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new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

New residents in Bangalore - one of India's, and the world's, fastest growing cities.

Green cities
The balance has tipped. For the first time in human history most people in the world live in cities.
What hope is there now of turning them green? Vanessa Baird investigates.

Call me a pervert, but I have a soft spot for cities that others love to hate. Maybe it’s because I was born in one – Brussels – and went on to live in two more: Lima and Athens.

The latter two are especially maligned – unfairly I feel, and mainly by tetchy tourists resentful of having to pass through such hot, hectic and polluted metropoli to get to the stunning beauty of the Greek islands or the Peruvian Andes.

But I love the crowded cores of these cities with their particular dynamism and decay, their dirt and diversity, their smells and creative buzz. Their very impurity delights me.

Cities have long had a bad reputation. It’s one of their charms.

‘Loathsome centres of fornication and covetousness,’ fulminated British writer and critic John Ruskin, on the subject of the ‘great cities of the earth’ in 1880. ‘The smoke of their sin going into the face of heaven like the furnace of Sodom; and the pollution of it rotting and raging the bones and the souls of the peasant people around them..., ’ he relished, intriguingly.1

Ruskin was following in a long tradition that saw the city as a place of moral ill, in contrast with the rustic virtues of the countryside. Cities represented chaos and disorder, threatening the natural order that the countryside affirmed. This was partly because they seemed to offer greater sexual freedom to both sexes, thus imperilling patriarchal values and the traditional family set-up.

Today too, cities are seen as the greatest threat to the natural order of things. But this is not a metaphor for moralisers or bigots. It is literal.

The cities of the world consume 75 per cent of its resources and produce most of its waste..2 Put bluntly, most big cities today are filthy parasites, which require the ‘host’ hinterland to provide them with food, water and energy, and depend on global forests, seas and the atmosphere, to act as their dustbins. And they are the major contributors to global warming that threatens human life on earth.

London's citizens reclaim their streets from cars and corporations - for a few hours at least.

In the polite parlance of development circles, modern cities are ‘unsustainable’. To be sustainable they would have to function in such a way that did not damage the ecology for future generations; that ensured enough social equity in the city to prevent further environmental damage being done; and that did not overexploit or pollute the hinterland, be it within the same country or another.3

Meanwhile, the proportion of humans living in cities is growing. In 1900, just 15 per cent of the world’s people were urban. Today it’s more like 50 per cent. And by 2025 it’s likely to be at least 60 per cent.2 Many cities of the South are growing so fast that as soon as a census is completed it is already way out of date.

This is quite a problem because the big cites of debt-ridden Latin America, Africa and Asia cannot begin to keep pace with the ever-increasing demands made on housing, water, sanitation, energy roads, health, education.

For their part, the cities of the North are growing much more slowly but are actually the main eco-culprits because their citizens are consuming ten times more per capita, and producing much more trash, than their equivalents in the South. 4

In the words of Herbert Girardet: ‘The inherent selfishness of modern city-living makes urban growth a global cause of concern. Cities are giant abusers of Gaia and they have little awareness of the consequences of exploiting her.’ 2

So what should we do? Abandon cities? Retreat to the countryside and grow cabbages?

I don’t think so. For inside the problem of cities lies the solution. The city – always the place of greatest dynamism and creativity – may also present the greatest opportunity for a greener future.

Utopians and anarchists
It is not the first time that cities have been diagnozed as pathological. A hundred years ago the unhealthy living conditions in the industrial city slums of Europe – and later North America – horrified social reformers.

Vexed by the impoverished squalor of 1890s London, a court reporter and amateur Utopian named Ebenezer Howard came up with a visionary and lovingly detailed plan for what was probably the first ‘green city’ – the Garden City. He envisaged a series of new self-sufficient towns, built in the countryside, and surrounded by agricultural belts which would supply the inhabitants with food. The Garden City would have its own industry to provide local employment. People would be drawn away from the overcrowded big cities by the promise of a better life in such towns. Decades later, Howard’s thinking was to be picked up on a large scale by ‘new town’ developers across the globe, from Letchworth to Lusaka, though it tended to lose its more idealistic and self-sufficient components along the way.

Howard basically believed big cities were doomed. So did the American ‘father of suburbia’ Frank Lloyd Wright. His 1930s dream was to replace them with spacious low-density housing, linked by highways. He assumed that each family would own a car. This prescient plan was to become the sprawling reality of post-War North America and much of the rest of the world. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier also put mass car ownership at the heart of his plan for a ‘Radiant City’. But instead of sprawling cities he went for towering ones of high-rise geometric blocks set in open parkland traversed by great highways.

Though radically different in their visions, Howard, Wright, and Le Corbusier has three things in common. All, in their way, wanted to open up more green spaces. All revealed a will to order; to segregate human functions into separate areas for living, for working, for shopping, for sport, for leisure. And finally, all were shamelessly Utopian.

Inspired by such Brave New World ideas, post-War municipalities in Europe, North America, Australasia, Asia and Africa bulldozed swathes of big cities under the aegis of ‘slum clearance’. In their place were thrown up segregated, alienated and soulless ‘new towns’; sprawling car-dependent suburbs of unrelenting monotony; and, that jewel in the crown of inappropriate planning, Corbusian tower-blocks built for use as social housing for low-income families with children. Clearly, no one had sought to ask the people who were to live in these places what their real life needs might be.

There was, predictably, a backlash. One of the fiercest critics was the North American Jane Jacobs, who in the 1960s took to task the Utopians and their followers in no uncertain terms.5 Positively, Jacobs argued against segregation and uniformity and for variety and diversity to enable cities to retain their natural, organic vitality. Sidewalks were important social spaces where people could interact; older buildings gave character and should be repaired not replaced; and many of the areas designated as slums were vital functioning communities that should be encouraged not demolished. Richard Sennett, another North American, praised the disorder of cities, saying that conflict was a necessary part of real, adult, urban creativity. He argued for an organic, anarchic, unplanned city.6

Mexico City schoolchildren join the struggle for urban survival, armed with seedling trees to plant.

Greenback city
But what Jacobs and others did not foresee was the role that corporate power would play in shaping cities as the politics of right-wing neo-liberalism took hold after the 1970s. As Elizabeth Wilson has insightfully noted: ‘Critical as we are of the disasters of utopian planning we are in danger of forgetting that the unplanned city is still planned, equally undemocratically, by big business and the multinational corporation.’

She continues: ‘Women, ethnic minorities and the working class in general have been caught between a paternalistic form of planning in which surveillance and regulation played a key role, and a profit-driven capital development that has been unbelievably destructive of urban space, and thus of supportive communities, killing whole cultures...’ 7

The result was development that is neither socially nor ecologically sustainable. To the cities of the South, globalization and neo-liberalism have brought something more: industrial pollution. Multinationals, always keen to find the cheapest labour and the fewest environmental restrictions, have shifted manufacturing to the poorer countries prepared to open their doors to them. This has enabled Northern cities to become greener – but at the expense of Southern ones.

Nowhere is this more stark than in Mexico where at least 2,000 factories have been set up for the US market. The city of Nuevo Laredo is in the throes of a human and environmental disaster due to the arrival of foreign firms. Typhoid and tuberculosis are rife in the dozens of shanty towns that have attached themselves to the city, where workers and their families live without sewerage, running water or electricity. Across the world in Shenzen, China, the picture is not much brighter. There, in 1993, 81 workers making dolls for export died in factory fire. The same fate met 188 Thai workers who were kept locked in a Bangkok toy factory while they worked.

Many municipalities in industrializing countries are reluctant to penalize corporations who ignore safety and environmental controls. In India, for example, the laws exist but the political will to impose them is often lacking.

But then the city of greenbacks is hardly equitable and rarely green, wherever it may be. As a symbol of gross corporate power and environmental indifference, Sears Tower in Chicago takes some beating. This monstrosity uses up more energy in 24 hours than an average US city of 150,000 people or an Indian city of more than one million inhabitants.’ 3

So how can we create greener more sustainable cities without either imposing from on high hopelessly out-of-touch Utopian visions or allowing the free market to call all the shots?

Raindrops in Amsterdam: cities are magnets of diversity, drawing to them racial and other minorities.

Well, ironically, one answer may lie in human density itself. The notion of ‘Compact Cities’ combines the organic freedom Jacobs was advocating, with some clear municipal planning to protect public rather than corporate interests.

Living examples of how ‘compact cities’ can function exist in the centres of many historic European cities. But the proponents of ‘compact cities’ are quick to warn against ‘romanticism’.8 The sustainable city should not be rooted in some idealized version of past settlements, but in what is workable and relevant now.

Cities where lots of people are together in a smaller area tend to be more dynamic and sociable than the sprawling ones. For architect, philosopher and environmentalist Paulo Solari human density is the city. ‘Life is where crowding is immense. Death comes when the system uncrowds... When the hyper-organism, the city, surrenders its makers and dwellers to the dimly alive pseudo-organism called suburbia... No eco-thinking can ignore the miracle of crowded living. To do so is to indulge in incoherent fantasizing. Worse, it is to betray Gaia.’ 3

The environmental benefits of compact cities are clear and compelling: in the compact city, housing, workplaces and shops are either mixed or within easy reach of each other. If you can walk or cycle around your city, that reduces the need for air polluting, space-hogging motor vehicles. The needs of cars take up one third of the space of an average city. Supplemented by cheap, efficient and clean public transport, such as electric rail, the compact city could be virtually auto-free.

Compact cities use half as much energy and produce half as much air-pollution per capita as sprawling cities, taking into account climate differences. The dweller of a typical high-density Dutch city produces 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution a year, compared with 20 tonnes produced by her Canadian equivalent in a typical low-density city.3 This is partly due to reduced car use, but also because the closer buildings are together the more economic they are to heat. Health, emergency, education and other services are also cheaper to deliver than in a sprawling urban area. Even big cities can adopt the approach by planning compact sub-centres connected by good public transit.

Five Biggest Cities So far, most research into the ecology of compact cities has centred on Europe. But the model could be applied to other parts of the world too – although it might involve challenging some cultural attitudes to space in, say, North America or Australia.

For the megacities of the Majority World, compactness could help in a number of ways. One of the main problems facing the cities of the South is the cost of infrastructure. Clean running water and sanitation is the most important factor in ensuring human health. But in a low-density spawling city it is much more expensive to provide. The same goes for public transport and energy. And the further power has to travel the more is wasted.

However, the current trend in Majority World cities is against compactness, notes Oxford researcher Rod Burgess. And in spite of their claims to be supporting ‘sustainable development’, the policies of the IMF and the World Bank are discouraging it.

The financial institutions still plug the line that the indebted countries must maximize their foreign exchange to pay of their debts and that the way to do this is to go for export-led growth. This usually involves creating sprawling export processing zones, container terminals and so forth.

Moreover, private car ownership is consistently promoted in the South as the glowing icon of progress, with disastrous consequences for cities. The civic authorities of Shanghai, not so long ago a cycle-city, are wedded to a plan to motorize seven million citizens within the next few years.

Eco-city, in Whitmore Square, Adelaide.
Powered by the sun - and plenty of vision - an eco-city in Adelaide's run-down
Whitmore Square area is being built by Urban Ecology activists.(see Action)

Whose city?
In spite of the benefits of the compact city, even its proponents are not pushing it as the great model for a ‘green city’. Given the experience of big Utopian visions during the course of the twentieth century, maybe it’s better that way. But that’s not to discount the value of the many visionary small-scale projects that eco-activists are involved in around the world. The Whitmore Square Project in Adelaide is one such scheme (see above). Perhaps more useful than an overarching vision is a set of guiding principles for greener cities (see what makes cities turn green ). Working to turn cities green may also breathe life back to life the spirit of ‘citizenship’ – something which ecologist and philosopher Murray Bookchin thinks we have lost. 9

The Urban Ecology gang. Our modern relationship with the city is, he says, almost purely pragmatic and material. He invokes the Middle Eastern ‘sense of civic spirituality, the Greek feeling political affiliation, the medieval endearment to communal fraternity’, as examples of how it used to be.

But with growing environmental awareness ‘ego-citizens’ may be moving closer to being ‘eco-citizens’, to borrow the phrase of Greek cities researcher Voula Mega.10 Local tree-planting or city-farming or simply recycling trash are all ways in which we can realize our ‘eco-citizenship’. Local Agenda 21, which emerged out of the Rio Earth Summit, also enables communites around the world to start greening their environments – and demanding that local authorities and businesses clean up their acts too (see article "It rains Fishmeal").

A more confident and rebellious spirit is manifesting itself, whether it’s citizens in Brazil protesting against local industries polluting their water, or swarms of cyclists bringing motor vehicles to a standstill as part of a ‘Reclaim the Streets’ action in Britain.

Cities have always been places of tremendous dynamism, difference and self-expression. Their relative freedom attracts ethnic, religious and other minorities; city air may be filthy but it tends to be more tolerant and receptive to change.

Increasingly, environmentally concerned citizens are finding that the best way to be effective is not to retreat to rural pastures green but to stay in their dirty old cities and change them from within. Here is the frontline of sustainability, where the environmental future will be lost or won, and where all citizens can grab a piece of the action.

1 John Ruskin, ‘Letters to the Clergy on the Lord’s Prayer and the Church,’
(quoted in Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996)
2 Herbert Girardet, The Gaia Atlas of Cities, Gaia, London,1996.
3 Graham Haughton and Colin Hunter, Sustainable Cities, Jessica Kingsley, London and Bristol, Penn., 1994.
4 Wolfgang Sachs, Greening the North, Zed Books, London, 1998.
5 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Penguin, 1961.
6 Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder, Faber, 1996.
7 Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City, Virago, London, 1991.
8 Mike Jenks, Elizabeth Burton, Katie Williams, The Compact City, E&FN Spon, London and New York, 1996.
9 Murray Bookchin, From Urbanization to Cities, Cassell, London and New York, 1995.
10 Voula Mega, Ed. David Satterthwaite, Sustainable Cities: An Earthscan Reader, Earthscan, London, 1999.

What makes cities turn GREEN

* Establishing greener public transit – it reduces car dependence.
* Decentralizing power – green initiatives work better that way.
* Self-building, LETS and eco-jobs – they help tackle homelessness and unemployment.
* Recycling – it works!
* Installing solar power – it’s getting cheaper all the time.
* Building ecologically – with materials that conserve energy.
* Green accounting – to include all eco-costs and benefits in city budgets.
* Eco-monitoring – to check global and local impacts of city’s actions.
* Communicating – cities can learn from each other, nationally and internationally.

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