Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Greening the City comments and some catching up with The Key To Sustainable Cities by Gwendolyn Hallsmith

On Greening the City:
This chapter addresses urban sustainability from an ecological perspective. I had never heard of "bioregional practice" before, but strives to restore and promote natural systems. Since I have been working in horticulture for several years, this chapter was useful because it contained a lot of relevant landscape planning guidance and critiques. One of the first was the popular notion that many urban parks have little value beyond ornamentation. Having worked in several parks over the years, I couldn't agree more with this statement. It is often very difficult to get governments and the general population to consider real healthy green spaces to be a priority on their budgets and agenda. I do think that aesthetics can be a vital component in creating healthy cities, but it is certainly not the only benefit to greening. It is a shame that when municipal budget cuts are required, parks and open spaces funds usually get cut first.

In the same paragraph, the author decries the fact that most parks are designed and maintained by people with no experience in ecology. As a parks supervisor, I can also attest to that. I have many years of training in ornamental horticulture, but not much education in ecology- and I know this is true of many others like myself. However, this is something that I am trying to change because I don't see how anyone can be expected to manage urban landscapes without having more knowledge of ecology and natural systems. Otherwise, you are just fighting a ridiculous battle based mostly on short-term aesthetics.

I joined the class late and am finally catching up here with some comments on Hallsmith's systems thinking:

Chapter 2: Perceiving the Community as a Whole System:
Hallsmith names four types of community needs as social, governance, economic and physical, and names the three primary community stakeholders as individuals/households, government and organizations. She shows how each major need and every part of the community can have an effect on the others, and argues that such interconnectedness may be better understood as a whole system. Hallsmith discusses the major community need categories and reveals how physical needs have previously been given priority by Mazlo and Max- Neef over other needs. However, she sees all needs as integral to community fulfillment, and argues that social needs must be met in order to fulfill economic, governance and even physical needs.

With all Hallsmith wrote about Maslow, Max-Neef and her own ideas about how needs fit together, I wished that she had included more diagrams of these need hierarchies or frameworks to help illustrate her points. I have studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before, but I couldn’t remember all of its levels and which needs were built upon the others. I understand that she is trying to move forward into new realm of thinking about needs, but sometimes it is nice to know where we have been before we take off on a new direction. When I looked up Maslow’s original pyramid of needs, self-actualization is at the top of the triangle and social needs is in the middle. It seems like Hallsmith is arguing that social needs should be take much more seriously than they have been in the past. Her community needs diagrams show social needs and fulfillment in several areas and she looks at individual needs as a balance to the needs of government and organizations.

Chapter 3 : Community Capacity and Sustainability
In this chapter, Gwendolyn Hallsmith discusses community agency and how populations can try to satisfy their own requirements for sustainability. She calls the qualities or things that enable a sustainable community “assets”, and looks at examples of economic, environmental, governance, and social capacity. The author explains community social cycles in terms of assets and processes that affect each other in ways that can either meet needs or create them. Much of the chapter is devoted to examples of “vicious social cycles” and negative cycles that are currently ubiquitous in North America. However, she ends on a more positive note by listing some benchmarks to help communities determine whether their decisions are helping to build holistic equity or are endangering community capacity.

In Chapter 3’s section on needs, cycles and systems, the author recognizes that many of the elements of community systems are difficult to quantify. If you cannot easily measure the components of certain social systems, then how are systems diagrams useful? It is easy to see how systems thinking can be used to reframe economics and other measurable disciplines, but I am interested in knowing more about how to measure social needs, or if this is even something that can be measured in a traditional way.

Chapter 4: Systems Thinking for Communities
This chapter attempts to explain basic systems analysis and applies it to theories of sustainable community development. Systems thinking is revealed as a language of symbols that can help reveal the way living, dynamic, extraordinary communities operate. The essence of systems thinking is that “the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, and the whole forms a coherent entity that can exhibit behavior that is very different from the parts would lead you to expect.” (p.82) Cause and effect diagrams, feedback loops, flows, delays are shown using systems diagrams, and community systems archetypes were uncovered in common urban problems like traffic congestion, education and sprawl. Hallsmith points out that equilibrium plays an important role in systems thinking because closed systems are often resistant to change. That being said, she also says that small changes to the components of a system can lead to huge changes in the outcome of a system.

I found it very interesting that Hallsmith’s study of human systems thinking “indicates that for complex human systems, this critical state of being on the edge of chaos is perhaps a relatively normal condition.” (p. 83) This is a hefty statement that is hidden toward the back of chapter four and seems to have very deep implications when it comes to planning for sustainable communities. Hallsmith later points out that complex natural systems often teeter on the edge of chaos, but are also self-organizing. Perhaps this “property” of self-organization is part of the urban planning process, but it often seems to work against it. This dubiousness ties in with one of the central questions of our Community Garden project, which is whether or not spontaneous community gardens are more successful than government planned community garden projects.

Chapter 12: The Living, Learning, Caring Community
I chose to read the final chapter of The Key to Sustainable Cities because I was hoping to be left with a clear conclusion to the book. I was somewhat rewarded with Hallsmith’s final plea for life-long community education and an increase in urban policies that actually care for the people. The author also included recreation, spiritual outlets, arts, a clean environment, safety, cross-generational and cross-cultural support, civic involvement, economic development, equity, access, housing, energy, transportation, conflict resolution, waste disposal, water and self-determination as key ingredients in a sustainable community.

I agree with many of Hallsmith’s final recommendations for building sustainable cities. I was particularly impressed by her call to “give up the sacred cows of Western society.” (p.246) She makes a clear declaration about the unsustainable nature of the American dream. Is this obsession with isolation, fortess-like homes, taking up space and using up our resources just a sick extension of Manifest Destiny and American expansionism? I hope that we can indeed halt the incessant quest to acquire more useless things and end our impulse to consume more than we need. It seems our feet are just too big for our shoes, but this time, we can’t buy bigger shoes.