For the better part of the last century, the conservation movement and its offspring, the environmental movement, have had a negative view of cities.
It started with John Muir's celebration of nature in reaction to the ugliness of industrial development, urban pollution, congestion, and noise. But this bias against cities is changing. Environmental groups now acknowledge that the way we live in cities is at the nexus of many environmental challenges.
Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this awakening is the founding in the early 1990s of the Congress for the New Urbanism, formed to re-establish the relationship between the art of city building and the conservation of the natural environment. According to its founding charter, new urbanists view “the divestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands, and the erosion of society's built heritage as one inter-related community-building challenge.”
New urbanists call for reducing our reliance on automobiles, bringing a wide range of amenities within a 10-minute walk of home and work. They advocate pedestrian-friendly design, including front porches and tree-lined streets, with parking hidden from view. Every neighborhood would be a mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes, including people of diverse ages, classes, cultures, and races, with higher density in urban centers, and a celebration of rural life at the clearly marked edge of the city. Such cities, they argue, would result in greater sustainability and a higher quality of life for everyone.
Despite the appeal of this vision, new urbanists have been slow to engage advocates of social and racial justice, civil rights, labor, housing, and faith-based leaders concerned about the challenges facing marginalized city populations.
Now an emerging national movement for regional equity is bringing new actors, issues, policies, and practices to the quest for smarter growth and socially just and livable communities. This movement carries fervor and moral authority—not seen since the early days of the civil rights movement—to the rebuilding of our downtowns, city neighborhoods, and older and newer suburban communities.
Many long-time residents of isolated, poorer neighborhoods welcome middle-income families to their neighborhoods as they become popular again due to new urban trends. They see the newcomers as making the neighborhood more attractive for grocery stores, banks, safe pubic parks, better schools, and inviting spaces. However, neighborhood organizers, housing advocates, and tenant groups worry that newcomers will displace older residents, driving up taxes and housing prices, making it impossible for poorer residents to remain. Such groups, organized to protect traditional constituencies, are joining the regional equity movement, to develop new strategies to capture some of the wealth from changing neighbor?hoods to benefit poor people.
From abandonment to opportunity
For many urban and rural communities, the scale of abandonment has reached epidemic proportions.
There are 90,000 vacant properties in Detroit, 60,000 in Philadelphia. Once-prosperous cities like St Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, and dozens of smaller cities are shrinking, while we continue to build auto-dependent suburban communities 50 miles away from the downtowns, on what was once farmland.
In recent years, though, cities like Richmond, Flint, and Philadelphia have launched ambitious initiatives to reclaim vacant properties. Others, such as San Diego and Las Vegas, have taken aggressive steps to prevent abandonment in the first place. A National Vacant Properties Campaign is attracting smart growth advocates—who see property reclamation as a way to offset urban sprawl—and affordable housing groups seeking to rehabilitate homes.
Every community should have housing for the people who work there. A suburban neighborhood that has many stores, for example, should have places where cashiers and janitors can afford to live. And now that the nation has largely transformed to a service economy, and many industrial processes are less polluting, there is less need to separate places where people work and live. Having jobs closer to residential areas reduces over-reliance on automobiles, improves social integration, and reduces the eco?logical stresses associated with high traffic volumes.
Bringing nature back into the cities
The natural world is a resource for aesthetic appreciation, education, and recreation. Cities that are barren of trees suffer from the heat-island effect as pavement and roofs absorb and radiate heat. When soils are displaced with paving, water can't percolate into the aquifers, and this too affects the microclimate.
Building community gardens, or opening up and restoring creeks and watersheds, provides opportunities to bring people of different jurisdictions, neighborhoods, and social classes together.
Perhaps easiest to understand, relating directly to issues of economic justice, is the urgent need to reconstruct our food system.
When I was growing up in the 1940s in Philadelphia, much of our food came from nearby farms. When the season changed, the food changed, and people kept track. During World War II, virtually every household in our neighborhood had a victory garden as a way of contributing to the war effort.
Today our food is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, distributed, shipped, and marketed by a small number of giant corporations. Folks in cities have no idea where their food comes from. The small family farm is no longer economically viable. Rural communities bear the brunt of noxious corporate farming practices. The money that urban populations spend for food increasingly pays for industrial farming monocultures, dependent on toxic pesticides, and transportation costs for shipping our food from countries all over the world to urban supermarkets.
Bringing nature back into the city means finding new ways to link small family farmers with consumers in the cities in a regional food system that provides healthy food to people who live in the city while keeping rural economies vibrant.
Just, green, & beautiful
An authentic approach to urban sustainability incorporates ecological integrity, beauty—and social justice.
Imagine cities as places where there is concern for air, water, and land, where working people can afford to live and raise their families. Imagine rural life protected and preserved, not turned into one commercial strip after another.
Imagine vital exchanges across generations and beautiful places where people gather.
Urban life is at its most vibrant when people from various parts of the world bring together their music, food, cultural systems, and religious expressions. All of these make for cities that manifest the strength and brilliance of the human garden.
The movement toward just, livable cities—the regional equity movement—is working to recapture some of this lost vibrancy, envisioning a new pattern of development that incorporates all the ecological ideas to grow a more equitable society.