Viewpoint (May 01, 2010)

In April, I attended the 3rd International Holcim Forum for Sustainable Construction, a three-day conference held at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Comprised of academics and professionals from the fields of architecture, engineering, urban planning, business and politics, over 270 participants from 39 countries gathered to discuss new approaches to building sustainable communities. The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction–a Swiss-based organization seeking to raise awareness of the roles that architecture, engineering and construction can play in contributing to a healthier planet–sponsored the conference. The Foundation is supported by Holcim Ltd., one of the world’s largest suppliers of cement, aggregates and ready-mixed concrete.

A highlight of the forum was a series of workshops examining the relationships of architecture, infrastructure, social networks and stakeholders in the city. For the workshop that focused on stakeholders–those citizens who play an important everyday role in the city but who are often excluded from important decision-making processes–arrangements were made to visit the informal city of Nezahualcyotl or “Neza,” and a cultural centre in Iztapalapa, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Mexico City. The richness of social capital, community participation and self-governance in these two areas was extraordinary. These case studies can teach us how we can learn to work together to resolve some of the ongoing challenges facing the sustainability of our cities.

Founded in the 1950s without any city services and expanded through illegal land sales, Neza is the largest unplanned community in Mexico. Today, it has a population of nearly 1.5 million inhabitants. This fully matured city contains a level of social interaction and complexity that traditionally planned communities can only dream of achieving. With a wide variety of businesses and services–including at least one branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia–one quickly appreciates Neza as a well-maintained and socially inclusive environment where the idea of community is both preserved and nurtured.

In Fbrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente (FARO), a cultural centre in Iztapalapa where more than 80 percent of its nearly 2 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty, a strong presence of mutual respect and community identity is felt everywhere. FARO contains a vocational school, library, theatre, exhibition space and cafeteria within a long graffiti-covered ship-like structure. Meeting the needs of many Mexicans marginalized from society, the centre strikes close to the heart, reminding us of the importance of engendering not only a sense of place but empathy towards others living in impoverished conditions. This is what Jeremy Rifkin might consider to be a good example of an “empathic civilization.”

In his keynote address at the conference, Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, spoke of his belief that the only way the human race can survive in a sustainable and globalized economy is if we develop more empathy toward others. His “empathic civilization” can be seen as the opposite of a Utopia, a place where there is neither fear nor desire. In an empathic world, we are able to feel and understand the vulnerabilities of those around us, working co-operatively to achieve greater balance among humans.

Through greed and the desire for progress, it is quite possible that we’ve moved away from the empathic understanding of each other’s needs, resulting in our inability to collectively make positive decisions affecting the future health of our planet. But there is hope. Humanity is still rooted in social environments where we continue to learn from and identify with each other. Over the course of our 175,000-year existence, we have developed constructs such as religious affiliations and national identities to help us build empathic civilizations. If there is one thing that we can discover from places like Neza or Iztapalapa, it is this: nurturing empathy and directing it toward our neighbours will increase the likelihood of humanity’s survival.

Ian Chodikoff