Toward Democratic Eco-socialism
as the Next World System

19. Sustainable Settlement Patterns
and Local Communities

Book cover: Environmentalism: A Global History by Ramachandra Guha

Modern cities have evolved following, in large part, the dictates of capital with its need for manufacturing, financial, commercial, distribution, and communication centers, as well as the administrative demands of government bureaucracies. As they have grown, cities have gobbled up precious farmland and natural areas. Overall, cities are energy-intensive places on a number of counts, including in the operation of office buildings, industries, residences, shopping centers, recreational facilities, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals, residences, highways, parking lots, airports, and so on.

While advocates of green cities often argue that urban density can serve to foster environmental sustainability, in reality the ecological and carbon footprints of cities varies considerably between metropolises in developed and developing countries as well as within cities, depending upon their residential patterns (e.g., McMansions versus slum dwellings) and modes of transportation (e.g., a municipality with an excellent public transportation system versus a highly car-dependent one). The ecological and carbon footprints of cities extend far beyond their boundaries because they rely upon resources from a large hinterland that literally encompasses much of the world. Various proponents of 'sustainable cities' who maintain that increasing urban density contributes to environmental sustainability downplay the historical connections between density and economic growth.

Theoretically, cities have the potential of becoming much greener than they presently are. During the early twentieth century, various socialists and anarchists pioneered efforts, such as the Karl Marx-Hof in Red Vienna and the Bauhaus housing experiments in Germany, to make metropolises more liveable, both socially and environmentally. A new urbanism that seeks to make cities more habitable and environmentally sustainable has emerged around the world. It needs to make a much stronger effort to be socially inclusive and counteract gentrification, which marginalizes low-income people. Conversely, in a democratic eco-socialist world, there would be no poor people and differences in income and wealth would not be nearly great as they are in capitalist societies.

Book cover: Global Capitalism and Climate Change: The Need for an Alternative World System by Hans A. Baer

The development of green cities constitutes a highly imaginative endeavor, one that will require drawing insights from numerous disciplines and fields, including architecture, building construction, urban planning, transportation development, and last but not least the social sciences. There has been quite a bit of discussion on how to make buildings more environmentally sustainable through the use of green roofs and walls, fritted glazing, solar panels, and more efficient lighting. A green or sustainable city should include medium-density housing, easy access to public transport, and minimize reliance on automobiles. Walkability should be part and parcel of the green city, which would allow people to walk as much as possible to their work sites, parks, recreational centers, theaters, shops, and eating places and contribute to a democratized streetscape. Some psychologists have developed the notion of eco-psychology, which stresses the need for people, including urban dwellers, to have contact with the natural environment. Eco-villages, which are increasingly found in urban and rural parts of developed and developing societies, constitute pre-figurative social experiments that potentially are part and parcel of developing more sustainable settlement patterns. Urban eco-villages can reduce car dependence or eliminate it completely if they are closely situated to good public transportation.

Cities should be easily interconnected with others via trains rather than automobile or plane transportation. Also, there is the question as to the optimal maximum population of a metropolis. Some municipalities have become so incredibly large that it almost defies the imagination. The world now has some twenty-eight megacities each with populations of more than ten million people: Tokyo has 37.8 million, Delhi 24.9 million, Shanghai 22.9 million, São Paulo 20.8 million, Mexico City 20.8 million, and Mumbai 20.7 million people. Obviously, there is no easy answer to this question because it depends upon the national context and notions of population density.

Copyright © 2016

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