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Alternative Urban Futures
Alex Steffen, 6 Apr 06

Cities hold the key to a sustainable future. If we can build bright green urban communities -- cities with compact neighborhoods, pedestrian-friendly streets, smart places, green buildings, effective transportation and natural systems that intertwine with the built environment -- we suddenly gain a huge lever with which we can roll over a variety of other problems, from energy and water use to consumption and waste. Exploring how to do this has been a major thread on Worldchanging from the beginning.

But a giant gap has opened between what we know is theoretically possible (not only in terms of radical possibilities but of simple best practices) and the cities we're still building. As even well-established cities are constantly changing, this represents a lost opportunity in the developed world: in the emerging megacities of the Global South, many of which are expected to grow threefold (or more) over the next fifty years, our inability to apply better solutions may become disastrous.

That's why one of our biggest needs is for sharp, clear descriptions of what we already know how to do well. We need to push the frontier forward, certainly, but we also need to more widely share the knowledge we've already gained.

Raquel Pinderhughes' Alternative Urban Futures: Planning for Development in Cities Throughout the World explains what we know how to do now better than nearly any other book I've yet seen. In a little over 200 well-footnoted pages, Pinderhughes covers the basic widely-available innovations for dealing with water, energy, transportation waste and food. Regular Worldchanging readers will find little of her material surprising, but Pinderhughes does a just terrific job of rounding up the best established practices in each field and providing access to the research and case studies which support them.

What isn't here is precisely what you wouldn't expect to see in an academic book: the radical edge. There's little here about new technology, smart places, product service systems or the like. In short Alternative Urban Futures is missing a strong future-forward focus.

But that's probably as it should be: we need tools which stick to the proven possibilities, just as much as we need transcendent vision. If I were teaching a graduate class on building bright green cities, I would certainly put this on the reading list.

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Raquel was a teacher of mine at San Francisco State. She taught our Alternative Futures class without the lights on. That little change make a big difference in who dropped the class and who stayed with it, unfortunately.
She was a great teacher, and that is a great book. Glad you posted it here.

Posted by: David Lucas on 7 Apr 06



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