We’re in environmental crisis. Everyone knows it, though maybe only really deep down. Everyone knows cities are central to it. I’m coming back to Graham Haughton, because the more I read in general, the more I feel that what he presented here encapsulates a helpful way of thinking about urban sustainability. A term now used to mean all kinds of things, a term thrown around happily by the World Bank and the IMF even, but not defined this way:
For humans, it specifically requires achieving a position that allows us to live in harmony with the rest of the planet, so that we neither destroy ourselves nor the systems that support lifeforms. The essential threat to sustainable development is that the human species is attempting to live beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain both humans and other species, most notably as we destroy the natural balance of critical natural protective systems… Moving towards sustainable development requires economic and social systems that encourage environmental stewardship of resources for the long term, acknowledging the interdependency of social justice, economic well-being, and environmental stewardship. (234)
We need some definitions of this off course, and I so much appreciate this work in bringing environmental justice together with a more mainstream environmental discourse around sustainability that often never mentions justice at all. I think this is key in thinking about cities, because the environmental justice movement in the U.S. has primarily been an urban movement. In the words of Robert Bullard:
We are saying that environmental justice incorporates the idea that we are just as much concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas, but we’re also concerned with urban habitats, where people live in cities, about reservations, about things that are happening along the US-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds. So we have had to struggle to get these issues on the radar on a lot of the large environmental groups.
I think providing a framework, a set of principles by which different approaches to imagining how we shape the city can be judged, is a good way to do this. Graham Haughton proposes the following:
Intergenerational equity, or the principle of futurity as it is sometimes known.
Intra-generational equity, or, more generally, contemporary social equity or social justice — the emphasis here is on the wider conception of social justice–that is, seeking to address the underlying causes of social injustice, not simply dealing with redistributive measures. (235)
Geographical equity or transfrontier responsibility. Transfrontier responsibility requires that local policies should be geared to solving global as well as local environmental problems.
Procedural equity. This principle holds that regulatory and participatory systems should be devised and applied to ensure that all people are treated openly and fairly.
Inter-species equity, which places the survival of other species on an equal basis to the survival of humans. (236)
I’m not sure that I fully agree with how he defines or expands upon all of these–particularly thinking about procedural equity, how participation and direct democracy fold into this and how that is managed–but I think they are precisely the things that matter. This is where discussion should start, when most of the time I think it falls far short of this and gets us nowhere fast. Reading this from 1999 is like reading Jane Jacobs, filling me with frustration that nothing seems to have moved in the meantime, that discourse proceeds and so does practice and our cities are crawling along to where they need to be — if they are not falling back.
Justice? We still have a hell of a long way to go. And every day it is still poor communities, especially communities of colour that bear most of the costs. That will only get worse as crisis grows. To return to Bullard:
Environmental justice is not a social program, it’s not affirmative actions, its about justice. And until we get justice in environmental protection, justice in terms of enforcement of regulations, we will not even talk about achieving sustainable development or sustainability issues until we talk about justice. A lot of the groups that are trying to address these issues in the absence of dealing with race may be fooling themselves.
And to return to the importance of cities, and the reality of cities now:
So we can’t just let cities buckle under and fall into this sinkhole. We have to talk about this convergence of urban, suburban and rural and talk about the quality of life that exists and talk about the issue of urban sprawl. Basically everybody is impacted by sprawl. People who live in cities face disinvestment, in suburbs with the trees being knocked down, chewing up farmland. So you talk about this convergence, a lot of it is happening now, but it has to happen with the understanding that we have to include everybody, that it has to be an inclusive movement or it won’t work.
So to move forward to practical solutions. I like Haughton’s look at the possibilities that have been put forward — in more dispassionate terms than the fire with which a seasoned and passionate campaigner (as well as academic) can speak in an interview.
The self-reliant city approach centers on attempts to reduce the negative external impacts of a city beyond its own bioregion, seeking to: reduce overall resource consumption; use local resources where possible; develop renewable resource-based consumption habits, always in a sustainable fashion; minimizee waste streams; and deal with pollution in situ rather than sending it to other regions (Morris 1982, 1990). (237)
Ooh you say, bioregion. You like the sound of that. So do I. I like most things about this idea.
The bioregion is usually seen as a central construct, replacing artificial political boundaries with natural boundaries, based typically on river catchment areas, geological features, or distinctive ecosystem types, although it is readily conceded that precise boundaries are usually difficult to define (Register 1987; Andruss et al. 1990). (237)
This also envisages a more democratic politics, which is part of the vision of Murray Bookchin (who I’ve read some of, not enough, but going all the way back to Kropotkin and his vision of co-operative society founded on a federation of non-hierarchical groups) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia (I still haven’t read this, I should, I will. It’s short). The danger is that they could become too isolated, folded in upon themselves. That they cease to contribute to the global work required to live well on the planet.
One city alone won’t save us, can’t alone challenge and transform many of the terrible oppressions operating at higher levels. We’re at war, we’re exploiting the resources and the labour of the world, we’re destroying forests and wetlands and … well. To return to cities, it would be nice to have one or two really trying to look to.
This is what we do in the meantime, right? This is the dominant approach — just fix what is broken:
In essence the environmental problems of cities are seen to be linked intrinsically to poor design of the urban fabric, in particular 20th century additions predicated on the assumption of cheap and readily available fossil fuels for homes, work, and transport. Of special concern are the problems associated with the rise of the motor vehicle, from the spread of low-density residential development to the need to build substantial specialized infrastructure, including road systems and parking lots.
This focuses on the city itself, making it better, more liveable, more vibrant, without much attempt at a better integration with nature and the wider region like the first, much less global connections. The other question is just how well this can tackle the social and economic justice issues. You can see a design approach possibly taking the foreground, and of course new urbanism and smart growth that all too often (though not necessarily I suppose) have served as partial justifications for the mass and brutal displacement of the poor and people of colour from central city areas as part of redevelopment. Reshuffling the urban deck hardly seems ideal, but this approach has real trouble tackling the underlying causes of social injustice, particularly racism and, I would argue, capitalism itself. It’s probably not going to.
Externally Dependent Cities
The externally dependent city essentially follows the conventional or neoclassical view that environmental problems can be addressed effectively by improving the workings of
the free market. (238)
He gives this approach a lot more attention than I would, because honestly, look at the world. Just look at it. If the free market, or the government-supported and funded neoliberal market even, addressed environmental problems we would have nothing to worry about. Those semi-socialist Scandinavian countries with their heavily managed economies and regulated industries would be venomous and polluted cesspools, and the developing world where unregulated economic growth is being pushed and funded by the IMF and World Bank would be paradise, just like England was in the middle of the industrial revolution.
Fair Share Cities
The final approach to sustainable urban development is one I term fair share cities, which sets out to ensure that environmental assets are traded fairly, with a particular view to ensuring that exchange docs not take place in ways that degrade donor environments, economies, and societies.
This is about flows of resource exploitation, flows of waste. An equal distribution of benefits and costs. Yet ultimately this hardly seems to bring us anywhere near an actual goal of becoming sustainable, actually minimizing our weight upon the earth, actually avoiding environmental crisis. Just spreading our weight evenly. I don’t even quite understand this as an approach, it’s more like a neoliberal shell game, but perhaps I am missing something.
Ultimately, the trouble is, much as I like the first option best, none of these go far enough do they. And even though it does not go far enough, how do you create a self-reliant city from a terrible sprawling one? I sit and think about what could be done to make LA just for example, to make it sustainable. Land reform I think. A total redistribution of wealth and an end to segregation. A mass construction of social housing in straw bale and adobe, in all parts of the city. Perhaps a return to the old urban form of wheel and spokes that facilitated walking and public transport, a clustering around train stations and the land returned to gardens in between. Perhaps slowly, over generations, I would not wish the trauma of eviction on anyone. A tearing down of walls and erasing of municipal boundaries and tax shelters. An end to suburban subsidies. Some return to the mixed use and narrow streets of the old pueblo. Pedestrianisation. More and more and more public transport. Bike lanes and more bike lanes. A tearing up of concrete and freeing of the river and reclamation of the parks and empty lots. Solar panels everywhere and good jobs making them (but that shit still has to be mined somewhere else, so we need more ideas). A mad planting of the right wildflowers for bees, vegetables, fruit trees. A living wage. Free education. Bilingual education. Sanctuary.
Dreaming is nice. Sometimes I wonder, why not? What could we do if we tried? Yet even with imagination unleashed, can these things happen just at the level of the city? Probably not.
Still, I think I like these principles of equity as way to collectively imagine and then judge our imaginings for moving forward with, in steps as big as we can make them.
For more posts on environmental justice…