Reimaging Sustainable Cities: Strategies for Designing Green, Healthier, More Equitable Communities

By Stephen M Wheeler and Christina D Rosan. University of California Press, 2021, ISBN: 978052038121-6

Katherine Sugar reviews this book which higlights the need for proactive public sector leadership if we are to achieve sustainable cities.

This is an important and timely book that identifies creative public sector strategies for designing more sustainable and equitable communities, with a particular emphasis on addressing and ameliorating the impacts of climate change. In doing so, the authors reimagine current institutional, economic, political and social structures.

This interdisciplinary book is primarily grounded in a ‘social ecology’ perspective which the authors define as ‘the natural extension of holistic, systems-oriented thinking, integral to ecological science and many of the world’s wisdom traditions’ (p.7-8). This approach helps the reader to think more holistically across disciplines and scales. The authors rightly argue that social equity principles have not been focused on enough by decision makers. In turn, these ideas are prominent and integrated throughout. For example, social inequality, racial injustice, unaffordable housing and dysfunctional democracy all feature. With this, the key argument is that sustainable transitions should be inclusive and equitable, rather than exacerbate existing inequalities. The authors spotlight the pandemic, as well as movements for racial and social justice such as Black Lives Matter and climate change, as an important opportunity to reimagine cities, rethink transportation needs and reconsider the ways to use urban space to meet human needs.

The main themes of the book are distributed across twelve balanced chapters, and each is logically structured around explicit ‘big-picture’ questions regarding climate change. The reader is clearly taken along a journey from considering questions like: ‘how do we get to climate neutrality?’ (Chapter 1) and ‘how can we make affordable, inclusive and equitable cities?’ (Chapter 5) to ‘how can each of us help lead the move towards sustainable communities’ (Chapter 12). This narrative, which is developed primarily through a literature review, provides a cohesive structure which applies intersectional thinking across different disciplines to challenge business-as-usual debates. This is particularly distinguishable from other texts (which may focus on a particular discipline or sector) through addressing urban issues thematically, for instance, from an economic focus (Chapter 3) to geographical application (Chapter 5), to design and land management perspective (Chapters 7 and 8). On the whole, the chapters cover a wide scope of urban issues and strategies.

The book has a strong onus on public sector support to redistribute inequalities that arise from neoliberal ideologies, with robust arguments that a change in these profit-seeking and marginalising ideologies will help combat structural inequalities based on class, race and gender within societies, and which are further exacerbated by climate change. The authors argue the dominance of ‘for-profit corporations and the wealthy [who] are allowed to run government’ (p.270) will ultimately lead to a less sustainable and equitable society by valuing self-interest of elites above equality or sustainability.

Strategies for action are therefore focused on a more proactive public sector. The book concentrates on these forms for action at the urban level by city leaders and urban decision-makers. There is some attention given for changes at higher levels of government (for example, equalise funding and resources between cities), but generally, action is concentrated at the urban level, such as specifying strategies for effective democracy and local public engagement and taking sustainability leadership. As a result, bottom-up, citizen-led movements and top-down centralised actions are not discussed in detail (although are briefly touched upon). More could be stated therefore on the other actors operating within cities, such as the third and private sector, and the ways in which urban planners can work together with other cities to promote sustainable transitions.  

The authors do strike a balance by discussing society-wide change and drawing upon multiple scales of action. They predominantly draw on cities in the Global North, for example in North America (such as Los Angeles and New York) and those in Europe (such as Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen) to discuss sustainability initiatives integrated across the cities. The authors' attempt to use a global approach is somewhat unfulfilled through the application of only a handful of examples from the Global South. In addition, whilst there is a breadth of the issues covered in the book, some examples lack detail, and the reader is instead encouraged to consult the footnotes. In particular, the case studies are interwoven throughout the text but this is at the expense of depth. This lack of detail from the case studies is a somewhat missed opportunity, particularly for understanding how to operationalise the initiatives and examples used into different city contexts. For example, Paris is drawn upon as an example of a city strategy that has implemented policies to reduce vehicle use. While some detail is provided, there are remaining questions of the wider operationalisation of this, which stakeholders were engaged with, and how. As such, the book is therefore best placed for providing a general and broad overview, rather than specific examples with comprehensive detailing.

This book is an ideal companion to a wide range of readers wishing to think again about sustainable cities and stimulate change across urban areas. The narrative of positivity and optimism laid out in the context of achieving sustainability makes this book a refreshing and welcome addition to a mounting body of literature dedicated to sustainable urban action. The content provides useful background material to those who are beginning a journey in sustainable urban design or those seeking a practical and action-oriented standpoint, rather than a deeply theoretical perspective or for those who are seeking detailed information from a specific discipline. It is therefore suitable for a wide range of readers, such as students, practitioners, urban managers and policy makers, and citizens with a wider interest in climate change. The chapters are comprehensive in detail, yet very accessible and straight-forward to understand. This volume can be most appropriately used as an introduction and stepping stone to aid reader’s further explorations. The issues in the book are neatly supported by table summaries, which set out pioneering strategies and opportunities for tackling climate change and social issues. This affords the reader with a selective way to navigate amongst the many issues and helpfully focus on a particular set of concerns.


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