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Sustainable Urbnization

Sustainable Urbanization

John B. Cobb, Jr.


All over the world, forests are disappearing and agricultural lands are eroding. Aquifers are being exhausted. Fish stocks are diminishing. Land, water, and air are being poisoned. Many species of living things are disappearing. The planet is getting warmer, resulting in increasing storms and changes in rainfall. Those who study natural resources and the condition of the earth issue warning after warning. They tell us that long ago humanity crossed the line into unsustainable living. Catastrophes loom ahead and sometimes break into our own time.

However, governments look elsewhere for guidance -- primarily to economists. Economic theory has no place for resource limits. It assumes infinite supplies. Of course, economists do not mean that there is an infinite amount of petroleum in the Earth. What they mean is that as one natural resource is exhausted, technology can provide us with replacements. Obviously, this is often true. If the only shortage were petroleum, as it grows more expensive, replacements would, undoubtedly, be found for its multiple uses. Of course, the transition would be difficult for many people, but if the economy is sufficiently healthy, economists assume, society as a whole will do well.

We have, therefore, two views of sustainability in our society. One view calls us to find ways to live within the context given us by nature, destroying as little as possible. In this view human life adjusts to its natural context. It seeks ways to improve its condition that also benefit its natural environment. We will call this the ecological understanding of sustainability.

The other view is of sustainable growth. It calls for continuing increase of economic activity, accepting the losses to the natural world that such growth entails. It is believed that this growth will be sustainable as long as there are sufficient economic resources to fund the technological research and development needed to transform the natural environment so that it will meet human needs. We will call this the economistic understanding of sustainability.

This economistic vision suggests not only that we can substitute new resources for those that are exhausted, but also that we can deal technologically with more fundamental scarcities. The world is losing good soil, and water for irrigation grows scarce. Accepting this as inevitable, technologists can engineer new types of plants that will grow in bad soil and with less water. As oceans become poisoned, technologists will create fish that can survive these poisons. Even human beings may have to be genetically altered to cope with a more poisonous environment.

Economists long resisted taking global warming seriously. Now that they do so, they tend to regard the results of global warming as inevitable, and they once again turn to technology to solve the problem. If ocean levels rise, people will either build dikes along extensive coastlines or learn to use the remaining land more efficiently. If the Gulf Stream ceases to warm Europe, technology will provide Europeans with new crops to grow in a colder climate. New species of animals will be bio-engineered to replace the ones that cannot adjust to climatic changes.

The economistic notion of sustainable growth can appeal to much supportive evidence. It has kept us going through many changes in our natural environment. A good example is found in the field of insect pests and insecticides. Modern agriculture growth has been effected by monocultures that are vulnerable to insect pests. Hence, they have required heavy use of insecticides. Insecticides kill most of the pests, but a few survive. These reproduce rapidly. New insecticides are required to kill the new insects. Thus far technology has stayed ahead of insect mutation. The same story can be repeated with respect to herbicides.

These poisons also kill many of the organisms that naturally contribute to the fertility of the land. Accordingly, there is need for more and more artificial fertilizer. This has also been supplied in sufficient quantity to sustain and increase production.

At present most of this is based on petroleum. Petroleum production globally is at or near its historic peak, and it will soon begin to decline in both quality and quantity. Technology will be called upon to develop substitutes. No doubt it will have some success. Some of this will be by introducing genetic changes that make plants more resistant to particular pests. Some of it will be by finding other ways to manufacture insecticides and herbicides.

Advocates of sustainable growth based on technological innovations are confident that technology will always stay ahead of changing threats. However, this makes the production of food more and more dependent not only on ever new technology but also on the social order that allows the technology to be quickly available wherever it is needed. Further, these problems must be solved by technology at the same time as the problems brought about by global warming, shortages of fresh water, and loss of top soil confront the world. In the past, advances along one line have often made problems of other sorts worse. For example, the Green Revolution required increased inputs of water and fertilizer in order to achieve its increased production. It also made grains more vulnerable to pests and diseases. The technological mindset has always focused on particular problems in some abstraction from the broader picture. To follow the economistic vision of sustainable growth, we must now be confident that in the future technological solutions to diverse problems will be brilliantly integrated.

My own judgment is that the economistic vision of sustainable growth is an illusion and a profoundly dangerous one. The longer we operate on this basis, the more the world is impoverished and the more precarious the human situation becomes. For thousands of years healthy soils carefully tended by individual farmers have produced crops for the families that grew them with some surplus for others. This has been a relatively sustainable system. The more we continue to husband the soil, maintain supplies of freshwater, slow climate change, and use organic methods to control insects and weeds, the more sustainable our agriculture will be. Thus sustainability is approached, not by shifting from peasant farming to agribusiness monoculture, with ever greater applications of artificial fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides, but by renewing reliance on nature and on human labor. This is the ecological vision of sustainability.

I do not want to leave the impression that in the ecological vision there is opposition to technological advances. The world urgently needs technological advances that lead toward sustainability. Peasant farmers need technological advances that improve their crops, enable them to survive droughts, and improve the quality of their homes. Society needs technological advances that will most efficiently bring agricultural products to local markets and preserve them while in storage. Rural society needs technological advances that will reduce the incidence of disease and bring basic medical care to all. As families and friends are separated from one another, improved technological means for communication among them are highly valued. The technology of recycling and other uses of waste products is important. There is much more to be said.

Needless to say, I understand sustainable urbanization in ecological, not economistic, terms. From this point of view, any social order that exhausts the resources on which it depends is unsustainable. Any social order that pollutes its environment is unsustainable. The present global order is unsustainable on both counts. In many ways U. S. society leads the way toward more and more unsustainable resource use. A major problem in China is that it follows too much the American lead.


But what I am calling ecological sustainability is not simply a matter of the relation of human beings to their natural environment. There are also political, social, and economic considerations that interrelate with concerns about nature. A society in which government lacks legitimacy and basic support of the people is unsustainable. It may sustain itself for a while by sheer force and terror, but this cannot last.

A society in which most of the needs of the citizens are not met by the structures of the society itself is unsustainable. For example, if families and local communities fail to care for the children and to raise them to be constructive parts of the society, the society cannot long endure. Governments cannot take the place of families and local communities. U.S. society shows signs of unsustainability in this respect, as family breakdown and economic pressures block the transmission of values from one generation to another and damage the psychic health of children. I hope we are not exporting this social breakdown to China.

A society that cannot provide its members an opportunity to support themselves cannot survive. The present global economy is actually increasing the number of persons who are excluded from economic activity within the official economy. The underground economy, partly criminal, partly simply extra-legal, is growing in much of the world. The official economy is dividing people more and more sharply into the rich and the poor within countries and between them. These trends are unsustainable.

My reflection about sustainable urbanization in China is in the context of these multiple concerns. But why direct special attention to urbanization in China? My reason for special concern about this is that it is now occurring, and is likely to continue occurring, at a scale and tempo never before seen in human history. This is partly because of China's vast population, and partly because of the unprecedented speed of social and economic change in China. It is my assumption that if present trends continue, hundreds of millions of now rural people will have to be urbanized in a decade or two.

Consider, for example, what will be required if 300 million people move from the countryside to cities. (I think an even higher figure may be realistic.) This would mean that China would have to build thirty cities of ten million each or three hundred of one million or three thousand of one hundred thousand. My judgment is that the larger number of smaller cities is far preferable. Moving from a peasant farm to a city of 100,000 people fifty miles away would be less disruptive of human life and family connections than the alternatives. But planning and building three thousand cities will prove a horrendous task!


If Chinese cities continue to follow today's models, the unsustainability of global practices will come vividly into view all too soon. Indeed, I think it is already manifest.

I will cite only one factor in unsustainability. I have commented on the importance at this point in history of avoiding a shift to petroleum-based agriculture. Thus far, China's urban development has shared the global dependence on petroleum. China's increased demand for oil has been cited as one reason for the current spike in oil prices. If order is restored in Iraq and production there greatly increased, the price may come down somewhat. But it is public knowledge that oil is being pumped from the ground far faster than new oilfields are being discovered. Within a few years, global production will probably peak. Even if production continues to rise longer than expected, it will not rise as fast as demand based on current practices and accelerated Chinese development of the current type. Normal market pricing will lead to a further rise in oil prices. It is safe to say that, whatever happens in the short term, oil will be much more expensive ten years from now. It will be still more costly twenty years from now.

Economists assure us that as the market signals scarcity, technology will make more and more efficient use of the resource. Technology will also develop alternatives. No doubt this is true. If oil were the only resource destined to become scarce, the world could make a transition to other sources of energy. However, the more rapid the transition, the more difficult it will be. Chinese cities now being built to operate on oil will pay a high price for this choice. The price signals should already warn even economistic thinkers that continuing to build cities to operate on oil is a serious mistake.

Indeed, China as a whole will pay a high price for continuing to plan on the basis of an oil economy politically as well as economically. The United States intends to control global oil production. It does so in part so as to maintain its own economy and postpone the pain of the inevitable adjustments to come. It does so also in order to secure its global hegemony. If China depends radically on oil, and the United States controls the global oil supply, China will no longer be a truly independent nation. I am distressed by this prospect as an American. I would expect Chinese to be more distressed.

What is the alternative? It is complex and difficult, but not impossible. Of course, it includes efficient use of oil and development of alternatives. But these technological approaches can only go so far. Much more important is to avoid not only the development of an oil-based agriculture but also the construction of cities dependent on oil.

Improved agricultural practices that remain labor-intensive and produce food organically, combined with prices for agricultural products that make possible a good living for peasant farmers, will slow the depopulation of the countryside. This could reduce the number and size of the cities that must be built, whereas following the economistically driven mandates of the World Trade Organization will accelerate the exodus from the countryside while making agriculture less and less sustainable. Maintaining stable communities by improving the existing system of agriculture instead of replacing it with 'modern' systems could also support the social sustainability that is eroded by rapid mass migration.

My first recommendation, therefore, is to improve life in the countryside and refuse to move from peasant production to agribusiness. However, much of the countryside is overpopulated, and there will be, and should be, continuing urbanization. This urbanization has a better chance of being sustainable, and of being a part of a sustainable China, if the flow of population from rural to urban contexts is slowed. The relation of sustainable urbanization to healthy rural life is so important that it will be the major topic of the next plenary session, where Ron Phipps will speak.

Increased urbanization will take two forms. No doubt much of it will be the expansion of present cities. How that occurs is very important. But because I think the cities of China are already too large, I would encourage aiming primarily to build new cities rather than to enlarge the present ones. I have already indicated that I believe that a larger number of smaller cities will prove more sustainable than a smaller number of larger ones.

In any case, a discussion of sustainable urbanization should consider both how to make present cities less unsustainable and how to build new cities that are, from the beginning, genuinely sustainable.

I am particularly interested in the possibility that China, facing this enormous challenge, will experiment radically with a different type of city. For decades I have believed that the most original and important vision of what cities could be and should be is that of Paolo Soleri. He presented his vision, and specifically his vision for China, last night; so I will not repeat what he said. If somewhere in China he is given the opportunity to build a small city, I believe this may be a turning point in the quest for a sustainable world.

This is not only because Soleri points in the direction of cities that are energy self-sufficient, producing no poisonous wastes or greenhouse gases. It is also because his cities will take much less land away from agricultural purposes. Also they will encourage new forms of human community as traditional patterns of community based on the extended family decline. They will make possible new experiments in economic organization that guarantee to all some participation in the economic life of the city. They can reduce the hardships of poverty by making all the facilities of the city available readily to all its inhabitants. And they will make possible new forms of local self-government.

I do not want to be misunderstood. Neither Soleri nor I believe that the architectural form will solve all problems. What is needed is to get the best thinkers about community, economics, and politics to help in planning. Ideally, several experiments should be developed soon to learn from mistakes and provide stimulus to others. Perhaps the genuinely sustainable new cities that would emerge in China would be quite different from any of the designs proposed thus far by Soleri. That would be fine. The enormous value of his work is that it points forward to an entirely different conception of what cities can and should be. This is certainly an area in which China could lead the world into a new and far more promising age.


Whatever breakthroughs of this kind occur, China must still deal with the problems of its present, huge and numerous, currently not sustainable, cities. This comment is not a criticism of China. Chinese cities are no less sustainable, I assume, than European and American ones. Bill Rees has led the way in showing that the ecological footprints of cities are enormous and still growing. Modern cities developed originally when most of the world’s population still lived in the countryside and could provide the goods needed by the cities. Natural resources such as coal and then oil were abundant. Pollution was a local rather than a global problem. But the relationship to the environment has now changed. This urban civilization of the petroleum age is now unsustainable.

I have given special attention to the use of oil since the petroleum age is coming to an end. Existing cities cannot abruptly free themselves from dependence on oil. They can however reduce their use of oil both by reducing their need for importing energy and by substituting other forms. Both procedures are needed, but since there are problems with all forms of imported energy, the former procedure is the most important. Technological improvements can greatly reduce the amount of energy needed to generate a particular amount of light or motion. They can also make it possible to capture solar energy, including its passive form, for more and more purposes.

We now have many examples of buildings that require virtually no energy other than the heat from the sun in order to remain comfortable all year long. I am sure that Chinese architects are fully aware of this and are making use of many of the innovations that make it possible. I am also quite sure that much more could be done.

I am impressed, for example, by the work of David Orr at Oberlin College in Ohio. He has erected a building that produces more energy that it consumes and that is designed to require minimum-cost maintenance indefinitely. Amory Lovin has constructed a building at 7000 feet in the Colorado Rockies that houses both his home and extensive office space. It is extremely well insulated and arranged to capture sunlight, and as a result it is heated entirely by passive solar energy.

The policy in China should be that all new buildings should be self-sufficient in heating and cooling, as well as extremely frugal in their use of imported electricity. San Francisco recently made a city-wide effort to turn the sunlight falling on its buildings into electricity. Examples of this kind can be studied and, when appropriate, emulated.

Transporting people from home to work is another major drain on the energy supplies of a city. Not long ago, much of that transportation was by bicycle. Cities should be sure that they do not allow new developments to make it more difficult to return to bicycles as the major means of transportation. In general everything should be done to discourage the ownership and use of private automobiles. Good public transportation helps. Many European cities exclude private motor transportation from the central city. Locating residences near places of work is helpful. Suburban sprawl of the sort so widespread in the United States should be prevented.

The implementation of all these policies depends on technological developments as well as political will. In the appropriation of technology, one important policy should be leapfrogging. Alongside all of the destructive aspects of contemporary technologically driven society, there are also genuine advances that enable goals to be accomplished with far less use of natural resources. Cell phones, for example, whatever their problems, may make it possible to have the advantages of the telephone without the huge infrastructures that have been needed for this kind of communication in the past. Buildings that are self-sufficient in energy production are also an example of leapfrogging over intermediate stages.

A massive example of leapfrogging is provided by the arcologies of which I have been speaking. There are trends in the development of urban centers that now move in the direction of arcologies. But there is no need to evolve gradually in that direction through steps that are extremely consumptive of resources. By leapfrogging over these steps, China can take the lead. Between cell phones and arcologies there are many more examples to be considered. Tim Eastman will introduce you to some of them, which provide practical next steps for cities that want to become less unsustainable.

One might consider that certain proposals for urban economies are also a form of leapfrogging. There are excellent ideas that have been proposed and then quashed in the West by those persons of wealth whose interests they would have threatened. These stand a much better chance of serious consideration and implementation in China. Cliff Cobb will talk about some of these.


Whether or not cities are built as arcologies, they are more sustainable if, together with their rural surroundings, they are relatively self-sufficient. One reason I support experimentation with arcologies is that they are more likely to have this character, but I will set that point aside for now. To put the matter negatively, the more the healthy survival of a city depends on long supply lines and on decisions made by people at a distance who have no interest in the well being of the city, the more precarious is the future of that city.

This illustrates the fact that, especially in recent decades, we have been constructing a more and more unsustainable world. The world economy has been reordered so that goods are produced thousands of miles from where they are consumed. Instead of planning agriculture so that local people can be fed, huge monocultural plantations produce for export.

The economistic commitment to growth has supported this development. It may be that moves of these kinds lead to the most rapid economic growth, although I am not sure that statistics bear this out. But many of us do not believe that what is called economic growth consistently benefits human beings. This growth is usually measured by Gross Domestic Product, which can, and often does, rise, while the actual living conditions of most people deteriorate. There are several reasons for this.

First, GDP is indifferent to the distribution of the income it measures. The policies employed to increase GDP are often based on the theory that wealth accumulated by the richest trickles down to the poor so that all benefit. These policies lead to the increase of the gap between rich and poor. Such “trickle down” as may take place rarely reaches the poorest segment of society. Furthermore, concentration of wealth is typically accompanied by concentration of power, and much of this wealth and power is in the hands of foreigners who do not care what happens to local people.

Second, the GDP is unaffected by environmental deterioration. Indeed, there is a direct relation between the rise of GDP and the decline of the environment. First, extra costs incurred because of environmental decline are added to GDP. For example, if water must be transported farther and new facilities for its purification are required, the cost of all of this adds to GDP. Second, there is an obvious correlation of increased consumption and reduced resources on the one side and increased pollution on the other. Again, nothing is subtracted from the GDP because of the loss of natural capital.

Third, the policies designed to speed economic growth as measured by GDP almost always prove destructive of human communities. People are separated from the means of production and from one another. The quality of family life declines. But healthy community is essential to sustainability. It is a profound mistake to adopt policies oriented primarily to 'economic growth' as that is measured today.

Common sense tells us that real “growth” must be understood in quite different ways. The question is whether the changes in the economy actually benefit the people with special attention to the poorest and most vulnerable. The question is whether the society that develops is sustainable. The goal should instead be that kind of growth that leads to sustainable communities. One characteristic of sustainable communities is meeting the basic needs of all its members.

This global economy is not sustainable, and the more China buys into it, the less sustainable the economy of China becomes. If new cities are built primarily to produce goods for distant countries, they will be unsustainable and contribute to the unsustainability of the whole society. If they produce primarily to meet their own needs they will be far more sustainable.

The goal of complete self-sufficiency, on the other hand, is undesirable. Trade can and should play an important, although minor, role. It should be such that the people of the city could survive without misery if the trade were ended. In other words, their basic needs should be supplied apart from trade. In that case trade can add to the enjoyment of life without threatening its sustainability.

Trade with the countryside and with neighboring cities should be favored over trade with distant place. Whereas a single city provides a sufficient market to stimulate competition in the production of clothing, sports equipment, household goods, and office supplies, its demand for elevators would not suffice for a healthy market. It may be inefficient for each city to manufacture its own elevators, or if it did so, the market would not support more than a single company. Monopoly has many negative consequences, and has to be controlled carefully by government. But the results for manufacturing of bureaucratic control are often negative. If several cities manufactured elevators, it would be important that the manufacturers competed with one another without the assurance that they would be excessively favored by the city in which they were located.

One advantage of relatively self-sufficient cities is that they could make decisions about wages and working conditions without fear that these would put their businesses at a disadvantage in competition with businesses elsewhere that paid lower wages and had worse working conditions. Goods coming from such places should pay a tax that would at least compensate for this difference. Of course, it is now very difficult to control the movement of goods into and out of a city. With an arcology it would be easier.


Let me summarize some of my basic convictions about sustainable urbanization.

1. In an uncertain future, a city together with its surrounding countryside will be more sustainable if it is relatively self-sufficient. That means that it is capable of meeting its basic needs. That does not preclude trade with other cities and even more distant places, but the local region should not be dependent on that trade for survival.

2. Both the city and the countryside should be self-sufficient in the production of the energy they need to function.

3. Smaller cities can achieve these goals better than huge ones. Arcologies could do so best of all.

4. Cities together with their countryside should adopt new technologies that leapfrog over wasteful ones still characteristic of much of the West.

5. Cities together with their countryside should experiment with political and economic systems that allow maximum participation in local self-government of the people.

6. To achieve genuine sustainability, cities and their countryside should foster community among their people, such that none are excluded from participation and from having their basic needs met.