Anniversary Issue: A city transformed

Fighting the power structure, and building a sustainable community, for 42 amazing years
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When I first started writing about sustainable cities in the Guardian, I was 28, the paper was 20, urban environmentalism was still considered an oxymoron in much of the mainstream political world — and we didn't have a name for what we were discussing.

In fact, the story I wrote on Oct. 15, 1986 was called "The city reconceived — a radical proposal" It was part of our 20th anniversary issue, but it wasn't on the cover, and it wasn't the lead feature. It was just something I had been thinking about a lot at the time, and since I was reporting a lot on everything that was wrong with city planning, it seemed to make sense to step back and talk about the way things ought to be.

It's kind of strange to look back at that article today. So much has changed; so little has changed.

"It's easy to argue that the problems are national, even international in scope, and that no progressive economic policy is possible without basic, fundamental changes in the US economic system," I wrote. "I'm sympathetic to that sort of argument, but somehow, it doesn't satisfy me. A transformation of the nation's economic orders is a long way off — and it may not be possible at all unless the seeds are sown at the local level."

I can see from the interviews I did back then the beginnings of what is now known internationally as the sustainable city movement. In 1986, there were a few scrawny nonprofits and a handful of academics; today there are think tanks, institutes, reports, studies, commissions. Mayors all over the world talk about sustainability; here in San Francisco, Gavin Newsom has a full-time $130,000-a-year staffer dedicated to developing environmentally sustainable policies.

And yet, when you look at what the word really means, and what a truly sustainable city would look like, you realize that, 22 years later, we're still talking about a city reconceived. It's still — in terms of what politicians like Newsom are putting on the table — a pretty radical proposal.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister, chaired a United Nations commission in 1983 that came up with what is probably the first official definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." An urban planning conference in Berlin in 2000 adopted a sustainability statement that talked about "the flow principle, that is based on an equilibrium of material and energy and also financial input/output."

The Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities goes a bit further: "Sustainable communities have a strong sense of place ... They are places that build on their assets and dare to be innovative." You can look on the Web and find a thousand more statements and definitions, some highly technical and some so hippy-dippy they're painful to read.

But in the end, any real definition of a sustainable city starts with the second part of the phrase.

Cities are eternal. The world's great metropolises have always outlived modest constructs like nations and empires. They are, as the late urbanist Jane Jacobs used to say, the building blocks of society.

But in the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, cities have become part of a globalized economic system that severs the use of products and services from their origin. Where did that burger you just ate come from? How about the lettuce at the supermarket? The clothes you wear to work? The electricity you use when you turn on your computer? Who controls the flow of money into and out of your community? Who controls the place you live, the money that comes out of the nearest ATM?