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Degrowth must consider ecocity design and planning

Richard Register | 12 April 2010

I have noticed that there were few tools offered in my memory of the Degrowth conference for actually bringing in a new economics that embodies degrowth. I followed Joan Martinez-Alier’s links and some of the text of the contents of the publication he mentioned, in an issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production, and it seemed to me, as usual among business people, economic theorists and even climate change solutions advocates, the built environment and what its variety of expressions imply was completely omitted. Since various different designs and layouts of cities vary massively in their impacts, this line of investigation seems to me to be crucial.

My line goes, as partially developed in the interview posted on The Broker:

Cities being the largest of our species’ creations, de-growthing them is something of a very major necessity. With the sort of design layout and features we promote in my own NGO, Ecocity Builders out of Oakland, California, I estimate we should be able to run cities on 1/10th the energy and 1/5th the land of the average these days. Not that the ecocity would pop forth immediately but changing in that direction, says Jaime Lerner, architect (literally and metaphorically) of Curitiba’s famous remodel starting in 1972, can progress very substantially in as few as two years. Add to the infrastructure change that results from ecocity design and planning the technologies (many talk about – solar and wind energy, bicycling and streetcars, organic local farming, etc) and modest but progressively improving lifestyles, say bicycling and recycling more and more while driving less and less, and multiply Lerner’s statement by some unknown but positive factor and we are really getting somewhere toward degrowth and sustainability.

My major criticism of the degrowth conference was only that those assembled seemed strongly resistant to considering major urban redesign, as if they thought we could continue with basically the same layout of the city and hope to get to their positive goals at the same time. I think a lot of what they suggest is good but doomed if not built upon a foundation of ecocities. THEN, if both together, we’d have a chance to avert the disasters and if learning along the way, maybe get to some pretty beautiful ways of living in our built homes of cities, towns and villages.

I introduced the notion that needed some detail – but video interviews are only so long! – that graduated income tax is very important to shift wealth from the extreme excessiveness of today’s inequities to the poor and to investment in family planning, built infrastructure of cities, towns and villages and shifting agriculture toward the much more organic, local and low in meat. What real graduated income taxes also imply is that some capitalism and a practical transition to degrowth is possible without the dreamy notion of destroying capitalism and starting over in your back yard food garden or sheering your own sheep – won’t work! Big capitalism is out of control in may ways from inequality of results giving us poverty and unconscionable super wealth to use of advertizing saturating and contaminating the public mind very badly, dumbing down practically every aspect of human social, production, trade and consumption intercourse on this planet! But small capitalism and a reasonable profit for genuine services rendered is not the devil incarnate. Go with that and invest tax monies and savings in ecocities, organic farming and birth control (and awareness about the above, meaning relevant education) and we have a real practical start on degrowth. I saw few places to start at the conference, few tools and practical early steps. I have plenty in my writings (Ecocity Berkeley, 1987 and Ecocities, 2006, ). Looming large among them are city general plans and zoining codes which in a break out session at the conference on cities and politics the assembled twelve or so participants insisted wasn’t politics at all! Amazing! I’ve never in my life seen politics so intense about anything as transforming our cities and neighborhoods other than perhaps the draft and the War in Vietnam.

All in all, it was a most interesting event among very sincere and dedicated people and some of their ideas on the small and practical scales are very worthwhile but need the underpinning of ecocities, good agriculture and population reduction made possible by a whole systems strategy coordinating those aspects. Maybe at the next conference these issues will be better integrated and more focus will shift to the foundation steps where the good ideas can be built upon.

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Richard Register

Richard Register is a theorists and author in ecological city design and planning and is Presiden...

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