IDEAS For Us | February 12, 2014

Samantha Ruiz on Cities: America’s Change Agents

Inspired by Mr. Harding’s recent blog post focused around writing on the things we love, I have chosen to blog on an issue that has been near to my heart for some time – Cities.

My love for urban spaces began in my college career, after picking up a minor in Urban Planning. Since then, I have been hooked on the idea that cities are truly America’s change agents. Contrary to the belief throughout the 60s that cities were destined to fail, human history has shown that cities have consistently served as cradles of human civilization.

Anthropological and archaeological research shows that some of our earliest advances in rudimentary tool making and early art forms occured in cities. Some even argue that cities are America’s greatest invention. They serve as hubs to share ideas, innovate and foster relationships.

Today, there is overwhelming evidence that America faces a set of interconnected economic, social, and environmental crises. For some, the search for answers to these challenges is overwhelming. Nevertheless, I believe that cities are continuing to prove themselves as one of the most effective platforms for small movements of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses and local elected officials to create solutions.

The blog that follows is a bite sized sample of my belief that cities hold the key to building a new, sustainable future for us all.

Cities: America’s Change Agents

Milton Friedman presents the idea that only a crisis can produce real change. If this is true, America stands at a crossroad. Decisions made in the next decade will have profound impacts on present generations and those that follow. In order to address these social and environmental challenges, a drastic shift away from business as usual is fundamental. cities_blog1

Alas, there is no easy formula available to transform the American empire. Present day capitalism is no longer what it once used to be. Initially rooted in protestant values – “if you do well providing goods and services, you’ll be rewarded and you’ll do good for your society” – capitalism encouraged entrepreneurial solutions.

Today, capitalism has been narrowly crafted to sell us what we don’t need, what we can’t afford, and often what we don’t even desire. In turn, individuals have become consumers rather than citizens, with an insatiable appetite for materialism. As 70 percent of America’s GDP stems from personal consumption expenditures, consumerism has become a pillar of modern capitalism. Human values have become centralized around maximizing earnings to continue on the hedonistic treadmill that capitalism has created.

As individuals coalesce their values around the current economic framework, the environment directly suffers. Bill McKibben notes “our single-minded focus on increasing wealth has succeeded in driving the planet’s ecological systems to the brink of failure.”

Noting the continually set of interconnected economic, social, and environmental problems America faces, cities have begun to provide the platform for small movements of engaged citizens to create solutions for the issues mentioned above.

Looking through human history, cities have consistently served as cradles of human civilization. Research shows the earliest advances in rudimentary tool making and early art forms occurred in cities. Some even argue that cities are America’s greatest invention. They offer steady employment, diversity, entertainment, and choice – all possibilities that rural life does not. In short, cities serve as hubs to share ideas, innovate, and foster relationships.

For this reason, cities can be considered a special kind of organism. For most organisms, as they increase in size their metabolism slows down; for a city, its metabolism becomes faster as it grows larger.

cities_blog2Economically, cities have regained their status as organizing units for the knowledge based, creative economy. When people are located close to one another, ideas are generated and productivity in all realms is increased. In turn, this force has a resounding effect on everything. As people become more productive, the places they inhabit become more productive, generating solutions for local economic development.

Environmentally, cities are a major source of carbon emissions. Globally, cities consume 75 percent of the world’s energy and produce 80 percent of its greenhouse gases. Not only are cities heavily contributing to climate change, they are also at high risk for some of the most devastating impacts of climate change. As over 90 percent of all urban areas are coastal, most of these cities are at risk of flooding from rising sea levels and more frequent storms.

However, there is a massive opportunity for cities to play a direct role in addressing climate change. Mayors and local officials nationwide are implementing policies and programs to mitigate and adapt to climactic impacts. For instance, Los Angeles has approved a plan to be coal-free by 2025. Additionally, Atlanta, Georgia is finalizing a climate action plan to mitigate the urban heat island effect.

Cities also provide an avenue for a reformation in social values – a change that will be essential to sustaining the new economy movement. Research shows that values are created through interactions with peer groups, role models, and lessons that individuals learn from a community. When information is absorbed in the form of social influence, it is regurgitated in the form of values. Cities create public involvement and opportunities for changes in social development towards more ecological thinking.

Our country has far removed itself from many of the founding principles it was founded on. As globalization has begun to dictate economic policy, government and technology, we are further distracted by a society with false indicators of progress. It is time to repaint this canvas. Cities give us the paintbrushes to get started.

These microcosms of innovation provide connectivity, opportunities, localization, a new economic framework, and the cities_blog3chance to reform our current value system – one that is of fundamental importance to sustaining the planet for future generations.

Although the idea of small, decentralized communities may not resonate deeply in the hearts of many citizens today, now is the time to recognize the potential behind “small is beautiful”.

– Samantha Ruiz
IDEAS for Us