State of the Planet

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Q&A With Sustainable Cities Expert Jitendra Bajpai

Jitendra Bajpai

Jitendra (Jit) Bajpai is an adjunct lecturer in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program, where he teaches a course on sustainable cities. He is also an adjunct in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation.

Prior to his current positions, Jit served at the World Bank for almost 20 years in various positions, including as a manager of transport sector operations in East Asia and the Pacific. He is a member of the advisory board on the Future of Urban Development for the World Economic Forum, and has recently served the Inter-American Development Bank, Brookings Institution, and the Rwanda and Uganda governments. He is an engineer and planner, and has a doctorate in land use and urban transportation systems planning. As the treasurer of his family foundation (DeFries-Bajpai Foundation), Jit promotes science for sustainable development.

Why did you choose to teach in the M.S. in Sustainability Management program?

I like the academic world. Actually my first job a year after my doctoral and post-doctoral work was with the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai as an assistant professor of transportation planning. Fast-forward, after retiring from the World Bank, I moved to NY in 2011. I was approached by Professor Steve Cohen to develop a course on sustainable cities for the MSSM program. It was a topic of global concern and an emerging theme within academic institutions. So it was a great opportunity for me to both learn and share my knowledge and experiences with students. Moreover, I was pleased to be back in academic world after over 30 years of my hectic professional life. So I accepted the challenge and continue to enjoy being in the program.

Are there any trends in the legal context of sustainability?

Sustainability could be interpreted differently by different people. The trend is to operationalize the concept into actions using the triple bottom line lens that addresses economic, environment and social dimensions of a society and their interactions. It is therefore defined by the values and context-specific short and long term concerns of a society. With increasing climate risks and related international agreements, countries have begun to adopt both top-down and bottom-up actions covering investments, policy incentives, and regulations in support of their sustainability strategy.

Do you think that environmental law and policies are important for sustainability?

Absolutely, the laws and policies are means to ensure that the desired quality and quantity of natural resources and eco-services are available for human consumption.  For instance, with the increasing concentration of people, global cities now consume over three-fourths of extracted materials and energy, producing over 70 percent of GHG emissions, and remaining large generators of waste. Therefore, to sustain the well-being of cities while facing the headwinds of increasing population and consumption, city governments have to rely on the laws and policies that would protect their environmental assets — land, air, water, green spaces, etc — while nurturing an efficient and equitable development. However, given the uncertainties related to climate change, these policies and laws should be flexible enough to evolve and adopt in response to emerging risks and conditions.

What is your favorite part as a professor?

I immensely enjoy interacting with students. Since the students come from diverse backgrounds, their interactions enrich classroom learning for everyone including me. Actually, each week I challenge myself by asking every student to complete the assigned pre-class readings and to pose one or two questions for me to answer in the class. I enjoy exploring the answers to their questions. And I must say that this process helps my learning as well. Moreover, being a faculty member, I enjoy the community of other faculty members and access to the wealth of knowledge activities that are offered by Columbia University.

What do you think your students need to know about sustainability that they may not already be learning in the classroom?

We should be aware of the fact that our well-being is closely tied to the health of nature and its services. Therefore, irrespective of which profession or discipline an individual is engaged with, he or she must be guided by the principles of sustainability. For instance, an understanding of nature’s self-regulating functions teaches us about the way the human race can reduce risks and vulnerabilities associated with its different activities. We also know that pursuit for pure efficiency and growth may enhance social inequity and environmental risks.

What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the Sustainability Management program offers?

The program offers a menu of courses to choose from depending upon a student’s interest covering social, climate and engineering methods to address sustainability issues of the built environment. Moreover, given the multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary nature of sustainability, the program encourages integrative and cross-disciplinary learning and non-silo thinking. Let me share my own experience. I was originally trained as a civil engineer and later as an urban transport planner. But now I consider myself a development practitioner or an urban specialist promoting sustainability. Such a change was brought about through a long learning process of working and leading multi-disciplinary teams across many countries during my 20-year tenure at the World Bank. A program like Sustainability Management could expedite that learning process for many.

What advice would you give to your students who are not already working in the field of sustainability?

The notion of sustainability and climate risks cascades across everything we do now.  The Sustainability Management program topics cover social sciences (like economics, cost-benefit analysis, finance, urban development etc), environment, energy, ethics, communication, etc. The program thus offers some of the essential skills that a manager or employee must have for jobs in public and private institutions. Therefore, I will encourage our Sustainability Management students to strive for opportunities to exercise their skills. I am sure that they will nurture a better future for themselves and others.

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