Our Cities Are Us: Sustainable Reforms through Reflection and Action

By James, Paul | Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Our Cities Are Us: Sustainable Reforms through Reflection and Action


James, Paul, Harvard International Review


As the dominant site and sign of human settlement, the city exemplifies and displays the fundamental concerns of the human condition in the twenty-first century. Just as urban living concentrates us in close proximity, the city clusters cliches and sermons, critiques and self-serving assurances/The world's most livable cities are well-planned and prosperous. Slums are disgusting. Congestion causes road rage. Electric vehicles are the answer. Planning is good.

But why, if we are able to identify the core problems, do our cities continue to slide into a slow and generalized crisis? Across the world, we are facing crises of sustainability, resilience, and adaptation. Our cities have become sprawling, bloated, impossible. In the meantime our politicians squabble over schedules, timetables, and buck-stops. From problems associated with climate change or sustainable water supply to those concerning increasing economic inequality or the break-up of communities, processes such as escalating resource use and cultural anomie that we once responded to as singular concerns are now bearing back upon us in a swirl of compounding pressures.

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Cities are at the center of this man-made maelstrom. For all their vibrancy and liveliness, cities face a growing challenge to provide secure and sustainable places to live. Even the world's most "livable cities"--Melbourne and Munich, Vancouver and Vienna--arc utterly unsustainable in global ecological terms. Cities are responsible, for example, for around 80 percent of global energy consumption.

Melbourne, my city of residence, is currently the most livable city in the world on the Economist's index. The indicators are commercial-in-confidence, but are grouped around five domains: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. As the report accompanying the survey outlines, the highest scoring cities tend to be mid-sized wealthier cities with a relatively low population density. Seven of the top ten scoring cities are in Australia and Canada, with population densities of 2.88 and 3.40 people per square kilometer respectively. This is telling. At a time when sustainability is increasingly associated with positive high density, it is clear that liveability-as-so-measured is parting company with sustainability.

Shockingly, Melbourne has per capita an ecological footprint of 28 times its direct metropolitan land-use, one of the highest in the world. If everybody lived as we do the planet would be doomed. For all the wonderful public sensitivity7 in Melbourne to ecological sustainability issues, we continue to use more and more resources, emit more and more carbon, and burv more and more of our fertile hinterlands under asphalt and bricks. One of the few clear successes in the sustainability stakes has been a widely supported political campaign to place legal and cultural limits on water use. Nevertheless, an energy-intensive desalination plant, the largest in the southern hemisphere, has been built to supply fresh water to the city, and the entrance to the bay on which the city sits has been dredged to allow 'super-sized' freight ships to import global commodities through Australia's largest container port. Both projects are defended by the state government in terms of environmental and, of course, economic sustainability. This is the first urban paradox. The more the language of sustainability is used, the more it seems to be directed at rationalizing unsustainable development. What then makes for positive sustainability, and why are we not acting effectively to achieve that sustainability?

Manifold Crises and the Play of Urban Paradox

As writers such as Mike Davis in The Planet of Shuns now tell us, our cities face a crisis of sustainability: economic, ecological, political, and cultural. Every day, 180,000 people join the global urban population; each year, the equivalent of two cities the size of Tokyo are built; one in six urban dwellers live in slums; and we are heading towards that black figure of two degrees Celsius global warming.

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Our Cities Are Us: Sustainable Reforms through Reflection and Action
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