Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real Change

Here we catch up Paul Chatterton and speak with him about his new book, Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real ChangeAs well as an ex-editor of Antipode and is one of the co-founders of the Antipode Foundation, Paul is a writer, researcher, and campaigner. He is Professor of Urban Futures in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. He is currently Director of the University’s Sustainable Cities Group which has launched the ground breaking MSc Sustainable Cities.

Paul is also co-founder and resident of the award winning low impact housing co-operative Lilac, and co-founder of Leeds Community Homes which promotes community-led housing. His recent books include Low Impact Living: A Field Guide to Ecological, Affordable Community Building (Routledge, 2014) and Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real Change (Pluto Press, 2018).

Paul Chatterton, Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real Change, London: Pluto Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780745337012 (paper); ISBN: 9780745337029 (cloth); ISBN: 9781786803641 (ebook)

Pluto Press have just published my latest book Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real Change. Why did I write it and what is it about? What has become apparent to me over the last few years is that something largely unnoticed is happening in cities across the world. In the context of the threat of climate breakdown, urban austerity, and social alienation, what I have become fascinated by are the countless initiatives where people from all walks of life and city sectors are creating, resisting, and intervening in their unfolding urban story. In spite of the overbearing weight of corporate power, loss of public space, bureaucratic hierarchies, ingrained inequalities, and even the presence of war and violence, people and projects are emerging to lay down markers for very different urban futures. They are unlocking the huge untapped potential of sustainable cities. They come in many forms: urban consulates; hackerspaces; park(ing) activism; car-free days; Walk Your City programmes; billboard activism; rapid transition groups; urban play boxes. These might not have the answers to urban poverty, inequality, or climate change. But they represent a swarm of civic innovation, seeking to harness potential wherever they see it. They represent a healthy and radical understanding and critique of the business-as-usual urbanism that is pushing cities to their social, ecological, and economic limits.

This is not a book that seeks solutions from top-down corporate led, business as usual models, nor naively celebrates the power of small grassroots projects, the power of a resurgent radical local state, or lone mavericks who can break through old paradigms. Rather, it seeks to explore the power of rapidly emerging constellations of connected experiments that sit between and within all of these – that can harness the creative power of the many and have the potential to radically unlock the latent potential of cities. In particular, what these civic innovators point towards is institutional building that connects bottom up and top down change – transformative innovation on the meso level.

I focus on cities because the majority of humanity on our planet will soon live in cities. The urban world is the source of human creativity as well as its immense carbon and energy footprint that is calling the very survival of our species and the ecosystems that we depend upon into question. There are a whole host of complex and persistent problems that require urgent attention: climate resilience and adaptation; biodiversity and ecosystem protection; reductions in fossil fuel dependency; ensuring decent levels of prosperity and well-being; tackling generations of worklessness and poverty; building institutions that empower and enable; ensuring equality in terms of outcomes and procedures; figuring out how to incentivise changes in social practices; safeguarding children and vulnerable adults; reorienting work and education towards the challenges that lie ahead; and figuring out the financial, institutional, and cultural shifts needed that underpin it all.

This is not a book about sustainable, low-carbon, climate-friendly, or resilient cities. In particular, the book foregrounds that one of the central problems is the way that we approach the very idea of sustainability. Real sustainability can only be worked towards by embarking upon a deep and painful questioning, pulling apart, and reorienting of the dominant urban project of the human species during the late Anthropocene, or more accurately now the Capitalocene.

Image courtesy of James McKay

The book, then, is a manifesto for unlocking sustainable cities through what I purposefully call a manifesto for real change. This contrasts to many of the false solutions, weak promises, and blind alleys masquerading as real change. I use the term real rather than radical, as this book is about transformative action that is also within our reach. Central to the theory of change in the book is a dual movement: to lock-down and unlock. First, I point towards the need for resistance and action in the face of aspects of urban life that need to be resisted and locked-down to avoid damaging and unsafe versions of urban sustainability that seek to privatise, commodify, and individualise city life. Second, there needs to be a process of creation to enable and empower, or unlock, a whole parallel series of practices and institutions that foster greater levels of environmental sustainability, social justice, and economic equality.

I also use five themes that shape and guide this great process of unlocking sustainable urban futures: compassion, and the urgent need to inject empathy, shared understanding, and solidarity into the way we construct city futures; imagination, and the need to think the urban impossible beyond the current frame of reference; experimentation, and the need to take bold action to explore novel possibilities through radical forms of prototyping and exploration beyond business as usual; co-production, and the need to harness collaborative forms of co-working and co-design to urban problem solving; and transformation, and a commitment to feasible changes within a framework of larger step changes beyond the current paradigm of carbon-dependent and pro-growth economics.

In the book I explore four features of city life where potential can be unlocked, lock-in avoided, and unproductive tendencies locked-down. In Chapter 1, on Car-free Cities, I explore a wealth of examples that point to unlocking a very different approach to mobility. As we lock-down fossil fuel based transport, we need to unlock the car-free city on a mass scale: cycle lanes, pedestrian routes, mass accessible rapid transport, renewed street life, and car-lite urban design. Next up, in Chapter 2, I explore the Post-carbon City agenda beyond the geopolitical age of oil, gas, and coal, and a new civic urban energy revolution that is taking on corporate energy giants, ensuring radical decarbonisation as well as equality. In Chapter 3 I discuss the Bio City and the need to lock-down ecosystem degradation, resource depletion, and the commodification of nature and natural resources. More fundamentally, there needs to be a transformation in the relationship between the natural and urban realm and a new human-nature deal based on equality, stewardship, and ecological restoration. Finally, in Chapter 4 I explore the idea of the Common City through innovations in community place making, economics, and democracy as a counter to alienated planning systems, corporate greed, and concentrated land ownership. The common city points to a fundamental shift in place making, urban economies, and democracy. These come in many guises: citizen led housing, community ownership, localised and solidarity-based economics, collaborative production, local currencies, and civic finance. Since this book is intended to be a manifesto, I end the book by offering some suggestions for real action and change in these four areas.

Together these city systems create an agenda for a car-free, post-carbon, commons-based bio city. This is an ambitious and incomplete agenda that explores how innovators are unlocking cities from automobile dependency, embarking on the shift from private, fossil fuel vehicles towards zero-carbon urbanism, restoring urban nature by moving away from ecologically damaging industrialisation, and unleashing locally responsive economies and renewed democratic participation. If any of this potential is to be unlocked we have to think big, act small, and start now. We have to get organised and confront the challenges of how this great unlocking of real urban sustainability is organised and replicated. I really want to get a conversation going around these ideas so please contribute ideas at http://unlockingsustainablecities.org/ and follow me on Twitter @PaulChatterton9 #unlockingsustainablecities