Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet: Carbon Zero, by Alex Steffen

Landscape Urbanism recently met up with Alex Steffen to talk about his latest book, “Carbon Zero,” which was just published on November 27th, 2012. The self-proclaimed “little book” looks at the current condition of our growing–and urbanizing, and warming–planet, and calls for a radical re-imagination of what our city futures could look like. It’s a blueprint, a warning, and a strategic call-to-action for our global urban leaders to take (radical, imaginative) steps towards a more resilient future. 

The following two excerpts are from the book’s introduction and overview (emphases added); the full book is on Amazon, here.  

Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, by Alex Steffen (Excerpt)

1. Our Urban Future

Humanity is already an urban species, with more people living in cities than in the countryside. By the middle of the century, we will likely have as many as 9.5 billion people living on the planet, with 70%–75% of us (around 7 billion people), demographers estimate, living in cities themselves, and 95% or more of humanity living within a day’s travel of a city. By the 2050s, the overwhelming majority of humanity will be participating in urban systems of health care, education, communication, commerce, and government that only a few decades ago were limited to the “developed” world.

“Every day, at least 200,000 people move to cities or are born in them. That’s like building a city the size of San Francisco every four days. Then doing it again, four days later.”

Growth is transforming the very nature of cities. Every day, at least 200,000 people move to cities or are born in them. That’s like building a city the size of San Francisco every four days. Then doing it again, four days later. Then doing it again—and repeating the process several thousand times in the next forty years. By 2050, we will have an estimated 3.5 billion more urbanites, and to house them we will have built a constellation of thousands of large cities, including a scattering of extremely large megacities, each home to tens of millions of people. The largest citybuilding boom in human history will happen in the next four decades, with each decade experiencing more change than the one before.

This urban boom won’t be wonderful for everyone; for many, it may be tragic. Unless we change our priorities quickly, as many as a billion people—climate refugees, the rural and destitute, victims of conflict and deep structural poverty—will live on the very edge of existence. Perhaps as many as 3 billion people will live in informal settlements—in the huge slums springing up around many developing world cities. Hundreds of millions of these slum-dwellers will live in abject poverty. Inequalities will strain our societies. In the midst of widespread poverty, 3 or 4 billion others may rise out of poverty to enter the global middle class, living what we today would consider a “modern”—if modest—life. A billion may well live in even greater affluence than we experience today. And the one thing the vast majority of these people will have in common is their cities, and the ways in which those cities are linked together

2. Imagining Carbon Zero Cities

How do we get to work? Well, we can’t build what we can’t imagine, so the first task in building carbon zero cities is to reimagine the cities we have. Reimagining is hard work. It requires both a robust conversation about what carbon zero cities might be like, and a far more creative approach to envisioning the kinds of innovations and solutions that could get us there. This little book is my attempt to outline one version of a carbon-neutral city; to get a conversation going about what kind of change a 90% cut in emissions might entail and to point out some of the main areas of possible innovation.

“Every city is unique, with its own character, geography, civic culture and history. No one set of innovations applied in a specific way will suit the needs of every city.”

It’s worth emphasizing that this is a sketch, not a blueprint. I wouldn’t even attempt to ordain a model for zero-carbon development that every place should adopt. Every city is unique, with its own character, geography, civic culture and history. Regional economies and politics have left every metro area with different workforces, institutions, and business cultures. The implementation of national policies and local capacities vary widely. No one set of innovations applied in a specific way will suit the needs of every city. Large teams of professionals and engaged citizens should (and I hope, will) take up the actual work of upgrading their cities. I’m not interested in dictating approaches to anyone.

Indeed, it seems to me that what we need most right now are not conclusive answers, but good hypotheses put immediately to the test; and good hypotheses spring first from reframing our understanding of a given challenge. I hope that my reframing of this challenge will influence readers to begin to see their own cities’ challenges in a new light.

But don’t expect things to look normal, illuminated by the demands of the future. We have, again and again, mistaken what we think of as “normal” for “best” and “permanent.” Normal as we knew it in the second half of the twentieth century is already a thing of the past. Already, many of our older systems are crumbling, revealing themselves to be unsustainably expensive or indefensibly harmful. Even the timescales of the twentieth century are out of date. Changes that took half a century before are erupting in a few years now.

The speed of change will not slow. It is both pulled along by the dire necessity of quick action—for, as Donella Meadows has written, on a planet full of limits, “Time is in fact the ultimate limit”—and driven along by the unleashing of innovation, collaboration, and competition on a planetary scale that dwarfs anything our great-grandparents could have comprehended. If the ultimate limit turns out to be time, the last infinite resource turns out to be creativity.

I believe that planetary limits and human creativity are now inextricably bound together. I doubt we’ll reinvent the physical limits of this world, at least in the next few centuries. I would bet against the emergence of any technologies that allow us to exceed our planetary boundaries on both a global scale and a sustained basis. But I would also bet we can build a civilization that works within our planetary limits,and furthermore, that the realm of possibilities for human experience within those ecological limits is essentially infinite.

“Quite the opposite of imposing hardship, carbon zero targets may very well spur a renaissance in urban creativity.”

Indeed, as we cease trying to maximize the volume of material growth and start  emphasizing sustainable prosperity, I think we’ll find that what we’re able to do with energy and materials becomes more and more brilliant, meaningful, and enriching. Design  constraints often deliver better results than a belief in complete freedom. Quite the opposite of imposing hardship, carbon zero targets may very well spur a renaissance in urban creativity.

Excerpted with permission by Alex Steffen. Grist has also made publicly available the full text of the book (here), or you can support the work by purchasing your own copy. 

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  1. Pingback: Favorite Design and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of December 8, 2012 | Walter Comms

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