Friday, April 16, 2010

New Civic Order

A prescient report from 1997 forecasted a possible future social scenario that was termed the Great Transition which involved a social shift towards new paradigms of sustainability in the form of Eco-communalism. In this the report envisioned a network of self-reliant communities:

Eco-communalism could emerge from a New Sustainability Paradigm world if a powerful consensus arose for localism, diversity, and autonomy… Eco-communalism might emerge in the recovery from ‘breakdown’. Under conditions of reduced population and a rupture in modern institutions, a network of societies, guided by a “small-is-beautiful” philosophy conceivably could arise.

Physical social networks modelled on self-reliant communities could be established that are based around ecological practices. Already some urban design groups are using industrial ecology techniques, as in the integrated resource management system (IRM). In this way there is a shift that sees urban centres becoming closer to ‘living’ centres that encourage closer physical proximity and interaction between citizens.

Another example of creative architectural thinking is that of the ‘Compact City’ proposal from celebrity architect Richard Rogers. Rogers proposes that the creation of the modern Compact City rejects the dominance of the car and instead favours a design whereby ‘communities thrive’ and the streets are re-balanced ‘in favour of the pedestrian and the community’. Further, Rogers’s ‘Compact City’ design proposes that home, work, and leisure districts/regions/zones become more densely interrelated and overlapped rather than as separated areas.

The compact city idea is to increase the density of shared spaces so that there are increased opportunities for social connection and interaction. There is a rise worldwide in urban innovation that seeks to move towards constructing more compact, sustainable communities. This will become more of an imperative, rather than luxury thinking, in the ensuing years. Such changes will need to be implemented if our social systems are to be resilient enough to adapt to the coming global changes. The emphasis needs to be upon recycling of goods and waste, efficient alternative energy production, localized distribution, and change in such social drivers as consumerism, economics, and general well-being. Already several precedents exist; one of these being the concept of garden cities and the ‘garden city movement’.

This movement was founded in 1898 by Ebenezer Howard in England as an alternative to existing urban schemes. Garden cities involved the merging of town and country, of rural partnerships with urban dynamics. They were designed as self-contained communities containing living, working, and agriculture surrounded by green belts and public spaces. In this respect Howard’s thinking was ahead of its time in seeing the need for both rural and urban improvement as a single process. The garden city movement was inspired by Howard’s first book titled To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898). The Garden City Association was founded in 1899 and led to two new cities in England being constructed around this design: Letchworth Garden City in 1903 and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. Howard planned his garden cities to be located on roughly 6,000 acres of land, with 1,000 acres set aside for accommodating up to 32,000 residents, and for an additional 2,000 people on the surrounding agricultural estate. The circular garden city town plan had 120-foot wide radiating tree-lined boulevards, and each city linked to other larger cities via railways. The design for such garden cities even today seems remarkably environmentally aware:
Howard meticulously separated pedestrian streets and vehicle traffic, and residential and industrial areas. When a garden city had reached its optimal population of 32,000, its growth would be halted and another town of similar size would be built within its own zone of land. But the inhabitants of the one could very quickly reach the other by a rapid transit system, and thus the people of the two towns would really be part of one community.

The concept of the garden city was also especially influential in the United States with the creation of Pittsburgh’s Chatham Village; Sunnyside, Queens; Radburn, New Jersey; Jackson Heights, Queens; the Woodbourne neighbourhood of Boston; Garden City, New York; and Baldwin Hills Village in Los Angeles. In Canada there is the garden city of Walkerville, Ontario, and the first German garden city, Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden, was founded in 1909.

Howard also believed in citizen participation whereby the town residents could own a share of the city’s assets. Even today a foundation jointly owned by the citizens of Letchworth controls 5,300 acres of land, including two farms and 118 shops. All the money earned from these ventures stays in the community, and from the period 1997 to 2003 the community’s assets trebled to £160 million. This shows that with the correct organization, intention, and dynamic motivation, communities can be created for the better well-being of its citizens. Also, such living centres can become more self-sustainable and environmentally connected to the Earth. The garden city concept can be an inspiration for those communities wishing to accommodate increased agricultural spaces for growing vegetables. Over recent years there has been a vigorous interest in permaculture as a way of combining living centres with agricultural systems.

Permaculture is a way of integrating the ecology of natural agricultural practices with the needs of the community. The word permaculture, as a combination of permanent agriculture and permanent culture, reflects the social aspects of the system. Permaculture encourages the construction of self-sufficient communities that work with nature’s cycles within the surrounding ecosystem. Permaculture is often seen as a more holistic system as it looks at both the natural (agricultural) and human systems as a whole, rather than as separate systems. In this way localized communities could benefit tremendously from incorporating permaculture practices into their way of life. Not only would it provide a means for self-sufficiency but also help to sustain the local ecosystems at a time of increased strain.

The future years will demand that we change many of our current practices. It is imperative that creative individuals begin to think ‘out of the box’. Civic regeneration requires left-hemispheric thinking as well as the right; lateral thinking as well as rational. The good news is that the world is already awash with impressive grassroots social innovations. It seems that our future will be steered more from the bottom-up than from the top-down.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Eventually there will be no choice but to "steer from the bottom up" as you so aptly describe.
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