Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Gray City Green City

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Gray City Green City

Article excerpt

New thinking and new settlement patterns can bring about urban sustainability.

The American city, if one can still call such a sprawling, gray metropolis a city, is an ecological disaster. The way cities use land and resources profoundly alters the quality of the local and global environment. Uncontrolled growth devours land, water, and energy from the surrounding landscape. Contemporary settlement patterns create auto dependence, high energy demands for buildings, water pollution from excessive toxic runoff, air pollution, and such other adverse environmental effects as increased health risks caused by coal mining, nuclear waste, and fuel burning.

For their exorbitant ecological price, these urban patterns do not even buy a high quality of life. Early 21st century Americans are separated from the aesthetic and ecological experience of nature while spending hours every day commuting and several more hours working to pay for their cars. Neighbors are not friends, community is not tied to place, and millions, too poor to own cars, are disenfranchised. The city is noisy, congested, frustrating, and unhealthy. Our society has created this habitat for ourselves.

In addition to the global macro-ecological problems caused by or contributed to by cities, current settlement patterns create a host of local ecological problems. Wildlife habitat in cities is scarce; native species are replaced with consumptive exotics; streams are channelized, piped and buried; wetlands are filled and aquifers depleted. Urban heat islands drive up energy use for cooling and trap air pollutants in the city. Downstream areas are flooded and polluted by quick runoff from acres of paved surfaces. Each of these local problems reduces the ability of local ecosystems to accomplish their ecological functions. Local ecological systems are rapidly losing their ability to produce clean water, air, and food, and to maintain a rich variety of inhabitants- in short, they are losing the ability to sustain life.

Each of these environmental problems is related in some way to the design of cities, to our settlement pattern, to our urban spatial structure. Changes in land-use patterns take decades, so if our cities are to be ready for mid-21st-century energy and resource scarcities, increasing population, and potential extinctions, structural changes must be initiated almost immediately. Human habitat must be restructured so that we live within the limits imposed by our life-sustaining ecosystems and follow the organizing principles by which all life flourishes.

Green City Consciousness

To correct the ecological damage caused by today's gray city, we first have to shift our perceptions. It is impossible to get us out of the urban ecological crisis with the same kind of thinking that created it. We have to learn to think ecologically. We also have to learn to integrate multiple new, and sometimes seemingly paradoxical, ways of thinking and perceiving.

A sustainable city can be built on three interrelated mental models, each depending on a different set of values for what counts as success.

* The city as a living system. This way of thinking asks, What form would the city take if we understood it as a manifestation of natural process?

The central insight of the living city concept is that cities and landscapes are living systems. A city is a human ecosystem set in a landscape. Because living systems have been organized through 4 billion years of evolution, they constitute a design model for what sustains life on our planet. In particular, local ecosystems tell us what works well in our particular part of the planet. So, we can look at living systems to learn how to design buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

To an ecologist, the order of an ecosystem is made up of two interrelated and inseparable patterns: structure and function. The structural pattern of a living system is the form, composition, distribution, and configuration of its parts--rocks, soil, plants, animals. …

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