Loosing Control: Sassen on Urban Sustainability

Public participation and ecosystem services have both been gaining recognition over the past two decades as key ingredients for a healthy livable city. One is about wetlands, water catchments and biodiversity, the other is about civic processes and political systems. Though one may seem pretty distant from the other, Saskia Sassen's talk (see my earlier post) at URS 2009 last week provides a brief sketch of their interrelations, and the implications this could have for our urban future. There is more here than can fit into one blog post. But for those who are interested, here is a ten cent summary, with some of my thoughts woven in along the way.

Sassen made two key points:

· the need to understand and manage cities as complex natural systems and

· the possibility that the social and political interactions particular to cities (civic culture) may be able to resolve some of the many conflicts that arise when you start trying to address climate change in any serious way.

The "Nature" of the City
Sassen opened her talk by pointing out that planners and environmental scientists have little common ground across which to communicate. Urbanists and ecologists don't often mix. As a result, cities are a perfect example of our tendency to replace natural systems with commodified human-made proxies. Systems that some try to generate profits from – and others (I'd add) get saddled with having to maintain. Seeing cities along these lines – as huge machines-for-living-in – hides from sight all the different natural processes that they depend on.

Part of the advantage of linking urban and environmental specialist would be the chance to develop a clearer understanding how cities really work. (From a climate change point of view, shifts and failures in these natural systems are going to cause real problems for many cities – doubly so if we aren't aware enough to prepare for them.)

Delegating to Nature
But beyond that, there is something more exciting and challenging: better understanding the "nature" of the city would give us an opportunity to start identifying processes and infrastructure that could be better served if they were transfered from human-made to natural systems. Sassen refers to this as "delegating back to nature" processes that can best be handled by complex ecological systems as opposed to built infrastructure.

For Sassen, this intentional re-integration of natural systems into the functioning of our cities is linked to acknowledging that total control, by central planners for example, is impossible. Letting go of the pursuit of control lets us see that natural systems can do many things far better than man-made approximations. Examples like natural rainwater remediation and flood control, though not in her presentation, get you from the philosophical to the applied.

The Civic
Although it is not clear from her presentation, I think it is the idea of letting go of the illusion of total control that brings us to her discussion of civic culture. She asserted that historically cities have played a mediating role, acting as a space where competing groups and priorities can come to productive compromises. Healthy municipal politics and civic movements can resolve conflicts that, when dealt with at the national level, often result in conflict and violence (I would love some examples of this if anyone has them). While this may have been waining recently, she argued that climate change – like the civil rights movement in the U.S. – might invigorate the civics of the city. That's an exciting picture.

Town hall meetings, community consultations, city visioning exercises, and other forms of municipally led public participation are all intentional attempts to harness some of the beneficial aspects of the civic. Although Sassen does not discuss them, they are relevant here precisely because they are an attempt to do the civic, while still holding on to control. Instead of facilitating real citizen participation they diffuse it.

Though not always, municipally run processes often absorb the energy of the most active citizens into bureaucratic processes that amount to little more than a report. How a municipality could encourage civic participation around sustainability, while distributing real power and control is an interesting question. If we are going to "delegate back to nature" what does it mean to "delegate back to citizens"?

Comments on my earlier post, and conversations around the symposium gave Sassen a mixed reception. In some ways, she herself didn't go far enough to building bridges with other disciplines. But Sassen's ideas resonated strongly with other presentations during the four days of the symposium. Presentations covered everything from massive restoration of coastal wetlands for flood protection around New Orleans, to linked bioswail storm water and urban agriculture systems, and Dutch style flood water management systems. Built into all of them was some aspect of "delegating" back to nature.


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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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