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Creating the sustainable city: Are imagination and leadership enough?

   /   May 10th, 2011Colombia, Environment, International, National, News, Pacific Northwest, Pennslyvania

Without imagination, humans would be incapable of innovating. So it’s no surprise, with over half the population worldwide living in  overcrowded and resource-strapped cities, there are vibrant movements to re-imagine how a city of the future could be more sustainable and livable.

For example, Dowser recently reported on ioby, a New York City-based organization that funds local community-based environmental projects. Currently ioby is intervening in the urban landscape with their public art project, Reimagine Your City, which suggests what could be in place of what is.

The trend of imagining became apparent again at the Festival of Ideas for the New City, a four-day event May 4-8 that aimed to generate ideas for a city of the future, a networked, reconfigured, sustainable, and heterogenous future city.

On Friday, a panel of city mayors discussed their efforts to improve the cities they governed: Seattle, Philadelphia, Medellin (Colombia), and Braddock (Pennsylvania, which you probably haven’t heard of because it’s a nearly-deserted former mill town). The discussion was introduced by the charismatic bicycle-advocate David Byrne and moderated by journalist Kurt Andersen. The absence of women on the panel suggests either that no one thought a woman’s perspective on urban sustainability might be useful, or that there is a shortage of prominent female mayors (both?).

Each panelist told a story of how he had diligently accomplished radical social change in his city. Sergio Fajardo, mayor of Medellin, tackled a corrupt political system and engendered a sense of ownership amongst citizens through a campaign about trust and transparency, then built a colorful public library and marketplace in a dangerous and poor neighborhood. John Fetterman, who receives $150 per month for being mayor of Braddock, set about re-purposing abandoned structures and turning them into community centers, homes for foster kids, and green spaces, in order to combat crime and violence in an impoverished town; the result has been a decrease in homicides to zero. Seattle’s mayor, Greg Nickels, addressed the seriousness of climate change by pledging that his city would follow the Kyoto Protocol’s restrictions on carbon emissions, despite the fact that the U.S. had not signed onto the treaty. And in Philadelphia, Michael Nutter set about creating green jobs and promising to make Philly the most sustainable city in the U.S. through his Greenworks initiative.

The vast differences between these locales displayed an interesting array of tactics meant to improve urban life (though Braddock is arguably more a town than a city). The conference should certainly be applauded for having such diverse representatives, though it would have been exciting to see a few more examples of international cities, and certainly a discussion of sustainability issues in New York City itself was merited, given the location of the Festival of Ideas.

It’s also an interesting choice to have a panel entirely consisting of mayors. On Saturday, the day following the panel, the festival hosted tables of numerous grassroots organizations that work toward urban improvement — so top-down was by no means the main theme of the event. Friday’s panel stood out in that it showed how the right leaders can bring a city in new directions, through efforts that improve quality of life and decrease environmental impact.

But how do all these efforts stand up against the wastefulness of urban life? Consider New York City alone: the electricity spent keeping Times Square illuminated all night; the plastic food and coffee containers that people carelessly use and throw away; the endless sea of trash that gets trucked out to landfills daily; wasted restaurant food; wasted water; businesses and schools that don’t recycle because it’s too complicated to get pick-up service; the list goes on.

For cities to be truly sustainable requires urban dwellers to not only re-imagine their environment, but also to change their consumption habits. What would it take for us to create the sustainable city of the future, right now?

8 Responses

  1. One thing that I find striking is the simple lack of information/awareness of existing resources.

    As an example, I am constantly meeting people who are intrigued that I compost but would also like to know how to do it themselves. They are gobsmacked when I tell them that the Lower East Side Ecology Center has a dropoff every market day at Union Square. So perhaps the question is, How do we get people to notice what’s already there?

  2. Tristan says:

    Great post Rachel. I hope to see more action as well.

  3. Roberto says:

    Interesting post, Rachel! Thanks a lot! I did some research on the Web and found it quite interesting that urban improvement is such a hot topic at the moment. It seems like lots of companies are currently trying to follow that trend as well. Siemens US, for instance have just launched a new campaign called sustainable cities:

    On the other hand, I must also say that it’s shocking how unaware we (USA) are when it comes to green issues. In Europe, for example, green parties are a lot more influential! Only recently, I learned that the ‘Greens’ have more than 25% of the votes in Germany at the moment. I believe that also proves that we still need to change our habits and our lifestyle in a drastic way.

  4. Rachel Signer says:

    Thanks for all of your comments! Roberto, I think that the question of European vs. American cultures is an important one. Consumption habits in the U.S. are very different: more individualistic, generally produced on a mass scale rather than locally, and lodged in a sensibility of “throw out the old and buy a new one” because it seems like there’s always more in stock. Our consumer culture goes back to the development of Fordism in post-WWII United States, which kept American car factory workers happy with higher salaries while making luxuries like personal automobiles affordable (so that more people would ultimately depend on them in the long run). That economic system has to this day defined how American live on a daily basis.

  5. celestial elf says:

    Great Post, we need to get people thinking :D
    Thought you might like my machinima film,
    To The Venus Project
    Bright Blessings
    elf ~

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  8. [...] heard John Fetterman speak on a panel of mayors from around the world at the New York City Festival of Ideas in May 2011. The discussion [...]