Stewart Brand on New Urbanism and squatter communities
Squatters already have inspired some Green practices. There should be many more to come. I’ll give one example from close to home. I had been studying and admiring the world’s squatter communities for two years before I noticed that I live in one.
Liberty ships, the torpedo fodder of World War II, were built on the Sausalito, California, waterfront at a peak rate of one a day in 1944. When the war was over, the former shipyard became a semioutlaw area, and riffraff moved in—floated in. Steadily, through the 1950s and 1960s, the tidelands filled with floating shacks, derelict boats, and habitable sculpture, occupied by artists, maritime artisans, and other people who had more nerve than money.
A benevolent landlord went along with the game—collecting rent casually, protecting the community from outraged government authorities. Electricity was stolen from shore via extension cords, water via garden hoses. People crapped in the bay, and it smelled rank at a minus tide. There was some drug trade and the occasional murder. There was some freelance prostitution (“hitchhookers”). There was also a fashion shop, and a fashion show (of recycled clothes), several rock bands, and a theater group—Antenna—that earned a world reputation. I’ve lived and worked in the scene since 1973.
From time to time, the Coast Guard or the county sheriff would try to tow away the houseboats. The Sausalito City Council sent a demolition crew on a dawn attack. A state agency created by environmentalists, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, declared that houseboats are illegal “bay fill” and have been trying to expunge us for thirty-five years. The floating community hired lawyers, survived, grew, and gradually gentrified.
The four hundred or so Sausalito houseboats are mostly legal now, pay rent (berthage), and are hooked up to city infrastructure so the mud smells like mud again. Tourist groups stroll the docks to admire our colorful lifestyle. Chances are you’ve come across Sausalito waterfront creativity in the writings of Annie Lamott, Alan Watts, Paul Hawken, or Green architect Sim Van Der Ryn; in the cartoons of Shel Silverstein or Phil Frank; in Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”; in the Antenna Theater–produced Audio Tours that guide you around the world’s museums and historic sites; in the biological paintings of Isabella Kirkland; and in any town or city reshaped by what is called New Urbanism. That last item is my example.
• In 1983, architect Peter Calthorpe gave up on San Francisco, where he had tried and failed to organize neighborhood communities, and moved to a houseboat on the end of South Forty Dock, where I live. He found he was in a place that had the densest housing in California, where no one locked their doors—where most of the doors didn’t even have locks. Without trying, it was an intense, proud community. When Calthorpe looked for some element of design magic that made it work, he decided it was the dock itself, and the density. Everyone in the forty-nine houseboats on the dock passed each other on foot daily, trundling to and from the parking lot on shore. Everyone knew each other’s faces and voices and cats. It was a community, Calthorpe decided, because it was walkable.
Building on that insight, Calthorpe became one of the founders of New Urbanism, along with Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and others. In 1985 he introduced the concept of walkability in “Cities Redefined,” an article in the Whole Earth Review. Since then, New Urbanism has become the dominant force in city planning, promoting high density, mixed use, walkability, mass transit, eclectic design, and regionalism. It drew one of its major ideas from a squatter community.
There are a lot more ideas where that one came from. For instance, shopping areas could be more like the lanes in squatter cities, with a dense interplay of retail and services—one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. “Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6 p.m.,” suggests Jaime Lerner, the renowned former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. “That will inject life into the city.” In the thousands of squatter cities in the world, a billion creative people, most of them young, are trying new things unfettered by law or tradition.
Squatter cities are Green. They have maximum density—a million people per square mile in Mumbai—and minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi variously called a matatu (Kenya), dala-dala (Tanzania), tro-tro (Ghana), jeepney (Philippines), tuk-tuk (Thailand), tap-tap (Haiti), maxi-taxi (Romania), etc. (Not everything is efficient in the slums, though. In the Brazilian favelas where electricity is stolen and therefore free, Jan Chipchase from Nokia found that people leave their lights on all day.)
In most slums recycling is literally a way of life. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has four thousand recycling units and thirty thousand ragpickers; six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted in the slum every day. In Vietnam and Mozambique, an article in the Economist reports, “Waves of gleaners sift the sweepings of Hanoi’s streets, just as children pick over the rubbish of Maputo’s main tip. Every city in Asia and Latin America has an industry based on gathering up old cardboard boxes.” There’s a whole book on the subject: The World’s Scavengers (2007), by Martin Medina. Lagos, Nigeria, widely considered the world’s most chaotic city, has an Environment Day on the last Saturday of every month. From seven to ten a.m. nobody drives, and the entire city, including the slums, tidies itself up.
• In his 1985 article that introduced the idea of walkability, Peter Calthorpe made a statement that still jars most people: “The city is the most environmentally benign form of human settlement. Each city-dweller consumes less land, less energy, less water, and produces less pollution than his counterpart in settlements of lower densities.” “Green Manhattan” was the inflammatory title of a 2004 New Yorker article by David Owen. “By the most significant measures,” he wrote,
"New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. . . . The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is its extreme compactness. Manhattan’s population density is more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole. Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings."
But what about the ecological footprint? The idea of measuring environmental impact in notional acres was introduced by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in the 1996 book Our Ecological Footprint, as a way to estimate the resource efficiency of large systems like cities and as a way to condemn suburban sprawl. The concept has been tremendously useful in shaming cities into better environmental behavior, but comparable studies have yet to be made of rural populations, whose environmental impact per person is much higher than city dwellers. Nor has footprint analysis been applied to urban squatters, who will certainly score as the Greenest of all.
Urban density allows half of humanity to live on 2.8 percent of the land. Soon that will be 80 percent of humanity on 3 percent of the land. Consider just the infrastructure efficiencies. According to a 2004 UN report, “The concentration of population and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewers, drains, roads, electricity, garbage collection, transport, health care, and schools.” In the developed part of the world, cities are Green mainly because they reduce energy use, but in the developing world, the primary Greenness of cities lies in their ability to draw people in and take the pressure off rural natural systems.
The Last Forest (2007), a book by Mark London and Brian Kelly on the realities of the Amazon rain forest, suggests that the nationally subsidized city of Manaus in northern Brazil “answers the question ‘How do you stop deforestation?’ Give people decent jobs. If you give them jobs, they can afford houses; give them houses and their family has security; give them security and their vision shifts to the future.” One hundred thousand people who would otherwise be deforesting
• Environmentalists have yet to seize the enormous opportunity offered by urbanization. Two major campaigns should be mounted—one to protect the newly emptied countryside, the other to Green the hell out of the growing cities. Because cities change constantly anyway, it’s not that hard to improve them.
More than any other political entity, cities learn from each other. News of best practices spreads fast. Mayors travel routinely, cruising for ideas in the cities deemed the world’s Greenest—Reykjavik, Iceland; Portland, Oregon; Curitiba, Brazil; Malmö, Sweden; Vancouver, Canada; Copenhagen, Denmark; London, England; San Francisco, California; Bahi de Caráquez, Ecuador; Sydney, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; Bogotá, Colombia; Bangkok, Thailand; Kampala, Uganda; and Austin, Texas. Urban ecotourism is a growth industry.
To manage the ecology of cities, we first have to understand it. A 2008 article in Science framed the necessary new discipline in meaty language I find delicious:
"Evolving conceptual frameworks for urban ecology view cities as heterogeneous, dynamic landscapes and as complex, adaptive, socioecological systems, in which the delivery of ecosystem services links society and ecosystems at multiple scales. . . .
"The changes in chemical environment, exposure to pollutants, simplified geomorphic structure, and altered hydrographs of urban streams combine to create an urban stream “syndrome” of low biotic diversity, high nutrient concentrations, reduced nutrient retention efficiency, and often elevated primary production. . . . Countering the urban stream syndrome may require abandonment of the ideal of a “restored” stream in favor of a designed ecosystem. . . . Reconciliation ecology, where habitats greatly altered for human use are designed, spatially arranged, and managed to maximize biodiversity while providing economic benefits and ecosystem services, offers great promise that ecologists will be increasingly called upon to help design and manage new cities and reconstruct older ones."
Progress comes from mashup notions like “socioecological systems” and “reconciliation ecology.” The new profession of urban ecology could unleash hordes of postdocs on everything from cockroach predation to urban disease vectors and help cities engage natural infrastructure with the same level of sophistication that is brought to built infrastructure. Every Green organization should have an urban strategy, and some should specialize in cities.
One idea that could be transferred from squatter cities is urban farming. Another article in Science enthused:
"In a high-tech answer to the “local food” movement, some experts want to transport the whole farm—shoots, roots, and all—to the city. They predict that future cities could grow most of their food inside city limits, in ultraefficient greenhouses. . . . Well-designed greenhouses use as little as 10 percent of the water and 5 percent of the area required by farm fields. . . . A 30-story farm on one city block could feed 50,000 people with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat. Upper floors would grow hydroponic crops; lower floors would house chickens and fish that consume plant waste."
Urban roofs offer no end of opportunities for energy saving and “reconciliation ecology.” Planting a green roof with its own ecological community is a well-established practice. For food, add an “ultraefficient greenhouse”; for supplemental power, add a few of the current generation of solar collectors.
The most dramatic gains can come from simply making everything white. A white roof saves the building’s tenant 20 percent in cooling costs; that’s why California now requires all new and retrofitted buildings in the state to have heat-reflective roofs. If you also plant plenty of trees, you significantly reduce the “heat island” effect of a city, which in turn reduces smog. About a quarter of a city’s surface is roofs, and a third is pavement, which can be made paler with concrete or with light-colored aggregate in the asphalt. Since a white city reflects sunlight instead of absorbing it, there are climate benefits. According to a 2008 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “If the 100 largest cities in the world replaced their dark roofs with white shingles and their asphalt-based roads with concrete or other light-colored material, it could offset 44 metric gigatons (billion tons) of greenhouse gases.” Call the program “Alabaster Cities,” and you can invoke “America the Beautiful” in support. (It’s the best line in the song: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years / Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears.”)
Some environmentalists already are proponents of urban compactness. Sierra Club’s magazine reports that in Vancouver, “Mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity program includes zoning changes to allow ‘secondary suites,’ or in-law apartments; triplexes; and narrow streets with houses that abut property lines.” Peter Calthorpe’s “walkability” has become a real estate selling point, with walkable neighborhoods able to charge premium prices. A proven way to encourage walking and use of public transit is with a “congestion tax” on cars in the downtown streets. In 2002 London followed the lead of Singapore and Hong Kong and adopted the practice of charging cars £8 a day to drive in the central city. Complaints died away when everybody’s travel times in and out of the city went down dramatically. Stockholm, San Francisco, Sydney, and Shanghai are taking up the idea, with more cities to follow.
One abiding problem is that the high cost of living in a city prices most families with children right out of town to the suburbs, and the good schools follow them. Greens could help reverse that trend by pressuring cities to become more like child-friendly Paris, where every neighborhood has excellent schools and parks with playgrounds, puppet theaters, and carousels. Peter Calthorpe tells me he’s become an advocate of voucher schools, because that system forces city schools to compete in an open market, and they then improve sufficiently to attract the families back from the suburbs. New forms of subsidized family housing should be explored.
Infrastructure makes cities possible, and it has to be rebuilt every few decades. According to a report in 2007 by the infrastructure consultants Booz Allen Hamilton, “Over the next 25 years, modernizing and expanding the water, electricity, and transportation systems of the cities of the world will require approximately $40 trillion.” What would infrastructure totally rethought in Green terms look like? China is currently building 170 new mass transit systems. High-speed rail is finally coming to the United States. With the coming of “smart grids” and microgrids, the distribution of electricity will be reshaped toward greater adaptability as well as efficiency.
As climate change unfolds, cities will be on the frontier of human response. Taking the danger zone as 30 feet above sea level, a Columbia University study reported in Science says that two thirds of all cities with a population over 5 million are “especially vulnerable” to rising sea levels and “weather oscillations.” The Thames Barrier protecting London from flood tides was raised twenty-seven times between 1986 and 1996, and sixty-six times between 1996 and 2006. Some are forecasting that it will be overwhelmed by 2030.
From the mitigation angle, it will be worth refining a “climate footprint” template for cities, grading them on such things as their albedo, their vegetation density, and their greenhouse gas and soot output versus their use of carbon-free energy sources like hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar. As with ecological-footprint studies, there should be a time dimension—is the city improving or getting worse? Then comes adaptation. A “climate prospects” template would detail how each city might respond to climate impacts such as sea-level rise, drought, extreme weather, and temperature changes. Is high ground nearby? Is there a move-upstairs option in the buildings? Can the local water supply and agriculture adapt to salt water infusion or, if inland, to drought? If city abandonment becomes necessary, how would it play out?
• In the broad scope of history, growing cities are far from an unmitigated good. They concentrate crime, pollution, and injustice as much as they concentrate business, innovation, education, and entertainment. If they are overall a net good for the people who move there, it is because cities offer more than just job opportunity. They are transformative. In the slums as well as the office towers and leafy suburbs, the progress is from hick to metropolitan to cosmopolitan, and everything the dictionary says that cosmopolitan means: multicultural, multiracial, global, worldly-wise, well traveled, experienced, unprovincial, cultivated, cultured, sophisticated, suave, urbane.
The takeoff of cities is the dominant economic event of the first half of this century. Among all its other impacts will be infrastructural stresses on energy supply and food supply. People in vast numbers are climbing the energy ladder from smoky firewood and dung cooking fires to diesel-driven generators for charging batteries, then to 24/7 grid electricity. They are also climbing the food ladder—from subsistence farms to cash crops of staples like rice, corn, wheat, and soy to the high protein of meat—and doing so in a global marketplace. Environmentalists who try to talk people out of such aspirations will find the effort works about as well as trying to convince people to stay in their villages did.
Peasant life is over unless catastrophic climate change drives us back to it.
The demographic literature refers often to the “bright lights” phenomenon that draws people to cities. Thanks to military satellite imagery, those lights are now visible to us from space. The night side of Earth, these decades, displays a dazzling lacework of light on the continents, with incandescent nodes at the metropolitan areas and a bright tracery of transportation corridors between them. That web of light is the sign to any visitor that they are approaching not just a living planet, but a civilized planet.