December 7, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #5: The Sustainable, Inevitable Exploding City
The global urban footprint will expand from two to five times what it is today by 2050. This is in part due to the estimated population growth of 2.4 billion between now and 2050, most of which will occur in urban areas. Urban areas also have a persistently declining density in both developed- and developing-world cities. As a result, an extensive new infrastructure will be built in the twenty-first century that will exceed the size and scale of all previous city building. The dismal fact looms: our cities are exploding, inevitably.
Making the inevitably exploding city of the 21st century sustainable should be the cornerstone to long-term conservation and adaptability efforts to address climate change. It only makes sense that an environmental problem derived from human development revisit the source of the problem. Consider: transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, as are the construction and operation of residential and commercial buildings; land-use change resulting from city growth will also increase greenhouse gas emissions, through acts such as deforestation; and increased building stock will drive greater electricity use. Sustainable solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in exploding cities will require equal parts pragmatic policy, legal tools, and a new narrative of development. Here is what this approach might look like:
Policy. To accept the exploding city as inevitable does not mean we stop trying to improve city form and increase density, but it does mean we move beyond efforts simply to contain growth of the urban footprint. For instance, California’s approach to the transportation sector has been a “three-legged stool” of greenhouse gas emissions standards for new model vehicles; low-carbon fuel standards; and land-use policies intended to reduce vehicle miles traveled. As a second example, building standards must be changed to achieve two ends: reduce climate emissions from the operation of buildings and adapt to a changing climate. To wit, Amory Lovins once famously grew a banana tree in a well-insulated hothouse in the middle of a Colorado winter with little heating. Similarly, we can substantially reduce buildings’ resource demands within the scope of existing technology: we must deploy it in this generation of buildings that will redefine human habitation.
Law. Cities must be places people want to live. Great places are not built as a monolith but by empowering local communities in megapolitan regions to build communities in their images. In developed countries, this means advancing sub-local government structures, which I have called “legal neighborhoods” to service sub-local needs, while still using local government to address regional issues. In developing countries, it means advancing concepts such as Brazil’s City Statute, which, broadly speaking, seeks to bring its slum areas, or favelas, into civil society; seeks to bring both social and environmental justice to those communities; and allows those communities to participate in the fruits of cities’ developments. Densely-settled environments must become more than merely tolerable and more than a place for economic opportunity: they must become the places people would choose to live over all other choices. The legal and political tools must make this choice evident.
Narrative. Sustainability’s narrative must move beyond its famous definition from the Brundtland Commission as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In the context of the exploding city, I propose a “dwelling ethic.” A dwelling ethic, as I see it, incorporates the “land ethic” approach of Aldo Leopold, which he stated “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” with the teachings of Martin Heidegger that construction must be for “dwelling,” or long-term inhabitance, not just “building,” a consumerist approach to the physical environment. To achieve Leopold’s vision for the land in an age of exploding cities, we must decide to dwell, as Heidegger would say, as if we intended to stay put—in this house, on this planet—for some time to come. Such an ethic is of particular importance in this, humanity’s most peripatetic age.
-- Stephen R. Miller
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