Sanitary City vs. Sustainable City - Who Wins, Who Loses?

Walker Wells's picture
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What aspects of urbanism and quality of life got lost with the creation of today's modern post-industrial urbanism, or the Sanitary City? And what bearing does this have on the future of green urbanism and sustainability?

Going back just 100 years, cities were filled with noise, smell, smoke, sewage, animals, slaughter houses, trash incinerators, market gardens, stables, etc. Through building codes, use-based zoning, water system upgrades, creation of the electricity grid, and the emergence of the automobile, and establishing environmental regulations, we were able to eliminate most of these urban problems.  Overall this has led to large increases in the quality of human life. 

But what has been the cost of moving up Maslow's pyramid? Are we healthier? - absolutely.  Happier? - maybe. Sustainable? – not even close.   

Achieving urban sustainability requires more than tinkering with the efficiency and intelligence of the modern city. The future urban experience needs to be built on principles of ecology, biological processes, and cyclical metabolisms.  This means that compost, water management, and local wastewater are part of the cityscape, as is the smell of compost, ripe fruit, and sounds of chickens, pigs, goats, and the occasional rooster. Reinstating these organic qualities as norms, rather than idiosyncratic aberrations, is essential to the transition from the Sanitary City to the Sustainable City.

In other words, sometimes you need to go backward to go forward.

Walker Wells is director of the green urbanism program for Global Green USA and a lecturer at Pomona College and UCLA.

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