Authentic Cities

Last week I emphasized the importance of framing energy descent and ecological decline as a predicament to accept and deal with rather than as a mere problem to be solved by technological ingenuity. The truth is that fossil fuel-based arrangements of living are going away, regardless of the casual confidence many planners place in renewable energy schemes or efficiency measures.

The misunderstanding that we can “tech” our way out of this dilemma is based in ignorance of physical and natural laws. This ignorance allows all manner of nonsense to muddy the waters of understanding. A little knowledge of physical and natural laws is a dangerous thing, and it makes for a sunny overconfidence for what renewable energy and efficiency strategies can do for us.

Unfortunately, the planning profession is not immune from this befuddlement; short-sightedness serves as the basis for much of what passes for best practice these days. Last week I took a moment to point out the deficiencies of what I call “insular planning” – the dominant paradigm in planning best practice today.

Insular planning encompasses all those policies that seek to offset the side effects of what’s believed to be a state of permanent and inevitable economic growth. These side effects include sprawl, obesity, and other liveability issues.

From this basis, insular planning promotes renewable energy and efficiency strategies as the primary means to deal with energy and ecological challenges. It presumes that increasing efficiency and renewable energy via ingenuity can provide for a workable transition to a new arrangement of living comprising a world full of increasingly dense, technologically-intensive, affluent, and even ‘greener’ metropolises.

These policies are successful in dealing with the many side effect issues that pop up as a result of economic growth, but are hopelessly out of step with the likely implications of energy, economic, and ecological decline.

At its base, insular planning is flawed because it neglects physical and natural laws. For example, insular planning advocates the “triple bottom line” approach to our dilemma. The triple bottom line is represented by a Venn diagram featuring three intersecting circles of environment, economy, and equity.

However, physical and natural laws show that each of the 3 E’s cannot hold equal weight when two of them – economy and equity – depend solely on the environment for their existence. The true relationship would be better represented by two intersecting rings of economy and equity inside the environmental circle. In other words, the environment is the single limiting factor which governs what’s possible in every other realm. This reality has ramifications for what’s possible in our cities as we enter an Age of Sufficiency. It is here that insular planning reveals its weak ideological footing.

When we take physical and natural laws seriously, they clearly demonstrate that infinite growth is impossible in a finite world and reveal that any urban planning strategy which doesn’t require curtailment of energy use in real terms and ensure the resilience of our cities’ local food and energy supplies simply isn’t serious.

On the other hand, sufficiency planning strategies are rooted in general systems theory, laws of thermodynamics, ecological principles, and the sufficiency principle. The sufficiency principle extends the straightforward idea that as one does more and more of an activity, there can be enough and there can be too much. For example, physical and natural laws demonstrate clearly that the world is a finite place and that cities, like all systems, must live within the boundaries of what is sufficient in order for the other systems they depend upon to function. In the context of a given city, this means paralleling the needs for resource inputs and waste sink outputs with the ability of the city’s region to support them.

In short, sufficiency planning starts with the humble question: “What are the limits of the region, and how far can we make those resources go in sufficiently fulfilling a high quality of life for all urban citizens?” It focuses on creating arrangements of living that provide the opportunity for all citizens to enjoy a sufficiently nutritious diet, meaningful work, physical and mental stimulation, education, safety, recreation and leisure time. Further, sufficiency planning promotes the development of social bonds that give citizens the impetus to make a stake in the continued welfare of the community.

Sufficiency planning focuses on providing this high quality of life through advocating modest, informal, human scale, and affordable strategies to retool our Metastatic cities into arrangements of living that will be more resilient to the succession now underway. I call these sustainable arrangements of living Authentic cities.

The authentic city is an ecologically-harmonious way of living within the limits of a given region. Authentic arrangements of living have been popular throughout history in corresponding Ages of Sufficiency; that is to say, during times of energy descent when curtailment and resilience became chief concerns. For example, after the fall of Rome, many cities within the territory of the former empire were forced to localize their food and resource supply lines significantly. As we enter the Age of Sufficiency, many of today’s cities will necessarily pursue a similar course of action.

I chose the word “authentic” as a designation for this manner of living because it invokes the undeniable pride of citizens who live in unique cities that are embedded in and representative of their region. Authentic cities conform to a set of very general, time-tested operating principles. For example, they solve local problems with locationally-appropriate solutions. They consume products and resources in keeping with what can be produced and harvested locally. Their citizens fiercely defend the ecological health of the region from exploitation, as they recognize it as the indisputable source of their livelihood. In short, they enable all citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well-being, without degrading the natural world or the lives of other people, now or in the future.

The past 500 years of urbanization, globalization, technological progress, and economic growth fueled by energy ascent have made authentic arrangements of living appear very quaint indeed. From the top of the peak, it’s difficult to imagine the way of life described above, as it differs so much from the Western world norm. Similarly, it makes it hard to believe that the continuation and expansion of this living arrangement is anything but inevitable. That’s all the more reason to get our heads straight about the implications of energy descent and ecological decline.

The truth is that Metastatic cities will atomize into authentic cities whether we like it or not, and this will happen as a result of succession. Succession is an orderly and directional process of change in the composition of an ecosystem, resulting from effects of its life processes upon its environment. In this context, it means metastatic living arrangements are changing the environment in a way that is becoming detrimental to their continuance.

Insular planning misinterprets the process of succession as a temporary anomaly before growth resumes; therefore, it attempts to sustain the unsustainable via well-meaning but unexamined efficiency and renewable energy strategies which will serve only to drag us deeper into the quicksand of energy descent.

My suspicion is that when all boondoggles have been exhausted, people will look for pragmatic, modest, cheap, informal, and easily-implementable planning strategies. And that’s when sufficiency planning will be widely accepted and adopted. Until that point in the not-too-distant future, it is up to forward-looking planners to devise strategies for creating conditions in our metastatic cities which make the transition to authentic cities less severe.

The process by which metastatic cities transform into authentic cities will likely be uneven and difficult. Jurisdictions will come up various methods for dealing with various challenges of varying intensities on varying timelines. Additionally, it’s important to remember that not all cities will arrive at a condition of authenticity in the same manner; some may get there by way of urban shrink; others will get there by growing into the role.

There are a few general characteristics that will typify the transformation from metastatic cities to authentic cities, however. From an urban design perspective, authentic cities will almost certainly eschew suburban sprawl in favor of consolidation to a manageable size in keeping with the energy and resources of the region.

Authentic cities will likely serve as regionalized urban clusters of economic activity, surrounded by farmland and forest, and connected by inter-city and intra-city transit. Their population density will be low on a regional basis, but each urban cluster will have high density. Neglected and unsustainable suburban areas may be forfeited back to nature for use as food production zones. As a result, there will be a sharper distinction at the edge of each city between the urban and rural transect.

The authentic city looks less like Vancouver or New York and more like modern-day small and poor Eastern European cities, or Havana, Cuba, or even Freiburg, Germany. Or perhaps they will come to resemble historic examples of authentic cities from as diverse times and locations as Tokugawa-era Kyoto, 18th century New England, or Medieval Europe. They may also come to share many similarities with what’s described in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, Richard Register’s EcoCity, or the Transition Town movement.

Regardless of what authentic cities ultimately look like, we planners can use some of these examples to figure out ways to make the transition from metastatic arrangements of living to authentic ones as skillfully as possible.

I’ll talk much more about authentic cities in the future. However, I think it might be useful to double back and re-emphasize some of the material I covered in prior posts. That’s where I’ll pick up next week.

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