In learning how to build a better city lies the hope of the future. In the Global South, where urban growth is headlong, the challenge is in keeping up, in inventing new models that can be deployed rapidly enough to provide for the needs of the billions of people who are moving to the new megacities in search of better lives. In the Global North, though, the challenge is often quite different: here, one of the biggest challenges is our legacy of neglected neighborhoods, of polluted land and impoverished families, and the weakness of vision that legacy betrays.
Majora Carter works to revitalize both the South Bronx and the people who live there. We wrote about Majora in the book, talking about how her organization, Sustainable South Bronx has created a series of innovative programs -- from job training for youth in environmental restoration to a farmer's market and a greenway -- which aim to both improve local residents' lives and restore the environment, or as Majora puts it, "green the ghetto."
I had the opportunity to talk with Majora again this morning and catch up with SSB's recent progress. She's excited to be a host on the Sundance Channel's new night of eco-programming, "The Green," but when the conversation turned to SSB, she seemed both heartened and frustrated. On the one hand, they were wrapping up a feasibility study for their plan to build a recycling center which would not only slash the amount of New York's solid waste that ended up in the landfill, but would also provide between 300 and 500 good jobs for local residents. On the other hand, the city was weighing perhaps building a jail on the site instead. (Could you ask for a more literal illustration of the "green jobs, not jails" challenge?)
"The city seems completely incapable of engaging in comprehensive planning," she told me, with city leaders obsessed with "high profile monumental projects" like big box retail chains and sports stadiums. "That lack of comprehensive thinking gets in the way of everything we're trying to do to sustainably develop a neighborhood."
New York may be wrestling with how it might become a sustainable city, but the sort of silo-ed thinking SSB's running up against is common everywhere.
We're getting better at understanding how to evolve towards sustainability the larger systems -- power sources, infrastructure, planning -- that make up our cities. We know that we can bring cities back to life, that we can plant rain gardens and green roofs and restore at least some ecological function to urban areas. We know, too, that often the very steps that green a place and restore it to health also promote neighborhood survivability. The Brockton Brightfield, Portland's Pearl District, Germany's Duisberg-Nord, Seattle's recently opened Olympic Sculpture Park, ufaFabrik, the Chicago Center for Green Technology -- all show that sustainability and urban regeneration can go hand-in-hand.
Scattered examples are springing up of projects whose approaches to community and ecology are equally inspired -- like Solar2 EpiCenter and the Jubilee Wharf -- and some new visions are beginning to emerge, but we have yet to push up against the limits of the possible, much less make innovative and holistic design an expectation in all our urban developments. Hopefully, though, with leaders like Majora pushing us to think differently, we will.