Guest Post: Slow Cities and the Transition to a New Economics

You know the picture: coffee in one hand, smartphone in the other, feet impatiently waiting for the traffic to go by— such is the life of many an American urbanite. I could be describing anyone from a college student to a business executive but the story varies little: we are always in a hurry, especially in our cities. Now that the world population has climbed past seven billion, the global community, and especially the United States, should be feeling pressure to invest in the compact growth of its cities, for these are the places where the vast majority of the human population will be living. Already, more than half of the world lives in urban areas and this fraction is increasing. Cities are highly visible areas because they are hotbeds for idea exchange, diversity, and the arts. Yet, most American cities fall short in measurements of sustainability, quality-of-life, safety, and education when compared to their counterparts in Europe. Here, I will attempt to analyze this disparity and provide suggestions to start a dialogue about city design and why it is important to consider today. Happiness and well-being: an elusive goal My interest in the intersection of environmentalism, economics, and the American quest for happiness stemmed from my discovery of the following graph reprinted in Gus Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World (see John Fullerton’s recent post about the book). Screen Shot 2013-01-14 at 5.00.42 PM Source: Speth, James Gustave. 2008. Bridge at the edge of the world. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press. Page 132. After seeing this graph, I was shocked. Here in front of me was a verifiable set of data saying that we are running a rat race. If our rise in prosperity is not buying us happiness, what is it buying? Among other things, it is buying us education, healthcare, and research, but also urban sprawl, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, and above all, consumption. John Maynard Keynes argued in his famous 1934 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren that within a century, we would enter an age where we wouldn’t need to struggle to meet our basic needs. He predicted, “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem— how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure.” John Maynard Keynes’s optimistic economic predictions are correct. The U.S. has a five times greater real average income today than it did in the 1930’s, and it continues to rise, as seen in the above graph. However, Keynes hadn’t realized that we would spend our new wealth on consumption, rather than taking more time for leisure, which would arguably give a positive slope to the “very happy people” curve. By consuming more, we create the need to work harder, and the cycle continues. Some have offered a solution to the negative side effects of development in the form of alternative markers of well-being that aren’t the GDP. One idea from Bhutan is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) indicator that takes into account social and environmental considerations along with its financial metrics. Canada has a similar system called the Wellbeing Index. These are influential projects that will hopefully see widespread dissemination. If governments and corporations learn to evaluate their measures with a more holistic index than the GDP, it will pave the road towards progress in sustainable development and overall well-being. I’m no psychologist, but I would be willing to bet that the above happiness graph curve—the same one that remained essentially flat through post-war prosperity, civil rights and environmental reform, Vietnam, tax cuts and tax increases, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the internet, and the largest terrorist attack on American soil—will remain flat in the near future. This is an incredibly gloomy thought. Surely, meaning in life must come from facilitating gains in happiness, whether it is for us or for others. Yet, this graph seems to say that no matter what we do in the future, only a third of the nation will report being “very happy.” One cause of this trend, as Speth goes on to explain, is the comparative nature of happiness. Through time (and across geographic region), the definition of luxury and affluence has changed dramatically, and as soon as conditions improve, what was once considered a luxury becomes commonplace and is valued as such. Take running water as an example: it has been established in every developed country and now no one sees it as the miracle it really is. Instead of praising the ability of our buildings to magically produce drinking water, we are more likely to grumble at clogged plumbing. We are comparing our standard of living to one that is rapidly accelerating. Moore’s law states that the rate of technological innovation will always increase exponentially. As a result of human invention and ingenuity, we find ourselves conditioned to soon become dissatisfied with what we have, for we expect something better to soon emerge. We need a values shift. We need to transition to a new paradigm where consumption is not the benchmark of happiness and our economic system is appropriately re-adjusted. The “how” in this process is the complicated part, and while I have no concrete answer, I can say with certainty that we must attack it from every angle possible. No fix would be complete without incorporating social, technological, economic, and spiritual revolutions. I provide the following example of urban design to show what I believe this transition will look like in our cities. Redesigning our built environment A concept that is useful to consider here is the Slow City, a name derived from the rhetoric of the Slow Foods movement. The Slow movement entered the international dialogue in the 1980’s as Italian protests over fast food restaurants condensed into the Slow foods movement. The manifesto produced by these activists in 1989, while directed at the issue of local, sustainable food, is universal to the entire Slow movement and reads: Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model. We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life… May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency. A Slow City is one that makes no compromises to ensure a high quality of life for all that use it. The needs of residents, businesses, developers, and municipalities must all be considered. Fortunately, there are many issues on which these parties can find common ground. Everyone benefits from cities that rely on walking more than driving. It is healthier to walk often; the close human contact and chance meetings that occur on streets create a socially connected environment. Businesses and restaurants will prosper if their custumers are walking by rather than driving. From a development standpoint, if streets don’t need to be as wide to fit cars, there is more potential for increasing the density of the city and making average transport or walking distances smaller. Further gains in the efficiency of transportation and commerce can come from fine-grained and mixed-use zoning. Families with children and neighborhoods with substantial walking and biking populations can benefit from these traffic-calmed streets. A Slow City is sustainable; it is designed for communal resources such as buildings, transportation networks, parks, energy, and culture to be shared in a way that will ensure these resources are still there for the seventh generation. And in light of recent catastrophes, let us not forgot that if we want our cities in vulnerable locations to last, they must be built to withstand the full fury of Earth’s natural disasters. The ultimate goal of a Slow City is for all of these small changes to agglomerate into something that is more than the sum of its parts. Our environment, built or otherwise, has a strong influence on how we behave. It is our choice whether we want this environment to encourage emotional isolation, or human connectedness—which is what the Slow movement is all about. Although I don’t have room here to completely prove my point, my hope is that the progressive thinkers of today will become aware of the incredible challenges and opportunities American cities provide as we travel deeper into the age of urbanism and global development.—Ethan Kyzivat is sophomore at Yale, where he is studying physics and earth sciences. This blogpost is based on a paper written for the class Urban Ecology in New Haven, a seminar in the Environmental Studies department at Yale University taught by Gordon Geballe.

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest