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A new focus for strategic vision – The Sustainable City

It has all gone a bit blurry lately. We are no longer divided by left/right, up or down. And it leaves us feeling anxious. It feels like we are casting around for something to hope in. We used to hope in the nation.  Some recognised the significance of Europe, while others knew that the really important things could only be addressed globally. Yet each of these orders, Nation, Europe and World, are now in their own type of disarray, Nationalism is on the rise, but suffers from bigotry. Europe has become a spectator sport, while worldwide institutions like the United Nations are weak beyond credibility.

The causes are multiple. Technological advance has created a shifting, flexible work life for many, undermined neighbourhood and workplace organisations and threatens our own sense of identity and worth.  Guy Standing says that this new ‘precariat’  is an inevitable result of neoliberal economics and its associated competitive individualism. He foresaw in 2011 the ‘villainization of migrants’and the attractiveness of extremism as an inevitable result of these changes. In his eyes the mind of the precariat ‘feeds on fear and is motivated by fear’. Coupled with that we have the burgeoning rise in influence of the social media with the latest President elect of the United States now doing international diplomacy by Twitter and fake news  websites getting more hits than ‘true’ ones in a gossip-centred world where we all attract attention to ourselves by passing on the most shocking stories. Witness also the rise in searches based on the phrase ‘alt-right’, a term coined only in 2016, but attracting extraordinary interest around the time of the US election.  Whether these searches were out of support for the movement or fear of it, the statistics suggest fear is everywhere in some form or another. But then who should not be afraid?

It is easier to record this stuff today than to see a genuine antidote, but I would like to try to offer one. I think that we might helpfully focus on the sustainable city. More than 80% of the developed world now lives in an urban environment. Cities are exhilarating places to live and some, like my home town of Bristol, have a strong undercurrent of alternative-minded people who know that humans have to learn to live differently if we are to save ourselves from social and environmental catastrophe. We have literally hundreds of projects across the city that are radically new, exploring new types of association, like new currencies, food systems and ways of caring for people. How would it be if we combined in an alliance focused on building a sustainable city? I think it could be just what we need at this time. A city is big enough to be significant and small enough to relate to personally. If one city can learn to do it, then good practice could spread.

Is this the way forward? Is this an avenue for hope?

Chris Sunderland

PS I am pleased to report this week sees the publication of my book ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’ by Earth Books. The third section of the book centres on strategies we can employ in working for a sustainable city. Here is an extract

…Yet this global demographic change towards living in cities presents us with a new possibility. We could see the city, or the ‘city region’ to be more precise, as the focus for global sustainability. In other words, if we could work out what a genuinely sustainable city looks like then we might have cracked the global problem. Cities could embark on a learning exercise, each exploring their own geographical and economic context, how sustainability might arise there and what they need to do by way of adaptation. The cities could learn from one another, taking examples of good practice from others, and so we could leverage our way across the world towards a sustainable way of life.

I would like to propose that the high-level strategic key to this process is a form of localization. This means that a city region looks to do for itself everything that it can do for itself. There are, of course, some aspects of life that are, in their very nature, so specialized that it would be daft for every city to do its own. This might include transport-vehicle manufacture, information technologies and the like. But there are many other systems that can and should be localized. In these cases localization does two things. It produces a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions and it strengthens human community life. The way that this might be achieved is through the employment of ‘change drivers’. Interventions in these particular areas have the potential to act throughout many systems of the city, connecting people and communities in new ways and changing our deepest perceptions about life. I recognize four key change drivers…


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