The Freedom to Innovate: Urban Transitions (2)

Innovative urban habitats were the main focus of the second day of the Urban Transition workshop in Manchester. But strangely, most participants focused on examples that were anything but urban. Presenters drew on examples from the transition towns movement, grassroots (almost literally, in the case of straw bale buildings) innovations in sustainable housing, and DIY experiments in building low carbon rural communities.

The emerging conclusion was that if you want to encourage innovation, you need to give it room to grow. Highly regulated urban spaces drive out inventive, skilled and creative people. People who could otherwise help develop affordable and sustainable housing.

When the oil shocks met 1970s counter culture it produced a back-to-the-land movement easily caricatured as being escapist and Utopian. Many of the examples presented during these final Urban Transitions sessions looked like they were pages from the same book (the Whole Earth Catalogue maybe?) – but as the presenters were clear, what these individuals and communities have accomplished both socially and technically shouldn't be dismissed.

Gill Seyfang, looked at how individual builders had used straw bales, and other locally sourced materials, to build zero carbon housing that was also, unlike high end eco-developments like Bed Zed or One Brighton, very affordable. One of the houses she featured, Tony Wrench's Roundhouse, cost just £3,000 to build. She argued that despite their more rural roots, similar materials and princioles could be successfully applied in an urban context.

Jenny Pickerill, a researcher from Leicester University, covered a variety of low-impact developments (LIDs) in the UK both rural and urban. “LID is a radical form of housing, livelihood, and lifestyle that works in harmony with the landscape and natural world around it.” she explained, “It's a a site for practical innovations and attempts at low carbon living. The core principles are that in order to reduce our environmental impact we need to radically redesign our homes, satisfy our needs ourselves or through local provision, reduce our needs (by reducing consumption), and dramatically reduce our travel.”

But of the communities she covered, the most successful examples were all rural. Urban attempts where few, and inevitably had to cut sustainable features (like grey water reuse, local agricultural production, on site waster water remediation) because of the limits imposed by urban spaces, and the rules and regulations that govern them.

Innovative ideas have often come to cities from smaller centers. (London's push for local energy generation was originally designed in the smaller neighbouring town of Wookin). And the guiding principles of many of these experiments (localization of energy and food supplies, permaculture, and more collective living) can all apply to the urban context. But the specific forms they assume in rural areas don't transfer easily to denser urban spaces. Much of the closing discussion focused on ways that these primarily rural innovations could be scaled-up and transfered into urban spaces. But wouldn't it just be easier if we could keep the ecologically innovative in cities to begin with?

Recode Portland, a project that I have written about before, is a good example of how cities can help retain and nurture innovative communities. The Tryon Life Community Farm is a collective living experiment located between parkland and a residential area in outer Portland. The city has granted them official and unofficial exemptions from certain local building and land use regulations. In exchange, Tryon acts as a living lab for urban sustainability. Motivated by a desire to create exceptions that end up changing the rules, they coordinate the ReCode project (funded by a small grant from the City of Portland), which leverages their experiences to lobby for change in the state and local building codes. So far they have successfully lobbied the State government to lift a ban on residential grey water reuse.

With support from the city, they have combined a quasi-rural freedom to experiment and innovate, with an urban context that both shapes their work, and gives them the networks they need to scale up from individual projects to systems level change. The final Urban Transitions discussions all made clear that “city limits” is much more than a line on a map. The workshop made a convincing case for the benefits that cities could get by loosening those limits and opening up urban spaces to innovation.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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