“The individuals who travel along their city’s streets are the most responsible for shaping it.” Photo by Robokow.
In the field of sustainable design and urban planning, transformation doesn’t happen overnight: it takes time for individual behaviors to change and systems to respond. One of the key pieces that can speed up this change and help to create healthier, more vibrant cities for all is widespread education and communication on the importance of urban sustainability. That’s why Renée van Staveren founded Global Site Plans, an Istanbul-based organization dedicated to helping environmentally focused architects and planners better communicate their mission.
TheCityFix had the opportunity to sit down with Renée and learn from her about some of the challenges facing urban designers, emerging trends in architecture and planning, and urban sustainability in the developing world.
What led you to pursue a career rooted in urban issues? Why should others do the same?
It started with my passion for protecting the environment. When I was in college, my professor gave us an opportunity to be involved in public council meetings regarding the development of a mega church in my community. I wasn’t against the church itself, but I opposed its large footprint and the effects it would have on the endangered species that lived on the parcel of land that would be developed. Sadly, the mega church was built and our cause was defeated. To this day I look back and think, “What a shame.”
That experience taught me how important it is to have knowledgeable individuals who can spearhead change and advocate for community and environmental preservation. We need individuals to who are passionately pursuing the preservation or improvement of their neighborhoods. For this to happen it’s vital that the masses become informed and engaged citizens.
What groups or individuals need to be better informed in order to improve urban environments?
Knowledge and education are keys to change – I believe that improvements in urban environments start in the classroom with primary school education. Children have a powerful influence and ability to educate their households because they’re energetic, inspired and have fresh eyes. When I came home from elementary school and told my parents that we needed to recycle and compost, they listened to me. Even though I’ve moved out of the house, and live halfway around the world, they still recycle and compost to this day. Teaching children about their neighborhoods and what is good – or bad – for them is vital to not only improving urban environments decades from now, but through familial ripple effects that can change urban environments today.
What do you see as some of the most important urban issues right now?
In developing cities the most important urban issues are energy and infrastructure – specifically water, food, waste/sanitation and transport. In much of the developed world, these are taken for granted until something occurs that disrupts access; a power outage, for example.
In Turkey, wood burning stoves are still very common, but solar water heaters are also on the rise, especially in rural areas. In developing countries, access to energy and infrastructure are often the largest markers for livability, followed by access to work, health resources, and education. These are the building blocks for healthy development and without them people must focus meeting these basic needs instead of cultivating greater personal, community and urban development possibilities.
What does it mean to you to be an informed urban citizen?
Being an informed urban citizen means being aware and engaged. My home of Istanbul has been in the news a lot regarding Gezi Park and continuing protests. The individuals who travel along their city’s streets are the most responsible for shaping it. Those who use or interact with that urban environment should take responsibility for it and “own it”. To be knowledgeable, aware and engaged with what is happening within your city or community – and making educated decisions – is what an informed urban citizen is.
What important trends in urban planning and urban design do you see emerging?
One of the major urban trends I see throughout my work is a growing interest in biking and bicycle infrastructure. There is a bicycle movement sweeping the United States and I hope it will catch on everywhere, including in Istanbul, as a new primary mode of transportation that is healthier for the environment and its users.
I also see an increasing trend towards technologically mediated planning. Since many of us are “glued” to our smart phones, urban planners, cities and developers have the chance to tap our community ideas and data through mobile phone applications, crowdsourcing, and participatory planning – all with the assistance of increasingly open data. This intersection of open data, technology and planning has great potentials for reaching and gathering comments from larger populations – improving our urban environments and the way we interact with them.
Renée van Staveren is the founder and CEO of Global Site Plans, a communications firm tailored to the needs of environmental architects and planners. She is also the managing editor at The Grid. Renée holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning with an emphasis in Environmental Planning and Policy from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey.