This week a quote of me was posted on Instagram: “Good urbanism is about making cities for humans in balance with nature”. I was happy with it – and I still am. But the comment of a colleague, asking what about places where humans are not in balance with nature made me reread it and set me to think about it. He has a point! Most of the cities and urban models that make the top 10 charts of the best urban models are all in parts of the world where humans are not in balance with nature. One might even argue that these models are not in balance with nature. We keep promoting an urbanism that keeps operating at the expense of other species on this planet. All the ‘green’ cities, sustainable neighbourhoods and zero carbon buildings are not enough. Even if they are not increasing our carbon footprint and even if they are taking all sorts of measures to minimize impact, they are still embedded in systems, in lifestyles and in cultures that are not. Living in a zero-carbon house and at the same time flying to remote destinations after all still is unsustainable.
I do not want to bash those – basically almost all of us – who ultimately live an unsustainable life. We are part of that very culture, and we are enjoying our lifestyles and I also believe more and more of us do more to overcome that. But to set further steps, it might be interesting to study those cities, neighbourhoods and buildings that actually are in balance with nature – or at least more in balance with nature. Where are they, you might ask. They exist and typically we refer to them as slums, informal settlements or tribal villages – human settlements where many of us feel they need to ‘fix’ them, to formalize them or to replace them with ‘proper’, neatly planned neighbourhoods. The consequence? They are actually less in balance with nature. Our will to improve living conditions ultimately results in a bad deal for the planet. If that is the case – should we not stop our efforts to turn a slum into a middle-class neighbourhood?
I think the answer must be no. It would be cynical to withhold what we have and make those who are having the least impact on the planet pay for our own carbon footprint. In the contrary – we should learn from these settlements and embrace their concepts of minimizing impact. Inevitably it means putting things upside down. What used to be the bottom end of the urbanism charts in the light of climate change becomes number one. Settlements which we have defined as a problem that needs to be helped become role models that inform the wealthy formal urban environments, mostly located in the global north. What should we do then with the latter? The answer is simple – name them what they are – problems that need profound systemic and large scale changes to re-establish human balance with nature – to turn them into good urbanism!
by Markus Appenzeller