As the dominant site and sign of human settlement, the city exemplifies and displays the fundamental concerns of the human condition in the twenty-first century. Just as urban living concentrates us in close proximity, the city clusters clichés and sermons, critiques and self-serving assurances. The world’s most livable cities are well-planned and prosperous. Slums are disgusting. Congestion causes road rage. Electric vehicles are the answer. Planning is good.
From problems associated with climate change or sustainable water supply to those concerning increasing economic inequality or the break-up of communities, processes such as escalating resource use and cultural anomie that we once responded to as singular concerns are now bearing back upon us in a swirl of compounding pressures.
Cities are at the center of this man-made maelstrom. For all their vibrancy and liveliness, cities face a growing challenge to provide secure and sustainable places to live. Even the world’s most “livable cities”—Melbourne and Munich, Vancouver and Vienna—are utterly unsustainable in global ecological terms. Cities are responsible, for example, for around 80 percent of global energy consumption.
Melbourne, my city of residence, is currently the most livable city in the world on the Economist’s index. The indicators are commercial-in-confidence, but are grouped around five domains: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. As the report accompanying the survey outlines, the highest scoring cities tend to be mid-sized wealthier cities with a relatively low population density. Seven of the top ten scoring cities are in Australia and Canada, with population densities of 2.88 and 3.40 people per square kilometer respectively. This is telling. At a time when sustainability is increasingly associated with positive high density, it is clear that liveability-as-so-measured is parting company with sustainability.
Shockingly, Melbourne has per capita an ecological footprint of 28 times its direct metropolitan land-use, one of the highest in the world. If everybody lived as we do the planet would be doomed. For all the wonderful public sensitivity in Melbourne to ecological sustainability issues, we continue to use more and more resources, emit more and more carbon, and bury more and more of our fertile hinterlands under asphalt and bricks. One of the few clear successes in the sustainability stakes has been a widely supported political campaign to place legal and cultural limits on water use. Nevertheless, an energy-intensive desalination plant, the largest in the southern hemisphere, has been built to supply fresh water to the city, and the entrance to the bay on which the city sits has been dredged to allow ‘super-sized’ freight ships to import global commodities through Australia’s largest container port. Both projects are defended by the state government in terms of environmental and, of course, economic sustainability. This is the first urban paradox. The more the language of sustainability is used, the more it seems to be directed at rationalizing unsustainable development. What then makes for positive sustainability, and why are we not acting effectively to achieve that sustainability?
Manifold Crises and the Play of Urban Paradox
As writers such as Mike Davis in The Planet of Slums now tell us, our cities face a crisis of sustainability: economic, ecological, political, and cultural. Every day, 180,000 people join the global urban population; each year, the equivalent of two cities the size of Tokyo are built; one in six urban dwellers live in slums; and we are heading towards that black figure of two degrees Celsius global warming. The United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN Habitat) tells us that over the next decades virtually all of the world’s population growth will occur in cities with massive consequences for infrastructure stress.
Why, under these circumstances, do we focus on symptomatic solutions—white paint on roofs to increase the albedo of the city; bulldozers to clear away unwanted and irregular urban dwellers; cranes to build new high-rise apartments in the hinterland cities of the new world? Why do we vacillate between easy short-term solutions and complex deferral, when it is so obvious that something fundamental needs to be done?
Slum clearance works for a while in specific locales, but displaced people tend to move to adjacent urban sites of uneven hope and desperation. White roofs deflect heat in the cities of the Global North, while in the South, intensifying weather shifts and rising sea levels bring the chaos of floods. Here the distinction between Global North and South is treated as socio-economic distinction based on a geographical tendency for poorer countries to be located in the southern hemisphere. Bangkok was under water for months last year because of the flooding of the Chao Phraya River and its urban canals. A little earlier in the 2011 season, floods in Pakistan killed 270 people. Lest we forget in the media-induced haze of recent extreme events, it is worth recalling that these were in addition to the floods of 2010 that inundated a fifth of Pakistan, leaving eleven million people homeless.
The question of why we focus on symptomatic solutions relates to a second urban paradox: cities are at the heart of the problems facing this planet, but developing a positive and sustainable mode of city living is the only way that we will be able to sustain social life as we know it into the next century. In fact, given the world’s population, sustainably increasing the density of our urban settlements along with increasing energy-efficiency and less resource-use is the only alternative. It is simply no longer the case that building mud-brick rural idylls on small, self-contained plots of land can save the planet. If we started dividing the non-urban world into rural allotments to cope with a bourgeoning global population, we would only speed up the crisis. According to the World Bank, the United States has only 0.2 hectares of arable land per citizen, while China has 0.1. Unless there was a revolution in the way we live, neither would allow for allotment self-sufficiency.
Like the first paradox, this presents a new quandary. The newness relates to our current standing upon this planet. We live in what is now being called the anthropocene period, a period in which humans have had a recognizable impact upon the earth’s ecological systems. While the concept goes back to the late-nineteenth century when Antonio Stoppani coined the term ‘the anthropozoic’, and while those who argue for the anthropocene hypothesis contest the dating of the period (with its origins ranging from the industrial revolution to the beginning of systematic agriculture 8,000 years ago), something new is happening.
To comprehend this newness we need to use the term more precisely. We are now in the third stage of the anthropocene period—agraria and industria represent earlier stages. The most recent stage, still unnamed, began with our capacity to make our own lives on this planet unsustainable. From the possibility of nuclear winter ushered in by the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer—‘I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds’, quoting the Bhagavad-Gita—to the disruption of climate change, we now have the capacity to destroy ourselves, as well as the choice not to do so. Through techno-science from bioengineering to hyper-commodification we are now reconstituting nature—ourselves included. We are the first civilization with the technological and social capacity to override prior senses of boundaries and limits—and we know it.
This brings us to a third paradox. It seems that the more we recognize that we face contradictory pressures, the more that recognition gives us an excuse not to respond decisively or comprehensively. When Charles Dickens wrote the Tale of Two Cities, seventy years after the French Revolution, his words were telling: “… it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” These words spoke of a new world of ambivalence in which the people of Paris and London had choices to make about their future. These days, instead of debating the complexities of urban life, it is becoming easier and easier to throw up our hands in despair. Like the problem of climate change, it is just all too complicated.
Why do our Responses Remain Short-Term?
In this context it starts to become clear why our responses to the manifold urban crisis remain piecemeal, isolated, and short-term. It is not just vested interests, short-term thinking, global capitalism, global financial tumult, greed or the fetishism of growth that explains the crisis, although they are key parts of the mix.
Part of the problem is that we have convinced ourselves that, given the complex challenges of the current circumstances, we are doing relatively good things. In relation to the vexed issue of slums, the approach taken by the UN Habitat report, State of the World’s Cities, 2010/2011, is indicative of the third urban paradox. Under the heading “Good news on slum target,” it frames its report thus: “Since the year 2000, when the international community committed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and associated targets, the global effort to narrow the starkest, slum-related form of urban divide has yielded some positive results.” The target of improving the lives of 100 million has been achieved ten years earlier than scheduled. In Southern and Eastern Asia, they document an estimated 172 million slum dwellers moving out of the ‘slum-dweller’ category.
On the surface, these figures seem to give us reason to be optimistic, but the fine print tells another story. China and India may have shown the greatest “improvement,” but both use the bulldozer method of slum clearance, and China has an authoritarian disregard for people’s lives when the party decides to level a slum area. Most disconcertingly, despite the improvement when the figures are read against MDG targets, the number of slum dwellers overall in the Global South has actually gone up from 767 million in 2000 to 828 million in 2010. That is, while we can interpret some of the statistics optimistically, overall things are actually getting worse for more people.
Again, in the well-to-do urban Global North we have exported an increasing number of the urban problems associated with crude industrialism to the Global South, dressed up in the cosmetic glamour of “urban renewal.” We have turned dreary Central Business Districts into entertainment zones, and any sense of face-to-face discomfort or community isolation is interrupted by the relentless imperatives of Facebook and media connectivity. Our poster cities appear cleaner, brighter, and more vibrant than ever before. Put that together with critique fatigue exacerbated by melodramatic depictions of satanic mills, and it has become harder and harder to criticize our urban conglomerations. Don’t Call it Sprawl says the title of a book by William Bogart. “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier” says the front cover of Edward Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City. If you do not have time to read the fine print, the life of the city seems hunky dory.
Since W. H. Auden wrote the devastating “City Without Walls” in 1967, we no longer feel ourselves to be stuck in “real structures of steel and glass”:
Hermits, perforce, are all to-day,
With numbered caves in enormous jails…
Hobbesian Man is mass-produced.
A key to the street each convict has,
but the Asphalt Lands are lawless marches[.]
In the 2000s, Auden’s mass-produced Hobbesian Man has given way to the self-projecting urbanite who can choose amongst the amazing array of consumer opportunities on offer. And one line of academic and popular writers has followed suit. Accordingly, Richard Florida’s book Who’s Your City? turns the whole question of where to live into a massive consumption choice. Why have others missed the “where factor,” he asks: “Perhaps it’s because so few of us have the understanding or mental framework necessary to make informed decisions about location.”
Writing a generation ago, Lewis Mumford in an essay called “The Natural History of Urbanization” argued that “The blind forces of urbanization, flowing along the lines of least resistance, show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self-renewing.” This remains true today. But in the popular consciousness (and for Richard Florida) the individual’s freedom to choose sets the conditions for the greatest creativity and most exciting urban frisson. Serendipity, helped by genius or celebrity architects, is said to give us the most beautiful cities. Such sensibility becomes self-confirming once iconic buildings are attributed with the power to revive decaying city precincts. Frank Geary’s Guggenheim Museum is an example of a single building that is credited with bringing the whole city of Bilbao back to life.
There are many partial answers to the question of why we have become like frogs in incrementally and inexorably warming water. We might be a little worried, but in the words of one advertiser, “life is good” for those who can choose—even despite the increasing heat.
I will just add one more point of partial explanation. Across the late-twentieth century, generalized utopian alternatives have faded away. Not only has the projection of blueprints for change become unfashionable and the genre of utopian novel writing died, we have also come to distrust deeply the residual utopianism of our urban planners. The authoritarian tradition of Corbusian radiant cities, Ebenezer Howard’s beauteous garden-city concept, and Frank Lloyd-Wright’s broadacre city have all been lumped together as complete failures. Apart from the command planning of China and the discipline-based planning of Singapore, planning has tended to be reduced to legislated building restrictions and zoning.
During the same period that utopianism went into mortal decline, the concept of the future became linked to the techno-sciences. The word “future” now seems to conjure up either post-human scenarios of techno-science or “greenfields” new cities that have given us the disasters of the technopolis, the multifunction polis and the less-than-satisfactory outcomes of Canberra–Brasilia–Dubai, which look best from the air. Canberra was beautifully designed for a greenfields site as a garden city, but largely failed to consider transport other than cars, or to achieve cultural vibrancy. Brasilia was designed to look like a butterfly from above but has been criticized as a futuristic fantasy: a “jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with volkswagens,” in the words of Robert Hughes. Dubai, the ultimate futurist fantasy, has sections that reach into the ocean designed to look like a palm tree, but it is now an ecological and economic disaster.
The dominant way in which we imagine the future now can perhaps best be seen in the advertising of IBM or Phillips and Co. where the best city is a high-tech smart city; or in the global mega-events in which romance and science come together. In the most recent example, “Expo Shanghai” in 2011 was conceived as the city-as-the-world on display. Its overarching theme was sustainability. At the same time, the nature of the display itself was temporary, energy-intensive, status-oriented and destined for the dump heap (the first urban paradox). The British, for instance, presented a Seed Cathedral with 60,000 transparent plastic rods swaying in the wind, containing seeds of different plants collected in the Millennium Seed Bank project. The message was clear: protecting biodiversity can be underwritten by scientific collection and storage.
Overall, behind the perfectly rendered correct-line presentations of sustainability were romantic projections of social freedom and environmental sustainability; techno-scientific projections of connectivity and efficiency; global projections of status; and local projections of “lifestyle” consumption and ideal material wealth. “The Future” is imagined as inside, controlled, regulated, far from the messiness of nature and organic chance.
Toward Flourishing Sustainable Cities?
If our cities are to flourish, we need to go back to the basics. Answering the animating question of this essay is part of the process, though the overall answer I offer is not an easy one. Why are our cities in decline? Because our cities are us.
Cities embody our aspirations and hopes. They are citadels built to protect us from our fears and insecurities. Family by family, we gravitate towards the bright lights of urban intensity and high mass consumption. We enter the process that Raymond Williams calls “mobile privatization,” making our lives increasingly private, linked to the public more by the mediation of television and the Internet than by public engagement. Person by person, we turn on air conditioners to cope with the higher temperatures we have produced and to meet our private “needs” for increasing levels of comfort, thereby paradoxically increasing the production of greenhouse gases.
In other words, cities represent the best and worst of us, the most trivial and the grandest things that we can achieve. Conversely, to improve them, we need to attend to our own weaknesses. If part of the problem is that each of us thinks that we are doing something for the planet while we continue to slide towards unsustainability, then we need to return comprehensive public urban planning, even though the idea might provoke unease. W.H. Auden’s words from “Memorial for the City” (1947) still haunt such a proposition:
… the packed galleries roared
And history marched to the drums of a clear idea,
The aim of the Rational City, quick to admire,
Quick to tire.
But this does not mean that communities and municipalities, together with planning and architectural experts, cannot get together to confer and argue over the direction of the whole city, its priorities and directions, even if this means re-visiting first principles.
We need alternative visions that take seriously the integral importance of economic, ecological, political and cultural factors. This is not to succumb to the essentializing view that the aesthetic visions of high-end architects should drive the remaking of cities. This is to argue for a city where cultural friction is returned to the streets, and where cars give way to people, walkways, urban gardens, and basketball courts.
Sounds simple, but we remain caught in our own common sense. Let us begin with the four social domains that I have used: the economic, ecological, political, and cultural. This cuts straight across the triple-bottom-line approach to sustainability, and puts economics inside the social rather than as the strangely independent master domain in the usual triplet “economic, social, and environmental.” Secondly, it puts us humans as part of the environment in a complex ecology rather than treating the environment outside the social. Look at any piece of writing and you’ll see how much the triplet informs our thinking.
Many of us could devise a wish list for the cities of the future. Here are my top ten:
• Cities should designate urban growth boundaries to contain their sprawl;
• Cities should increase population density around public transport nodes;
• Urban governance should move towards participatory budgeting on a major proportion of the annual spending;
• Cities should develop consolidated activity centres with an emphasis on active street frontage supporting both cultural and economic activities;
• Cities should increase or consolidate the breathing spaces within the metropolitan area, including parklands and intense urban agriculture, and connect these parks by ‘greenways’;
• All new commercial and residential apartment buildings should have an active ground floor with part of the space zoned for rent-subsidized cultural use: studios, galleries, and workshops;
• Mixed zoning should bring work, leisure and residence back together, while taking into account dangers and noise hazards, in such a way that cuts down commuting times;
• Paths for walking and bicycle riding should gain spatial equity with roads for cars;
• Precincts should be retrofitted for energy and resource-use efficiency;
• People should consume less.
These would be my preferences, but of course, to adopt them as universal guidelines would go against the spirit of what I am arguing for, namely social engagement and debate at a city level across the various domains of social life rather than a series of pronouncements. Instead, the essay is best concluded with a hopeful example, one among a number that could be described, including a water project in Milwaukee and a climate change project in San Francisco. The City of Porto Alegre is working with local residents, municipal offices, Brazilian companies and global specialists in the UN Global Compact Cities Program on rehabilitating slums. They have shown that the bulldozer method is brutal and unnecessary.
Taking into account the different domains of social life, the planners and residents of Porto Alegre have restructured the way in which the city responds to slum dwellers. Instead of their walking long distances to collect rubbish, and bringing it back to their homes to sort out for recycling on their lounge-room floors, the city now brings the rubbish to newly built recycling centres near the homes of previous and continuing slum dwellers. Instead of middle-operators taking all the profit from the recycling activities, the slum dwellers now earn a minimum wage. And instead of living in shanty houses, the people of one slum, Chocolatão, have been working in consultation with planners, architects, and case-workers to build a new precinct with modest but sustainable homes. Almost everyone benefitted from in the process, except the slum-area drug lords.
The Vila Chocolatão project has set a new precedence for slum rehabilitation in Brazil and illustrates how government can work with communities, businesses and utility providers to create sustainable and inclusive communities. If a poor city such as Porto Alegre can do it, then just imagine how much more is possible for richer cities around the world if they could actually confront their weaknesses directly.