Taking urban sustainability seriously: A call for radical “small” approaches to urban change
In the last decade of planning and policy making, radical or experimental approaches to the organisation of society and the way we plan, design and manage cities have been rare. What has instead evolved during recent years is a firm consensus that sustainable societies and cities can be achieved within the frames of our current unsustainable path (economic, organizational, consumerist patterns) through small steps such as biking lanes, light-rail, densification strategies and growth boundaries.
Critical researchers, such as Erik Swyngedouw and Roger Keil, argue however that this “light greening‟ of current society and cities cannot reach deeply enough to fundamentally redirect the destructive dynamics of today’s urbanism. They are not enough to handle the threats posed by climate change, uneven global development, and growing socio-economic segregation (see this blog’s post Green Building alone won’t save the planet). Instead they call for visions and initiataives of alternative futures and more deep-reaching approaches that can help change the structural problems of our unsustainble society. As Zev Naveh well said it “our present environmental crisis has to be recognized and resolved as an all-embracing cultural revolution”.
Therefore attention needs to be paid to the growing number of initiatives of social movements, communities, and non-traditional practitioners that challenge today’s predominant social order and the ways in which we traditionally plan, design and manage our cities.
In this blog I try to share alternative practices that have the potential to creat big difference in our cities. Some of these can be seen in posts such as the ones about Park(ing) Day, Space Hijackers, The Bottle city project, or the practice of Atelier d’architecture autogérée. Although most of these examples and their initiatives and projects are small in scale, I believe that it is through these small bottom up initiatives that we can create the structural change that it is needed. Initiatives that do not only change the way cities are physically, but that also dig deep and create a change in the way people and communities think, how they organize, how they use the city and what they value in it. The accumulation of many of these small initiatives can help us create a shift to our current unsustainable path. Therefore a call for much more radical “small” approaches to urban change.
parts of the text are based on: Green Futures Symposium: Form Utopian grans schemes to micro-practices
- 2 years ago
"The sheer physical presence of roads, schools, and houses does not render them meaningful - or useful - . It is the collective intentionality, the capacity of humans to assign functions, to symbolize these objects beyond their basic presence that makes them part of the social reality"
— Ali Madanipour in “Why are the design and development of public spaces significant for cities”
- 2 years ago
"The challenge for any strategy making focused around urban areas is that an urban region is not a thing, to which an analyst can approximate an objective representation. It is an imagened phenomenon, a conception of a very complex set of overlapping and intersecting relations, understood in different ways by different people."
— Patsy Healy in Urban complexity and spatial strategies
- 2 years ago
"The city is “both a social and spatial ‘coming together’ of difference and diversity, chaos and order, fascination and intrigue - a sensual delight, at the same ´time challenging notions of tolerance and feelings of belonging. The .. city is imagined and real, a creation of our own subjective experiences of the urban landscape as well as a response to the personal - our gender, age, ethnicity, class physical ability, religious beliefs and sexual orientation"
— Susan Thompson in Diversity, difference and the multi-layered city
- 2 years ago
A city is not a T-shirt
In the era of rapid urbanization, we are all trying to understand how numerous processes and phenomena shape our cities: globalization, post-industrialization, entrepreneurial cities, creative classes, clustering industries, networked societies, etcetera. All cities are in need of grand theories that can function as instruments for making these cities the best cities.
But that doesn’t work, according to Musterd & Murie. Their book is a conclusion of 4 years of comprehensive empirical research in 13 major European cities. “Cities are context”, the authors say, implying that cities are multi-layered entities that have been shaped over centuries by their economies, cultures, politics, technologies and institutions. This has resulted in cities with different roles (capital cities, industrial cities, educational centres) and different population compositions. We must be cautious to draw general conclusions from these roles, functions and compositions. Reality is extremely differentiated. In order to gain or maintain importance, cities have to capitalize on elements of their rich histories and individual assets. There is no golden formula that can attract the creative class to every city. Cities should be considered one by one. Each city’s history and the legacies from history are important influences on their future, but they are not determinants.
Next to the importance of a city’s path dependency for urban development, the authors found that an individual’s choice for a city depends on certain factors. The research shows that key actors (professionals and managers) in creative and knowledge economies choose a place to work and live based largely on personal networks and ‘hard’ conditions, and less on ‘soft’ conditions. These soft conditions are certain amenities that a city has such as tolerance, diversity, openness and ‘nice environments’ (yes, Richard Florida’s conditions). These amenities do play a role, however, in the decision whether or not to stay in a city, but are not important in a city’s competitiveness. Personal networks and hard conditions are much more important, making up for about 80-90 percent of what the location decision is based on. Relations with friends, familiy and professional colleagues - personal networks (or individual trajectories) - and available space, accessibility, tax regimes, etc. - hard conditions - are the most important factors.
So the factors on which MANY cities have based (part of) their competitive strategies on in the past years turned out to be the least important. Say goodbye to Richard Florida, it’s time for a new hype.
- 3 years ago
"Urban environments are produced and constructed through social processes made up of different relations between actors, negotiation strategies, decision-making, resources, rules of action and ideas (Jacobs & Appleyard, 1996). This public arena of social actions and relations brings about a political/democratic dimension within public space development processes, and since individuals think differently and have different backgrounds, cultures and powers, oppositions and conflicts often emerge (Berman, 1986; Francis, 1989). Different stakeholders claim spaces in order to carry out desired activities or achieve a desired state (Carr et al., 1992). Generally, there are contrasting economic, socio-political and symbolic interests and views; and from these differences, disagreements about how cities and their urban elements should be created come about (Bentley, 1999). Hence public space is always a space of conflict; it represents a struggle over who controls it and who has access to it, who determines its make up and how it is produced (Deusen, 2002). This suggests various aspects we need to pay attention to, related to the importance attributed to public settings, the role of producers and users and the meanings which lie behind their actions."
— On conflicts in the production of urban environments and public space … Mauricio Hernandez B. in Contested public space development: The case of low income neighbourhoods in Xalapa, Mexico
- 3 years ago
"Planning, as an explicit exercise of imagining the future, is about “dreaming the possibility of change”, imagining how to “start out on a journey” in mutually acceptable ways, rather than, as in the ideas of the urban designer/planner’s, “dreaming destination”. If there is a destination implied, it is a process dream of a democratic society which respects difference but yet collaborates, and which can live sustainably within its economic and social possibilities and environmental parameters"
- 3 years ago
New approaches to public space: “Reclaim-Test-Evaluate-Establish”.
Recently I have been finding some interesting initiatives by which some cities are creating new public spaces in areas that were previously underused. Such initiatives are based on what I would call a “Reclaim-Test-Evaluate-Establish" approach of which I will show you an exciting example.
Inspired by New York’s Plaza Program, San Francisco’s "Pavement to Parks" is a program that creates spaces for people reclaiming excess roadway, through the use of simple and low-cost design interventions.
The first step was to recognize that San Francisco’s streets occupy 25% of the city’s land area (more space than all of the city’s parks). Many streets are considered to be excessively wide with high underused space (something that happens in most cities around the world).
The “Pavement to Parks” projects seek to temporarily RECLAIM these unused spaces and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks.This is done by a temporary closure of the street and the installation of a new public use with the help of temporary activities, seating, landscaping, and treatment of the asphalt.
The reclaimed space becomes then a public laboratory where the City works with the community to TEST different uses and designs. After trying different configurations the space is EVALUATED to see if whether the temporary closure should be a long term community investment and ESTABLISHED as a permanent public space.
This is the case of the "Castro Plaza". After being tested and evaluated for over a year, the Castro Plaza was made permanent by request of the community. The trail period provides the designers all the information they needed to create a public space that is tailored to the desires, needs and routines of the community. Something that would definitely contribute to the sustainability of the project.
In times where there is a shortage of resources, where there is a high demand for local public spaces and green areas, where municipalities can not cope with such demands, where there is the need of actively involving communities in the development and management of their public areas, it seems to me that a “Reclaim-Test-Evaluate-Establish" approach can be very useful. Having said that there should be much more support and attention given to initiatives such as the Park(ing) Day.
Images from Pavement to Parks program
- 3 years ago
Finding sustainable urban models in a very different context
Planners, architects, designers are “always” trying to create places that enhance sustainable ways of living, ways that are more environmentally sound, more economical, or more conducive to the building of community. Today we talk a lot about high-density and walkable neighborhoods, transit oriented developments and mix use, waste and water management schemes, self-organized and resilient communities. Neighborhoods that include new, modern-stylish designs and sophisticated technologies have become the new model for achieving sustainable urban development and are trying to be replicated/exported all over the world.
However it seems to me that there is the dubious assumption that making an area, garden or building look nice will go hand in hand with more sustainable and eco-friendly living. This has been shown in a recent research (Just Environments : Politicising Sustainable Urban Development) where it is argued that today sustainable urban development decisions are mainly based on the believe that more gardening, tidiness, recycling and eco-technologies will solve our environmental problems, ignoring deeper unsustainable societal structures. In short this means that one can live in a nice, green and tidy neighborhood but still live live in a very environmentally unfriendly way (with airplane use, car use, high levels of energy intensive consumption, etc).
So if this is true, are there any other models than the multibillion-dollar neighborhoods with all the so called features of urban sustainability?
Recently I found an article by Pavlina Ilieva and Kuo Pao Lian, showing how all the trendy “features” of sustainable urban design (high-density and walkable neighborhoods, transit oriented developments and mix use, waste and water management schemes, self-organized and resilient communities) can be found in a very different context. The examples of sustainable neighborhoods are not new and innovative areas in Scandinavia, Germany or the US but in the neighborhoods of the world’s poorest inhabitants. In the so called Slums, Favelas, Ghettos.
picture from digitaljournal
As said by Stewart Brand “to a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. However for biologist like me, they look organic. They are unexpectedly green, they have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi”.
Of course living in Slums has many problems and I don’t mean that we all should live in them to become more sustainable. But there are many lessons that can be incorporated in to new urban developments (the Self-Generative Community or Rem Kolhass’ book and documentary "Lagos, How it works").
Pavlina Ilieva and Kuo Pao Lian argue that if we look beyond the poverty issue, slums can serve as an example of humanity in its most resourceful, responsible and aware of its surroundings. Is in it this what we are trying to achieve in sustainable urban development?
- 3 years ago
"What matters in cities …. revolves around the fact that they are places of social interaction … Cities are essentially dynamic .. policy formulation must work with this; it must not think in terms of some final, formal plan, nor work with the assumption of a reachable permanent harmony of peace. The order of cities is a dynamic - and frequently conflictual - order. A new politics for cities must be equally fluid and processual."
— from the book “Cities for the Many Not the Few” by Ash Amin, Doreen Massey, Nigel Thrift
- 3 years ago
"New York City (Steady) State" - A proposal for The Self-sufficient city
"New York City (Steady) State" is a project and exhibition created by Terreform. A very interesting non-profit design group that promotes green design in cities. The project’s objective is to explore how can the ecological footprint of New York City become co-terminus with its political boundaries. The driving force of the project is that: the city can become completely self-sufficient.
For doing so the project explores strategies to improve the use an improvement of water, air and climate, food, energy, building, manufacture, movement, and waste.What is interesting about the project, and Terreform in general, is their believe that we can not achieve self-sufficiency if we do not change our life styles and habits. Although they propose some “ecothecnology” solutions they are also critical to these when saying that such technologies tend “to abstract and de-individualize responsibility and to de-politicize the environmental problem”. In my opinion this is why in the project’s images emphasis is made on showing people making the change and not the infrastructure or the buildings.
This reminds me some of the quotes that I have put in this blog:
- 3 years ago
Transforming Neighbourhoods - A collection of stories about community empowerment
A research project in England designed to involve local communities in decisions and practices related to the development and management of their neighborhoods.
The results of the research show that people are keen to tackle the problems that affect their everyday lives, in particular, neighbourhood grime, community safety and providing facilities for young people. These are considered to be issues where local knowledge, action and influence can make the most difference to effectively solving problems and involving people in decision-making.
The research concludes that neighbourhoods should be given powers to:
Act on very local issues, like having control over small budgets to tackle problems with public spaces, crime and grime
Influence decisions about other local services like street cleaning, recycling and youth services, through local action planning and partnerships with decision-making powers
Hold service providers and councils to account – being able to publicly challenge the decisions made by public agencies such as police and planners
Deliver very local services like street cleaning or play centres, as parish councils currently do.
The results and experiences of the research were gathered in a publication called Transforming Neighbourhoods: A collection of stories about community empowerment
- 3 years ago
20-minute neighborhoods=interesting, different … but ….
Although considered as a guide for the future of sustainable urban development there is something about those one-fit-all solutions that I just can’t swallow, especially when they are mainly based on land use and traffic patterns.
The idea which originated in one Portland’s development companies is an interesting one: “all of the necessary and enjoyable things that make life great, including open spaces, grocery stores, workplaces, libraries, events, and schools, within 20 minutes of the home.Twenty minutes on foot is ideal, but 20 minutes by transit, bike or even auto is a reasonable goal.”
Of course this goes in favor of the need of mixuse neighborhoods, fight against sprawl, walk more, etc, etc, etc, bla, bla, which for many american cities this is a huge eye opener a real difference. But living in a city that could say follows many of these principles in its urban fabric I can think of a few buts that might be good to consider.
Here are just some questions that come in to mind:
do I really want to limit my daily life to my neighborhood?
are my social relations/networks in a 20 minute radius? in other words do my friends live in my same neighborhood?
who is deciding what a community, what I consider as necessary and enjoyable things/uses?
what if what I consider essential is different from my neighbor’s?
will having “all the essential things” in a 20 minute radius mean that it will be a little of everything instead of quality of a few? … those few things that I really value
is it proximity to a certain use, as in time-distance that takes me to go somewhere, what really matters? or is it the accessibility, meaning different, comfortable, enjoyable, fruitful, inviting, etc, etc ways to go to the place I want/need.
can proximity really make a difference in our transportation patterns? I just say this because I know people that prefer to drive to the local Macdonalds even if it is just a few blocks from their house.
- 3 years ago
- 3 years ago