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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coordinating Mega-Cities

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks with Janice Pearlman, Executive Director of a non-profit network called Mega-Cities that helps the world's largest cities share innovative solutions to problems they all have in common.


CURWOOD: The success of Cairo's Zabbaleen recycling project has inspired people in other cities to start similar programs. They learned about the waste picker project through Mega-Cities, a nonprofit group that helps the world's largest cities share innovative solutions to common problems. Janice Perlman is executive director of Mega-Cities, which has helped transfer the Zabbaleen idea to Bombay, India, and to Manila in the Philippines.

PERLMAN: They've taken up the idea of seeing waste as a resource rather than as a problem. So they've created dozens and dozens of recycling centers, and in each of those they've created a series of micro-enterprises that generate income. Let's say you use plastics to create those jelly shoes or dolls, or use the metal to make trays that are embossed. Use cloth to create beautiful tablecloths, placemats, bedspreads. They've also created the idea that you can link infrastructure development and education and upgrading of their communities with the income stream that's generated from the selling of the manufactured good or the crafted goods. They've also taken on the idea that these people who work with garbage don't have to be considered an underclass, and that this is a dignified type of work, so that they don't have to feel like second class citizens as they go about their daily lives. That has been really profound.

CURWOOD: In Manila it seems to me that these programs were implemented by the local activists who came and made the connection that you facilitated. In Bombay, is it local activists or is the government that is doing it?

PERLMAN: In Bombay it's the government. The way the project works there is that they have traditionally, the households put all their garbage in dumpsters, and they mix wet and dry garbage. And the scavengers crawl into the dumpsters, strew the garbage all around the streets --


PERLMAN: -- and try to pick out what can be recycled.


PERLMAN: The pilot project picked 2 neighborhoods. And with the municipal support they work with the residents to separate their wet and dry garbage, and to not use the dumpsters for their dry garbage but to give it, let it directly be collected by the scavengers. So the scavengers can take it to their recycling centers, can use it to create their own manufactured product just like in Cairo and in Manila, and they are able to therefore solve the problem of the hazard on the street of the dumpsters and of the income-generation problem. So it's -- if this works well in these two neighborhoods they plan to take it city-wide.

CURWOOD: You seem to believe that big cities of the world, whether it's New York or Shanghai or Karachi, have more in common with each other really than the smaller cities and towns in their own countries. I'm wondering how this can be if you consider all the enormous cultural, political, economic, and geographic differences that distinguish all those nations from each other.

PERLMAN: The fact is that these cultural and historic and political and economic differences do show up, and that's why you can't transfer one innovation to another city in its exact same format. And it won't look the same. But what is so parallel about these things and is so striking when you start to visit them, is that the scale of these cities, the size and scale that's completely unprecedented in human history, comes with its own set of challenges. And the questions of how to feed all this many people, how to remove their garbage, how to house them, how to create jobs and an income, how to deal with the environment -- they're so overwhelming in cities of 10 million or more, that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that you might be able to find solutions to these things that have been developed and cultivated in one culture and context that can be adapted to another. It's like the Magic Eyes campaign from Bangkok, which is an anti-litter campaign based on young kids and using a cartoon figure and a little jingle called Magic Eyes are Watching You, that enable the kids to tell their elders, without being impolite, of course, not to litter and not to throw their waste on the streets. That was transferred to Rio de Janeiro and took on a totally different form. They transformed this frowning Magic Eyes figure, which is a green character with little black frowning eyes, into an extraterrestrial with little antennae, and it's a very, very interesting adaptation. Because if you look at those two figures, the Magic Eyes Green Giant, sort of, from Bangkok, and this little extraterrestrial in Rio, you would think it's a totally different thing. And they are perfectly different because they're adapted to their cultures. But the underlying core of the innovation and the magic that makes it work is not in the particular figure, but is in the approach of using shame and making the grown-ups feel embarrassed when they litter. So it's just a kind of proof that if you really let the cities adapt the things to their own needs, you can transfer the core of the ideas and they will adapt it to their own culture and their own specificity of their city.

CURWOOD: Why is it the world's biggest cities are ripe for this? What makes the big, big, the mega-city, you call it, so different and so right for this kind of communication?

PERLMAN: Well, I think it's for two reasons. One, that mega-cities have all the problems of other cities around the world, but they just have them in more exaggerated proportions. So what would be a problem in another city is a crisis in a mega-city. If there's an environmental need, it's an environmental crisis or a transportation crisis, or a gang riot or AIDS or drug crisis. So you have these pressing, pressing problems of this scale. And on the other hand, you have the most creative and innovative people from every sector. You have the best and the brightest from the government sector, from the business sector, from the community sector, from the media, from the academic sector. They've all come to the mega-city to seek their fortune, make their fame, and to give their kids a better chance for the future. So you get a huge diversity of people with very high talent in very close proximity facing very extreme problems, and it's a perfect cauldron for innovation.

CURWOOD: Janice Perlman is executive director of Mega-Cities. She spoke to us from her office in the mega-city of New York.



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