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United Nations Conference on Human Settlements
Sustainable Cities: An American Dream or Future Reality?

The United States of America struggles every day to improve its living environments. Our neighborhoods, both inner city and suburban, are seriously challenged by congestion, pollution, and crime. How can the U.S. government best address such challenges to our cities? In the 21st century, American cities must learn to face future urban development issues taking into account, not only the bottom-line cost analyses in dollars and cents, but the social and economic effects on communities, neighborhoods, families, and individuals.

The United Nations Association of the United States of America’s (UNA_USA) workshop, Sustainable Cities: An American Dream or Future Reality?, focuses on how American citizens, in cooperation with government, on the local state and federal level, the public sector, and community-based organizations can bring about change in our cities, without forgetting that any urban policies or programs affect individuals where they live.

The following is a presentation made by Steven C. Hall

Good afternoon. I know it is late and has been a long day. Thank you for your interest indicated with your strong attendance. We hope our information will be useful to share.

Please bear in mind that in my presentation I will use gross simplifications of complex issues as our time is short, but I will welcome questions at the end.

In 1993 President Clinton commissioned a council to recommend a national action strategy for sustainable development for America. It was published earlier this year. It is available from the US Government Printing Office and is also accessible via the Internet. You can note the address. I am also passing out a news article about an interesting program in Boston by a group called the Christian Economic Coalition (CEC) which is modeled from the 50 year old Mondragon cooperative program in Spain which I learned about at the Boston US Network pre-Habitat Town Meeting. It is a program of great relevance to the inner city problems we are facing in many areas of our country. It is a program of action founded on values, faith and hope for the future.

My statement in the handout for this workshop (see attached) that speaks of the “spirit of the project” built from consensus, is only operable when the underlying values are good and true. It is really the second of three steps. I will talk about the first today: the determination of values. On the same topic, I also am pleased to report from my participation at the preceding World Business Forum that the business community, for the first time a partner in a UN conference, has affirmed values in its affairs and a role in social development. It is eager to explore new partnerships with government, NGO’s and others to achieve sustainable development goals.

Our Native Americans have a wonderful spiritual goal that we must live today for the seventh generation in our future. It is good wisdom for all of mankind.

America may be noted for developing the means of achieving two basic human requirements: The right to self-expressed individual rights through democracy and the satisfaction of physical needs. As imperfect as we Americans may feel our political system to be, it seems to be the model for much of the world. In our pursuit of material satisfaction, we have developed consumerism to a finely tuned but unsustainable machine. It is a model of envy, emulation, and disapproval. Americans are increasingly questioning the values underlying our patterns of consumption. This is particularly true about how we are choosing and being forced to live.

The American dream of the little white house and two car garage has gone wildly out of control. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this concept in moderation at the right scale, the use of vast tracks of land with suburban development totally dependent on the car has created largely unforeseen and very negative consequences. I say largely, because there have been architects and land planners for over 30 years warning us of coming problems. Heedlessly, we have become the victim of the marketing of our dream without examination of what truly brings value to our short lives on the planet. Did we really want the long expensive commutes requiring two working parents, at least two cars, and no leisure time to pay for big and largely unused warehouse for all the material possessions we do not use? The result has been fragmented family and social relationships, fatigue and alienation with our fellow Americans and both racial and economic segregation. We find we have been living on an illusion of values and are now starting an independent search of our souls. From many quarters we are beginning to yearn and look for a richer multi-dimensional fabric of life woven with many colors with time to be the weaver and time to enjoy the weaving process.

Unfortunately, our suburban development has become a worldwide model and recipe for disaster. I began my career at Bechtel which is a very large design/construction company based in San Francisco. In the early 1970’s as a Senior Project Planner, I worked with a team in planning a small city in Asia for a local oil company to be built from scratch from a coastal jungle many, many miles from any other settlement and inaccessible by road to anywhere. There was no need for cars and we designed the city with an internal transportation system servicing all facilities including detached single-family homes for the managers. What do you think was the first question asked? Looking immediately at the homes, they asked, “Where are our two car garages?” When told they did not need cars, they were aghast. “You Americans have two cars, we want them too.” We were chastened and chastised back to our drawing boards. Suffice it to say that the car has become the false god literally driving us all to the brink of disaster. We must immediately rethink the physical form in which civilization functions. We are strapped into our seats on our ride to destruction by our zoning, building and traffic engineering regulations with an inoperative release button. They must be scrapped. They cannot be reformed.

The inefficiencies and wastes of suburban living can be documented with a long list of studies and statistics available from many sources. Each car requires 6 paved parking places. The single family home generates an average of 14 trips per day. The detached home is one of the major single pollution sources in the environment. This is not my expertise and I will mention two architects who are active in this documentation and in designing solutions: Bill McDonough, Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia, was a keynote speaker at the World Business Forum and Andres Duany who innovated a community called Seaside in Florida a few years ago. I just saw a video tape of a talk he gave in San Diego where he was invited by a city so concerned about these problems that they voted a moratorium on growth! Ann Hoiberg, the next presenter, is from San Diego, and may make further comment.

We must revitalize our cities and renovate our suburbs, not only to sustain the environment but also to sustain our souls and our social and spiritual needs. Fellowship is also fulfillment of the human spiritual condition. Architects, planners and engineers will respond with various solutions for us to consider, but we must remember that we are responsible for telling them what we want, and we must carefully consider what it is that we do want. There is the old saying, “Be careful what you pray for. You may get it!”

This is the first step I spoke about in our revitalization. It must be an integrated holistic approach to sustainability with all players in society. In many and most cases this will be accomplished; block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood by weaving a whole cloth. In America we have particular problems with inner city minority ghettos. The CEC in Boston I mentioned earlier is actually an interfaith effort including several Christian denominations, Muslims, Baha’is and others. It is interesting to note that Americans are starting to learn to cooperate and form partnerships between disparate groups as we learn that we have common core values. Problems transcend color of skin and cultural diversity. The CEC believes that the social fabric must be built from a spiritual foundation into economic realities. In the last presentation today, Zehra Keye and Carol Lukas of the Wilder Foundation will speak of successes in collaboration in St. Paul, Minnesota.

It also may surprise you that many cities in the US with existing infrastructure can sustain 3 – 5 times their current density, including New York. Two architect friends recently told me that at the turn of the century Manhattan’s population was 13 million vs. about 8 million today, and without the present infrastructure. No doubt, living standards and expectations were different, but there is no question that cities can be very efficient places for us to live with the proper supporting facilities.

If some current planning is realized, the suburbs may transform into cohesive revitalized villages based around shopping malls redeveloped to include mixed uses: a variety of housing, social services as well as retail shops. Alternative transportation to these new village centers can evolve and parking, streets and freeways may also be reduced or altered to more human scale activity. It also may surprise the developing world to know that we are now looking with envy at the rich vitality of life in your villages and cities. You are becoming the model for our redevelopment.

We have our extremists who wish to turn back the clock and discard the trappings of our current civil society and all connections with the global community. Even in a country as large and economically powerful as the US, it simply cannot be done. In the famous quote from the popular cartoon strip, Pogo, the little swamp rat reports back to his little swamp friends from his scouting mission to the outside world, “I have seen the enemy, and it is us!” The global village predicted by Marshall McLuhan 30 years ago is here. The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens. We must change from mindless to mindful development. We have responsibility as individuals for reform for the future, not regression to the past.

In this room and at this conference I see before me the future, and it is us. Let us all work to make it better. Thank you.