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Your Sustainable Urban Experience
David Hsu, 18 Jul 06

DHsuurban.jpgWe've published many articles about how cities are changing, and ways to change them for the better through science, technology, design, planning, and community-building. Now, I'd like to ask you for your urban experiences, and how you envision your life within a truly sustainable city. How will changes to more sustainable cities affect your everyday experiences and life? Or, what kind of social experiences -- friendship, work, community -- do you think will be necessary to move towards and achieve urban sustainability?

This question is prompted by one aspect of social change that has gotten a great deal of recent press: Americans have fewer friends than ever before. (Here's a link to the Duke study, published in the American Sociological Review).

Concerns about how our social interactions are changing are not new. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000), examined changes in our collective civic and social life, and traced how our social fabric -- or collective participation in civic institutions, collective associations, and social connections (aka 'social capital') -- was fraying under the
strain of changes in work, technology, mobility, and media. Similar to other influential sociological works such as David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, or David Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Putnam's work became widely known and discussed, I think, because it directly addressed the fear that a changing world was also changing the nature of social bonds, connections, family, and friendship.

This concern is certainly not limited to Americans: sociology arose as a discipline with the rise of the first industrial cities in England and Germany, and the first sociologists such as Max Weber, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and Louis Wirth, were all concerned with how new people -- often rural peasants -- came to the city and fashioned social organizations and expectations, despite being unsocialized, not "urbane". The work of Freidrich Engels, Charles Dickens, Elias Canetti, Albert Camus, Edvard Munch, among many others, can also be read as reactions to the wholly new urban experiences of their times.

As written about earlier here, Chinese cities are undergoing a massive transformation, with consequences for us all. I've also been watching a lot of Chinese movies lately, and films like Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express" (1994), Lou Ye's "Suzhou River" (2000), and Wang Xiaoshuai's "Beijing Bicycle" (2002) dwell on the incidental and unexpected nature of interaction with strangers, the experiences of people thrust into unfamiliar cities undergoing rapid change. If we hope that these cities develop in a sustainable manner, what kind of experience will emerge from these cities?

I'm very curious about all of your views and experiences, before I start my own reporting. I'd like to ask all of you to visualize what a sustainable city and society might look (and feel) like for a day. Will you have many, few, old or new, close or far-flung friends? Is the city ever-changing, unfamiliar, and exciting, or is it familiar, known, and rooted in tradition? Do you commute to work, or telecommute? Do you travel, or do you stay rooted close to home? Do you immigrate, or do you stay put? Do you consume food, ideas, experiences generated from far away or close to home?

In short, what social mores, values, customs, and institutions do you think will govern the development of sustainable cities? And what kind of day will you have there?

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Wonderful question, David. In order to thrive, I believe society will have to get much more complex and local, while being engaged and informed on the global scene. I see a necessity for social organizations, team sports, political groups, religious groups, and other civic institutions to make a comeback. These are coping mechanisms for dealing with and relating to an urban situation, as well as great ways to meet people and enjoy oneself. I chalk up their decline in globalizing cities to spatial fragmentation. As we defrag spatially, our communities will knit together socially. This will involve some creative friction. Expect great art.
In my life, I expect that things will get much more exciting. The New Urbanist thing will happen, with people walking more and seeing each other more. More chance encounters, exciting conversations. Lifelong friends, business partners, significant others. I already see and enjoy this at Charlottesville's pedestrian friendly Downtown.
I expect the slow movement to accelerate, with benefits in health and safety, as well as less easily counted things like happiness and comfort.
I foresee a closer connection to food and where it comes from, creating synergistic connections to diet, health, and responsible agriculture.
Transportation will shift to favor pedestrians. Cars will become a luxury. Sportscars and vanity motorcycles will outnumber the family sedan/SUV.
The world will become more fair. The sort of social disparity that Hurricane Katrina brought to light will be more difficult to maintain without unsustainable spatial separation keeping the classes apart. By and large, the shift to a more egalitarian world will occur peacefully, democratically, and in a market-friendly manner.
We will become more courteous. Etiquette will become a widespread concern. Gossip will be much more common, multiplied by the power of blogs.
I can't imagine what spimes will do. I'll leave that to Bruce.
People will be healthier. They'll exercise more, and eat better. They'll feel better. They'll behave better.
We'll look back on the current day and marvel at what barbarians we were.
I'm psyched.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 18 Jul 06

Will people actually allow themselves to imagine and express their sustainable cityscape?

I'd have a few close and lots of new friends, friends and contacts from all different backgrounds - a mix of near, nearish and the other side of the world.

I enjoy a mix of cultural influences (incl on options for leisure and food), with traditional influences moderating the adoption of new ways. Easily accessible, reliable public transport plus lots of pathways for walking/cycling/skating etc. Places to experience nature near everyone's home and business. Lifestyles and building styles that are appropriate to the local environment and climate. Building structures and urban planning that's designed to last, not all new, coldly modern and flimsy. Smaller footprints for individual residences and more larger shared spaces instead. Less uptight regulations and bureaucracy. Oh, and lots of festivals, heh!

Posted by: Janelle Downunder on 18 Jul 06

And much more mixing of different age groups - even at public social events!

Posted by: Janelle Downunder on 18 Jul 06

Yeah, New Urbanism and eco-city models are on the way back and will indeed be necesary for our survival.

My main concern is that there is not enough time.
If oil peaks and the price really jumps through the roof, how will companies afford to construct the New Urbanism that we are going to need? Will governments see the need to subsidize these essential "oil weaning" modes of living in time to prevent total economic carnage?

When the Australian ABC's "4 Corners" Peak Oil special starts and finishes with scenes from Mad Max, you can tell that we were caught completely off guard by the imminence of the end of the oil age.

I'm convinced we have to head into more walkable cities, I'm just not convinced that society understands how desperately we need to be banning new suburban development on once profitable agricultural city outskirts... and how FAST we need to be laying down light rail and setting up local systems of food production.

I come to Worldchanging for the good news — but sometimes feel I need to do the occasional Kunstler. "It's time to get serious".

Posted by: David Lankshear on 19 Jul 06

Having just returned from Basel, I believe that most importantly, especially for the United States, is a viable public transit system. Although Basel is much smaller than Chicago, where I live, the use of trams, busses, and trains creates not just a city scape, but a link within larger contexts -- the rest of the country. As we debate the very small amount of money subsidizing air travel, the incredible funds used for this purpose goes unchecked.

Obviously the city scape will follow the movement of people. Cuurently, limitless mobility is the norm, and subsequently big box retailers dominate the landscape. Europe also has such options, though not for daily purchases. There is no way that this will arrive by choice. It will be forced upon us by increasing energy prices.

Posted by: Nicholas Paredes on 19 Jul 06

Excellent post and question, David. No one yet knows how to create sustainable cities, yet we need to learn - fast. It's important to describe better cities, but more importantly, we need instructions for creating them. By "instructions", I mean something like a genetic code - not a cookie-cutter recipe, but a shared language that tells us what we need to help bring into being, and why. I'd urge everyone to revisit the great book A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander and colleagues. I also heartily recommend this web site from the Eco Trust of Portland, Oregon. Look at ideas like City-Country Fingers, Local Transport Areas, Community of 7000, Web of Public Transportation, Nine Percent Parking, Density Rings and Activity Nodes. Think of these as memes that prompt action - as instructions. We need this kind of shared language, and to act upon it, fast. I think one of the most engaging things we could be doing right now is to use the Internet to foster a worldwide collaboration to write a "Sustainable Pattern Language Wiki", a kind of cultral genetic code, pooling collective wisdom and disseminating the real nitty-gritty of the work before us.

Posted by: David Foley on 19 Jul 06

"I expect the slow movement to accelerate"

Is that good or bad ;)

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 19 Jul 06

I think you mean Daniel Bell.

Posted by: BobbyB on 19 Jul 06

Yes, I did mean Daniel Bell, thanks.

Posted by: David Hsu on 19 Jul 06

If we are to realistically talk about urban sustainability,we mustn't forget the suburban and rural areas surrounding our cities. Local and regional food systems, metropolitan transportation systems for both people and freight, closed-loop value-adding supply and manufacturing chains for locally-produced goods, geographically-based urban-rural economic linkages that encourage conservation and social equity, public access to natural amenities, these are all necessary characteristics to a truly sustainable city.

Living in Portland, I'm watching these systems and values emerge throughout the Northwestern US. Sure, pedestrian friendly streets, green buildings, renewable sources of energy, smaller individual and household footprints are alllgood and important, but we must see our cities within the larger context of landscape.

Otherwise we're just building environmentally friendly gilded cages for the future middle and upper classes - hello cultural creatives and retiring baby boomers!

Posted by: John H. on 21 Jul 06

Dear all,

Thanks for all of your excellent and thoughtful responses to my post. I've been meaning to write more throughout the week, but it is coming to a thankful close. There's a few things that I was thinking about as I wrote this post:

1. I certainly agree with many of the values and concepts that many of you have proposed. Partly what I am trying to think out loud is which of our commonly held values and beliefs might clash with one another. For example, in response to David Lankshear's and Nicholas Parades' comments, I wonder if peak oil means we have a realistic pricing regime (including carbon dioxide, that is), new technologies, or a collective authority or institution that actively conserves oil, all of which might paint very different versions of the sustainable society and experience that Lyle Solia-Yates and Janelle Downunder describes. In particular, I was thinking about Kim Stanley Robinson's utopian dreams, but in particular "Three Californias", which does such a good job of imagining and conveying that different experiences to be had on three alternative paths of development.

2. And, in David Foley's comments (a lot of Davids going on here), how do we establish a pattern language that changes, evolves, mimics, influences the real world? Is a wiki the way? What about something more material, physical, that takes this out of the realm of advice and knowledge, and responds to changes in the world.

3. John H., very good point. I was thinking this morning about how different cities and regions fit together -- look out for a future post.

Thanks for the encouragement, and keep those thoughtful comments coming! Interaction is why blogs are so great.

Posted by: David Hsu on 21 Jul 06

We need to change how we educuate ourselves. Our model of "schooling" is unsustainable for neither a highly networked global economy nor a post peak-oil locally oriented economy. The industrial style education model needs to go. We need to create multi-generational "learning commons," spaces that are physical, virtual, and comprised of networked global conversations. Learning needs to become collaborative and focused on creative production of knowledge rather than drill and skill memorization that is irrelevant to human and economic growth. A collaborative model will help us thrive in both the best and worst imaginable future.

Posted by: Rich James on 21 Jul 06

We need to change how we educuate ourselves. Our model of "schooling" is unsustainable for neither a highly networked global economy nor a post peak-oil locally oriented economy. The industrial style education model needs to go. We need to create multi-generational "learning commons," spaces that are physical, virtual, and comprised of networked global conversations. Learning needs to become collaborative and focused on creative production of knowledge rather than drill and skill memorization that is irrelevant to human and economic growth. A collaborative model will help us thrive in both the best and worst imaginable future.

Posted by: Rich James on 21 Jul 06

David Hsu, thanks again for thoughtful comments and questions. I don't know how to establish an influential and evolving Pattern Language. My own work is in architecture, design, construction and land stewardship. I know that my own efforts, material and physical though they are, will be insignificant on a global scale. Yet something that could coordinate, guide and foster all the individual efforts could be a very powerful influence. So many conversations about sustainability focus on descriptions and case studies - so few focus on instructions and actions. So many of us take what actions we can in our personal lives - how could we use the linkage and community fostered by the Web to create coordinated "meta-actions"?

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Jul 06



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