The sustainable city slicker

Moving from a village of 1000 people in the Cambridgeshire countryside to São Paulo, one of the world’s most populous concrete jungles, was a huge change. 

I love cities. Arriving early to witness the city waking up is one of my favourite things. I love knowing that so much is happening around me; so many exciting conversations, ideas, plans and so much hustle and bustle.

But cities are sites for unsustainable development on a mind boggling scale; booming populations, soaring unemployment, lack of basic sanitation, street crime and a disregard for the earth they’re built on.

They’re fast-paced places of fumes, litter, and people rushing everywhere. There’s no field at the back of the house with an abundance of blackberries. No family down the road selling free-range eggs. And no vegetable patch or plum tree in the garden (unless you’re lucky!). 

They’re also places of possibilities. São Paulo is littered with street art commemorating a campaign to ‘ver a cidade’ (see the city). When we take time to explore what’s around us, we discover new opportunities.

Here’s six opportunities I’ve taken hold of since living here:

1. Use public transport

This seems obvious – but I grew up in a village with no public transport, where I had to drive. Cities give us so many other possibilities! As well as buses, trains and trams, it’s becoming increasingly popular and affordable to rent city bikes and scooters. With more long-distance travel, there are plenty of bus routes around Brazil that make it easy to avoid internal flights (if you can stomach sometimes days-long bus journeys). In the UK, the train is a great option too, though not as affordable as Brazilian coaches. But by booking early, you can sometimes avoid high prices.

2. Buy in bulk

Zero waste shops are more readily available in the UK and the rest of Europe than Brazil, especially in cities. I’m doing my best here by going to the city’s ‘cereal zone’ where you can find countless cereals and grains. The only issue is that they won’t accept my own reusable containers because they can’t reset the scales. So I’ve been reusing their ‘single-use’ bags and am looking into super lightweight reusable bags.

3. Take reusable utensils everywhere

Living in a city you never know when you’re going to pop into a café for a juice, grab a coffee on the go or get peckish while out and opt for a takeaway. This can be a nightmare in terms of plastic cups, straws, plates and utensils. So, it’s always best to be prepared!

4. Discover your local ‘village’

Living in a city doesn’t mean there’s no local community. On my walk to the station, there’s a health food shop which sells Brazilian grown loofah to use instead of sponges that send plastic microfibres down the drain. I have a friend whose local area contains mango trees; she collects mangos from the road that make wonderful chutney! Some local areas might have great charity shops or local produce markets, while others might contain a hidden gem of a small business sustainably producing anything from clothes to soap. Discover yours!

5. Get stuck into online local communities

From Facebook groups where people give away furniture, to apps fighting food waste like Olio, there are so many people looking for a home for something unwanted. In São Paulo, 25% of the city doesn’t have government collection of recyclables and only 7% of what is collected is actually recycled. But fear not, there’s an app where you can find local ‘catadores’ who collect recyclables to sell at recycling centres. This provides them with an income and gives new life to waste. In the UK, you may even find someone to collect your seemingly non-recyclable crisp packets.

6. Volunteer

Perhaps most importantly, sustainability isn’t about us and our Instagram feeds. A key reason for making sustainable choices is our global neighbour. Those in the global south and those living in poverty are most vulnerable to climate change (whilst also having smaller carbon footprints than those in the global north). Closer to home, neighbours in our own cities are also in challenging situations where some of the above choices simply aren’t accessible.

At the extreme end of the scale, if you’re thinking about how to put rice and beans on the table, you’re probably not too concerned if they come in plastic. There are countless local organisations, including churches, doing valuable work finding ways to make our cities more sustainable socially, as well as environmentally. From upcycling and food waste workshops to offering help with CVs or entrepreneurship training to tackle unemployment, where could you fit in?

And now for two things I’m going to try inside our 18th floor apartment: growing vegetables and composting. What can you try?

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