A Metamorphosis for Cities: From Gray to Green
By Peter Berg *
Once a rare and privileged way of life supported by a large
agriculturally-productive rural population, city-dwelling is fast becoming
the norm. In spite of the fact that they are grotesquely overgrown
compared with the recent past, overextended, and subject to crippling
disruptions, urban environments will soon be the primary inhabitation
sites for our species. As late as 1950, less than 30 percent of the
world's population lived in cities and towns of 25,000 or more. But by the
year 2000, half of humanity will no longer live on the land. In some
places the figure will be much higher: over 75 percent in Latin and North
America, Europe, East Asia and Oceania. Fewer people are remaining in
direct contact with nature at a time when more urbanites need to somehow
produce part of the resources they consume. Cities not only restrict
beneficial contact with nature, they inexorably surround and destroy it.
Open spaces that previously separated urban areas fill in with new
development to encircle natural areas like cages in a zoo. A nearly
unbroken megalopolis that runs down North America's eastern seaboard from
Boston to Atlanta is, in effect, a wall barricading wildlife from the
ocean. Cities bordering on rivers sprawl further and further along banks
to thinly stretch and finally break the all-important water links of
ecosystem chains. A profound transformation is needed in the way cities
are conceived. This can't be merely an administrative reform or change in
the design of systems or structures because it needs to involve a
completely new set of priorities and principles. The future purpose and
function of cities and the activities of city-dwelling must become the
focus of social and political consciousness on a primary level. The first
step toward reconceptualizing urban areas is to recognize that they are
all situated in local bioregions within which they can be made
self-reliant and sustainable. The unique soils, watersheds, native plants
and animals, climate, seasonal variations, and other natural
characteristics that are present in the geographical life-place where a
city is located constitute the basic context for securing essential
resources of food, water, energy and materials. For this to happen in a
sustainable way, cities must identify with and put themselves in balanced
reciprocity with natural systems. Not only do they have to find nearby
sources to satisfy basic human needs, but also to adapt those needs to
local conditions. They must maintain the natural features that still
remain, and restore as many of those that have been disrupted as possible.
For example, restoring polluted bays, lakes, or rivers, so that they will
once more be healthy habitats for aquatic life can also help make urban
areas more self- reliant in producing food.
Different geographical areas have different conditions depending on
their natural characteristics. Bioregionally-founded values that are
appropriate to each place should be agreed upon and then used to direct
municipal policies. Guides for doing this can be transferred over from
some basic principles that govern all ecosystems:
- Interdependence — Heighten awareness of interchanges
between production and consumption of resources so that supply,
re-use, recycling, and restoration become more closely linked. Reduce
- Diversity — Support a wide range of means to satisfy basic
human needs and a multiplicity of cultural, social, and political
expressions. Resist single-interest solutions and monoculture;
- Self-Regulation — Encourage decentralized activities
carried out by groups in neighborhoods and districts. Replace top-down
bureaucratic agencies with grassroots assemblies;
- Long-term Stability — Aim policies to work under various
conditions and for several generations. Minimize short-term programs
and patchwork remedies.
When interdependence, diversity, self-regulation and long-term
stability are consulted, it is possible to make much more ecologically
coherent and therefore more practical decisions than are generally seen
today. Applied to the cycle of food production and consumption, for
example, these values could lead to beneficial features:
more small-scale farms and gardens near or in the city that employ
greater numbers of people;
preserve and restore green spaces;
reduce transportation costs;
provide fresher produce;
wider use of permaculture (permanent agriculture) and native food
plants to conserve and build topsoil;
lower water use;
maintain natural habitats;
subscription buying by institutions and groups of individuals who
spend a certain yearly amount to receive a specified quantity of
produce thereby stabilizing farm incomes and levels of food production
collection of tree and yard trimmings, food scraps, and other
organic wastes to create compost fertilizer;
re-use of urban grey water on farms and in gardens to reduce fresh
some type of food production on everyone's part ranging from
backyard, rooftop, window box and community gardens to work- sharing
on farms. Each urban area needs to develop an ecologically-oriented
Green City Program that delivers a high quality of life for all its
residents in harmony with its bioregion. City greening includes urban
planting but extends to much more than re-vegetation. It also means:
-conversion to renewable energy;
development of suitable transportation;
extensive recycling and re-use;
greater empowerment of neighborhoods;
support for socially responsible small businesses and cooperatives;
restoration of wild habitat;
wide participation in planning for sustainability;
creation of new civic art and celebrations.
There are already many separate groups working in various sectors of
urban sustainability that can supply pieces of an overall program. They
should help in drafting sections of it to authenticate a grassroots
approach, introduce disparate elements in the same field, and eventually
join together differing concerns under an overarching "green
umbrella" to accomplish the massive governmental changes that are
necessary. In planning the transition from polluting fossil fuels and
dangerous nuclear power to renewable sources such as solar, hydro and
wind, for example, representatives can be drawn from:
- businesses that manufacture, distribute and install renewable energy
- labor groups who will benefit from jobs in those areas that regulate
energy production and use;
- alternative energy advocacy and environmental groups.
Here are some examples of changes in municipal policies that might be
recommended in different parts of a Green City Program whose
implementation would have powerfully transformative effects:
RETROFIT PUBLIC BUILDINGS FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY
—Equip city office buildings, schools, libraries, fire and police
stations, and all other structures with some means to produce their own
energy from renewable sources.
DEVELOP SUITABLE TRANSPORTATION through a wide front of new
-company buses and vans to transport workers directly to job sites,
-point-to-point conveyances to replace use of automobiles for
shopping and appointments,
-in-neighborhood transit such as ride switchboards for local
businesses and institutions to operate close to where people live and
thereby reduce the need to travel to work.
INITIATE FULL-SCALE RECYCLING AND RE-USE
-Curbside pickup of household organic and manufactured recyclables.
-Stringent reprocessing of all wastes from industrial processes.
-Establishment of small-scale neighborhood secondary-materials
-Require municipal government to purchase recycled materials whenever
possible, preferably from local sources.
-Create grey water treatment facilities so hot water now wasted can
be used to water lawns and trees, wash vehicles, clean buildings, flush
toilets, and for other uses that don't require fresh water.
-Install household units to recycle used wash water for similar
- Devolve a large percentage of tax revenues to neighborhood councils
and assemblies for direct local use.
-Provide space and materials to greatly enhance neighborhood
communications ranging from meeting places to bulletin boards and even
FM radio and cable TV facilities.
ASSIST SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE BUSINESSES AND COOPERATIVES
-Greater employment and higher levels of prosperity are possible
through the creation of sustainability-oriented small business and
co-ops by providing "incubators" where offices, equipment, and
materials can be shared.
-City government should also establish priorities for procuring
supplies from these new companies.
RESTORE WILD HABITAT
-Establish new corridors of native vegetation in the city, linking
habitats so that wildlife can move unimpeded through urban areas.
-To make these corridors, restore creeks where possible by bringing
them up from storm sewers.
OPEN THE PROCESS OF PLANNING FOR SUSTAINABILITY
-Solicit neighborhoods' visions of their futures and use these as
standards for determining changes.
-Adopt "statutes of responsibility" that charge officials
to maintain the health of cities and their inhabitants. Citizens could
take legal action against officials if air, water, and soil aren't kept
free of poisons.
CELEBRATE LIFE-PLACE VITALITY
-Assist the creation of small-scale localized media (murals,
billboards, markers) that feature natural characteristics.
-Stage public celebrations of natural events such as seasons and
-Provide guides to natural sites.
Some of these measures reduce costs and eliminate waste on a vast
scale. Most are directly related to greatly improving the health of local
bioregions. All of them involve new job opportunities and contribute to
self-reliance. And they are only a few examples of the many changes that
should be made.
Although cities as we know them are on the verge of collapse, people
aren't aware of the great changes that are coming. Media coverage is
restricted to isolated situations like the plummeting decline of Detroit,
of abysmal lack of public services in East St. Louis, and politicians are
reluctant to air the bad news even as they quietly move to the suburbs. In
fact, the city is a point of major transition. We are beginning to see an
historical shift comparable to the birth of the modern industrial city.
To reclaim a positive outcome from deteriorating situations, city-
dwellers have to become "urban pioneers" in a concrete, steel,
and glass wilderness, developing new urban forms and remaking their own
lives as they simultaneously recreate the urban landscape. To do this they
need to learn new skills, redirect their energy and inventiveness, and
align their efforts with the more self-reliant and sustainable vision
offered in Green City Programs. The profile of an urban pioneering life
includes these elements:
-working several part-time jobs rather than a single-employment,
-growing some food on a continuous basis;
-recycling household waste and water;
-re-fitting dwellings for energy conservation and maintaining some
means for producing energy from renewable sources;
-restoring wildlife habitats;
-reducing or eliminating the use of a personal automobile;
-developing new cultural expressions that reflect bioregional and
-participating in a neighborhood council to decide everything from
planning and justice to social services and celebrations.
Urban pioneers will replace the often deadening and escape-seeking
urban existence of the present with stimulating, highly varied and
creative pursuits that are more related to artists and nature-seekers than
to factory and office workers. Even in a densely populated metropolis,
these new urbanites will be able to claim personal home-
neighborhood-villages and be fully involved with them. Many people are
already doing some of the things that lead to this transformed urban life.
When most people are doing all of them, urban-dwelling will be much richer
and more livable.
*Peter Berg is the Director of the Planet Drum
Foundation, Box 31251, San Francisco, Shasta Bioregion, CA 94131.
Excerpted with permission from "Putting Power in its Place"
edited by Judith and Christopher Plant. Part of the New Catalyst
Bioregional Series, the book is available from New Society Publishers,
4527 Springfield Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143.