Before I get started, you may be interested to hear/read that I am trying to write a little everyday. That does not mean I will post everyday, but you may see a few more posts of stories I am working on. I have plugged a few more pages into The City of Winter which may become A Garden in Winter, a more apt title now that I have worked through it a little, and will post it when I get to what ought to be a halfway point. This is a pledge I attempted to make in mid-Autumn when I suddenly discovered I had more abundant time than I really wanted, but want to come back to it while I await hearing back from graduate schools.
No Impact Man Documentary,
Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability by David Owen,
Cafeteria Confidential articles by Ed Bruske from Grist,
The Power of Half advanced gossip off of Grist,
Matthew Wheeland on the iPad (though I have read a bit of it on FastCompany, too),
Cities vs. Suburbs by Jonathan Hiskes on Grist,
VURB, a European urban planning sort of organization,
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell,
and--as always--some on agriculture, like Small is Beautiful and Radical from Grist.
(I also have Hope: Human and Wild in the back of my mind constantly, now.)
In the future, there will be cities. Great, big, vast cities that reach high into the sky. These are not the wet dreams of early 20th century futurists, nor is it bland prognostication. What it is is a statement. Save a new-future apocalyptic scenario, this planet is going to be home to many billions of people for a few decades, if not centuries to come. If the future has much in the way of biodiversity and agricultural land, then many of those people will live and work in cities very close to one another.
That is not to say cramped, nor is it to suggest few farmers. Around the beginning of the century, about 60% of Americans were farmers, feeding the rest of us. Now, it is down to 1% of the U.S. population farms for the rest of us. If we want to look out for the wellbeing of the landscape--farm or reserve or "wilderness"--then we need people there, too. We cannot house people far from each other, get those people to work, provide access to social services, and get them to grocers and the like efficiently if we are spread out. Cities provide a focus for population, services, business, commerce, and the arts. Compact living spaces may not have backyards to grow crops and flowers close by, but they do make heating and cooling much more practical. We need farms, we need farmers, we need a re-democratized and re-populated countryside to effectively steward our land. Those stewards, though, cannot live in McMansions or summerhomes located so as to "get away from it all."
In Green Metropolis, David Owen's agenda is admirable but comes off condescendingly. Yes, we do need to critique the environmental movement's notions of living "green," especially if it might be coined "sustainable." In brief, sustainability is not buying more junk, even if it is made out of bamboo and recycled plastic bottles. If it ought to mean anything, sustainability will come to mean living with less. For apartment bound New Yorkers, living with less is a necessity of smaller living spaces. As The Power of Half and No Impact Man/Family explores, going with less is not at all the same as living less; as in, living less joyously, less productively, less intelligently. As it was put in No Impact Man, (and I am paraphrasing from memory) the things given up kept them inside; without TV, lighting, heating, they necessarily got outside more, explored and conversed with neighbors and strangers. As Michael Pollan is oft to address, without a TV in front of your family, we eat meals more slowly, leisurely, and enjoyably; we take the time to talk to one another, pause and chew our meals as part of active listening and shared company.
Food in the cities-that-are-to-come will mostly be local and, hopefully, seasonal. I critique Owen here (and others on my Flickr) because he underestimates the importance of local, seasonal foods as connecting people to places and to one another. This practice is, and well ought to be, both joyous and connective--it is one of the most loved parts of the experiment in No Impact Man by his often frustrated family--and generally worth working a little less to exploit. Take the township model, with businesses and most homes in a central hub, with farms spreading out around it. Such a model--if the crops are really food crops and the farmers use diverse agroecological methods--can feed many, many people. As addressed in Ed Bruske's Cafeteria Confidential, the push for a real change in what we eat needs to work in schools, and that needs to happen now. Whether it is obesity, diabetes, attention-deficit, school grades, graduation rates, life skills, or innovation and creativity in our students, real food and knowledge about it helps in ways we won't see in full until they are happening everywhere. We need a healthier society and that ought to start in schools.
The release of the iPad further marks the multiplication of gadgets and gewgaws in our arsenal of technological toys. Matthew Wheeland has his comments on it, but I think that between Apple and Google, we might actually see some real, widespread innovation in the way we work with technology. I am not jumping for an iPad, though I do think it is mighty cool. What I am jumping about is what comes next. I don't mean the newest model or the dawn of 4G networks, what I mean is dropping the materials more and more and upping the mobility of communications technology. What I am looking for is the integrated circuit-city-community-citizen. The real green technology is, almost out of necessity, going to be technology that is nigh invisible: If your hardware is small enough, then its impact is similarly minimized. Take that thinking and integrate into a city, mix in the user-centrism of Google and Apple, bake it in a setting of optimal creativity and integration, and you get a whole new place to live.
That may come off as pie-in-the-sky techno-jargon, but I doubt it. Urban planners, architects, and designers are going to jump at making malleable, interactive community spaces; a star which has already peaked over the horizon. If we can instigate a city more involved in place, more involved in its own people, and get those people more interested in spending time out of doors and with one another, we will see a different sort of urban community. As Gladwell points out, Brooklyn changed into a more street-friendly city over five years, and once people got out on the streets, then everyone was out on the streets again. With more people out, the push for attractive green architecture and park design, changes in business and industry, and diminishing needs for automobiles and wide streets will spontaneously generate.
The best thing, we are on our way. If Congress can change the school lunch program into a local, fresh foods program, one that would encourage healthy eating for our children, then the subsequent change to agriculture will fall like a domino. Likewise, if the Food Bill can incorporate farming for real foods rather than commodity crops (listen up Senator Ben Nelson), then the encouragement for farmers to grow food very well might explode, making currently unsubsidized whole foods cheaper and more affordable for low-income families. Likewise, if we can discourage sprawl in our cities, we can maintain resources and taxes in tighter circles, thus providing resources for making cities all the more livable and sustainable. We are on the edge of a sudden, precipitous transformation, and I earnestly hope we can provide a collective push over the edge and into something new.