I’ve moved a lot, by anyone’s standards, over my life. The reoccurring theme I’ve found in suburban landscapes is that it’s built for the driver. One’s home is an island within vast tracks of MAMBA. We can do it better. We have done it better. We’ll need to make human landscapes better if we’re ever going to make genuine headway on climate adaption and mitigation as well as increase resource security and waste reduction.
I found this video an interesting piece in the puzzle before us.
Globally, there is intense discussion about the future of urban life through the World Urban Campaign. The central proposition is that:
… the battle for a more sustainable future will be won or lost in cities.
Presumably, this is predicated on the fact that 54% of the world’s people live in cities, where 70% of global GDP is generated. By 2050 the urban population will have risen to 66%.
In parallel, following the Paris climate agreement, major cities are committing to measures designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The poster for this campaign should read “Coming to your city soon”.
It is clear 2016 will be the “urban year” as the global community prepares for the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador, this October.
At Habitat III, governments will agree an urban agenda to guide global urban development over the next 20 years. The agenda is taking shape through preparatory meetings (the next one is in Indonesia in July), as well as regional and thematic meetings.
A series of 28 urban thinkers campuses has been organised across the globe, running until February 2016. One of the last of these is in Melbourne, Australia.
A world of challenges
We are all too familiar with the problems cities commonly face. These include rising house prices putting ownership beyond the reach of many, suburban sprawl, long commutes, traffic congestion, social problems, isolation and polarisation.
Melbourne leads the pack of Australian cities that rank highly for liveability, but they rate much more poorly for sustainability. AAP/David Crosling
At the same time, Australian cities have real strengths. This is reflected in their performance in various rankings on liveability and quality of urban life. But we ought not assume that this situation is sustainable, or that we can lock in liveability.
Globally, cities face even greater challenges. In the global south, if you live in a city there is a one-in-three chance that you live in a slum.
Also, despite progress on the Millennium Development Goals, poverty is still our greatest urban concern. It is not limited to the south and has been growing across cities globally since the global financial crisis. Limited financial resources constrain the capacity of city administrations to respond to these challenges, especially in the face of austerity measures.
While that may seem like a pretty glum picture, there are reasons to be hopeful.
In a survey of 20 cities last year for the UN Global Compact Cities Program we identified many examples of civic leadership and urban innovations.
Related to this, in the US, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley at Brookings have described these innovations as a “metropolitan revolution”. They argue that local leaders are doing the hard work of growing the job market and making their communities more prosperous. They cite examples in New York, Portland, Houston and Miami.
Across the English Channel, Bristol is seeking to transform the economy by introducing a local currency. The Bristol pound is designed to strengthen business relationships within the city and to build trust.
What these cities and their leaders have recognised is that “business as usual” will not get us to where we need to be.
Technological innovation, institutional reform, financial investment and regulatory change are all part of the answer, especially as we seek to achieve development goals while ensuring we do not undermine our environmental sustainability. However, we may need to dig deeper. Something that we neglect is the need for changes in values at both the societal and individual levels.
Twisting Einstein’s famous quote somewhat, it is possible to assert that “we can’t solve problems by using the same value system that created them”.
Here is where the notion of the ethical city comes in.
What is the ethical city?
Ethics is concerned with what is “right, fair, just or good”, not necessarily what is most accepted as normal or expedient.
Most people will have heard of the term ethical corporation. It suggests that such businesses place certain key values and practices at the centre of their operations. This could include fairness, integrity, respect for the environment, elimination of discrimination, and so on.
Internationally, some of these key values are elaborated in the ten principles of the UN Global Compact. Thousands of companies have signed up. Mayors of cities and governors of regions can also sign up to these principles by sending a letter to the UN secretary-general.
Yet the term ethical city is rarely used, even though ethical considerations underpin how we plan and manage our cities. And the ethical values underpinning the vast majority of our decisions about city life are rarely made explicit.
Even so, in most cities we already see various measures designed to support ethical governance. These range from internal commissions to audit and check on performance through to measures to promote transparency and community participation in decision-making.
Urban leaders, administrators, planners, engineers and others are aware of the ethical ramifications of their work, have guidance to refer to and training when needed. Although sometimes people fall foul, the vast majority do not because they are seen to be doing the right thing.
But we must recognise that there is a dominant view of “business as usual” based on an embedded set of values. Good examples include how most cities are designed primarily to accommodate the car, how we work in the CBD and live in the suburbs, or how homelessness is seen as a fact of life in many cities.
How do we create a more ethical city?
Thought leaders like Peter Singer have done a lot to elaborate the importance of ethics in everyday life, especially with his book Practical Ethics. However, we live in utilitarian times.
More than ever, our cities need ethical leadership – good governance, transparency, public trust building and fairness. They need ethically based planning to deal with the complex challenges facing our communities. This depends on our willingness to tackle the tough questions around sustainability, resilience, economic vibrancy and inclusiveness.
There is also our role as citizens. What are our expectations of ourselves as ethical, engaged citizens? What do we expect and deserve, and what are we prepared to commit to each other in the ethical city? What kind of citizens do we need to be?
Most of all, if we end up agreeing that we need a city that cares, how do we navigate to this end in a world where private profit and consumption are kings and where the tenets of the ethical city – social inclusion, climate action, gender equity, rights of children and youth, and myriad other rights and needs – are lacking?
If this sounds like a new year dose of utopianism, think of cases that you could envisage in your city – from participatory budgeting, to crowd-funded social enterprises, to any number of people who decided “what should we do?”, then acted on it.
The Ethical Cities Urban Thinkers Campus, to be hosted at RMIT University in Melbourne on February 16, will explore the ethical city in relation to urban development, inclusion and rights, and resilience.
While some in the government are calling the actions of many disappointed Australians “socialism” in truth, civil disobedience and peaceful protesting is an essential element to a fully functional democracy. Of course, the opposition, when they have no genuine rebuke, will resort to name calling, so let them have that, at least.
For those who care about the quality of the minds of future Australian who will be in charge when we are old and needing assistance (hoping that we haven’t made them selfish and apathetic). The best point of this article, for me is the simple point; if university graduates are likely to earn 75% more, why not add a tax to those currently earning 75% more to support those who follow them?
It avoids the debilitating debt the current proposal will create and it will avoid further insult to the disadvantaged – those who may not make the supposed 75% more, women who take time off to have children, people who suffer an unforeseeable health problem down the track when they have already completed university and are unable to work in the same fashion, etc.
My initial thought in reading this was, “Well, I’ll happily apply for a role!” (noting, obviously, my skills sets are probably not a great match)
I’ve written numerous articles over the years about the how poorly the Australian Green Sector has established itself. Since 2009 it went downhill for some time and I had a sense last year that again momentum was indeed rebuilding.
Nowadays, I’m careful of whether or not I include the words “climate change” or certain publications in an application. We all have mouths to feed and lives to live. The cuts to research and anything relating to climate by our current government is an effective tool to undermine the confidence of the sector.
As I wrote recent, I have been left with the conclusion that our public representatives have forgotten their role to the public, as public servants, with continual measures that favour the wealthy minority and short term self-gratification.
We need solutions that support climate science, biological science, agricultural science, social science, as we best understand it, and potential threats, today.
There is a lot of talk, but little action from a wide range of agents.
About the only place I have any faith restored is in the public itself. Occupy and the March in March show that many thousands of people are motivated towards change. They see the shortcomings of Business and Usual as well as the potential to a wide range of solutions.
In the days prior to the Information Age the democratic process gave the best weight to the people. It was the original crowdsourcing through the election of individuals that would speak on their behalf. It has never been perfect. It has always spoken for those groups with the most influence, not necessarily the majority.
Modern technology provides the solution. People can be organised to take a stand, to change behaviours and to influence their local culture via social media.
Progressives, with their diversity views, can step in time on shared values and/or mutual disgust of the current power brokers.
With this in mind, I’ve started a forum.
There is no content yet, but for a topic on the forum structure, but it is the platform I wish to develop and take NewAnthro forward.
It’s a simple, free, forum as the initial test bed.
As the name suggests, it is a place for those who recognise that our influence is lasting. We shape the world. We shape the atmosphere, the lithosphere and the hydrosphere.
Climate will continue to change. Population will continue to grow. Our economy, our technology, indeed our modern world necessarily plays a continuing fundamental role in our modern world. The only point in question is whether all of this will come at a massive cost to those yet unborn or if we can enrich the world through all our modern processes.
Let’s draw up the Blueprint.
The Anthropocene Blueprint thus is all inclusive. Any problem noticed by a member of the community or solution already applied in a personal situation is part of the process. It is the shape of the future we wish to design.
Through a forum, it avoids hierarchical influences and solutions are applied by the individual through their own means and desire (if it so exists). In this space, we can share and influence change than benefits us all and future generations through an entirely grassroots motivated approach.
More importantly, the forum must be the result of an engaged community of users. We need to be involved and we must also encourage others to as well. It is our blueprint and our statement to future generations that we recognised the need for change and worked towards it on their behalf.
I’ve created a new page above that you can use to directly find the forum should you need a quick and easy link to it for others.
The most important part of this project is that it cannot be left to a few of us. We must build a large and motivated community of users. We could, collectively, reduce the burden of living costs as well as our impact on our resources in a scale that would surprise observers.
Here are two real world experiences from my own life.
Firstly, four years ago, a friend and I visited Melbourne for a short holiday. After a night out, we caught a cab back to our hotel on the fringe of the inner city.
I am notoriously bad with names, but entirely opposite with directions. One of my favourite warnings to others is, “I never get lost, but I can’t tell you where I am”.
With that in mind, I had to apologise to the driver for not being able to give him an address, but I could easily direct him.
Without a detour, we quickly made it the short distance back to our hotel. The driver was by far the worst driver I have ever come across, rude and unpleasant for the entire trip, with a few snide remarks when we reached the hotel. My friend can be a little hot-headed and the two of them nearly ended up in a physical incident.
I later learned that the driver’s attitude most likely reflected being caught into taking a small fare. They apparently have the reputation for rejecting fares under a certain amount and, by not giving him the address, he might have felt that it was a deliberate attempt to avoid this.
The second experience occurred with the same friend, however this time in his home province of Sichuan, China, this previous April.
We were there for his wedding and on one of the days he wanted his Aussie friends to experience a typical Chinese weekend recreation. This in basic detail is a lazy day in the countryside, playing Mahjong, perhaps doing a little fishing, all while drinking copious cups of tea and enjoying the delicious food of the region.
Again my friend found himself in a war of words with a cab driver. The driver was annoyed by how far we went out into the country, thinking that we would stop at one of the closer country tea houses. It ended with the driver demanding twice as much as he outlined at the start of the trip.
Yet, the drive out from the centre of Dujiangyan to the tea house was less than 15 minutes in total.
While on holiday there, at any hour of the day or night, if my family required something, it was a short walk from our hotel room to all sorts of goods and services. By comparison, in suburban Australia, for most people, without a vehicle, there is a significant separation from even essential goods and services.
More than this, the attitude of the taxi drivers in both cities speaks volumes of the contrast in urban design.
Australians largely are subjected to poor quality, inefficient urban design and yet, when you speak to them about this, the defensive response illustrates just how ingrained into the cultural identity this phenomena actually is.
We Australians have been sold the urban sprawling landscape for so long that anything else seems foreign. However, it’s not the image of suburbia that we really buy into, but rather the semi-rural feel; the escape from the “rat-race”… our little oasis, overlooking parks and golf courses by sunset.
Of course, when we all move there together, value of land increases, driving further development and soon we find ourselves again stuck in peak traffic, far from any open spaces.
How different would it be to live and work within a short commute from one another, with all goods and services within a walking distance? How about having the countryside a relatively short drive out of town, for the weekend getaway?
Throughout Asia and Europe, this is normal for most people, where urban design still reflects times without widespread fast vehicles, yet in the sun scorched Great Southern Land, we are fixated in converting sun-buffering green space into concrete and bitumen, where we waste a lot of our life in commute.
With the cost of petrol and electricity on the rise, this lifestyle already hurts Australians and will increasingly in the coming decades, ultimately devaluing the urban landscape and local economies. It is unsustainable and will, sooner or later, be rejected, either by choice or by necessity.
I have a feeling that, if provided an alternative, innovative urban designers could set the scene for a new urban landscape for future Australians that would be adopted by many and over time, most. This would not be like Asia or Europe, nor would be what most Australians are currently used to, but a combination of both to develop something new, distinctive and unique.
With a changing climate and increasing costs in traditional energy, to act sooner would be timely.
I have a few ideas myself on this and would love to see an increase in this dialogue in an urban landscape already stretched too thin.