Friday, October 26, 2012

Transition cities

In the UK a 'transition town' is one that is preparing to become more sustainable in a world of growing resource constraint, in Asia, though this concern for sustainability can be present, the emphasis is on growth.

It leaves me with an uneasy feeling - a welcoming to this sign of prosperity, of an assertion of a new, re-balancing world, where 'the West' no longer has the first and last word, coupled with a sense that it is all arriving too late, the time of ease is passing, and the model being utilized is one that is frankly out of date.

I sit in a city the size and complexity of Bangkok and feel that I am in an unreal place, that the obvious vibrancy is misplaced, a dancing on a thinning fabric that will give way.

This may be to misjudge the resilience of humanity in the world (or simply the time frame for discovering the lack of such resilience). I hope so!

It, also, reinforces a lesson that I absorbed from a presentation in Naples at the World Global Forum that as prosperity rises immediate environmental concerns can be addressed. Bangkok is significantly cleaner than it was when I first visited in the mid-90s not least because with the adoption of the Skytrain (and express ways), the traffic flows more steadily (and the age of the cars has decreased). However, this rising prosperity that affords (and creates the demand for) environmental improvement at the local level is magnifying pressure at the regional and global level. Thus the Economist environmental 'line' is only half right, environmental 'improvement' does accelerate as prosperity rises, but environmental sustainability does not necessarily improve, indeed quite the opposite, pressure increases.

This dynamic is further accelerated by the appalling design of our cities that so rigorously separates work from home, imposing long commutes on the vast majority of the population, that from an environmental point of view (as well as one of work life balance) is disastrous.

We need denser, more mixed use cities that utilize every opportunity for sustainability but the pressure is such, given that we need to build one new million person city every five days to keep up with demand, that only in a few, and specialized, contexts is this being achieved.

But you can see why we are in love with the city - particularly here in Asia - they teem with life and a sense (and for many the actuality) of opportunity. We feel we can shape ourselves with greater freedom here - the constraints are, if not off, loosened. They breathe new life.

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