With all the looming and current issues concerning urban settlements and our ability and where-with-all to sustain them, facing humanity, we need to look closely at what has been created and how it might be improved.
The health of the ecological environment is essential for humanity to secure a sustainable future. However, society’s current and projected global demands quite simply cannot be sustained. Clearly, resources needed to sustain our societal habits are limited, as is the ability of the earth’s environmental systems to absorb the influence and consequences of our demands and activities.
Today, our society, from rural through urban configurations, is complex and highly integrated. Our urban oriented demands and activities are the driving forces in our societies. Out of that complexity, the current urban ethos is the most significant influence upon our ability to achieve a sustainable state of affairs. We need then, to look at the ‘urban’ attitudes and values, the associated systems, demands and influences to establish how the urban footprint on the environment can be diminished to be more in line with the earth’s ability to accommodate, in a sustainable way, the necessities of humanity.
This series of essays will not be an analysis of circumstances leading to the current unsustainable situations. Many others have already written on the subject. Rather, the assumption will be made, whatever we can do to diminish our societal footprint on the environment and its ecological systems, to be more efficient with our use of urban spaces and to reduce our resource and energy demands, will be a good thing. This will require nothing less than a reformation of our societal ethos. Further, it will necessitate a rethinking and redesign of our societal and in particular, our urban habits, proclivities and systems.
While the issues are huge in scope and they would seem intractable, the doorway of access into realizing the necessary adjustments is by way of attitudes and values (qualities). Our villages, towns, cities and urban regions represent a huge financial and period investment. We cannot simply disregard the legacy. Instead, we need to adjust our thinking and begin to re-prioritize to allow the overlaying of a new set of guiding qualities for our urban societies and systems.
A familiar reality, best illustrating at least some of the revised and necessary qualities, although, certainly not complete or without limitations, is manifest in the ‘village concept’. We are indeed at another crossroad, which Mumford suggests humanity negotiated some four or five thousand years ago. “Two ways were in fact open for the development of human culture ... the way of the village or the way of the citadel...”(1) In a simplistic sense and over time it has been a choice between opposites: the village or the city; dispersal or centralization; proximity or remoteness; social community or settlements of convenience; self-reliance and mutual aid or dependency and survival of the fittest; ecological or dominion of man; small scale or large scale. Of course much overlap has occurred between the opposites, but it is clear today with most people on earth living in urban areas, the balance has shifted.
In many respects urban historical and contemporary societies have been insulated from the consequences of urban growth and its demands upon the environment. This has been true in a progressive sense, because supplies have been abundant, technologies have been developed and energy has been available to drive and lubricate the systems. When and where societies failed there was an inability to predict fatal issues or to make necessary adjustments to ensure a sustained future. For decades we have understood new crises were materializing. These will mature in the years and decades to come. The window of opportunity for benign adjustment is closing. We have an ethical responsibility now to humanity and a global ecology to adjust for sustainability.
The village concept is not perfect. Neither is the city. However, we know the city as it exists today is not sustainable. The village, on the other hand, is a smaller scale and should be more adaptable to changing circumstances. Over time cities have grown from villages, but in transition have left behind many of the qualities of the smaller communities. In turn, with growth, cities have gained in other respects. In our future the best qualities of each will have to be brought together to form a revised and adapted urbanity.
Like societies of the past, we have choices available to us. Our decisions will have consequences for decades to come. With this series of essays, options available to us will be explored and I hope will encourage consideration, debate and action designed to secure a sustainable state.
1. Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its origins, its transformations and its prospects. Penguin Books, 1961. Page 108.