A Misalignment?

Is there a misalignment between what we want from cities and what we get? In order to answer this question, we’d have to first presume that everyone (“we”) wants the same thing from cities. If we generalize, perhaps “we” want more livable, efficient, green, and sustainable cities. What Gregory Bateson argues in Steps to an Ecology of Mind is that the way in which we’ve traditionally developed cities, has not been holistic enough to address the complex systems and interrelationships that happen within an urban setting. He argues that our solutions have been ones that address symptoms, or perhaps tackle one problem at a time instead of thinking about the effects of change on more than one variable. In this sense, what we have gotten out of cities is, yes, what we wanted, but also many and often negative unintended consequences.

As Bateson and Klein argue, the heart of the conflict and misalignment between what we put into and get out of cities in relation to sustainability lies in the occidental capitalist approach to urbanism that fails to progress with an understanding of interconnectivity between ecosystems. In 2013, Vishaan Chakrabarti opened his lecture at CMU by showing a clip from the children’s TV show Bob the Builder. In the show, an industrial and urban environment was portrayed as the polluting evil setting while a green suburbia portrayed as the healthy and thriving community. He argued that if we truly cared for the well-being of our natural surroundings we would live in more dense urban settings because if you look at a regional ecology, living more compactly is more economical in terms of resources and therefore has a smaller footprint of negative impact.

Peter Calthorpe’s “passive urbanism” approach is similar to Chakrabarti’s in the sense that it concentrates on a reduction in consumption. While I disagree with Calthorpe’s solution to redefine urbanity to include more suburban qualities, I do agree with him when he says in the first chapter of Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change that we need to look at the bigger regional picture and reevaluate our approach to problem-solving. He puts it in terms of means and ends. If cities redefine the way in which solutions are sought to think more inclusively at the complex systems in cities and regions, cities could be on track to being more sustainable.

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