Jack of all trades, master of the urban agenda

This year’s Barbara Ward Lecture will be given by Debra Roberts, who says more needs to be done to join the dots between the ‘New Urban Agenda’, being prepared for Habitat III, and the realities of implementation at the local level.


The rich biodiversity and open spaces of Durban, where Debra Roberts heads up the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives portfolio, are vital to the city’s social and economic wellbeing (Photo: Darren Glanville, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The woman who will give this year’s Barbara Ward Lecture on the ‘New Urban Agenda’ brings a unique perspective on urban issues.

Debra Roberts’ roots are in academia, where she started her career as a biologist, but she soon moved to local government, pioneering work on biodiversity and climate change adaptation in the urban arena. She now heads up the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives portfolio in eThekwini Municipality, Durban, South Africa, while also co-chairing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 2 on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (IPCC WG2).

She is, she says, a jack of all trades and a master of none, but her ability to translate the on-the-ground realities of a modern day city to the global level epitomises the notion of local-to-global – and, in an increasingly urbanised world, her expertise is much in demand.

“It came about out of sheer necessity, not out of choice,” she explains. “I thought I was going to be an academic, but quite early on, I became jaundiced and disaffected and unhappy with the way the academic world viewed applied science.”

Getting the story right

Her move to local government was inspired by South Africa’s shift to democracy, and a sense of the potential for change. At the time, she did not think she would ever return to academia, but her frustration at the gap between the research and her experiences drove her back.

“Researchers would come and interview me, but their papers bore no reference to reality at all,” she remembers. “I went back into that space and engaged that community. I wanted to ensure that they got the story right.”

As a result, she says, she became a “boundary person”, straddling the worlds of science, practice and policy.

It has placed her at the nexus of global development issues at a time when the world is trying to juggle the challenges of rapidly growing cities, diminishing natural resources and a changing climate.

But while frustration may have driven her into that space, she feels it is a very necessary place to be and argues that more needs to be done to make it easier for others to bring local experience into the national and global debates.

“Professionally, there are penalties for crossing boundaries,” she explains. “There is a real cost to trying to break down the silos. You are no longer recognised as a professional and you can feel very alone, so it can be a difficult career choice.”

She found the key to her motivation came from having studied environmental philosophy as part of her doctoral research.

“I realised that you cannot save the world, that no individual can save the world, but you can choose a place on the Earth and do what you can there,” she explains.

She chose Durban and the rest became necessity.

Grounding the aspirational

It is her focus on what happens at the local level that allows her to negotiate what she describes as the “motherhood and apple pie story” of the Sustainable Development Goals and other “aspirational” global policies.

“When you focus on the local, very soon you hit a policy glass ceiling, where you need to engage in national and global processes,” she explains. “I may be deeply cynical, but sometimes there seems to be no link between these statements and the reality on the ground.”

This, she fears, is already the case with the ‘New Urban Agenda’, due to be agreed at Habitat III in Quito in October – and the subject of her Barbara Ward Lecture in London on 11 October.