Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Sustainable Society Is Not The Same As The Living City

(See previous posts: "The Livable City Is Not The Same As The Living City" and "A Continuum Of Eco-City Models: A Brief Introductory Sketch")

A DESIRE FOR CITIES to be more livable in the face of increasing impact of degrading environmental quality have provoked a shift in urban design toward “sustainability” or activities that improve livability by prioritizing attention to environmental quality.  While sustainability can appear to be an obvious direction and is generally accepted as a rational direction, it is often challenged as lessening human quality by having to give up comforts to appease environmental demands.  Sustainability efforts, such as pollution control, are broadly resisted as an overreaction by environmentally oriented special interests.  Therefore, “sustainability” describes a variety of models that range from a limited separatist accommodation to ecologically-integrative models.  Interestingly, whether separatist or integrative, current models are in agreement that the city-form as separate and unnatural.  And this underlying perception of the city as a machine can misdirect efforts to achieve sustainability. 

The sustainable society is an environmental movement strategy that aspires to address environmental concerns by breaking up the city into smaller living and working units.  This is like new urbanism, but it is an outgrowth of an emphasis upon “sustainability” rather than upon a more human-scale comfortable livability.   It aspires to modify urbanism to produce interconnected villages.  The overall landscape would take on a natural appearance with green space.  The emphasis is more upon local and small and organic, recycling, simpler (less consumptive) lifestyles, green space, and expansion of outlying uninhabited landscapes.  The sustainable society is ecologically oriented and aspires to be less intrusive upon the non-human landscape.  There is an overall aspiration to be organic and to accomplish a large-scale change, with a strong emphasis on the region, and particularly on the bioregion, and not just the city.

While environmentally sensitive, the sustainable society is not broadly shared.  Its directive has come from the environmental movement and is on the fringe of urban planning.  Unless one defines “comfort” from an Earth-centric environmental value-set rather than from material consumption, the sustainable society seems restrictive.  The sustainable society models tend to be dualistic and inflexible, envisioning contemporary society as either under the control of private (corporate) interests or a chaotic sprawl. 

In The Great Turning, David Korten describes a battle between the “empire” and an Earth community[i] as an either-or choice. Essentially, Korten argues for a complete overturning of contemporary post-industrial society because he envisions it as is fundamentally destructive at its core.  For Korten, the most needed changes involve overturning economic structures such as an end to private interest corporations and a redistribution of wealth, along with more environmentally-specific changes stressed by other sustainable society models such as increased public transportation, reduced consumption, compact communities, and environmental rejuvenation.  For Korten, it would be naïve to presume that the post-industrial economic strategy would intentionally shift from an exploitive environmental strategy to an integrative strategy.  And even a more compromising environmentalism envisions a dualistic struggle between post-industrial culture and nature.  However, it might be naïve to presume that in a now peopled Earth, there is a new option that finds crucial economic profit in integrative environmental technologies and services, and that this process might drive a blend of personal interest that employs and supports large populations that increasingly might serve a public interest in optimizing both settled and uninhabited landscapes.

Even for the most separable, exploitive model of human habitation, the more environmentally specific components of sustainable society models offer valuable design elements that can be directly incorporated or modified to practically address environmental dilemmas.  Chip Ward[ii] describes features that might be emphasized in a sustainable society: Unbroken green with grids of roads and fences fading away, sustainable farming, wind farms, solar farms, retreats, spas, green belts, regenerated wetlands, river valleys as corridors between huge habitat reserves across the continent that also provide respite from city while continuing to conserve biodiversity, maximizing public transportation, lawns as rare and replaced by native plants, strong regulation of urban sprawl, and cities become more attractive with parks and activities.

Richard Register[iii] emphasizes the value of features of sustainable society models but also looks somewhat more positively at the city, identifying a functional quality to the emergence and ongoing development of the city rather than the city as something to be eradicated.  For Register, a blend of sustainable society features with urbanism might include:
            urban life fitted to location and climate,
            radically de-emphasizing the auto,
            "necklaces" of separate towns,
more people work in same area as they live,
rivers removed from underground with arcades along watercourses,
parks, orchard, playgrounds, gardens, rooftop gardens, greenhouses,
buildings with terraces, mixed use, roof top cafes.
foot and bicycle paths.
downtown living with work places for non-commuters,
transit shelters: bus, trolley, street car travel,
no car parking downtown,
solar collection and windmills,
streets for human activity, auto street made narrower,
south facing buildings with greenhouses/ backyard gardens,
lawns refigured,
recycling approaches 100%,
more food produced locally,
less TV, more neighborhood socialization, and
tree planting and harvesting of crop-producing trees.

[i] David Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, San Francisco: Berret-Koehler, 2006.
[ii] Chip Ward, “Rewilding America: The Froggy Love-Tunnel Vision Quest” [].
[iii] Features of eco city are adapted from Richard Register, “EcoCities, Making cities sustainable is a crucial challenge,” in Living With The Land, Winter, 1984, p. 31, and from In Context, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, 1985, []. See also, “Building ecocities: An interview with Richard Register, January 2000, a three-part series in Ecotexture, The Online Journal of Ecological Design,   

The Livable City Is Not The Living City

(See previous post: "A Continuum Of Eco-City Models: A Brief Introductory Sketch")

THE LIVABLE CITY is the predominant public post-industrial alternative model, while the “separable” city is the actual model.  There has been long-standing design interest in “livable” cities, and more recent public interest and support for livable cities.  The livable city is primarily a large-scale professional redesign of urban and regional space to make it energy efficient and enhance the quality or “livability” of the city.  The primary emphasis is upon “decongesting” traffic, improving air and watershed, and expanding recreational green space. The livable city is environmentally sensitive, but not ecologically oriented.  While there is interest in “green” technology for its efficiency, there is less interest in a “green” values-set, because there is less commitment to an ecological perspective that includes human life.  Human life is still separate.  The focus remains primarily upon being more “humane” than ecological.

The quality of urban life is the primary focus, and urbanization is perceived to be a cultural process rather than a natural process.  Environmental progress is slow because the focus is on costly, large-scale changes in the built infrastructure that require municipal and regional cooperation.  Design is predominantly large-scale redesign that is directed by planning and architectural expertise.  Transformations affect large physical areas such as central city and industrial parks and processes such as modes of transportation and watershed. 

“New urbanism” reflects an effort to improve personal and family life by creating townships where most everyday activities such as work and home and education and civic activity and recreation are all in close proximity.  Proximity is seen as positively decreasing the congestion and pollution caused by urban transportation.  However, the primary focus is on enhancing human scale interface in urban areas where life can seem impersonal and alienated.  There are efforts to be eco-sensitive as an aspect of improving the quality of residential life.  And there is an important focus on urban residency rather than mobility and transitory relationships.  While aspiring to be a return to human-scale, this “local” effort is really a large-scale effort because it essentially builds a new community.  And while new urbanism has created actual communities, it is not widespread, due perhaps to the cost of such change and lower public interest.  And perhaps more importantly in the face of rapidly expanding global urbanization, it acknowledges the inability to planning to control the city, but sees this as a limit rather than sees the post-industrial global process as have functional aspects that are active on both immanent and large scales.

The general model of new urbanism[i] is important for its attention to human-scale and involves
a neighborhood with a community center,
a five minute walk to resources,
a variety of dwelling types’
shops on the edge,
close by playgrounds and school,
parking in alley, and a formal neighborhood association.

Looking at a larger livable city, The American Institute of Architects list ten principles for livable communities:[ii]
1.   Design on a human scale,
2.   provide choices in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation and
3.   encourage mixed-use development to create vibrant, pedestrian-friendly
      and diverse communities,
4.   preserve urban centers to help curb sprawl,
5.   vary transportation options including walking, biking and public transit,
6.   build vibrant and welcoming public spaces,
7.   create neighborhood identity to enhance a sense of place,
8.   protect environmental resources by balancing nature and development,
9.   conserve landscapes such as open space, farms and wildlife habitat, and
10. design excellence as the foundation of successful and healthy communities.

Similarly, the Congresses International Architectura Modern [CIAM] list ten Principles of Intelligent Urbanism[iii] which describe livability of cities:
1.     a balance with nature
2.     a balance with tradition
3.     appropriate technology
4.     conviviality
4.1  a place for the individual
4.2  a place for friendship
4.3  a place for householders
4.4  a place for the neighborhood
4.5  a place for communities
4.6  a place for the city domain
5.     efficiency
6.     human scale
7.     opportunity matrix
8.     regional integration
9.     balanced movement
10.  institutional integrity.

The livable city is the primary current working model, and it derived from urban planning rather than from the environmental movement.  “Suatanability” is a very recent push, but still oriented on green technology and recycling for “livability” far more than for ecological integration.  Certain aspects such as modifications of mass transportation and regional planning for water and air quality are the predominant accomplishments that have occurred to a minimal degree globally, but that are present as useful demonstration projects.  Importantly and yet limiting, the focus is on people rather than environment with the objective of increasing the quality of human life or “livability.”  Green space is valued both for park-like human recreation and buffering open space and to a lesser yet increasing degree as a chemical recycling process. 

The variety of “livability “principles sketched are representative of an approach to cities that is definitely increasing globally.   The overall appearance of the city does not necessarily change.  Core environmental features are primarily technological and include:
alternative fuels for mass transportation,
redesigned mass transportation to reduce emissions and personal transport,
passive solar and efficient heating and cooling and insulation, and

By far the most popular world example of the livable city is Curitiba, Brazil.  Rather than move toward smaller communities, Curitiba has grown from 150,000 people in the 1950s to 500,000 people in 1965 to 1.6 million in 1994.  Young architects in the 1960s, thinking about the environment and people’s needs, approached the mayor and made a case for better planningThe mayor sponsored a contest for a master plan, debated responses with the citizens and turned over comments to the architects.  The focus that was different was upon rehabilitating built-up areas rather than spreading the city outward.  There was resistance from shopkeepers with proposals to turn the shopping district into a pedestrian zone.  After a thirty-day trial, other shopkeepers asked to be included. 

Public transportation was modified so that now 70 percent of commuters use it.  Plexiglass tube stations allow shelter, very low fares, private ownership that keeps part of the fare and gives the city part for roads/terminals, faster loading and unloading and noticeably cleaner air, access to buses though all of the city, and express bus lanes that move at fast as subway cars on radial routes.   There is 25% less congestion in Curitiba than in similar-sized cities.  As much as two-thirds of daily garbage is recycled by dividing waste into organic and inorganic only.  Trash can be exchanged for bus tickets and local food, and the trash goes to plants where it is sorted and sold and provides employment.  Builders get tax breaks for including green areas.  Open space has drastically increased from 5 square feet in 1970 to 559 square feet with 16 new parks and 1000 plazas throughout the city.  There are 341 industries involving Fiat, Pepsi, and Volvo and environmental laws do not slow industrial development. Adult education has been enhanced through mobile training centers.[iv]

The values that are operant in Curitba are important to consider.  Various general design elements that contribute to the success of the city and the local state include:
people first/ “humane urbanism,”
public-spirited and eco-efficient,
integrated urban planning component: IPPUC laboratory,
visions/design/creative innovation,
cheap solutions,
efficiency of transportation [encourage public transportation],
land-use planning,
minimize downtown traffic,
encourage social interaction by providing more leisure areas and pedestrian zones in the center of the city, and
environmental health.

Comments by Jamie Learner offer an important vision in looking at the role of the environment in urbanized human life:[v]
There is little in the architecture of a city that is more beautifully designed than a tree. i
The dream of a better city is always in the heads of its residents.  Our city isn’t a paradise.  It has most of the problems of other cities.  But when we provide good buses and schools and health clinics, everybody feels respected.  The strategic vision...leads us to put first the priorities on the child and the environment.  For there is no deeper feeling of solidarity than that of the dealing with the citizen of tomorrow, the child, and the environment in which that child is going to live. I
There is no endeavor more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream.  When a city accepts as its mandate its quality of life; when it respects the people who live in it; when it respects the environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share responsibility for that mandate, and this shared cause is the only way to achieve that collective dream. ii
The city of all of us ii
...cities need to be rediscovered as instruments of change. iii
The city [Curitiba] has become more intelligent and more humane. iii

[i] Selected aspects for a new urbanism neighborhood []
[ii] The American Institute of Architects [].
[iii] Congresses International Architecturea Modern (CIAM) ten Principles of Intelligent Urbanism [].
[iv] Donella Meadows, “The best city in the world? Making a solid case for better urban planning,” Good Medicine, Fall, 1994 and []. See also, “Orienting urban planning to sustainability in Curitiba, Brazil,” [] and Sustainable Communities Network Case Studies, “Brazil, Curitiba’s “voluntary sustainability,” [].
[v] Jamie Lerner quotes are from: iDonella Meadows, “The best city in the world?, Making a solid case for better urban planning,” Good Medicine, Fall, 1994 and [], ii.  “Orienting urban planning to sustainability in Curitiba, Brazil,” [], iiiSustainable Communities Network Case Studies, “Brazil, Curitiba’s “voluntary sustainability” [].

A Continuum Of Eco-City Models: A Brief Introductory Sketch

When we look at environmentalism, we have a broad array of approaches that appear to cluster on a continuum that ranges from Earth-centric emphases on one end  to anthropocentric emphases on the other.  In future pieces, we will look at the components of each of the models to see what they offer to an evolving living city model, as well as get a sense of the way in which each reflects a unique philosophical orientation that can then be compared to the components and philosophy of the “living city.”

FACING VERY REAL environmental dilemmas, a variety of responses have emerged in modern life.  They range from an intimate, low technological integration into remote and rural landscapes to be as non-intrusive as possible to a separation of human habitation from non-human landscapes with little regard to the impact of human activity because of a sense that human destiny no longer has much to do with nature.  When applied to the city, these responses form a diverse continuum.  They can range from a desire to completely dissolve the city, break up the city into smaller and more “humanized” settlements, make the existing city more efficient and less consumptive, or have the city become a place where culture is separate from nature.

Beginning on one end of a continuum with an Earth-centric model and going to an anthropocentric model on the far end, these responses might be generally categorized as follows:

a feral “radical green” immersion that involves living off the land, accepting discomfort as essential for intimacy, avoiding modern technology and honoring hand-built craft, foraging and hunting and/or gathering, being nomadic, and aspiring to be politically anarchist; 

a sustainable eco-vill—off the grid, recycling everything possible, emphasizing local action, alternative technology, oriented toward a social co-op network and being food/energy-oriented;

a sustainable society—potentially urban townships, community action, cessation of specific practices such as animal agriculture and pets and feeding wildlife and industrial plant agriculture, a value for simplicity, enhanced human freedom/expression, a bioregional vision, activism to rewild landforms—emphasizing unsettled “corridors” that connect unsettled landscape and the expansion of unbuilt landscape, and hi-tech alternative engineering;

a livable city—attending to comprehensive management of resources, conservation to enhance airshed and watershed and food quality, expansion of quality green space and reduction both of brownshed (abandoned or undeveloped property) and greyshed (industrial properties), specific emphasis on “greening” both home and commercial architecture and industry to dramatically increase energy efficiency, efforts to “decongest” transportation by improving mass transit and a closer approximation between work and home through community developments such as “new urbanism,” an overriding goal of enhancing the quality of life;

a separable city—wherein uninhabited landscape is a backdrop that is considered inactive wasteland without use and existing for human use and recreation, with human destiny envisioned as now technologically-evolved beyond nature and/or even beyond Earth or spiritist, anthropocentric in the sense of all priorities being human-centered with no standing to the non-human, emphasis upon urbanization as the built environment rather than on inhabitants, resolving dilemmas through technological solutions, environmental concern as hysteria or delusional, Romantic nostalgia, with development being synonymous with comfort and culture.