Urban Revolution: Jeb Brugmann @ ICLEI WC 2009

Jeb Brugmann, ICLEI founder, author and consultant, was one of the highlights of last week's ICLEI World Congress (see earlier entries). I've been waiting for organizers to post a video of his talk – but it seems like that will be a long time coming. So, here's a summary of his vision for what cities could become. While I don't agree with all of his answers, I do think he is asking the right questions. Questions that could lead us in the direction of truly radical urban sustainability. [Saskia Sassen, has also been working with similar ideas. Summary and video here.]

Beyond Neutrality

Cities and their residents are voracious consumers of natural resources. They churn through more energy, materials and commodities than ever before and the pace is only accelerating. Just the concrete needed to build and expand our cities accounts for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

By and large, efforts to “green” cities have focused on making them less bad. Going “carbon neutral” is the highest we've set the bar. But real, radical sustainability comes when we ask a different question:

How can we move from the consumptive cities that we have now, to cities that are productive, both in terms of energy, materials, and environmental functions? What would a city look like that was a net positive contributor to its local ecology? There was a bit of a discussion around that in an earlier post on what I called the “Living City Challenge.” Brugmann called it the challenge of creating not extractive cities, but productive urban biomes.

The Urban Biome & Technology
He has a vision of cities that function like ecosystems: beneficial loops of self-regulating systems that support each other to create a livable habitat for all. He points to large scale urban agriculture, and closing the construction loop by sourcing primary materials (concrete, metals, etc.) from urban waste streams as examples of the ecological urbanism that could make that possible.

But how do we get there? Brugmann, along with many others these days, is laying a lot of money on technology. “We can put chips in just about everything,” he enthused at one point. Integrating the most advanced technologies into our urban processes will build intelligent systems able to self-organize and provide real-time feedback to help consumers make smart choices. Together all this could help create a new culture of consumption, one where we are more aware of the impacts of our actions.

Ok, sure.

No doubt IT will have a big part to play. But we've heard this techno-utopian vision before. Whenever I come across it, I'm always wary of it being another excuse for putting of getting to work: “We are going to do something big... But first, we've got to build this amazing computer system!” Do we really have to wait for the singularity before we improve our cities?

Ecological Urbanism
The real meat of Brugmann's presentation came from his argument that, in fact, we can already start creating intelligently built and managed cities. The key isn't technology – it's people. Urban spaces need to be built in collaboration with the people who are going to use them. And cities need to be governed in a way that takes into account the reasons that people move to them, and the way they use and shape urban space and infrastructure to meet their needs. Whether officials like it or not, cities, to a certain extent, have a life of their own. To build sustainability, we need to engage directly with all the fractal parts that make up that life.

Expanding cities, he pointed out, attract the most innovative and entrepreneurial members of rural communities. The dense, multi-use, and socially networked nature of urban life then allows them to form associations among themselves and scale up local economic and political activity to the national and international level. Cities are a nexus for innovation that magnify the efforts of everyone within them.

Slums are where he draws his inspiration. He sees them as the embodiment of the process through which struggles between multiple different priorities can be built into a coalition that can push forward a common urban strategy. This process of urbanism is, for Brugmann, the key to success and sustainability. Drawing on ICLEI's database of case studies, he argued that successful outcomes are invariably based on inclusive broad-based efforts that can create one direction from many people pushing (Bruno Latour's work has a similar discussion of how “coalitions of interests”are built).

The Challenge of Participatory Sustainability
Although I don't think he fully acknowledged it in his presentation, Brugmann's celebration of coalition building and participatory urbanism is really more of a challenge than a method.

It is not so much that this is a good way to do things. It may well be the only way to do things, particularly in most developing world cities where resources are already stretched thin. The challenge of creating environmentally and socially positive urban biomes is easy to imagine in cases like Masdar. There, all the centrally planned infrastructure can be put in place first, and then be populated by a self-selected groups of eco-citizens.

But to roll those principles out on any relevant scale, fitting them into the existing dynamics that drive and sustain urbanization is going to be our ticket to ride. It's by engaging with the processes and motivations that already drive individuals and communities that municipalities can make up for scarce resources and steer themselves to greener pastures.

The hard part is going to come from the struggles to align sustainability with short term individual and community self-interest. That is my main critique of the talk. The urban biome is a seductive idea, and engaging with the already existing dynamics of contemporary cities may be the only way for us to get there. But it was never clear how Brugmann expected the principles of the urban biome to align with the coalition of other interests that already steer our cities – often in quite different directions.

[Jeb Brugmann's new book Welcome to the Urban Revolution was published in May.]


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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.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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