Friday, January 22, 2010

Change Cities, Change the World

They say you can't beat City Hall and the vested interests that control it. But a growing number of environmental thinkers are saying we had better start winning at the municipal level if we are to stop the current ecological apocalypse in progress and prevent social collapse.

How can we transform cities from being the huffing, puffing ecological monstrosity they are into ecologically wholesome havens of human thriving? The question cannot be answered casually, but requires rigorous thinking and debate. And it requires many more people entering that debate and organizing to overcome entrenched powers invested in the status quo.

Fortunately we do not have to start this conversation from scratch. New Society Publishers has published several excellent books dedicated to systematically re-thinking how we build cities and organize communities. Among these is Ecocities, by Richard Register, who urges us to seek more thoroughgoing change than we have thus far:

It's no mystery to me [why environmentalists are winning many small battles but losing on the big issues of species extinctions, climate change, soil loss, harm to oceans, etc.]. We've never engaged the big battles. We try to make cars better rather than greatly reduce their numbers. We try to slow sprawl development rather than reverse its growth and shrink its footprint. We keep making highways wider and longer, dreaming of "intelligent highways" rather than removing lanes and replacing them with rails, small country roads, and bicycle paths. We continue to provide virtually every subsidy and support policy the oil companies want. It's no wonder we're not winning the war. The objective of this book is to lay out an evolving strategy that faces the big problems head on and gives us at least a chance of winning.[1]

Another worthy title, with practical blueprints for action, is Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments, by Mark Roseland et al.

Lots of serious thinking about ecological city development is on the table. But will enough of us engage with it, and mobilize to make building sustainable cities politically feasible? What's needed, I think, is to form local groups in every city, bringing people together from diverse walks of life to study these issues and take constructive action to influence their city governments.


[1] Richard Register, Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2006), pp. 1-2.

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