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August 30, 2009

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Urban scientist pushes a pragmatic approach

MORE than half of the world's population lives in urban areas and their impact on regional and global environmental systems is causing significant concern.
Christine Alfsen (pictured right), senior program specialist for sciences at UNESCO in New York, recently presented her ideas on the Urban Biosphere (URBIS Initiative) at the "Better City, Better Life??The URBIS Initiative International Seminar in Shanghai.
The initiative aims to promote knowledge networking and planning amongst cities to encourage the integration of social, cultural and ecological systems. It focuses on economic theory, urban planning, population, architecture, biochemistry, communications, society, culture and geography, among others, which have a significance role in the world's future development.
The concept, choosing urban landscapes to promote the connection between people and nature, is linked to Expo's theme "Better City, Better Life?dealing with improving urban development and creating a better environment.
Q: What environmental changes have you noticed in China?
A: The first time I came to Shanghai was more than 20 years ago. I'm amazed to find the great changes that have been taken place in this country. I can't recognize anything. You can see physically that cities are taking over lands. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just a different way of living on the planet.
Q: What are the differences between your concept of the "URBIS initiative?and traditional environmental protection?
A: Traditional environmental protection is to exclude people from nature to protect the environment. It is impossible. For example, you cannot just reserve green space and kick people out of their lands.
That's why we choose urban landscapes where people cannot be kicked out.
Our program is to connect people and nature. It has to be an environment-friendly way of thinking that keeps both people and green space and works for everybody ?the poor, the rich, the old, the young ?and the challenge is how you find solutions.
We try to make the solutions more humanistic and they must involve the use of science, technology and education.
Q: What is your major focus in the initiative?
A: Our focus is human. It's for the United Nations to change people's attitude toward nature and consumption. We use the power of the United Nations to provide a platform for scientists, educators and policy makers to inform government to invest in the public good. We also commit ourselves to inform people to understand simple things like recycling and living frugally.
Q: What should common people do in their daily life to contribute to the program?
A: The first step is to inform yourself. It is the first stage and responsibility to spread information because it is not obvious. If you drink water, you don't instantly know where it comes from to your glass. As the message gets bigger and bigger, people will have the power to change things with the information.
Q: What do you think is the biggest problem Shanghai is facing?
A: The danger is to exclude people. You have your winning model ?the business model that is growth. It is at the expense of the loss of homes and livelihoods of lots of people. The model has little room for those who are weaker, poorer or disadvantaged. It is important to remember that this is only good for a small group of people. A healthy system allows everybody to share the benefits.
Q: Are there any models for Shanghai to follow to improve the condition?
A: No. There are no models for cities. We help to find solutions with general guidelines, but not recipes. It is not enough to plan a city inside the city. The future depends on the eco-system outside the city. You need to plan for the regional system.
Q: What are you expecting from the UNESCO conference in Shanghai during Expo next year?
A: The conference will bring people on board, but it is only one step in a much bigger initiative. It must be a continuous initiative. It's like a movement.


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