Chiras, Dan and Dave Wann: Superbia! 31 ways to create sustainable neighborhoods.
Article Type: Book Review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Perks, William T.
Pub Date: 12/22/2004
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2004 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods (Book); The Key to Sustainable Cities (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Chiras, Dan; Wann, Dave; Hallsmith, Gwendolyn
Accession Number: 129248106
Full Text: Chiras, Dan and Dave Wann Superbia! 31 ways to create sustainable neighborhoods'. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2000. 229 pp. ISBN 0-86571-490-8

Hallsmith, Gwendolyn The Key to Sustainable Cities. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2003. 259 pp. ISBN 0-86571-499-1

New Society Publishers (NSP) is an activist publishing house. They promote "the building of an ecologically sustainable and just society." Their books are meant to inspire and equip individuals and organizations to change the world for the better. In 1996 the Catalyst Education Society in Canada merged with New Society in the U.S.: it is today a dual-national enterprise, subsidized by the Government of Canada. Eighty percent of their sales are to the American market, a business factor that might explain why the two publications reviewed here are generically and flavourfully American.

Since the mid-90s, NSP has focussed on tools for sustainable living. The title of a 2001 publication, 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, gives a good idea of the ambitious scope and peppy precision promised in NSP's enterprise of delivering tools for change. Superbia! 31 Ways nicely fulfills the promise. Chiras and Wann have walked the talk in their many years of professional and community activist practices. The book draws on a substantial repertory of 'cases', and on theory, research, and life-work publications by well-known (e.g., Calthorpe and Plater-Zyberk) and lesser-known, lesser-publicized American practitioners, and American public and private institutions. Superbia! is about social and physical changes that can contribute to "reinventing exisiting neighborhoods," suburban as well as urban. With verve and in plain-speak not constrained by frequent hyperbole, and with good attention given to the operational details as well as some of the macrocosmic implications of 'doing it', Chiras and Wann set out 31 ways and means that community activists can readily grab hold and run with. And they present a decent array of planning/urban design and occasional ecologically-minded illustrations of 'product.'

Superbia! nicely fits the NSP category of tools. Beginning with a not-uncommon critique of suburban form and living conditions, the first two chapters lead the reader through a conventional list of land use and infrastructural dysfunctionalities (energy, transportation, consumption, absence of civic form and sociability) and social costs; a set of propositions for reinventing neighborhoods for "health, profit and community"; and a discussion about adding value to community environment and living. This 32-page introduction concludes with a tabulation of "potential savings from "community cooperation and household efficiency" that can be obtained on 13 primary household consumption items and expenditures. The theme of community cooperation is developed in the two succeeding chapters: "imagining a sustainable neighborhood" and "how to remodel a neighborhood." Here, the discussion becomes more focussed on tools and planning-design principles for remodelling. For example: visual preference surveys, developing indicators for sustainable living (Seattle's 40 and the authors' 9 supplementals), Village Homes in Davis, California, co-housing, and "adapting the building blocks of suburbia to create Superbia!" The latter is an especially important and reasonably well-illustrated (though slim) exposition of what the neighbourhood community must understand, visualize, and start off with.

Superbia! 31 Ways is a polemic on localized-community, activist-planning and organization smoothly wedded to the authors' empirically-derived prescriptions for sustainable community form and livability. It is not comprehensive by any means. Still, it can well be accepted as a useful and engaging handbook for activists and the enquiring and willing neighbourhood resident who can sense that all is not as it might be and wants to become 'involved'. The whole of the book can be read for good value by novice students of planning, design and urbanism.

The second part of it--the 31 suggestions for design and action--social organization and the rituals and processes, including illustrated planning-design products--is good instrumental stuff. The 40-page "resource guide" that follows is succinctly written, neatly layed out, and in itself worth the purchase price. The 40-page Resource Guide lists consultants and other organizations, public and private; and it is especially useful for community organizations turning their attention to the issues of sustainable development and sustainable design.

The Key to Sustainable Cities is a kettle of different fish. Essentially, it is a treatise in two discernible parts. The first organized around many discrete pieces of observation and the author's personal reflections and ruminations on urban system in the broadest sense, and the notion of 'purposefulness' within it. Hallsworth describes and critically examines and explains the system--its characteristics, its operative conditions, and its dysfunctionalities ('vicious cycle" subsystems, for example). The second part (Chapters 5 to 10) sets out a combination of exposition of system and prospects for "leverage" or tinkering with the system, along the lines of some normative propositions conducive to sustainability. It must be noted at this point that The Key is not a treatise on sustainability/sustainable development per se.

By and large, Hallsworth's take on the concept of sustainability (and counter-sustainability) is revealed rather selectively and piecemeal by reference to the now-classical doctrines of Stockholm-Brundtland and Rio; to the works of Meadows (1970s); and by various, eclectic link-ups to Maslow, the wisdoms of world religions, the history of early civilizations (Mayan, Mesopotamian, Arab Emirates, etc.) and various discursive probes into child care, sense of community, the need for and power of love, 'system archetypes', 'limits to growth', 'reinforcing cycles', and 'community visions in action" in places such as Balaclava in the Crimea, Geneva, NY, Independence, MO, and Flagler Beach, FL.

Despite its 2004 date, Hallsworth's book makes no reference to the discourse and empirical design and implementation record over the past two or three decades that direct us to the significance of design theory and practices. Nor to the paradigm shifts that are steadily confirming an ascendancy of ecological design and green architecture as core enterprises of urban sustainability alongside the reform of urban-administrative institutions and practices. This same reservation and disappointment, it should be noted, applies to Superbia! 31 Ways as well.

The genesis of The Key is "a flash of inspiration" Hallsworth had when faced with how to organize a vast public input in connection with the 'Legacy Project' carried out by the City of Burlington in partnership with the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities. The Steering Committee thought they had the "four Es" of Sustainability well tied down--Environment, Economy, Education, Equity. But public input intruded upon their confidence, to the extent of bringing into the planning exercise everything from Entertainment to Etceteras. Reflecting on this, Hallsworth notes that civilizations rise and fall, and that "Human needs" are also the drivers of the dysfunctional and un-sustainable community systems we have developed ..." She discovered (or recalled) that closing the loops is the key to both understanding urban issues and approaches to sustainability.

Hallsworth presents an exposition of the concept of community as a complex system. She ties to it two propositions. The first of these: "The ways in which the cycles of community life either strengthen or weaken themselves through time all impact the health and sustainability of the whole community system." Thus, the Key is to think of the whole system ... to perceive community as system. Whole System has to be explained--can only be explained and understood--in terms of subsystems. Hallsworth performs the task of disaggregation beginning with a situation/problem-oriented Introduction and an expositional-descriptive analysis. She talks about: actors (individuals/households, organizations, government), needs (physical and environment, economic security, social well-being and social capital, governance); she offers an explanation of the linkages between needs-satisfactions and sustainability; and she briefly addresses the subsystem "capacities" (economic, social, governance, environmental). A fourth chapter on "systems thinking" follows.

The second proposition goes like this: "Once we understand that needs" are the underlying drivers of the unsustainable systems ... we can change the way we look at the community development process". By "looking at it as a whole" we can--we should "see" how the interactions of different systems can erode or enhance the community's needs. Thus, the first four chapters are dedicated to explanation and description of the urban system in this vein. Well and good. But this reviewer cannot help noting that "look at" is a favoured and rather persistent expression of ambiguity regularly deployed by many soft scholars and woozy practitioners of the late 60s, 70s and early 80s. This applies to some degree to Hallsworth, notwithstanding the wide-scoping erudition she brings to the topic.

Hallsworth brings to our attention an idiomatic perspective on urban system that might well twig the interest of students and politicians. And, hopefully invite some studied critique and debate as well. As Hallsworth stakes it out: seeing city and communities as a whole system necessitates accounting for environmental capacity (the Wackernagel 'ecological footprint' ledger method, the Earth Charter, Vision for the World of Power) ... assessing governance capacity and social capacity (with reference to "Vicious Social Cycles") ... Chapter 6 presents "envisioning a beautiful world", a set of 9 principles--The Melbourne Principles', as it happens. Each is underscored by a dictum titled "elaboration". Example: Principle #1: provide a long term vision ... #7: empower people and foster participation ... #9: promote sustainable production and consumption; and in elaboration #9--"a range of approaches and tools ..." And so forth. Well, of course. There are no illustrations of these (abstract) principles in vitro. The principles have been stated over and over in various publications, and in professional practices since the 1970s.

Chapter 10 speaks to 'Action Plan'--a device commonly associated with the notion of "tools"; that is, with ways and means of getting it done ... with particular attention given to where the resources can/will come from ... considerations of organization structure and capacities that cover internal as well as external alliances and coalitions ... consideration of subsidizations, sweat equity/volunteerism ... plus, of course, a specification of who does what, where, and when. But here too, Hallsworth's discussion is impressively idiosyncratic, and largely off-course from conventional business plan and public authority doctrines of Action Plan.

The exposition of 'Whole System Strategies" is similarly off-course. Strategy has become one of the most abused and misused terms among planning and design practitioners, municipal administrators and academics since it made its formal appearance in the management and planning literature in the mid-1980s. It has degenerated into cliche: any idea, any proposition for 'action', any assemblage of discreet plans now gets to be classified as strategy. All one might say here is, Hallsworth has not read Henry Mintzberg, nor much if any of the strategy-specific literature. Of note, her references attaching to the essay on strategies are Donella Meadows (1972 and 1999) and Thomas Khun (1962).

The Key to Sustainable Cities might best be categorized as protocols for the planning and development, and the nurturing of city-community sustainability. It is in part a work of theory; in part a sensitization treatise. Hallsworth presents an assemblage of journalistic-type essays--discursive thoughts and homilies, reflections and exhortations on all that might conceivably fit within a popularized conception of "sustainability". All, that is, but such critically important and topical issues as: appropriate technology, the artifactual environments of community and their influential interplay with individual and community lifeways, and the role and manner of urban design, ecological landscape design and building science in contributing to sustainability satisfactions. The aforementioned omissions notwithstanding, Dr. Steve Halls, the Director of the United Nations Environmental Program's International Technology Center recommends The Key to Sustainable Cities as "essential reading for those involved in planning and city management now and in the future".

It should not go un-remarked that the two books reviewed here ignore the repertory of sustainable urban design and implementation, sustainability 'indicators' projects, and normative, community-initiated projects that have been researched and written about, and variously demonstrated on the ground, in Europe and in Canada. In Superbia! for example, the case examples cited virtually ignore the many Canadian sources that could have contributed to both discussion and example. City Farmer, BEST appears to be the only Canadian "case" cited in Chiras and Wann's compendium of "resources".

Moreover, for the benefit of Canadian students, scholars and practitioners in particular, it has to be said that there are many (ignored) Canadian counterpoint sources or near equivalents for the organizations, on-line resources, and the publications that Chiras and Wann present in their 40-page Resource Guide. Similarly for Hallsworth's book. And, had New Society wished the two books to more meaningfully appeal to Canadian readers, there is a large and broadly cross-sectioned set of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and Natural Resources Canada publications that could have been tapped and illustrated--on various aspects and features of Canadian achievements and research into urban sustainable development and design, co-housing, community activism, sustainability indicators, consumer preference surveys, and ecological design. For readers who feel Canadian content is missing but needed, they might well supplement their reading of Superbia! with a canvass of David Van Vliet's Sustainable Subdivision Planning and Design: Analysis, Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography, published in Sustainability Series, Institute for Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg back in 1994. Visits to CMHC and NRCanada web site listings of publications will also prove fruitful if not revealing.

William T Perks

Faculty of Environmental Design

University of Calgary
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.