Creating a common vision for green cities

governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2009 California budget deal

Reading about the drastic budget cuts in my home state of California makes me wonder about the potential future of green cities in that state and in the United States. After months of political deadlock, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a divided state Congress agreed on $US 30 billion in cuts over two years to schools, colleges, health, welfare, prisons, recreation and other services.

A New York Times analysis quotes University of California, Berkeley professor of political science Bruce E. Cain saying, “In the end, we do not know for sure whether the California public really wants the California dream anymore. The population is too diverse to have a common vision of what it wants to provide to everyone. Some people want the old dream, some want the gated privatized version, and some would like to secede and get away from it all.”

The conventional wisdom that California or the United States has no “common vision” reflects a political and cultural deficit, and will create more long-term damage than the economic downtown. For many government and educational authorities, diversity makes a convenient excuse for an unwillingness to invest in social programs that broadly benefit the public good. Nostalgia for previous boom times obscures the massive investment and cultural change needed to create green and sustainable cities.

Unlike Japan and Europe, the United States has a strong anti-government faction that believes the state’s sole legitimacy rests on providing prisons and warfare, often called police and military. Americans with the resources to choose how they live mostly avoid public spaces– including sidewalks, transit and public schools– and retreat behind gated (and privately guarded) communities, while powerless majorities experience a devalued and degraded public environment.

Climate change could give advanced nations a unifying purpose for transforming transit, energy, housing, the food supply and water. Yet it seems few if any leaders are able to articulate a vision for vibrant public spaces that could support these necessary changes. As long as public services are understood as serving other people and not everyone, it is not surprising that few support massive infrastructure investment and a revitalization of street-level urban life.

Street life is what makes the Tokyo megalopolis so appealing: despite or because of its scale and lack of adequate green spaces, Tokyo residents enjoy an abundance of pedestrian streets, informal greening activities, incredible personal safety, clean streets, and an unmatched transit system. Although much more can be done to make Tokyo a model for green cities, these differences with the United States are striking.

Green cities would require some radical change in the United States. True market pricing for private vehicle usage will reduce usage with higher prices for fuel, parking, road maintenance, and carbon offsets. Energy efficiency and reduced consumption will require a new transit network, human-powered transportation, and a shift from suburban mega-mansions to denser living. To accept these changes, it would help if people understand what they have to gain in this trade-off.

I apologize if this post seems too political or polemical, but I am left with the following questions. What type of leadership and cultural change would it take to create safe and enjoyable street life in the United States? How can Americans learn that there are other ways to organize cities and public life that are almost the inverse version of what they have known and aspired to? What are the consequences of not changing?

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