Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sustainability via Ken Dunn

Ken Dunn is the founder of the Chicago based Resource Center, a leading sustainability organization that works to re-use wasted resources. I spoke with him a few days ago both about his organization and the mission that guides it. I came away feeling that this man was one of the few that understand the enormous complexity and interconnectedness of cities.

Since his business is resource recovery, I asked him what two resources are the most valuable in a city. His answers--density and diversity--each deserve great consideration. My feelings on urban planning and design, that a good city brings different people together, neatly wrap around these concepts.

Diversity is necessary in cities. It is also something that we have managed to not mess up too horribly in America. Try as we might through enforced segregation, preferential treatment and limitations on mobility, diversity exists in all cities. A city that perfectly segregates itself is merely a collection of small towns. Those individual towns are doomed to the same fate as the mining towns and mill towns that fade into the history books when their profession is innovated into obscurity. Cities are places of innovation that adapt to changing times and economies.

Luckily, people tend to have at least some offspring that search for different human interactions than they are accustomed to. In small towns, these people head to the big city. In segregated cities, these people break down barriers that separate people. They fight a good fight, but our system works against them.

American cities have developed several mechanisms to limit diversity. Zoning, transportation, public schools and unequal services all work to divide communities along cultural, racial and economic lines. While they have been incredibly successful at partitioning cities into separate neighborhoods and homogenizing those neighborhoods, they have failed to totally prevent diverse interaction

A good city will actively work to blur those lines. It starts with zoning that encourages mixed real estate values instead of discouraging them, transportation that provides equal access to all residents regardless of their economic status, schools that provide opportunity equally across a region and infrastructure that doesn't leave out under served populations.

Diversity carries its risks. Social norms are not always easily translated even between similar cultures. Awkward interactions can and do result and this creates a isolationist tendency. When this isolationist tendency is allowed to grow larger than the human desire to connect with others different from themselves, they disengage from the city and flee it. They go off to live in the mountains or the suburbs, where those around them look and act the same. Great care must be given to force continual positive interactions between people. Walls must be discouraged, never encouraged.

The biggest wall is distance. Distance divides people by their most valuable personal resource, time. One easy way to gauge the vibrancy of a place is to count the number of nearby people and places as a function of travel time. As number of people and places within a five and ten minute range decline, the number of attractive options drop exponentially since area increases exponentially with radius and trips become more difficult to combine.

It is therefore necessary to pack places of interest nearby to places of habitation and work. This is the part that no American city even comes close. The densest American city, Los Angeles, barely makes it into the top 100 of the world's densest cities.

Yet America certainly has cities. Density is not necessary for a city, it is only necessary for a good city. Density is necessary for a desirable city. The lack of density in American cities has allowed cities to decay. Those that could escape their tainted urban bleakness bought up untainted suburban bleakness. European cities with sufficient density fared much differently. It was the poor that were forced into the suburbs of cities that allowed them to be constructed as urban residents solidly rejected the notion of leaving such a pleasant and attractive place. A sustainable city must be one that people want to stay in, just as a sustainable building must be one that people want to rehabilitate as it ages instead of wanting to tear it down.

The common thread tying these two ideas together is mutually beneficial interaction. The key to maintaining the desire to remain in cities is to provide nearby diverse options for every individual. Our cities and suburbs fail miserably at providing these critical goods and few have put forward alternatives that seem to differ in any way. As I progress on this trip, I'm hoping to find people attempting to solve this problems.


  1. Urbanism built on principles of sustainability will renew our lives and the ecosystems we depend on. We need buildings that blend the beauty of the natural world around us, it's sacred spaces, with our inner worlds and professional lives. Lynne

  2. I couldn't agree more. By moving our work so far from our residences, we've spread ourselves far too thin. If we make our world a bit smaller, then we'll be able to devote so much more of our attention to it.

    And let nature work out the rest.

  3. Isn't New York (Manhattan) the densest city by far? Even excluding the commuters?

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  5. Don't even have to stick to Manhattan alone, the density of New York City as a whole (all 5 boroughs) is by far the greatest in the US. Over 27,000 people / sq. mi according to wikipedia. Not sure where that puts it in the top 100 world cities though.