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Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle
Alex Steffen, 23 Aug 07

Our cities could be seen as machines for transforming water, biomass and minerals into people and pollution. If we're serious about building a bright green future, we need to redesign those machines, keeping the people, but bringing the mechanism into a balanced cycle with the Earth. That's going be a bit challenging.

One thing we can do to increase our odds of success is to understand how our cities grew into the complex systems they now are. Indeed, not understanding what accidents, choices and forces shaped our cities almost guarantees that the new designs, policies, plans and technologies we introduce will either fail or produce monstrous unintended consequences. As Wendell Barry once said, "All good work remembers its past."

The past explored in Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle may have unfolded on the shores of Puget Sound, but this new book's insights are both cosmopolitan and timely. Matthew Klingle has made a hugely important contribution to the field of environmental history. More impressively, he's written a book that at once pushes the cutting edge of scholarship and yet will speak deeply to the people actually working to build more sustainable cities.

Klingle (disclosure: we went to graduate school together, but haven't spoken in years) crafts a straightforward but engrossing story about how in the late 1700s, Europeans encountered Native Peoples living in an ecosystem of almost staggering natural abundance -- "the most lovely country that can be imagined" -- and, over time, in fits and starts, aided by the Klondike Gold Rush and industrialization, intentionally and yet with profound ignorance, changed that place into a city that today is prosperous, high-tech, scenic and teetering on the edge of ecological disaster.

It's a good story, and Klingle tells it well. He has an eye for the quirky characters, odd facts, and high weirdness that define Northwest American history. While not exactly beach reading, Emerald City is compelling, smart and enjoyable.

But this also a book packed with complex observation. Klingle reminds us that simple stories are rarely true, or at least rarely true in useful ways, and the history of Seattle is in fact the product of an extremely complex set of interactions between groups of people, local goals and global forces, and nature itself... and the results of those interactions are the crisis in which we find ourselves (as well as this city's magnificence). The past is still doing its work in the present, and understanding that past gives us leverage on the problems we face today. As he says in his preface:

"If historians are to contribute toward the pursuit of a just and sustainable society, we need to show how and why history is relevant.
That is why we need histories that see humans and nature as tangled together, but we need something more. We need a new ethic of place, one that has room for salmon and skyscrapers, suburbs and wilderness. Mount Rainier and the Space Needle, grounded in one history. We alone are responsible for splitting nature from culture, and for injuring it and ourselves in the process. "one of the penalties of an ecological education," Aldo Leopold wrote, "is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." Perhaps, but one of the gifts of a historical education is knowing that some wounds heal in time or can be endured, and that we do not have to go it alone. History is no panacea, but thinking historically can help us live with the consequences of being imperfect creatures in an uncertain world."

The idea that urban reformers need a new vision -- one which refuses to see the city as necessarily unsustainable or nature as severed from the world in which we humans live -- will not be new to many frequent readers of this site. But we're still caught between cities which are leading us into an unthinkable catastrophe, and future cities which we cannot fully imagine. Better tools for imagining that future are powerful.

History is the secret weapon of futurism. By allowing our understanding to travel backwards in time and see the present from new angles, we grow our ability to look forward towards new possibilities. Emerald City offers us tools for thinking about cities through the lens of time.

This book taught me to see in some new ways, which is not something I feel about many of the books that cross my desk these days. If you care about building bright green cities in the 21st Century, if you're looking for a pair of fresh eyes with which to see old problems, you should read this book.

Photo: flickr/Slightlynorth

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Very nice article!
I'm a brazilian architect, now studying Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design and willing to do my Masters in Sustainable Cities. This book has just become a 'must read' for me.

Posted by: Karina on 24 Aug 07

The very best articles are regularly posted by Alex Steffan. Keep up the great work, Alex!

Posted by: Sue C on 30 Aug 07



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