Planning: How to Build Cities with Nature
There are many conferences and gatherings in this world where individuals get together to talk about “sustainable development” and “ecological urbanism.” However, once these things reach a certain scale, they tend to dilute, to loose focus, and to shy away from being truly disruptive to our social and economic systems. It’s too bad, because there are systems which are arguably in need of a good bit of disruption! True to this form, we can all likely recall instances where social and ecological justice have been tossed aside out of fear that they might disrupt the way things currently work. Well, deep down, we all know something else: this isn’t the way it has to be.
I take great pleasure in knowing that there are many such positive “disruptors” around the world who are working untethered, outwith such borders, and further, that many of you readers are these very people.
Given this, I’d like to start off this issue with a report regarding an event that SocieCity was recently invited to attend in Portland, Oregon where thirty such positive disruptors gathered. It was the kind of symposium that I sincerely hope will multiply in the near future in cities and towns around this earth. The Nature of Cities: Pathways to Collaboration on Green Cities as it is called, included an uncommonly diverse group of professionals. By example, urban planners and architects met with ecologists and artists, some visiting from as far away as Uganda and Colombia, and some from locally, including native american tribe representatives, and local leaders from just down the street at Portland’s own Intertwine Alliance. It was a true meeting of a broad spectrum of individuals from across the world, all engaged in sustainability work.
Yet beyond simply being a diverse forum for so-called “disruptive” thinking, the symposium aimed to work in a way that:
1) Brings together diverse viewpoints (geographically, culturally, economically, and by occupation) and puts all of these individuals on the same level, creating an environment where an artist or stormwater engineer has as much fundamental input and steering power as an urban planner or a farmer.
2) Proposes that a human life integrated with the rest of nature must be a central concern of society in all of its actions and deeds, instead of some ‘externality’ or ‘nice to have’ thing to plug into a formula.
The format of the meeting allowed the participants to see new ways of looking at cities (and ourselves) again as a part of nature, and further, to realize how the foundations of our lives – from our jobs, to our urban planning, to our food systems – can respond to this prompt by working collectively, across and through the borders that normally divide us.
During the event, a renown architect and activist from Mumbai, P.K. Das demonstrated that urban planning – instead of being a force for gentrification and pushing out the underprivileged – must be re-imagined as a process where housing is a right and the underprivileged themselves are engaged in a way that shapes the urban planning process to fit their needs. His inclusive view and way of working is truly touching.
From Portland State University, Judy BlueHorse Skelton offered us a dinner of native plants and fish while she spoke about the wisdom of native elders (traditional ecological knowledge) and the importance of our connection to the land. Hundreds of other conversations among the group and local community ran from ecocities and biophilic cities, to deep ecology and the value of primates in cities, and were many more than can be recounted here.
It’s encouraging to know that this handful of professionals who are dealing with critical issues such as housing, food, and urban development are looking at their jobs from this perspective, and further that they see the usefulness in working through the borders that typically divide us.
Fundamentally, I went into the conference thinking that working in a “transdisciplinary” way meant we would have to break down and demolish borders. After a few days of interactions with the cohort, I realized that the more reasonable first step might be to work at understanding what these borders between us really are, and seeing what we can do to make them permeable in practice. Imagine a world where it is natural for us to us to talk and work through all of these imaginary borders – of class, race, nationality, occupation – borders that we tend to erect around ourselves. Imagine if we could truly seek to cooperate on a common foundational level, not only as humans, but as integral beings within this nature.
What could we build together?
Many people are answering this in just as many different ways, and I hope we get to hear some stories from you all, about permeating borders in your lives, about integrating jobs, and governments, and even cities, together with this nature.
A Nature Safari in the City
On a lighter note, elsewhere the New York Times recently published a surprising domestic travel guide, on how the less-intrepid travelers might find wildlife safaris in the city. The article references an innovative research partnership spearheaded by Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. This project doesn’t take place in a Zoo though; instead, it sees the entire city as a place to explore, understand, and interact with wildlife. The ultimate goal of the project, which has partnerships with several U.S. cities including Los Angeles, Austin, and Denver, is to find new ways of understanding and enhancing urban biodiversity.
“Affordable” Solar Becoming a Reality in the U.S.
The growing number of ‘local energy’ projects are just one piece of the puzzle for transitioning our energy systems – the bigger piece is arguably just committing to use less power – but they seem to be going in the right direction. Bloomberg recently reported that Tesla, a company known for its electric vehicles and battery technology, is producing solar roof tiles aimed at powering residential homes. While the roof tiles are still quite expensive to install, they are projected to benefit home owners substantially over 30 years when compared to traditional roofing. Due to their power generation capabilities, a solar roof installed in New York is projected to save homeowners $14,000 USD over 30 years, and four-times that (around $60,000 USD) in sunny California, when compared to traditional asphalt roofing. In March we reported on similar story in Australia, part of a global trend that marks a significant shift away from “industrial-scale” renewable power plants in far flung places, and a move towards local power generation and solutions that fit within the context of existing infrastructure.
Education for a Resilient Future
On the education front, Richard Heinberg and the Post Carbon Institute are progressivley releasing a free series of video-lectures on resilience, which they say “explores how communities can build resilience in the face of our intertwined sustainability crises.” Currently five videos are public, and the institute plans to continue releasing the rest of the videos, twenty-two in all, over the coming weeks. We took a look at the first five, and they seem to offer a good look at basic issues of sustainability from a “social mindset” perspective, offering a wide-lens view of our issues globally, and offering ideas on how our social and economic systems will have to change during the coming decades. The content is worth looking through as a supplement to school curriculum, or even a starting point for community discussions on sustainable actions.
Thank you for reading this issue of Environment in Review! If you have colleagues or friends who would be interested to have this goodness in their inbox, please do let them know about us! You can forward this issue to them or have them sign up for themselves. See you again in a few weeks time, and until then, remember you can always send you tips and thoughts directly to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and hopefully we can feature them in the next issue!
Yours in Nature,
Patrick M. Lydon and Suhee Kang