No cars, no problem? Imagining a sustainable city

No cars, no problem? Imagining a sustainable city

sustainable city
Shutterstockfilip robert
Consumerism has to go if we're going to make cities truly sustainable.

The following is an excerpt from the Worldwatch Institute publication "State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable?"

Describing a sustainable city is no easy task. Cities differ in geography, climate, culture, history, wealth and a host of other dimensions, each of which precludes any possibility of a one-size-fits-all approach to urban sustainability.

A sustainable Riyadh will look and operate differently from a sustainable Reykjavik because of their disparate climates, among other distinctions. In addition, no mature models of urban sustainability are available today, anywhere on the planet.

And even at the definitional level, there is little agreement about what constitutes a sustainable city. Although many of the necessary technologies and policies are well known, recipes for creating a fully sustainable city have not been developed, much less implemented.

Because of these uncertainties, describing a sustainable city is, to some extent, an exercise in imagination. The paragraphs that follow are one possible product of such a visioning exercise.

Imagine a city 20 years in the future, perhaps in Europe, Japan, or North America, that is well on track to becoming the first sustainable city in the world. When it launched its strategic plan for sustainability in 2016, it unfurled the most ambitious sustainability effort ever seen. In this imagined future, you are a 40-year-old accountant and mother of two:

The bedside alarm beeps insistently, nudging you into Monday morning. You surrender to it, emerging from bed into a short shower. Becoming resource-aware was a challenge for you and your neighbors after citizens approved the "Our City, Remade" strategic plan.

But over time, you and your fellow citizens have matured into a world of resource limits, having shed your parents’ no-tomorrow approach to resource use and their misplaced attachment to consumption. Your internalized ethic of restraint gives you the bearing of, well, an adult. You wear it well.

Teeth brushed and fully dressed, you head to the kitchen through your living room, lights illuminating the way automatically as sensors detect your presence.

The apartment is snug, with two bedrooms, a small office, a kitchen, a living room and a balcony. But for you and your spouse, it works well now that "stuff" is kept to a stress-free minimum, and given the common space you share with neighbors: your two kids spend the bulk of their play time downstairs with neighbor children on the nearly traffic-free street, where the occasional car must inch its way through an obstacle course of benches and planters.

The apartment complies with standards set by the city’s 100 percent Renewable Energy initiative, which promotes high levels of efficiency and conservation and is supported by an annual increase in fossil energy prices. The city’s energy conservation program helped your landlord swap out inefficient windows and install solar panels and solar water heaters — he had little choice, really, given the large increase in fossil fuel prices.

Today, the city has nearly eliminated fossil fuel use, and your energy consumption, at about half its previous level, can now be accommodated by the city’s stock of renewable energy.

You walk the little ones to the school three blocks away, engaged in their chatter about today’s field trip to the nearby greenway, one of 17 large wildlife corridors that radiate from the city’s center to its periphery. Rich in habitat and feeding spots for birds, butterflies, frogs, squirrels and other wildlife, the corridors are an integral part of the city’s infrastructure.

As extensions of local classrooms, the corridors host field labs for the kids’ nature course (they will observe tadpoles today!). The corridors are also recreational havens, featuring trails for hiking and biking, fitness courses, picnic areas and wildlife education placards.

The lush, park-like radials are crisscrossed by green chains of vegetated roofs, community gardens, ponds, street landscaping and other hubs of natural activity, creating a network of nature that is deeply integrated into city functions.

The 17 radials serve as natural flood channels and recharge areas for city aquifers, absorbing the now-torrential rains generated by a changed climate and saving the municipality millions of dollars in construction costs for wastewater conduits and ever-deeper wells.

Arriving at the school, you kiss the kids goodbye and hop on the streetcar to continue on to work, nose in your tablet. Three kilometers down the line, you get off, pull a city bike from the rack and pedal the last kilometer to the office. Home to office is just 25 minutes, even with the school stop — 15 minutes faster than the same trip made by car years ago.

New taxes on gasoline and parking had made driving unviable, yet now you rarely miss the car. Between the streetcar, biking, walking and car sharing, you have transportation options for every need.

And given the city’s new emphasis on mixing businesses and residences, core goods and services are often just steps away. Your waistline is smaller and your wallet is fatter without the car, insurance, gas and maintenance expenses. Above all, your new commute is a calming experience, not a stressful one, as it puts you in touch with the people, sights and smells of your neighborhood.

Yours is a full life, with family, work, civic activities and volunteer work crowding your calendar. Yet most of your daily activities happen within two kilometers of home. The "Dense Community, Vibrant Community" land-use initiative has brought together more people in neighborhoods across the city, stimulating economic transactions and stronger community ties.

Neighborhood outlets meet all of your food needs, most of your recreational and social needs and a great many of your repair and supply needs. You can easily go one month without traveling more than five kilometers from your home, yet you hardly feel trapped — the wide variety of offerings and extensive social connections within that circle keep you stimulated and alive.

After a six-hour day at work (your hours are reduced through job sharing, giving you more family time while increasing employment), you reverse the morning commute: bike, streetcar, walk.

But at the streetcar station, you pause to peruse the offerings at the farm stand, grabbing some fresh vegetables, pasta and a loaf of bread for dinner and tucking them into the canvas bag that accompanies you everywhere. (No meat today — that once-a-week pleasure is applauded by your doctor, who likes your cholesterol numbers, and by the city’s Pollution Control Board, which celebrates lowered greenhouse gas emissions from its Meatless Weekdays program.)

Your bounty today is nearly free because you’ve racked up credit from trading in your homemade compost. The farmer, a local who tends vegetables on three formerly abandoned city lots, values the compost for its structure and organic matter. You value the organic vegetables.

The rhythm of home and work life continues throughout the week, with changes each day to your post-work routine. On Tuesday, you take your toaster in to have its frayed cord fixed. Gone are the days when you would toss out an appliance in favor of a new one, repair now being more affordable than purchasing following the enactment of the citizen-approved Materials Tax, which made metal, plastic, wood and other materials more expensive relative to labor.

Many downtown retailers have evolved into repair shops. The modern culture of repair has renewed an old tradition: handing down household goods to one’s children, often over multiple generations. Widely admired are the householders whose goods are old and fully functional — sturdy iron can openers and hand egg beaters from the 1920s, for example, or solid oak tables and chairs kept in good repair.

Prized as expressions of resource stewardship, these goods are daily reminders of the new materials ethic at the core of your sustainable city today.

On Wednesday, you remind the kids to take out the discard can. Tomorrow is discard pick-up day for the spring quarter. The city’s No Fill for Landfills initiative has cut landfill waste by 93 percent in two decades. Discarded packaging and other waste has been largely eliminated, thanks to a Producer Take-Back initiative that holds companies responsible for any waste associated with their products, giving firms a strong incentive to reduce packaging.

It helps that you have developed a new sensitivity to throwing things away: the thought of using a paper towel or paper bag (remember them?) once and tossing it in the trash — your unthinking daily habit years ago — now prompts recoil.

"Waste" generation has been reduced so greatly that the city has sold off its fleet of garbage trucks, instead renting small pickups from the car sharing company every three months to collect residual materials. Nearly all of this is recycled.

On Thursday night, you send the kids to a neighbor’s apartment to work on homework as you and your spouse head out to a meeting at the kids’ school. The facility is bustling with community and civic initiatives. An adult basketball league has games under way in the gym, young and old pump iron in the weight room, and meetings of the historical society, the district music club and cooking classes are in progress in the classrooms.

You and your spouse head to the auditorium for the Budget Consultation meeting — the chance for your district to provide comments about the proposed city budget. You are particularly excited to float some ideas for your district’s Community Grant, funds that you and your neighbors can spend as you determine.

Late Sunday afternoon, the family takes its weekly promenade, strolling 10 minutes to the plaza at the district center, a favorite gathering place for people from nearby neighborhoods.

You treat everyone to ice cream, but the evening is focused on people more than purchases. The kids soon are surrounded by friends, laughing as they play jacks or hopscotch on grids defined by the plaza paving stones. Parents discuss politics and sports with friends. A music ensemble plays in a corner of the plaza, the notes floating across the square on the warm summer evening. Couples dance to the tunes.

Heading home, your week coming to a close, you lag a few steps behind the family, lost in thought. How much has changed since the "Our City, Remade" strategic plan was launched 20 years ago. How impossible it all had seemed when the new sustainability goals were approved, with great trepidation, after a contentious campaign. Yet how much richer your life is today.

You ponder the irony: less has led to more, living leaner is living richer. Sure, the city still has its challenges, but the great restraint that governs city life somehow has made it more prosperous for more people than ever before. Indeed:

  • Gone is the excess, the wasteful use of so much. In its place is resource stewardship and a deep appreciation for civic resources of all kinds.
  • Gone is frivolous and thoughtless purchasing. In its place is a restraining ethic characterized by the question, "Will this make my life better?"
  • Gone is pollution, a noxious sort of waste. In its place is an ethic of cleanliness that extends from the family to industry and the city as a whole.
  • Gone is homelessness, hunger and most material poverty. In its place is an ethic of equality and dignity — that every person has value and a place in the community.
  • Gone is the anonymity of the big city, even as the city has grown through in-migration. In its place are strong and diverse district communities.

You catch up with the family and turn the corner to your apartment building, energized for a new week.

From imaginary to reality?

This imaginary city clearly has made a strong effort in the direction of sustainability. But is it enough? Without a defined set of yardsticks, the answer is unclear.

Some analyses — such as the study that Mistra Urban Futures undertook to calculate the lifestyle changes required in Gothenburg, Sweden, to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions to two tons per person — give results that look much like the lifestyle of our protagonist.

But an analysis such as that of Vancouver, Canada, which uses an "ecological footprint" methodology, would restrict our protagonist still further: no meat, and no travel by plane.

Other analyses, such as that of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, suggest that keeping global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius or less this century is possible but will require aggressive actions immediately.

Thus, much work remains to develop a toolkit that allows cities to measure and chart a path to sustainability.

The situation is complicated further by the different sustainability requirements for wealthy and developing countries. Wealthy countries, with the infrastructure and prerequisites for a dignified life already in place, need to shrink their use of fossil energy and materials enough to allow developing countries to expand theirs.

If our protagonist’s city were in a developing country, her week would be filled with expansion: first of infrastructure, including schools, clinics, transport, parks and sports facilities, and second of income-generating opportunities that, in turn, would boost consumption to levels required for a dignified life.

In sum, while sustainability in our protagonist’s imagined city required a degree of scaling back and slowing down, her cousin’s poor city across the ocean requires faster economic growth and consumption to lift all citizens to stable lives, even as it also pursues greater efficiency. Thus, the path to sustainability is context-dependent.

Given the variability of approaches to sustainability, this volume does not attempt to prescribe a single path to a sustainable city. Instead, it lays out ideas for moving in the direction of urban sustainability, toward cities that, in their broad outlines, look like our imagined city, with renewables supplying nearly all energy, waste nearly eliminated as a circular economy takes hold, prominent attention to the "people side" of sustainable cities — health, education, jobs and equity — and a repurposing of modern life away from consumerism.

The details will be different in cities worldwide, but most of the prescriptions in this volume head in these general directions.

Scattered throughout the volume are a set of "City View" profiles highlighting the sustainability efforts of diverse cities worldwide. All are inspiring and contain measures that could be adopted or adapted for use in other cities seeking a sustainable path.

Freiburg, Germany, for example, has taken a wide range of steps to reduce its footprint, while providing a high quality of life to residents. And Jerusalem, Israel, has made considerable effort to maintain its green space and to protect biological diversity within city limits.

But lurking behind each success story is a nagging question: Are these cities doing enough? Have their efforts delivered them to the doorstep of true sustainability? In a world that requires huge reductions in carbon emissions, waste and materials use, and equally large increases in renewable energy use and in material and energy efficiency, the answer would seem to be, "No, not yet."

This is not to be discouraging: new initiatives can build on the gains described in these profiles and multiply their benefits. But it is sobering to note that no city can be content with current achievements, no matter how impressive. The successes described in the City View profiles are launching points for a new round of efforts, rather than crowning achievements.

Cities today are in an exciting position to take leadership on the preeminent challenge of our era: the effort to build sustainable economies. Cities are, after all, where many sustainability issues are lived out — where most commerce, energy use, production and other modern drivers of unsustainability (and one day, of sustainability) take place.

Just as important, cities are where people are most likely to understand and engage sustainability concerns, where discussion is no longer abstract but becomes grounded and real. People care about their cities and often are motivated to protect and improve their urban homes. Cities can harness that passion to help advance a sustainability agenda, perhaps more easily than national governments or corporations can.

Indeed, cities may be our best hope for shifting economies in a sustainable direction.