Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Modest Systems Reading Assignment: Chapter 1

Chapter Summary: In Chapter 1 of The Key to Sustainable Cities, Gwendolyn Hallsmith argues that all government is local. Individual people at the local, grassroots level initiate the political and social changes that occur in national government. Thus, the larger government institutions are simply byproducts of the efforts made by involved and engaged citizens. These individual community members act out of a necessity to fulfill their basic human needs. When the local systems, fail to meet their needs they in turn seek to change the system. As a result, their needs have become the impetus for the creation of more complex and, in most cases, less sustainable systems. In this chapter, Hallsmith introduces and describes the difference between sustainable local systems and unsustainable local systems by contrasting two cities: Randolph, Vermont and Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. In her contrast, Hallsmith explains that Randolph, the sustainable city, has a bustling city center, developed western cultural identity, growing economy, local citizen participation, and a democratic political system. As a result, this local urban system is effectively meeting the needs of its citizens. On the other hand, Naryn, which lacks all of the above stated characteristics of a sustainable system, is not meeting the needs of its citizens.

New Learning: In this chapter, Hallsmith gives readers a very vague idea of what a sustainable city looks like. In her vision, which Randolph seems to exemplify, citizens’ active, informed and engaged participation in local government is essential to creating sustainable cities. This link between citizen participation and sustainable cities is quite interesting considering that at the beginning of the chapter she suggests that it is citizens’ actions in response to their growing needs that propels the development of these unsustainable systems. Nevertheless, it seems that she also suggests that cities like Randolph are using citizen participation as a strategy for establishing sustainable systems. Unlike the citizens of Naryn, the citizens of Randolph had a voice in local government that was not only listened to, but also taken very seriously. Hallsmith’s ideas about citizen participation are extremely relevant and can be incorporated into our work as students and professionals.
Quite remarkably, Hallsmith brings light to the circular nature of society, communities, and systems. It is individual need that sparks development of more complex and often unsustainable systems. Once these more complex systems begin to negatively affect individuals, they will again act out of necessity; the need to create more sustainable systems. By giving citizens the space to act out their natural roles in these systems governments can do their part in working toward sustainability.

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