A vision for the sustainable city: urbanisation with civilisation

Some greens may imagine the sustainable society to be a verdant rural paradise of small agricultural communities and market towns peopled by farmers and artisans. This Romantic dream is a delusion. While in 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities or urban areas, now, in 2008, the figure is 50%, and it is expected to reach 60% by 2030 (data here). Whether we like it or not, a sustainable society will be an urban society; the question for greens is: how do we make our cities sustainable? In a recent article in Capitalism Nature Socialism, Bill Hopwood and Mary Mellor have sketched out some answers to this question.

They begin by acknowledging that “cities have been the focus of corruption, decadence, and economic power and domination” (p.79) but, they argue, many of these problems are not inherently problems of cities – they occur frequently in suburban or rural settings as well. Similarly, environmental degradation is widespread in various forms in both city and country. But they also recognise the “power filled geography” of “urbanism” (p.78) that is manifest in the massive sprawling suburbs and gentrified city quarters, in the sterile malls, ‘big box’ retail parks, and car-dominated transport systems, and in the decaying inner city districts, stricken municipal/state housing projects, and unsafe and unpleasant public spaces. These are the enormous problems that must be overcome.

However, since “the words civilization, civility, citizen (civitas) and politics (polis) are all derived from the city” (p.79), Hopwood and Mellor suggest that the ethos of the city has the “potential to be a driving force for change” in the search for “new patterns of civilization that are socially just and ecologically sustainable” (p.80). In their article, they summarise a wide range of ideas to that end.

Greening the city

One of the goals of radical city planning is to create the “compact city – the walking city… that maximises interaction while minimizing the distance travelled to achieve it” (pp.81-82). Such a city would of necessity minimise polluting and exploitative industries, to allow zoning to be relaxed and thereby reduce the need for separate residential suburbs and dormitory villages away from industrial and business districts. Another key issue for greens is resource use and the creation of waste. Hopwood and Mellor state quite plainly what a focus on obtaining “maximum use from minimum resources” means: “a profit-driven, export-led, commercially oriented city” would not be a sustainable city (p.83).

Thirdly, it is maintained that housing demand can be satisfied within existing city areas, but high density housing must not come at the expense of the green space that is essential for physical and psychological well-being. Given that around 50% of land area in US cities is used by cars, reclaiming these large areas could permit the development of cycleways, attractive and inclusive park spaces, and more community gardens and British-style ‘allotments’ for people to grow their own produce. As an example of what is possible in terms of provisioning and urban agriculture, the people of Havana, Cuba, produce around half of the vegetables they consume within the city itself.

Finally, the changes aimed at achieving sustainability must not be merely technical. As Hopwood and Mellor emphasise, “fundamental shifts in economic, social, and political policy are needed … Cities are not only about form and shape; they are about social processes and interaction” (p.84). Though the changes outlined above will offer many social benefits, the politics of the city also require attention.

The politics of the city

The dominance of the neoliberal agenda in the past thirty years has widened social and economic inequality, as evidenced by the social and spatial divides of cities. The mindset of globalisation focuses on tourism marketing and export-oriented industries at the expense of the local and public economy. A vibrant local/public economy based on “green manufacture, arts, crafts, and personal and public services” (p.85) would minimise the need to transport goods, and would provide for the people of the city instead of being focussed on the global market. This is often described as relocalisation.The development of such an economy is a priority for Hopwood and Mellor, but they recognise that achieving it will require a major political struggle. Support must be sought from citizens who, rather being regarded simply as exploitable consumers, take an active role in decision-making. Again, this is not just theory – the model here is the reclamation of democratic control through participatory budgeting has occurred in a variety of cities and institutions, the most famous being the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

The Transition Towns project is another very interesting example (thanks to Barry for pointing this out to me). In Transition Towns, a deliberate strategy of community education on the issues of peak oil and global warming is employed to build a broad grassroots awareness of the need for an ‘energy descent’, ie a progressive reduction in energy consumption and reliance on fossil fuels. This grassroots coalition is deliberately created before citizens engage in the political process required to initiate the transition, in the hope that with widespread community support, a socially just transition will actually take place.

The convivial city

“Cities are heterogenous, bringing many peoples, cultures, occupations and faiths into close proximity. In their cosmopolitanism, cities make the global local.” On the basis of this diversity, a sustainable city must have a “pulsing heart of conviviality.” For Hopwood and Mellor, the emphasis that many city councils place on festivals is important, but conviviality means much more than just occasional festivity. The sustainable city must enable a day-to-day “living together, not only with other peoples but with the environment and other species” (p.87). Free and friendly communal spaces are important for this living together to happen, and such spaces must be accessible to and safe for children, young people, the elderly and women. Young people in particular need social spaces where they can interact safely and without being demonised or kept under surveillance. But “if communities are to retain or regain social interaction, much more work-free time and many more festive days based on different cultural celebrations are needed” (p.88).

The global connection

The main challenge in the creation of sustainable cities, as acknowledged by Hopwood and Mellor, is to address the needs of the cities of the global south, where millions live in desperate poverty. In their analysis, the plight of the global south stems from the demands of the globalised economy which destroys traditional economies, commodifies land and exploits terms of trade. Therefore, if urban dwellers of the richer countries can extend their sustainability and self-reliance in the ways described above, they will simultaneously generate their own challenge to global capitalism. This, it is hoped, will also relieve some of the considerable pressure on the cities of the south.


The vision sketched out by Bill Hopwood and Mary Mellor is attractive primarily because it is a people-centred vision. Sustainability will not be built on a technocratic/institutional approach solely concerned with increased eco-efficiency, smarter inventions or cleverer management. A much more believable sustainability embraces social justice and political change driven by communities that recover a shared sense of meaning by regaining control of their own collective future.


Bill Hopwood and Mary Mellor (2007) Visioning the sustainable city. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 18(4), 75-89.

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