and services” approach, meaning that it would simply go into a town, village or urban neighborhood to help with a discrete project — to build public housing, say, or fix a sanitation problem.

A prime example comes from its own backyard, the Nairobi slum of Kibera, where UN-Habitat sponsored toilets, and later facilitated a government plan to transform shanties into high-rises. Raw numbers — how many people now have access to indoor bathrooms — have mattered more than bigger questions about what the city looks like.

Clos has reoriented the agency around implementing his three-legged approach to cities. He created three new divisions: Urban Legislation, Urban Planning and Urban Economy. “It was very hard to believe,” he said, “but when I arrived there was no urban planning department.”

Now, UN-Habitat is thinking more at a city scale. The agency under Clos works almost like a consulting firm to assemble a multidisciplinary team that aims to shore up a city’s overall urban management.

For example, Kisumu County, Kenya’s third largest urban area, came to UN-Habitat with a request for assistance on waste management. Clos used it as an excuse to help the county prepare a whole new urban plan. In the city of Nacala, Mozambique, the agency is pushing the municipal government to capture more revenue from its bustling port, planning entirely new neighborhoods and drafting new regulations for buildings and streets.

“We are jumping out of the sectoral approach,” Clos explained. “If you need a lawyer you take a lawyer. If you need an economist you take an economist. If you need an engineer you take an engineer. People on the team come from different sectors.”

At the same time, Clos ramped up the agency’s urban research work. To more traditional studies like the agency’s regular report on the world’s cities, Clos added more innovative research partnerships. For example, a joint endeavor with New York University and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy drawing on historic maps and the latest digital cartography tools created stunning visual portraits of how cities grow over time.

The transition from the fast pace of city hall to the slower pace of diplomacy did not come naturally for Clos. Hoballah, the UNEP official, told me Clos “doesn’t look for consensus. He’s very much, ‘I have an idea, I go for it.’” Clos himself doesn’t dispute that assessment. “I am not a typical diplomat because I believe in delivery,” he said. “As a mayor I’ve been trained on delivery. You cannot be just talking and talking. There is a moment where you need to take a decision.”

Within UN-Habitat, there’s been pushback against Clos’ style, which some see as brusque. While no current employees agreed to speak on the record for this story, an unspecified number of aggrieved staff filed a misconduct report against Clos in January. The allegations include “abusive behaviours, abuse of authority, harassment and discrimination,” noting that staff “have remained quiet because of fear or reprisals.”

As head of the agency, Clos may be the flashpoint for some internal friction not entirely of his own making. One Western employee I spoke with who spent several years working out of the Nairobi office attested to long-simmering tensions between European staff, who can come across as imperious know-it-alls, and African staff, who feel a certain protective ownership over the agency and its mandate to improve housing conditions in poor countries.

And unlike city hall — where the mayor gets his way — UN rank-and-file can push back more substantively. When I asked Clos about the allegations, he said they were “not true” and that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) had informed him the complaint was dismissed. As of press time, Clos’ office said that he had not received the final report clearing him. OIOS told me it does not comment on ongoing or completed investigations.

One thing that’s clear is that Clos gets out of Nairobi as much as possible. When I asked him what it was like to live in the city, which suffers from abysmal traffic and security risks for Westerners, he tried to bite his tongue. “Don’t ask me this question,” he said, the only time he attempted to refuse to answer a question. His tongue got the better of him. He continued, “The beauty of the nature is fantastic. The friendship of the people, it’s also fantastic. Urbanization, it’s weak.”

“Power is dispersed”

In public, Clos can be an impassioned, convincing speaker who marshals an encyclopedic command of contemporary trends in urbanization. But he has a tendency to repeat his points ad nauseum and overstay his welcome on stage. At a panel talk in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July, the moderator called on speakers to deliver “tweet-length” final statements. Clos spoke for more than 15 minutes. When nudged to halt, he digressed into a story about his taxi ride from the airport, which led to a riff about the future of cars and technology. Someone in the audience turned to me and asked, “Have you ever heard him speak for less than three minutes?”

In English, Clos sometimes lapses into a bureaucratic monotone. He is most comfortable when speaking in Spanish, and assumes an engaging, professorial style. In both languages, he has had plenty of airtime. When Clos’ office released the first draft of the New Urban Agenda in May, he had already traveled to 40 countries over two years to drum up interest among mayors, ministers, academics, civil-society groups and grassroots organizations. As one of his aides told me when I asked where Clos spends most of his time: “He lives in the air.”

The draft of the New Urban Agenda endorsed Clos’ three-legged approach, with repeated paeans to urban planning, a call to strengthen municipal finance, and a commitment to national-level urban policies. The document gave ample mention to public space, including streets and sidewalks. Then, diplomats representing UN member states took over. After several rounds of negotiations from May to September, they delivered a 24-page final text that they believe their governments can adopt at next week’s summit in Quito.

For Clos, this process was largely out of his hands, as diplomats don’t appreciate meddling from UN leadership during tense negotiations. But Clos told me pointedly at a press conference in Surabaya in July — by which point the text was nearly finalized — that his talking points had survived the diplomatic wringer.

“There is a high consensus on the content of the New Urban Agenda,” he said. “What I perceive from member states is that there’s a very public recognition of the role of urban planning, design, financing and legislation. On the thematic issues there are, to a degree, consensus.”

Indeed, it’s safe to say that Clos got most of what he wanted. His principles are clearly outlined in the New Urban Agenda’s 174 paragraphs, cementing his vision of urbanization at the international level for at least the next 20 years.

But some worry that Clos’ short-term focus on the text isn’t matched by a long-term strategy to ensure its implementation. The challenge ahead is to convince national governments to take action on a voluntary, non-binding agreement. That’s not impossible at the UN. Two of this decade’s biggest global deals — a plan to end poverty called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change — are voluntary, legally speaking. Yet both are clearly impacting public policy and private-sector actions around the world.

Felix Dodds, a longtime UN lobbyist who followed the Habitat III process closely, thinks Clos failed to elevate the New Urban Agenda to the same status. “I don’t think the New Urban Agenda is a document that will be quoted or used in the future,” Dodds said. “By not linking the New Urban Agenda to the SDGs and climate change outcomes in a more meaningful way, the relevant ministries won’t be paying attention to it.”

That criticism came early from some UN member states when the first draft was released. Dodds attributes this failure to Clos’ leadership style during the preparatory process. “He doesn’t lead by building a team. That team is the UN family and stakeholders,” he said. “Clos tried to keep this as the UN-Habitat conference, not the UN family conference. That is a huge mistake.”

Clos has supporters as well. At the UN in May, I met with Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, whose father held Clos’ job 40 years ago in the leadup to Habitat I. Peñalosa was effusive in his praise, calling Clos “fantastic” and complementing the “great job” he’s done at UN-Habitat. “He’s trying to get Habitat III out of the traditional UN language, which is so anesthetic, and trying to put it into more practical terms of the challenges that cities face,” he told me. “If Habitat III is only able to influence a few things, this can make the lives of millions of people better for hundreds of years.”

Putting a document into practice, however, is much easier when running a city than working in a complex bureaucracy like the UN As Roig pointed out, “The mayor has the power to make changes. In the UN, no one has power. Power is dispersed.”

Diplomacy isn’t the only challenge. So are politics at the national and regional levels, as well as local culture and attitudes toward urbanization that may prove hard to change.

For the most part, sub-Saharan African countries — even though they are among the world’s fastest urbanizing — remain entrenched with a rural mindset. Large, rich and mainly urbanized countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States feel they have room to sprawl. China worries that anti-sprawl provisions would prevent the creation of new cities. Federated countries like Brazil and Germany are leery about setting urban policy at the national level. Authoritarian governments like Russia and Egypt don’t like the goal of empowering local governments.

As it turned out, the final sticking point in negotiations was the role of UN-Habitat itself. The developing-countries bloc, known as the G-77, wanted UN-Habitat to have primary responsibility for implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Richer countries that foot most of the bill for UN-Habitat’s budget resisted this call, arguing that the New Urban Agenda should be a shared effort among all UN agencies. Negotiators ultimately decided to put off the issue to next year, when the Secretary-General is to present an “evidence-based and independent assessment” of UN-Habitat. Next year is the final year of Clos’ term at the agency.

The first time Clos stood up at the UN to make the case for urbanization as a solution to development challenges, he told me, “A lot of the faces that I saw were faces of incredulity.” Countless speeches later, Clos believes he has succeeded in changing minds. And he’ll have his biggest stage yet to change more minds next week in Quito, when he shares the podium with Ban Ki-moon and a host of world leaders who will endorse his vision. As Clos likes to point out, it will be the first time in the history of the United Nations that cities will be recognized as a potential force for good.

This piece is part of a series of reported articles and op-eds that Next City is publishing related to preparations for the United Nations’ Habitat III conferencein Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016. With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we’re covering the critical issues at stake on the road to creating a “New Urban Agenda,” and hosting events at PrepCom III in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July 2016, and in Quito.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.