Western history books tell us that the city states of Greece were the cradle of democracy. Recent tomes, like Benjamin Barber’s “If Mayors Ruled the World,” insist that in an era where partisan politics and empire building bid to spin democracy into its grave, cities are our last, great hope for a sustainable mix of pragmatism and vision where citizenship matters.
When cities and towns work, they have the whole package: responsive, honest governance; a productive economy; healthy environment; access to energy, water, food. Inhabitants are proud of their town, and while some live better than others, there is a general sense of community, participation and opportunity. There are better and worse neighborhoods, depending on the criteria, but all have some distinction. Transportation and an attractive urban core are optimized.
The ten trends leading to operational principles we have identified are manifested both in daily life and long-term development:
Locality, of course, but how do you define its limits? Suburban sprawl and the flight of jobs and wealth from many cities is endemic, leaving a rusting trash heap and burned out ghettos for surviving inhabitants. Yet even where miasma casts a pall, there are opportunities. Detroit is attempting to renegotiate the deteriorated housing of the former motor city into green spaces and urban farming. Beijing and Shanghai could take a lesson in best practices from LA about auto emissions and smog control.
In New York City, Manhattan and Brooklyn are so attractive that the shops, restaurants and services that define strong neighborhoods mix with the nooks and crannies of public spaces. The integrity of many neighborhoods adds to a perception of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. The slogans and bumper stickers of “I Love NY” are more than PR hype, and reflect pride in the city.
Even where there are tensions between the open and closed values of communities, there are mitigating steps to be taken. With a heterogeneous and multi-linguistic population, Amsterdam faces similar cultural and ethnic pressures of as many European cities. Symbolic of its efforts to bridge the differences is the magnificent Third World Museum which demonstrates respect and recognition for the confluence and contradictions of disparate cultures.
On the celebratory side, the Vondelpark is an in-town gracious space for biking, hiking and concerts, and the streets, squares and canals full of energy, food and entertainments. Many neighborhoods have farmers’ markets, weekend festivals, flea markets. There are pedestrian malls, and the central square is home to performers and events.
The canals and pedestrian malls, public and commercial squares of the Dam, Leidseplein, Waterlooplein and Rembrandtplein lend form and structure to a city experience in which all can share. Even prostitution and drugs have been transposed into civic benefits, as the legalized and supervised Red Light district and smoke shops and hemp bars draw tourists, and express a commitment to both tolerance and order, public health pervasive, and commerce triumphant.
The Dutch commitment to the environment begins with recognition that it’s critical to work creatively with the forces of nature, but it doesn’t end there. It was no coincidence that when the Global Reporting Initiative came to select a site for its secretariat, Amsterdam and the Dutch government won the bid. Every two years since 2006, GRI and the City of Amsterdam have co-hosted a major, international conference on sustainability.
When a team of citizens from New Orleans, USA, visited the Netherlands after the carnage and mismanagement attending Hurricane Katrina, they were shocked and embarrassed to see what serious effort, allocation of resources and imaginative planning could accomplish.
The Netherlands ability to achieve a consensus around survival and growth carries benefits for many generations, and is a sharp rejoinder to the skepticism and outright hostility to long-term, environmental planning. Even more conclusive is that along with a lively and attractive engagement with social and environmental planning, Amsterdam continues to be one of the world’s great commercial centers.
Collaboration between sectors, and the responsibility of business and finance to contribute is part of the culture, as much as the choices of walking, bikes, trams and private cars; water shuttles and even helicopters ferrying captains of industry. Amsterdam and the Netherlands offer a clinic on how to handle the meeting points. Not only is the cooperation evident between government, business, cultural and social institutions, but the levels of neighborhoods, city, national government are predominantly complementary, rather than caught in turf battles. With the international tribunal located in the nearby Hague, and with the Netherlands structurally part of the European Union, Amsterdam goes about its business of emphasizing synergies between macro and micro in a manner that is both relaxed and intense. The City Museum of Amsterdam presents a diverse mix of history, demographics and culture – and it is a good metaphor for the town’s variety and livability.
Paris has the Louvre, with its implicit assumption that France is the natural heir to past glories and the epicenter of present civilization, the Champs Elysee and the special character of its arrondisements.
Rio has Sugar Loaf, the beaches of Impanema and the statue of Christ towering above the city.
Jaipur welcomes visitors through its pink arches. New York has Times Square, Central Park and skyscrapers in Manhattan. There are the sweeping views of the bay and ocean in San Francisco. Constructions like the Eiffel Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle become points of identity.
On a smaller scale, in Shelbourne Falls, MA, there is a bridge of flowers. For all that we explore a new paradigm, many urban centers have a rich history which carries forward. Marketplaces have traditionally been the core of commerce and social exchange, as in Otavalo, Ecuador, and in Thailand, Chang Mei’s night market. They are potent reminders of how humans have done business since before recorded history.
In Davis, California, a weekly farmer’s market has achieved the scale of a county fair. There are food wagons (no greasy fast foods need apply), music and a spacious meadow for kids and adults to recreate and visit with friends. Gifted with a year round temperate climate, bike paths, a park for skateboarding, so many more amenities, even a strong job market, with the state capitol of Sacramento an easy commute, no wonder the town often comes across as self-congratulatory.
The relationship between UC Davis and the town has been a model of synergy, with faculty, students and administration vitally involved, and the typical town/gown tensions avoided. Non-profits have flourished, with the Twin Pines Foundation facilitating cooperative solutions to housing that bridges gaps in age and financial capacity.
Every town or city worthy of being called a community has people both out front and working behind the scenes. They are the glue that keeps things together. For all the accrued benefit handed over to new residents, the quality of life is a direct result of thought and energy contributed by so many over the years.
Building a sustainable, more collaborative and community-oriented future for cities often means rephrasing past virtues that had been swept aside, but with a little tweaking become relevant again. There are street malls blocked off from autos in Copenhagen, Denmark, among many cities. The restriction to pedestrian traffic creates a lively shopping experience that’s good for local business and consumers.
In a recent book, “Sustainable Communities,” Bruce Seifer and his co-authors lay out how Burlington, Vermont, solved vexing problems and created a productive and livable town. They started with a progressive Mayor, Bernie Sanders, who, in the ‘80s, mobilized the power of government and the self-interest of local business. Before going on to the US Congress and a Presidential run, Bernie nurtured, then was succeeded by a dedicated crew of elected and appointed officials who earned the trust and respect of the citizenry over several decades, and were able to tap into many sources of funding.
When there was a need for a downtown supermarket, government supported a community process to develop options. The result was the expansion of the local food co-op, both in size as well as its appeal through a wider selection.
In Burlington, the all-to-familiar process by which an entrenched and self-serving bureaucracy devolves into corruption simply never happened. “Simple,” however, doesn’t begin to explain why a dedicated cohort of elected officials, administrators, institutions and private citizens were able to put aside their factional and self-interests over a period of decades. For that, give kudos for leadership and the community’s willingness to adapt best practices above special interests.
Denver, Colorado has the Rockies, and a Western spirit of getting things done. When John Hickenlooper, a down-to-earth businessman and geologist, was elected Mayor of Denver, his trajectory to Governor and perhaps more was far from assured. But he took the entrepreneurial energy that had launched a successful brew-pub and applied it to a succession of initiatives that showed real progress was possible – that initiatives could be both cost effective and affect social value.
Reaching out to the various sectors, consulting with differing constituencies, yet never abandoning the capacity to lead and innovate, became the style and substance of his administration. In the process, Hickenlooper built a strong coalition that was both successful and politically savvy.
For example, in Denver, the cost to the system of social and medical services for a homeless person averaged six figures annually. Mayor Hickenlooper’s administration decided that paying for an apartment would be a significant move towards stabilizing lives, with a direct impact on medical costs at a fraction of the expense. Redefining productivity for cities relies on gathering, evaluating and applying data that matters.
Internet services like Yelp and Angie’s List speed the flow of information in cities and make for better choices. Middletown, Connecticut chose to implement wi-fi access for an entire downtown, even before it became a prevalent aid to commerce. Around the world, cell phone service for texting and voice communication is standard, even in the poorest neighborhoods. A sense that at least some of the benefits of a tech and asset rich environment are available to almost anyone decreases tensions and even crime.
Balance the bodegas and storefronts that deliver idiosyncratic products and services against the efficient economies of scale of a centrally directed cohort of franchises, and you can see that for cities, a distributive economy is going to be in flux for a long time.
While less functional cities tend to be asset rich in ways that fail to benefit the body public, democratizing access increases variety. Bicycle exchanges have been common in European cities like Copenhagen and Oslo, and now spread to the USA. Other manifestations of a sharing economy include room and apartment access through Couch Surfer and AirBnb; vehicular access with Zip Cars, Uber and upgraded public transport.
How to fit all these themes together differs for each city and town. Urban planning may be a combination of art and craft, but it is certainly not unknown. In the middle of the past century, Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford were brilliant advocates for neighborhood, culture and community as practical and achievable goals. Many European cities and towns grew up helter-skelter, but many others were successful in revitalizing an urban core, and prizing a livable environment.
In the 1960s, Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland were valiant attempts to create new towns that mixed residential, commercial and public spaces. Their aesthetic and social success was overwhelmed by short-term profiteering – just another example that the road to heaven is flanked by speed traps.
Curitiba in Brazil, a city of more than a million inhabitants, has constructed a world class transportation infrastructure that expresses interdependence with the environment by virtually eliminating private vehicles in the urban core through an efficient public transportation system. Incentives for recycling and penalties for pollution and waste are typical in many progressive cities – well beyond what is mandated by central governments.
In 2009, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark created a major show, “green architecture for the future,” with a published book of that title that takes flight with inspiring extrapolations of how our cities can be both sustainable and sustaining. Curitiba was one of the featured cities, for good reason.
The cultural definition of a city usually depends on perspective: who and what it is open to, and where boundaries are drawn. When railroads were the major mode of transportation, there was a right side of the tracks or the wrong side. More recently, the lines of demarcation can be more complex.
In Bolivia, the gap between the upscale capitol of La Paz in the valley and the mountainous and poor town of El Alto has been reinterpreted via a cable car system that is both practical and attractive. Curiosity about what is different and what held in common can be explored.
In a San Francisco, already gifted with a great location and booming economy, an imaginative Director of Public Health, Dr. Mitch Katz, analyzed the city’s failure to provide care to its citizens, and developed two interventions. First, was on-call specialists to be available to primary care providers to consult with. This not only saved time and travel for patients, but the usually prompt response avoided the deepening of medical conditions, and attendant costs. Second, was a comprehensive plan that anticipated the Federal ACA, and guaranteed care to every city resident. This was accomplished by a collaborative partnership between government, employers, healthcare providers and hospitals.
What these cities have in common is understanding the real costs, whether environmental, economic or social, and seeing opportunities to provide systemic solutions within a community framework. Once patterns of accountability and collaboration are established, citizens intuitively make use of a system that rewards them at many junctures.
Trust that a system is working for the greater good leverages the additional capacity to think creatively of how to anticipate future challenges and turn them into opportunities.
New York City, with a significant degree of confidence instilled by the Bloomberg mayoralty, is well into preparing for the next climatological catastrophe. New Orleans, overwhelmed by Katrina, is in worse shape than before because of its failure to accept the raw data that the formerly protective dunes and wetlands have been tragically eroded.
Urban centers exist within countries (as the citizens of Aleppo have been reminded), vulnerable to forces beyond their control; as are nations part of a world ecology and a global economy; as is this planet hostage to asteroidal visitors that might crash our party. Those Greek city states which pioneered democracy suffered from their own versions of inter-connected vulnerability: incursions from Crete and Persia; internecine warfare as a frequent affair between Athens, Sparta, Thebes, etc.; internal demagoguery; presumed distractions and interventions by the most fractious set of gods humans have ever imagined. It may go with the territory, yet the evidence of better and worse is a challenge of its own.
No one city or town has done it all, but the continuum that stretches between embracing or denying the consequences of our past and present actions is huge. Even at the optimal integrity of building and maintaining a sustainable community, however, to paraphrase John Dunne, no city is an island (even New York has the Bronx as its mainland borough) and no best practices will become embedded overnight.
Below are profiles of cities and towns that are models of creativity, civility, and sustainability. Click on any of them to view that city’s profile in the library.
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Burlington, Vermont
- Curitiba, Brazil
- Davis, California
- Denver, Colorado
- La Paz, Bolivia
- Melbourne, Australia
- Portland, Oregon
- Reston, Virginia
- Samso, Denmark
- Sommerville, Massachusetts