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Worldwatch: Our Urban Future
Alex Steffen, 11 Jan 07
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By the end of this decade, there will be nearly 3.5 billion city-dwellers.

The annual State of the World report, prepared by our allies at Worldwatch, has long been one of the most critical resources for understanding the problems facing our planet and their possible solutions. This year's report, though, Our Urban Future, is even more prescient and vital than usual.

That's because Our Urban Future tackles the challenge of building sustainable cities, and cities (as we've long remarked here) are the best levers we have for creating rapid transformation to a bright green future (which is why we devoted one of the seven chapters of Worldchanging to cities and the best tools, models and ideas for changing them).

Indeed, it's difficult, in some ways, for me to be fair in reviewing Our Urban Future, because it covers so much of the same ground as our book. If I didn't like it so much, I'd probably have assigned it to someone else. But I do: it's an excellent piece of work.

Obviously, if I'd edited it, I would have focused more on the potential of transformative innovations, from walkshed technologies and bright green urbanism to megacity leapfrogging, the sorts of social innovations we've seen in Bogota and the sorts of ecological innovations promised by Dongtan. Molly O'Meara Sheehan, on the other hand, has chosen to focus more on well-proven efforts.

Both are fine approaches, and if I think Worldchanging's take on these issues has the virtue of better helping people to imagine their own places wildly transformed (as they must be in order to meet the magnitude of the challenge), Worldwatch's has the advantage that existence is the proof of the possible, and the steps they discuss are ones whose tires you can go out and kick, so to speak. And like all of Worldwatch's books, it is analytically thorough, packed full of statistics and rigorously footnoted. Therefore, as a reference volume alone it offers real value.

Three chapters in particular are excellent and have already helped reshape my thinking.

Providing Clean Water and Sanitation not only offers a terrific primer on the challenges of meeting the urban poor's water and sanitation needs (a subject we've not always done enough to cover), it also gives terrific run-downs of the costs, benefits and drawbacks of existing sanitation options (from "open defecation" to pit latrines to "condominial sewers" and flush toilets) and the various methods for getting clean water from the source to the household. Better still, the chapter drives home the oft-missed point that the most appropriate and sustainable technology is largely situational: that "Adequate provision depends not only on the technologies involved but on how they are used, in what sort of setting and by whom."

Farming the Cities explores recent successes in urban farming, explaining not only why urban agriculture (though often seen by wealthy urbanites as a pleasant means of reconnecting with nature) is vital to the health and well-being of people in the world's teeming megacity slums but also why it may prove a critical practice in the "food deserts" that exist in poor urban areas of the developed world, where people with limited resources often find themselves with severely constrained access to good food, and forced to shop at high-price, low-quality merchants like liquor stores. While we've done a good job discussing some innovations in urban farming and food justice, this chapter really drives home the magnitude of the challenge of feeding the poor of our city planet, and the reality that "growing food is not a hobby for most people, it is a necessity."

Finally, Reducing Natural Disaster Risk in Cities really opens up a subject we all need to learn more about: how to make our cities and their surroundings more resilient in an age of strained systems, Wexelblat disasters and predictable climate chaos. As author (and ally) Zoe Chafe puts it, "Disasters are not simple chance occurrences, as often portrayed in the media. They are the product of an ever-changing relationship between natural events (hazards), social and physical conditions (vulnerabilities), and risk management systems that exist -- or all too often do not exist -- to protect us." Making cities that can withstand the shocks of what promises to be a bumpy century is critical work. After reading Zoe's chapter, I feel like I clearly understand the nature of the stakes and answers for the first time. That alone is worth the cover price.

Indeed, this is a book that ought to find its way into the hands of every worldchanging urbanist. For as Jaime Lerner writes in his foreword,

"[C]ities are not problems, they are solutions... Renewable energy sources, less-polluting automobiles, new forms of public transportation, and communications technologies that reduce the need for travel are all pushing away the chaos that was predicted for large urban centers. The evolution of technology and its democratization are presenting new perspectives for cities of all shapes and sizes. ... Socially just and environmentally sound cities -- that is the quest!"

We don't have yet have the map that will let us complete that quest, but we're starting to piece it together, in a quiltwork of new thinking and better insights. With Our Urban Future, we have come one large patch closer to seeing our way forward.

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Comments

No Comment, just a question. Is the city on the cover of the new world watch publication Quito, Ecuador?

Jamey
HCMC, Vietnam


Posted by: Jamey Hadden on 11 Jan 07

The city on the cover is La Paz, Bolivia.


Posted by: Drew Wilkins on 12 Jan 07

Do they address urban security? In my mind, security is the single biggest drawback of living in the heart of an urban core. I live in a decent neighborhood in St. Paul, MN, but I'm also very aware of the high levels of crime -- including violent crime -- that exists in this city within a few miles. And I'm also conscious of how low the crime is in most of the suburban areas of town, as well as the suburban/sprawl areas where I have lived in Texas.

This question of security does not have any direct bearing on the issues of urban farming, green buildings, etc. It comes up in reaction to the line "the best levers we have for creating rapid transformation to a bright green future," and the implicit sense -- which I too have always felt -- that sprawl is bad and density is good for returning to more balanced environmental conditions. How can one sacrifice security for one's family, including the perception thereof, for the ideal of density? That is a question that has been troubling me of late.


Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 12 Jan 07

Security is the key to urban liveability. Without security urban life is Hell. However, security has little to do with population density and everything to do with population demographics. It is never "How many?" but "Who?".


Posted by: Jay Bute on 15 Jan 07



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