The Ecology of Urban Regeneration

The Ecology of Urban Regeneration

Throughout most of our history humanity led a rural life, and our ancestors mainly depended on subsistence hunting and agriculture. Two hundred years ago a mere 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1900 the urban population was 14 percent, and in 1950, it had risen to 30 percent. In 2011, for the first time in human history, city dwellers became the majority of the world’s population.

This urban reconfiguration of social life takes place in a world of unprecedented demographic change. While humanity grew very slowly for most of our history, the last few centuries dramatically changed our societies and the impact we have on the natural world. In the last half of the last century alone, the world’s population more than doubled its size. Just before 2000, we reached 6 billion, and now we have surpassed 7 billion. This rapid increase lays a heavy claim to natural resources and strains the ecological “carrying capacity.”

But there is nothing inherently anti-ecological in these numbers alone. More problematic is it that this demographic change occurs in the context of dramatically expanded material productivity and consumption, and perpetual technological revolutions. The economic framework provided by this particular historical nexus of social conditions—capitalism—is what causes the intense strain on natural resources and habitats.

Ecological Challenges

For obvious ecological reasons we need to address this problem. The disastrous ecological consequences of capitalist economics seem to find their apotheosis in today’s megacities. Human geographers, sociologists, and urbanists award much attention to this radically new historical phenomenon, and deservedly so: it is even more startling than the general population growth or the increased settlement in cities. In 1900 only 12 cities had more than 1 million inhabitants, and in 1950 this number had grown to 83. Today more than 400 cities number more than 1 million, and 19 of them have 10 million. These megacities appear to be ecological disasters in themselves, rendering the environment inorganic with enormous stretches of asphalt and glass, metal and concrete. The infamous Naples waste management crisis shows more than anything the enormous amount of garbage these megacities produce.

More than its small-town sisters and rural brothers, these megacities in “developed” countries bar the transition to an ecological economy based on human scale and regional self-reliance. Wealthy countries in the global North have a particular responsibility to reduce consumption and introduce ecological measures for development and production, but a serious reduction—or even stabilization of—consumption seems nowhere in sight. Since 1990 private consumption by Norwegian households has increased a staggering 93 percent, and prospects for a decrease in the foreseeable future are nil. Other European countries fare no better. The financial crises that now shake the global economy have not altered consumption patterns nor regionalized production nor created ecological jobs. When the financial strains were first felt in 2008, Kristin Halvorsen (then the Norwegian minister of finance as well as the leader of the Socialist Left Party) suggested that we should “shop ourselves out of the crisis.”

From an ecological perspective, allowing the centripetal forces of the market economy and its urban agglomerations to continue to grow uncontrolled will have grave consequences. This rapacious growth pits our megacities against the countryside, indeed against the natural world. Their consumption patterns require an industry and infrastructure that are heavily based on fossil fuels, and their populations fully depend on a global provision of consumer goods. This abnormal growth makes the modern megalopolis seem more reminiscent of a malignant tumor than anything in organic or cultural evolution. As a capitalist creature, urbanization does become cancerous: like tumor, these megacities threaten their host, the human community.

Ecological Possibilities

Still, the problematic growth of megacities is not essentially one of size or numbers. Rather it is one of underlying capitalist dynamics. Under a sensitive ecological approach, urban density in fact provides a sensible framework for production, consumption, energy, and transportation. Norwegian cities, which retain a human scale, provide great opportunities for an ecological transition—in marked contrast to the Norwegian countryside, where mountains, fjords, and long winters make rural settlements, with modern expectations of mobility and comfort, highly energy demanding.

Furthermore, city life provides stimuli for cultural enrichment. Not only do neighborhoods retain the possibilities for community development, by nurturing neighborhood identities and cultural autonomy, but the cross-cultural interchange that city life provides is crucial. Cities provide avenues for social and cultural mobility, and individuals can cross traditional dividing lines between cultural and subcultural identities. Despite the cultural impoverishment provided by the profit-oriented “culture industry” and its televised monoculture, these prospects remain vital.

Other opportunities also arise with larger scale. In a different social context I am sure cities would suggest exciting new collective solutions to the ecological challenges of our time. This is as true for Greece and Turkey as it is for Norway—or for Kenya and Indonesia for that matter. Still, any kind of ecological politics today must seek to restrict capitalist growth and ensure physical decentralization, at least of the megacities. But a refusal to accept capitalist urbanization and industrialization in no way implies denying people the benefits of modern life. Decent medicine and health care, and material security and well-being, as well as access to communication technologies and advanced infrastructure constitutes very real social advances. Indeed, these advances should be universalized—something that is not likely to occur within the orbit of the capitalist economic system.

The Urban and the Rural

Ever since the urban breakthrough in modern times, in the wake of the industrial revolution, the city has been pitted against the countryside. In order to avoid rampant urbanization’s grave ecological and social consequences—its parasitical draining of natural resources as well as its socially corrosive effects—radical thinkers have long emphasized the need to strike a balance between the land and the city. The Enlightenment and industrialization, which were sorely needed to shed a feudal past unfortunately also destroyed traditional communities and alternative lifeways.

Interestingly, this modern conundrum finds some historical parallels in the nineteenth-century Russian political experience, as the intelligentsia attempted to understand modern civilization’s Janus face. The tremendous material advances Europe experienced after the French revolution largely sidestepped Russia. The radical populism that emerged at midcentury was torn between the need to modernize and the desire to avoid the destruction that capitalism left in its wake, like poverty, intensified class divisions, and community breakdown. Thinkers like Alexander Herzen and Nicolay Chernyshevsky explored the possibilities that Russia might bypass capitalism altogether. By proposing to develop the Russian obschina, essentially a rural municipal organization, they hoped to integrate technological development and economic progress with egalitarian social organization. Here self-management could go hand in hand with fair and regular redistribution and access to common lands. The centrality of the issue for Russian radicals even persuaded Marx (as he expressed in personal correspondence to Vera Zasulich) that Russia might indeed be able to avoid the “necessary stages” of historical development and develop an agrarian socialism. Later, of course, the Bolsheviks crushed and buried this populist vision, first through their appropriation of the state apparatus, then through forced collectivization, and finally through starvation and military repression, at a very high cost in lives.

But the challenge that those midcentury Russian radicals faced remains today, as the world’s population continues to increase and ever larger areas are brought under capitalist control. Are there any credible possibilities to bypass capitalist modernity and build alternatives to it? Any ecology movement that takes solidarity and equality seriously today, as well as movements struggling to retain cultural autonomy and advance direct democracy, must face this pressing issue. Here the Kurdish movement seems to be in a unique and important position, facing challenges remarkably similar to those the Russian populists wrestled with under tsarism. Furthermore, their discussions are relevant not only for the ecology movement but also for any serious attempt to minimize the destructive social impact of contemporary urbanization. These challenges will remain decisive as we face not only population increase but an intensified urbanization in the decades and centuries ahead. Without credible political and economical alternatives to capitalism and its dynamic manufacture of needs and desires, it is hard to see how we can avoid intensified ecological crises and social conflicts.

Yet city life, as I mentioned, has deeply emancipatory aspects. Murray Bookchin formulated our challenge well when he discussed the prospects for a transition “from urbanization to cities.” The challenge is less of how to strike a balance between town and country than to synthesize the truly progressive aspects of both processes. The agrarian revolution that made possible our historical development out of the natural world was followed by an equally important urban revolution. Both of these distinct phases of human historical development retain a profound meaning. We should be concerned, therefore, not only with diminishing their destructive aspects but with magnifying their progressive aspects. The cosmopolitan, civic, and genuinely social aspects of city life must be allowed to shape rural communities, and the communitarian sense of dimension and belonging must shape urban communities. We must find ways to bring the countryside into the city, and the city into the countryside. Only then can we hope to escape from the crass and atomizing consumer culture that is forced on us.

Cities can definitively be too big, but they can also be too small. While village and town communities provided a nutritious foundation for the cohesion of earlier human communities, they also nurtured a parochialism that has no place in a modern world. Our visions of a rural-urban reintegration and its ecological transformation properly entail a series of cultural changes. We need to become aware of our responsibilities as political and ecological agents. Any new politics must involve a radical transformation of our communities and our concept of citizenship. Cities emerged out of human communities, and they must be brought back into a communal context.

New Communal Structures

The reintegration of the city and the countryside—in fact, of society and nature—has crucial preconditions. Reshaping urban life will necessarily require immense environmental and infrastructural transformations, and social ecology suggests that ecological cities above all require new civic or communal structures. Let us briefly consider what they might be.

First, we must recreate the communal dimension of city life, and find the structural framework that might give cohesion and tangibility to cities that are small enough to be restructured politically. Today’s urban entities, geared toward consumption and waste, are built around privatized, car-based traffic systems. Much twentieth-century architecture and infrastructure have all but crippled cities’ capacity for human consociation. A new approach must be attentive to the fact that human beings need opportunities to meet and socialize and develop their capacities for responsible political agency. Only in the world’s largest cities do the physical obstacles to the development of human communities and their ecological reintegration seem insurmountable. Still, even these cities may become decentralized, as Bookchin suggested, first institutionally and then later physically. Such decentralization would minimally imply building community centers in the neighborhoods, initiating more participatory forms of democracy, and creating an ecologically sensitive culture. We need new political institutions as well as new democratic procedures.

To this end, we need to reorient our technology and infrastructure to help our cities become communal. Denser housing and collective infrastructures provide great opportunities for an ecological approach to social development. Ironically, the very infrastructure that cripples our cities ecologically and culturally today may be retrofitted for an ecological transformation. Our cities could then become far more advanced eco-technologically than the countryside. Communication and infrastructural networks are already available, lacking only the decisive political will to put them to work to serve real ecological and social needs.

This transformation may seem far-fetched, and generating this political reorientation will be difficult if we ignore the economic dynamics that govern social development today. Lurking beneath discussions of contemporary urban issues is the need to rethink the economic system that frames urbanization processes. Although we want to retain and further many advances in technology, medicine, and goods, a fundamental reorientation toward local and regional production, refinement, and allocation of goods and services is an ecological imperative. Our economic system must be integrated into a bioregional framework and subjected to direct political control—not the other way around, as is the case today. Exactly what this will mean for a region like greater Oslo, or for Norway’s rural municipalities and counties remains to be seen. The same goes for metropolises like Istanbul and even Diyarbakir, or for the large mountainous and rural regions of Kurdistan. A new social ecology movement must advance these perspectives politically—through plans, programs, initiatives, and projects on the local, regional, and interregional scale. Such a reorientation toward regional energy and food production, however, may be not only a political desideratum but an ecological necessity.

To regain control over our cities, we need to reclaim our commons. The ascendancy of capitalism has steadily eroded public ownership and control over common resources and goods. To ensure an ecological future, we have to go in the opposite direction. Against the privatization of public space and services, we must advocate direct popular control over them. Not only squares, streets, forests, and parks but also important public services and the means of production should properly be considered a shared heritage and responsibility. This involves neither state ownership nor nationalization but rather direct democracy and municipalization. We need to bring “fields, factories, and workshops” under public control. This age-old left-libertarian ideal attains a new ecological urgency as our cities rapidly outgrow “carrying capacity.” Indeed, new direct-democratic communal structures may be the only means by which we can successfully curb the rapacious market and its anti-ecological thrust.

The Future of Cities

The future of humanity lies in the city—no doubt about it. But what kind of city life awaits us remains unclear. In today’s affluent countries, urban entities are centers for waste production and excessive energy consumption, and they lay a parasitic claim to their environmental surroundings. Furthermore, poverty is now growing faster in urban than in rural areas. Today more than one billion people live in slums, which are overcrowded and heavily polluted, often lacking sanitation and clean water. This relentless drift into cities will not diminish in the years ahead. The UN expects that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban, and that most urban growth will take place in “economically underdeveloped” countries in Africa and Asia.

In order to face the tremendous ecological challenges wrought upon us by capitalist hyperproductivity and unfettered urbanization, we must rethink and regenerate the civic structures that undergird our cities. A democratic and ecological approach would have to be concerned with bringing communes back into cities. Creating meaningful urban communities is as important to ecological transformation as is physically restructuring urban infrastructure. Social ecology suggests that any attempt to achieve ecological or social change must confront the political challenge of urban community: it must, above all, find its expression in a new politics for political emancipation and urban regeneration.


Editorial Comment

This article was written for the Turkish radical journal Dipnot # 8 (2012). Check it out: