Understanding Issues

Is the ‘Green Agenda’ appropriate in poor cities?
How to reconcile conflicting priorities?

Extracted from: DANIDA Workshop Papers: Improving the Urban Environment and Reducing Poverty; December 5, 2000; Copenhagen, Denmark.

Environmental quality – from luxury to necessity

It is now often argued that environmental concerns are especially important to the poor whereas, only a few decades ago, they were widely held to be a luxury for the affluent. Much attention has focused on the rural poor and how important environmental care is to achieving sustainable rural livelihoods. The urban poor are less directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods yet, environmental health threats in the living environment are characteristic of severe urban poverty. Statistics show that environmental factors account for a far greater share of illness and death among the poor than among the more affluent. It is clearly nonsense to claim that environmental improvements must await economic affluence, when they provide basic human needs without which development is severely compromised.


Conflicting agendas? Helping the poor versus protecting the future

Superficially at least, these two agendas are in opposition to each other. Green burdens have grown in part because Brown burdens have been displaced. Local water shortages have been addressed by drawing on more distant sources. Local air pollution has been reduced by introducing higher stacks or more distant oil or coal-based power stations. Local solid waste problems have been addressed by removing the waste from the vicinity of people and dumping it outside the urbanized area. Land shortages have been eased by transport systems that encourage urban sprawl. And sanitary problems have been removed by using water to carry away human excreta.

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Source: McGranahan, G. and Satterthwaite, D. 2000 Forthcoming: Environmental Health or Ecological Sustainability: Reconciling the brown and green agendas in urban development. In: Pugh, C. (ed.) Sustainable Cities in Developing Countries. Earthscan, London.

Stereotyping the Brown and the Green Agendas
for Urban Environmental Improvement
  The "Brown" Environmental Health Agenda The "Green" Sustainability Agenda
Characteristic features of problems high on the agenda:    
First order impact Human health Ecosystem health
Timing Immediate Delayed
Scale Local Regional and global
Worst affected Lower income groups Future generations
Characteristic attitude to:    
Nature Manipulate to serve human needs Protect and work with
People Work with Educate
Environmental Services Provide more Use less
Aspects emphasised in relation to:    
Water Inadequate access and poor quality Overuse; need to protect water sources
Air High human exposure to hazardous pollutants Acid precipitation and greenhouse gas emissions
Solid waste Inadequate provision for collection and removal Excessive generation
Land Inadequate access for low income groups for housing Loss of natural habitats and agricultural land to urban development
Human wastes Inadequate provision for safely removing faecal material (and waste water) from living environment Loss of nutrients in sewage and damage to water bodies from its release of sewage into waterways
Typical proponent Urbanist Environmentalist

From a ‘green’ perspective, displacing environmental burdens is inequitable and economically unsound. It shifts the burdens from those who generated them onto distant people and ecosystems, and even onto future generations. From a ‘brown’ perspective, the fundamental inequities and economic inefficiencies lie in the inadequate local water supplies, local air pollution, lack of waste collection, poor sanitation and inadequate land available to the poor. In terms of equity, these people have the right to have their basic needs met – if necessary by the same means which others have, historically, met theirs.

Complementary agendas – helping the poor and protecting the future

While the table above emphasises the contrasts between the two agendas, they also have a number of common features. Both are concerned with the complex and unintended side-effects of human activity, even if the Brown Agenda focuses more on immediate, localised and health-related effects, and the Green Agenda on delayed, dispersed and ecological effects. The notion that prevention is usually the best cure is also central to both agendas. Both also face the challenge of ensuring that actors whose principal motivations lie elsewhere take environmental effects into account. And again, both agendas are concerned with equity, even if the Brown Agenda focuses more on burdens affecting low-income groups in the present and the Green Agenda on burdens likely to affect, especially, future generations.

Moreover, the conflicts between the two agendas often reflect a tendency to address the two sets of issues independently, using crude policy instruments. It is not the 30 or so litres of water per capita per day that people need to meet their health needs that threaten natural water supplies but, rather, when water is made ‘affordable’ by across-the-board subsidies and then supplied in systems that leak up to 50 per cent of the water. Much the same applies in relation to other environmental services. Meeting the needs of the poor is not a major threat to sustainability except when it allows environmental abuse by all sectors of society. Similarly, pursuing environmental sustainability is not a major threat to the environmental health of the poor except when it is used to justify maintaining the most deprived residents’ already inadequate access to environmental resources. More careful and equitable use of environmental resources can often bring better environmental services with less ecological.

Simply transferring the environmental priorities and policy tools of the Northern Green Agenda to Southern cities is clearly inappropriate. Claiming that the Green Agenda will solve the environmental health problems so prevalent in many Southern cities is not only untrue but could be harmful to the most vulnerable residents. Donors whose mandate is poverty reduction cannot be wholehearted champions of the Green Agenda if that means diverting attention from more immediate environmental hazards that tend to affect the poor. It would be inappropriate also, however, to treat the two agendas separately and ignore the potential complementarities between them.

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The importance of assisting locally-driven initiatives

Cities that have the capacity to address their own local environmental problems efficiently and equitably are more likely to be able to respond to the Green as well as the Brown Agenda. The more environmentally successful Northern cities have worked hard to gain local support for environmental improvement and to ensure that local environmental issues are given prominence. This applies to recent successes (such as Leicester’s environmental city initiative) but also to cities with a history of good environmental management (such as Stockholm). In Southern cities, there is far more justification for giving prominence to local environmental issues. Moreover, in the South as well as in the North, locally-driven initiatives often do take extra-urban environmental impacts seriously.


Finding the best means of developing and financing urban environmental initiatives that address both the Brown Agenda and the Green Agenda remains a major challenge. In principle, urban environmental initiatives could reconcile the two by analyzing the conflicts and complementarities between them and by designing measures that avoid the first and build on the second. These conflicts and complementarities remain poorly understood, however. In practice, especially in poor cities, the more obvious priority is to assist in the development of locally-driven environmental initiatives. This brings issues of governance to center stage.