Unlocking Sustainable Cities
by Paul Chatterton
Published by Pluto, RRP £16.99

Review by Tim Barton

Towns and cities across the world are suffering an on-going assault on their diverse systems, and need that diversity to be resilient as much as the ecosystems of the ‘natural world’ do. The arbitrary division of the human lived environment from ‘nature’ is not only illusory and false but very dangerous. ‘Neo-liberal’ capitalist economics are worsening conditions for cities and nature, with corporate greed, the privatising of public space, and rising inequality damaging the sustainability of our cities along with that of the ecosphere.

Chatterton’s book seeks to provide a ‘manifesto for real change’, in order to aid our addressing the urban aspects of this accelerating apocalypse.

The author is aware of the limits and partiality of a shortish book so rather than seeking comprehensiveness, focusses on four specific areas. In the introduction he explains his choices and their interconnectedness. The first two are ‘the car-free city’ and ‘the post-carbon city’. His case studies for progressive action come from all over the world:  for example, in looking at models for the car-free city, he picks out places already running ‘car-free days’ – cities as varied as Bath, Reykjavik, La Rochelle and Bogota, all with a strong car-free movement. The already global ‘reclaim the city’ movement is discussed along with India’s increasingly popular ‘Raahgiri Day’, begun in Gurgaon but becoming more widespread (especially powerfully in Delhi). This broad approach is the pattern throughout the other chapters.

Post-carbon ideas have remarkably high traction in America – from a UK perspective, we see the USA as presented via top-level Washington (plus New York, and LA) politics. But as a country composed of federated States with powerful State Governors and City Mayors, urban areas throughout the country are adopting restrictions on industrial emissions despite the position taken in the White House (and have been for far longer than Trump has been president). The kind of local autonomy required to achieve this is not always available, and the UK seems especially ham-strung in this regard.

His ‘Bio City’ chapter deliberately conflates the urban-synthetic world and the natural world within which it is inextricably embedded. Restoration and regeneration of badly degraded air, water, and land ecosystems is embraced as a key ingredient in making where we live sustainable. One locally relevant element to greening our cities is, of course, eco-energy. Right now, the council is looking at plans for a solar farm in the country park. Obviously, for a post-carbon green future such schemes are important. However, the fine detail, around who owns it, what the output is, how it’s costed, where it’s placed etc. dictates the usefulness and viability of such projects. The park site has an output significantly limited by its infrastructural position relative to the National Grid; its costings appear to be wholly deluded; and the benefit for the community zero – as the local Green Party suggest in the ‘climate emergency’ letter, addressed to Hastings Council: We should see plans that ‘Work with local community energy providers to cover the towns roofs with solar panels, combined in a smart grid that could provide cheaper energy for all local people.’

The key area Chatterton concentrates on that brings the issues together, where our green Davids can face-off against the Goliaths of political inertia, corporate hierarchies and economic raiders is ‘the Common City’. He envisions, first, the current dominant ideology which he tags as ‘the Uncommon City’ (it is of course the ubiquitous city, but he means ‘common’/
’uncommon’ in the context of ‘the commons’ – publicly accessible spaces and resources) concentrating especially upon the neo-liberal city.

So, the agenda is to reclaim the urban commons, pursue ‘people powered’ housing, plan and enforce smaller-scale locally owned development, et cetera. He looks at various local and complementary currency schemes and, most importantly perhaps, ideas for redemocratising city and town politics. Citizens are not just passive inhabitants but engaged and empowered collectives and individuals. To achieve this requires us to, for example, embrace citizens’ assemblies (directly democratic decision-making forums that could exist alongside town councils, but ultimately should seek to replace them); to break the back of dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats; and to place long-term stability over short-term financial gain.

Unlocking Sustainable Cities is available from Bookbusters, Queens Road & Printed Matter Books, Queens Road.

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