September 27, 2013
by David Guy
There is an increasing call on urban leaders in California to develop the next generation of economic and environmental policies that will improve our natural and working landscapes for the benefit of both urban and rural areas.
In a new and provocative book, Colombia Professor Vishaan Chakrabarti challenges us to think differently about the role of cities and he posits that cities are the key to
solving the environmental, cultural, economic, and social problems that confront the future of 21st-century America. In A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America he argues that “intelligent planning and design can turn our cities into drivers of progressiveness and stewardship.”
“Imagine a new countryside dotted with large cities and small towns, dominated by trains, towers, and trees, with little but agriculture and nature in between. Imagine this transformation occurring in a matter of decades, just as it took only a few quick decades in the twentieth century to transform the beauty of America into anonymous sprawl. Imagine this new landscape, this Country of Cities, resulting not from new regulations or burdensome mandates but from the agency of ordinary Americans exercising market-based choices, free from the suburbanizing manipulations of the federal government.”
“Imagine a nation that embraced the indisputable facts about the economic, ecological, and health benefits of cities and, as a consequence, directed its intellectual energies toward the development of hyperdensity at the local level, defying NIMBYism and an outdated national-planning apparatus that attempts but fails to work for the public good.”
He specifically urges Americans to invest in an “Infrastructure of Opportunity” that includes transportation, water, sewage and electricity. He advances hyperdensity to make new infrastructure more affordable because it lowers the per-capita cost of construction and yields extra tax revenues.
At the heart of his manifesto, he challenges urban leaders to look inward and develop solutions within urban areas that will lead to both economic prosperity and environmental stewardship. These strategies, if properly implemented, will not only make cities more vibrant; it will also help preserve rural areas and their farming, recreational and wilderness values. These rural values—both as working and natural landscapes—will gain even more importance as more dense populations will rely upon and seek more high quality food, recreational opportunities and the spiritual virtues in bucolic and sublime settings outside the urban areas.
In California, this suggests that urban leaders, in addition to advancing hyperdensity as a land use policy, should also evolve their mindset in securing resources, such as water and energy supplies, by pursuing collaborative and innovative solutions that preserve the sustainability of rural areas rather than colonialism that has been the model for a large part of the past century.
There are other thought leaders who are also seeking urban-based solutions. In an article in Water Policy, “Tapped Out: How Can Cities Secure their Water Future,” the authors advocate for urban-rural partnerships and contend that cities must begin playing a much larger and broader role in resolving water scarcity issues for two primary reasons: 1) cities are experiencing regular shortages and 2) cities are directly dependent upon agriculture for their sustenance (i.e., food).
Congratulations to Professor Chakrabarti. He has presented a thoughtful and compelling view that deserves attention.
To see an abridged video of one of his lectures, see: Video: A Country of Cities.