Stewart Brand on New Urbanism and squatter communities

Author:  Stewart Brand

Editor’s note: The following is reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a Penguin Group (USA) Inc. member, from Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand. Copyright (c) 2010 by Stewart Brand.

Squatters have already inspired some Green practices. But there should be many more to come. I’ll give one example from close to home. I had been studying and admiring the world’s squatter communities for two years before I noticed that I lived in one.

Liberty ships, the torpedo fodder of World War II, were built on the Sausalito, California, waterfront at a peak rate of one a day in 1944. When the war ended, the former shipyard became a semi-outlaw area, and riff­raff moved in—­floated in. Steadily, through the 1950s and 1960s, the tide­lands filled with floating shacks, derelict boats, and habitable sculpture, occupied by artists, maritime artisans, and other people with more nerve than money.

A benevolent landlord went along with the game—­collecting rent casually, protecting the community from outraged government authori­ties. Electricity was stolen from shore via extension cords and water via gar­den hoses. People crapped in the bay, which smelled rank at a minus tide. There was some drug trade and the occasional murder. There was some freelance prostitution (“hitchhikers”). There was also a fashion shop, a fashion show (of recycled clothes), several rock bands, and a theater group—­Antenna—­that earned a world reputation. I’ve lived and worked in the scene since 1973.

Occasionally, the Coast Guard or the county sheriff would try to tow away the houseboats. Finally, the Sausalito City Council sent a demolition crew on a dawn attack. A state agency created by environmentalists, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, declared that house­boats are illegal “bay fill” and has been trying to delete us for thirty-five years. The floating community hired lawyers, survived, grew, and gradually gentrified.

The four hundred or so Sausalito houseboats are mostly legal now, pay rent (berthage), and are hooked up to city infrastructure, so the mud smells like mud again. Tourist groups stroll the docks to admire our colorful life­style. Chances are you’ve come across Sausalito waterfront creativity in the writings of Annie Lamott, Alan Watts, Paul Hawken, or Green architect Sim Van Der Ryn; in the cartoons of Shel Silverstein or Phil Frank; in Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”; in the Antenna Theater–produced Audio Tours that guide you around the world’s museums and historic sites; in the biological paintings of Isabella Kirkland; and in any town or city reshaped by what is called New Urbanism. That last item is my example.

• In 1983, architect Peter Calthorpe gave up on San Francisco, where he had tried and failed to organize neighborhood communities, and moved to a houseboat on the end of South Forty Dock, where I live. He found he was in a place with the densest housing in California, where no one locked their doors—­where most doors didn’t even have locks. Yet, with­out trying, it was a passionate, proud community. So when Calthorpe looked for some element of design magic that made it work, he decided it was the dock itself and the density. Everyone in the forty-­nine houseboats on the port passed each other on foot daily, trundling to and from the parking lot on shore. Everyone knew each other’s faces and voices and cats. It was a community, Calthorpe decided because it was walkable.

Building on that insight, Calthorpe became one of the founders of New Urbanism, along with Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-­Zyberk, and others. In 1985 he introduced the concept of walkability in “Cities Rede­fined,” an article in the Whole Earth Review. Since then, New Urbanism has become dominant in city planning, promoting high density, mixed-use, walkability, mass transit, eclectic design, and regionalism. It drew one of its main ideas from a squatter community.

There are a lot more ideas about where that one came from. For instance, shopping areas could be more like the lanes in squatter cities, with a dense interplay of retail and services—­one-­chair barbershops and three-­seat bars interspersed with clothes racks and fruit tables. “Allow the informal sec­tor to take over downtown areas after 6 p.m.,” suggests Jaime Lerner, the renowned former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. “That will inject life into the city.” In the thousands of squatter cities worldwide, a billion creative people, most of them young, are trying new things unfettered by law or tradition.

Squatter cities are Green. They have maximum density—­a million people per square mile in Mumbai—­and minimum energy and mate­rial use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi, variously called a matatu (Kenya), dala-­dala (Tanzania), tro-­tro (Ghana), jeepney (Philippines), tuk-­tuk (Thailand), tap-­tap (Haiti), maxi-taxi (Romania), etc. (Not everything is efficient in the slums, though. In the Brazilian favelas where electricity is stolen and therefore free, Jan Chipchase from Nokia found that people leave their lights on all day.)

In most slums, recycling is a way of life. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has four thousand recycling units and thirty thousand ragpickers; six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted in the slum daily. In Vietnam and Mozambique, an article in the Economist reports, “Waves of gleaners sift the sweepings of Hanoi’s streets, just as children pick over the rubbish of Maputo’s main tip. Every city in Asia and Latin America has an industry based on gathering old cardboard boxes.” The World’s Scavengers (2007) by Martin Medina is a whole book on the subject. Lagos, Nige­ria, widely considered the world’s most chaotic city, has an Environment Day on the last Saturday of every month. Nobody drives from seven to ten a.m., and the entire city, including the slums, tidies itself up.

• In his 1985 article introducing the idea of walkability, Peter Calthorpe made a statement that still jars most people: “The city is the most environmentally benign form of human settlement. Each city-­dweller con­sumes less land, energy, and water and produces less pollution than his counterpart in settlements of lower densities.” “Green Manhattan” was the provocative title of a 2004 New Yorker article by David Owen. “By the most significant measures,” he wrote,

“New York is the greenest community in the United States and one of the greenest cities in the world. . . . The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is its extreme compact­ness. Manhattan’s population density is more than eight hun­dred times that of the nation. Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-­three-­square-­mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful. Moreover, it forces the majority to live in some of the world’s most inherently energy-­efficient residential structures: apartment buildings.”

But what about the ecological footprint? The idea of measuring environ­mental impact in notional acres was introduced by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in the 1996 book Our Ecological Footprint, as a way to estimate the resource efficiency of large systems like cities and as a way to condemn suburban sprawl. The concept has been tremendously use­ful in shaming cities into better environmental behavior. Still, comparable studies have yet to be made of rural populations, whose ecological impact per person is much higher than city dwellers. Nor has footprint analysis been applied to urban squatters, which will undoubtedly score as the Greenest.

Urban density allows half of humanity to live on 2.8 percent of the land. Soon that will be 80 percent of society on 3 percent of the land. Consider just the infrastructure efficiencies. According to a 2004 UN report, “The concentration of population and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewers, drains, roads, elec­tricity, garbage collection, transport, health care, and schools.” In the developed part of the world, cities are Green mainly because they reduce energy use. Still, in the developing world, the primary Greenness of cit­ies lies in their ability to draw people in and take the pressure off rural natural systems.

The Last Forest (2007), a book by Mark London and Brian Kelly on the realities of the Amazon rain forest, suggests that the nationally subsidized city of Manaus in northern Brazil “answers the question ‘How do you stop deforestation?’ Give people decent jobs. If you give them jobs, they can afford houses; give them houses, and their family has security; give them security, and their vision shifts to the future.” One hundred thousand people who would otherwise be deforesting

• Environmentalists have yet to seize the enormous opportunity offered by urbanization. Two major campaigns should be mounted—­one to pro­tect the newly emptied countryside, the other to Green the hell out of the growing cities. Because cities constantly change anyway, improving them is not hard.

More than any other political entity, cities learn from each other. News of best practices spreads fast. Mayors travel routinely, cruising for ideas in the cities deemed the world’s Greenest—­Reykjavik, Iceland; Portland, Oregon; Curitiba, Brazil; Malmö, Sweden; Vancouver, Canada; Copen­hagen, Denmark; London, England; San Francisco, California; Bahi de Caráquez, Ecuador; Sydney, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; Bogotá, Colom­bia; Bangkok, Thailand; Kampala, Uganda; and Austin, Texas. Urban ecotourism is a growth industry.

To manage the ecology of cities, we first have to understand it. A 2008 article in Science framed the necessary new discipline in a meaty language I find delicious:

“Evolving conceptual frameworks for urban ecology view cit­ies as heterogeneous, dynamic landscapes and as complex, adaptive, socioecological systems, in which the delivery of ecosystem services links society and ecosystems at multiple scales. . . .

“The changes in a chemical environment, exposure to pol­lutants, simplified geomorphic structure, and altered hydro­graphs of urban streams combine to create an urban stream “syndrome” of low biotic diversity, high nutrient concentrations, reduced nutrient retention efficiency, and often elevated pri­mary production. . . . Countering the urban stream syndrome may require the abandonment of the ideal of a “restored” stream in favor of a designed ecosystem. . . . Reconciliation ecology, where habitats greatly altered for human use are designed, spatially arranged, and managed to maximize biodiversity while providing economic benefits and ecosystem services, offers great promise that ecologists will be increasingly called upon to help design and manage new cities and reconstruct older ones.”

Progress comes from mashup notions like “socioecological systems” and “reconciliation ecology.” The new profession of urban ecology could unleash hordes of postdocs on everything from cockroach predation to urban disease vectors and help cities engage natural infrastructure with the same level of sophistication brought to the built infrastructure. Every Green organization should have an urban strategy, and some should specialize in cities.

One idea that could be transferred from squatter cities is urban farm­ing. Another article in Science Enthused:

“In a high-­tech answer to the “local food” movement, some experts want to transport the whole farm—­shoots, roots, and all—­to the city. They predict that future cities could grow most of their food inside city limits, in ultraefficient greenhouses. . . . Well-­designed greenhouses use as little as 10 percent of the water and 5 percent of the area required by farm fields. . . . A 30-­story farm on one city block could feed 50,000 people with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat. Upper floors would grow hydroponic crops; lower floors would house chickens and fish that consume plant waste.”

Urban roofs offer no end of opportunities for energy saving and “reconcili­ation ecology.” Planting a green roof with its ecological community is a well-­established practice. For food, add an “ultraefficient greenhouse”; for supplemental power, add a few of the current generation of solar collectors.

The most dramatic gains can come from simply making everything white. A white roof saves the building’s tenant 20 percent in cooling costs; that’s why California now requires all new and retrofitted facilities in the state to have heat-­reflective ceilings. If you also plant plenty of trees, you sig­nificantly reduce a city’s “heat island” effect, which reduces smog. About a quarter of a city’s surface roofs; a third is pavement, which can be made paler with concrete or light-­colored aggregate in the asphalt. Since a white city reflects sunlight instead of absorbing it, there are climate benefits. According to a 2008 Law­rence Berkeley National Laboratory study, “If the 100 largest cities in the world replaced their dark roofs with white shingles and their asphalt-­based roads with concrete or other concrete light-­colored material, it could offset 44 metric gigatons (billion tons) of greenhouse gases.” Call the program “Alabaster Cities,” and you can invoke “America the Beautiful” in support. (It’s the best line in the song: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years / Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears.”)

Some environmentalists are already proponents of urban compactness. Sierra Club’s magazine reports that in Vancouver, “Mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity program includes zoning changes to allow ‘secondary suites,’ or in-­law apartments; triplexes; and narrow streets with houses that abut property lines.” Peter Calthorpe’s “walkability” has become a real estate selling point, with walkable neighborhoods able to charge premium prices. A proven way to encourage walking and use of public transit is with a “congestion tax” on cars in the downtown streets. In 2002 London fol­lowed the lead of Singapore and Hong Kong and adopted the practice of charging cars £8 a day to drive in the central city. Complaints died away when everybody’s travel times in and out of the town went down dramati­cally. Stockholm, San Francisco, Sydney, and Shanghai are taking up the idea, with more cities to follow.

One abiding problem is that the high cost of living in the city prices most families with children right out of town to the suburbs, and the good schools follow them. Greens could help reverse that trend by pressuring cities to become more like child-­friendly Paris, where every neighborhood has excellent schools and parks with playgrounds, puppet theaters, and carousels. Peter Calthorpe tells me he’s become an advocate of voucher schools because that system forces city schools to compete in an open market. They then improve sufficiently to attract the families back from the suburbs. In addition, new forms of subsidized family housing should be explored.

Infrastructure makes cities possible and must be rebuilt every few decades. According to a report in 2007 by the infrastructure consultant Booz Allen Hamilton, “Over the next 25 years, modernizing and expand­ing the water, electricity, and transportation systems of the world’s cities will require approximately $40 trillion.” What would infrastructure rethought in Green terms look like? China is currently building 170 new mass transit systems. High-­speed rail is finally coming to the United States. With the coming of “smart grids” and microgrids, the dis­tribution of electricity will be reshaped toward greater adaptability and efficiency.

As climate change unfolds, cities will be on the frontier of human response. Taking the danger zone as 30 feet above sea level, a Columbia University study reported in Science says that two-thirds of all cities with a population over 5 million are “especially vulnerable” to rising sea levels and “weather oscillations.” For example, the Thames Barrier protecting London from flood tides was raised twenty-­seven times between 1986 and 1996 and sixty-­six times between 1996 and 2006. Some are forecasting that it will be overwhelmed by 2030.

From the mitigation angle, it will be worth refining a “climate foot­print” template for cities, grading them on such things as their albedo, their vegetation density, and their greenhouse gas and soot output versus their use of carbon-­free energy sources like hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar. As with ecological-­footprint studies, there should be a time dimension—­is the city improving or worsening? Then comes adaptation. A “climate prospects” template would detail how each city might respond to climate impacts such as sea-­level rise, drought, extreme weather, and temperature changes. Is the high ground nearby? Is there a move-­upstairs option in the buildings? Can the local water supply and agriculture adapt to salt water infusion or, if inland, to drought? If city abandonment becomes necessary, how would it play out?

• In the broad scope of history, growing cities are far from an unmiti­gated good. They concentrate on crime, pollution, and injustice as much as business, innovation, education, and entertainment. But, if they are overall a net good for the people who move there, it is because cities offer more than just job opportunities. They are transformative. In the slums as well as the office towers and leafy suburbs, the progress is from hick to metropolitan to cosmopolitan, and everything the dictionary says that cosmopolitan means: multicultural, multiracial, global, worldly-­wise, well-traveled, experienced, unprovincial, cultivated, cultured, sophisti­cated, sophisticated, sophisticated.

The takeoff of cities is the dominant economic event of the first half of this century. Its other impacts will be infrastructural stresses on the energy and food supply. People in vast numbers are climbing the energy ladder from smoky firewood and dung cooking fires to diesel-driven generators for charging batteries, then to 24/7 grid electricity. They are also climbing the food ladder—­from subsistence farms to cash crops of staples like rice, corn, wheat, and soy to the high protein of meat—­and doing so in a global marketplace. Environmentalists who try to talk people out of such aspirations will find the effort works, as well as trying to convince people to stay in their villages.

Peasant life is over unless catastrophic climate change drives us back to it.

The demographic literature often refers to the “bright lights” phe­nomenon that draws people to cities. But, thanks to military satellite imag­ery, those lights are now visible to us from space. These decades, the night side of Earth displays a stunning lacework of light on the continents, with incandescent nodes at the metropolitan areas and a bright tracery of transportation corridors between them. That web of light is a sign to any visitor that they are approaching not just a living planet but a civilized planet.