Imagine and Create Future Cities Based on Values
Resilience has been the word of the decade, as sustainability was in previous decades, after what seems like a relentless drum beat of natural disasters around the world. No doubt, our view of the kind and quality of cities we as societies want to build will continue to evolve and inspire new words for descriptive goals. Surely Melbourne wants to be a sustainable city, with an ecological footprint its citizens (and the world) can afford. Resilient. Sustainable. The search for terms begs the question: what are the cities we want to create in the future? What is their nature? What are the cities in which we want to live? And most important: what are the values — as opposed to just tactics and instruments — that are the bases for their creation? Where does Nature and “green”, in both literal and metaphoric senses fit in as a value?
Certainly the cities of our dreams are sustainable, since we want our cities to balance consumption and resources so that they can last into the future. Certainly they are resilient, so our cities are still in existence after the next 100-year storm or the century’s worst heat wave, now due every few years. We know that cities must also be livable. Indeed, we must view livability as a third (or perhaps the first) indispensible leg supporting the cities of our dreams: resilient + sustainable + livable. It is a green vision of Melbourne that forms one, key pillar of its resilience, sustainability, and livability. Green is good.
Most people in my circles make strong claims about the critical value of nature and ecosystems. Nature is thought to provide key benefits for resilience, such as technical aid to storm water management. Nature — and we way we use it — is the key foundation to sustainability. Nature cleans the air and water. It provides food. Nature provides beauty and serenity for people. Nature supports biodiversity. This is all to say that nature and “green” provide immense and diverse benefits to societies, cities, and their people. These are the biophysical and social services of ecosystems.
Green spaces — and green infrastructure in a broad sense — are intimately and causally connected with a city’s resilience, its sustainability, and its livability. A growing mountain of scientific evidence and urban practice attests to the truth of this, and many cities around the world — Melbourne included — are making significant headway to a green urban vision.
Do we believe these benefits are real? Are true? I do. If we believe in these benefits, then who should have access to them? Everyone. Does everyone have access to these benefits? No. That’s as true in Cape Town as it is in Los Angeles or Manchester. And, I dare say, Melbourne.
If the benefits of green are true — in the broad sense of nature and in our approach to the built environment — then it is clear that issues of green and nature are also questions of justice, and that there is a key and essential role for nature to play in the notion of just cities.
That is, our set of values that describe the cities of our imagination has four elements: resilient + sustainable + livable + just.
What is the central idea of the environmentally just city? It revolves around the notion of proximity and access.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long had a definition of environmental justice. It specifically address the fact that environmental “bads” — dumps, legacies of industrial pollution, current pollution, and so on — are disproportionally placed in poorer neighborhoods. That’s a fact that results from a host of reasons: inadvertent, economic, political, and sometimes more cynical. Here is the EPA’s definition. Environmental justice will achieved:
when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.
Many have written about the limits of this definition, although to me it is pretty strong and progressive, especially the part about decision-making. But it lacks the idea that everyone also deserves equal and fair access to environmental “goods” and the services they provide: healthy food, resilience to storms, clean air and water, parks, beauty. So I suggest an improvement to the definition, a more complete manifesto of belief and values, would be that environmental justice is achieved:
when everyone enjoys the same degree of strong protection from environmental and health hazards, the same high level access to all the various services and benefits that nature can provide, and equal access to the decision-making processes for both to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, work, and prosper.
Although some of the world’s cities are better than others in fulfilling this dream, probably none fully achieve it, although more embrace the idea of it. Most don’t even come close.
For example, there is a crisis of open space in many of the world’s cities. My city, New York, offers about 4m2 of open space per capita in the form of parks and plazas. Although the distribution of this open space is not entirely equitable (and some of the parks in poorer neighborhoods are of less quality) New York is to be commended for an explicit PlaNYC (New York’s long term sustainability plan) goal that says every New Yorker should live within a five-minute walk of a park. We’re about 85 percent of the way to achieving this goal. This is the kind of specificity that can take green’s contribution to livability down from the level of metaphor and into on-the-ground evaluation and action.
Many of the world’s cities don’t fare so well. Although New York is a fairly dense city, Mumbai has 1 percent of the open space per person that New York has, its public commons gobbled up by cozy and opaque relationships between government and developers.
Not that the United States has so much to brag about. The Washington Post reported that in Washington DC there is a strong correlation between tree canopy and average income — the richer people get the benefit of trees. In Los Angeles, areas dominated by Latinos or African Americans have dramatically lower access to parks (as measured by park acres per 1,000 children) than areas dominated by whites. Countywide only 36 percent of Los Angelenos have close access to a park.
These are patterns the world over: when open spaces and ecosystem services exist at all, they tend to be for the benefit of richer or more connected people. This has to change in any city we would call just.
Cities in imagination
What are the cities of dreams, the cities of our imaginations? They have to be fundamentally based on values. These values have to be the fundamental drivers of urban design. Let’s imagine. And, while you’re at it, evaluate Melbourne on these scales.
We can imagine sustainable cities — ones that can persist in energy, food and ecological balance — that are nevertheless brittle, socially or infrastructurally, to shocks and major perturbations. That is, they are not resilient. Such cities are not truly sustainable, of course — because they will be crushed by major perturbations they’re not in it for the long term — but their lack of sustainability is for reasons beyond the usually definitions of energy and food systems. We can imagine resilient cities — especially cities that are made so through extraordinary and expensive works of grey infrastructure — that are not sustainable from the point of view of energy consumption, food security, economy, or other resources.
We can imagine livable cities that are neither resilient nor sustainable.
And, it is easy to imagine resilient and sustainable cities that are not livable — and so are not truly sustainable in a social sense.
Easiest of all is to imagine cities of injustice, because they exist all around us. The nature of their injustice may be difficult to solve or even comprehend within our systems of economy and government, but it’s easy to see.
The point is that we must conceive and build our urban areas based on a vision of the future that creates cities that are resilient + sustainable + livable + just. No one of these is sufficient for our dream cities of the future. Yet we often pursue these four elements on independent tracks, with separate government agencies pursuing one or another and NGOs and community organizations devoted to a single track. Of course, many cities around the world don’t really have the resources to make progress in any of the four.
And we can’t pursue a green agenda that denies the benefits of green — the biophysical and social ecosystem services we believe in and promote must be designed into everyone’s experience.
A key problem for us, in all of these concepts, is that they exist so beautifully in the realm of metaphor. They work in metaphor. But an operational definition is really about difficult choices. Bringing a word like resilience — or sustainability, or livability, or justice — down from the realm of metaphor is hard because it quickly becomes clear that it is about nothing else but difficult choices. Choices that often produce winners and losers. We have to be specific about the choices involved in resilience or sustainability or livability or justice, and the trade-offs they imply.
As societies we have to be explicit about these trade-offs — about their consequences. I think often we don’t have open and fair conversations about these issues because we don’t want to know about these trade offs, maybe not so much because we care about the losers, but because the winners of the world have so much to lose. Think developers who consume green space — often with the government’s blessing — without concern for sustainability issues or accommodations for the less wealthy. Or the growth- and consumption-obsessed nations driving the climate change that may destroy communities around the world, communities that have little responsibility that climate change.
The point, as it so often is, is that decisions of social, environmental, and infrastructural planning in cities are interrelated—not separable.
In many ways Melbourne is a model for other cities. I am aware of this because I travel to many meetings around the world and the same set of 10-15 cities are mentioned as models for urban development. Melbourne is one of them. Is Melbourne perfect example of resilient + sustainable + livable + just? I doubt it. But there are also over 4,000 cities in the world with populations over 100,000 (17 or so in Australia), most with a similar constellation of challenges and most not as far along as Melbourne, for a host of reasons. Collectively, we need to find new ways of sharing solutions among cities. The success (socially and environmentally) of the world’s cities depends on it.
The Nature of Cities
More essays on some of these ideas can be found at The Nature of Cities’ Just City Essays.