Insights · September 2nd, 2012
This is Part 4 of Chapter 2 of our book on the future of cities, being written with Dennis Walsh. Our plan is to publish a new book blog nearly every day for the next couple of months. We will publish them both here on futurist.com and on dothefuture.com. Later we will compile the blogs into an e-book.
We are debating the eventual title. We started with two choices: “Downtown” and “Shine…The Rebirth of American Cities.” Which do you like? We hope you will find the subject of interest and follow this book in serial form. A reader has suggested, “City Transformation?” So far, “Downtown” with a subtitle is leading. What do you think?
CHAPTER TWO – Part 4
by Dennis Walsh and Glen Hiemstra
50 years ago the first group of Freedom Riders boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., and headed south to lead the charge against American racial segregation. Their plan was to defy Southern social order by traveling as an interracial group through Southern cities before ending their tour in New Orleans. The Freedom Rides took a step toward doing what they felt was right at great personal risk and with no guarantee of success.
Others joined them in “Doing the right thingâ€. And it wasn’t long before the environmental science came into the emerging social movement. News of the Vietnam War shocked America with stories of birth defects and environmental poisoning caused by chemical defoliation of Vietnam’s jungle. There were protests against Dow Chemical recruiters on campus. Nixon devoted his 1969 State of the Union message to the environment, signing the National Environmental Policy Act saying that “the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and its living environment. It is literally now or never.â€ Can you imagine a political leader saying that today, and meaning it? They will, someday, but only when public pressure rises again.
It was 1970, the same year as the anti-Vietnam Moratorium and Earth Day took off, led by a new generation of students less revolutionary than the SDS. New environmental organizations were created to lobby and advocate within the system: the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the League of Conservation Voters. There was an incident involving the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York. Buried toxic waste forced entire neighborhoods to be abandoned. A few years later, dioxin contamination forced the evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri. And by the latter half of the 1980s, the global chemical industry knew it was in trouble, its environmental reputation in tatters.
Against this cultural backdrop, American cities were in a slump. Downtown storefronts were failing. Industries were down sizing. Shopping centers were expanding on the outskirts of the city. Suburbs grew, freeways expanded, bus and rail lines died, the great hollowing out of cities was nearly complete.
Influential feminist writer and urban planner, Jane Jacobs saw this coming. Jacobs became involved in urban activism, spearheading local efforts to oppose the top-down neighborhood clearing and highway building championed by New York City Parks. Jacobs became the chairman of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, in reaction to Moses’ plans to build a highway through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and West Village.
To Jacobs, cities were living beings and ecosystems. She saw each element of a city – sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods, government, economy – functioning together synergistically just like natural ecosystems. Modernist urban planners of the time seemed to reject people living in complex communities. They often preferred to separate residential, industrial and commercial.
Jacobs disagreed with them. She was an urbanist, an activist who wrote about a fresh, community-based approach to city building, advocating “mixed-useâ€ urban development and challenging traditional approaches that blamed high density for crime, filth, and a long list of other problems. Jacobs considered high concentrations of people vital for city life: A critical mass of people is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. To Jacobs, the ideal city meant diversity; mixed uses, short blocks, buildings old and new and in different states of repair and density. New York City’s Greenwich Village was her version of a vibrant urban community.
Once again, we stand at a crossroads. In one direction lies business as usual, the road we have traveled for decades. The other path leads to a far brighter future. We cannot wait for some future generation to make this change. We need a revolution in humanitarian values. Only then can we hope to create a more stable basis for world peace. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.â€
[Glen Hiemstra is the Founder of Futurist.com, and curator of Dothefuture.com. Dennis Walsh is a sustainability futurist from Canada best known for his work as the first publisher of green@work. Contact us through futurist.com]