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,   

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