Ecology and the Social City

The dominance of city life reached a decisive stage recently, almost uncommented upon. For the first time in human history the proportion of people living in cities worldwide surpassed 50%; less then 100 years ago the number was just 15%. With the environment and social impact of contemporary city life increasingly evident in pollution, destruction, poverty, stress and crime, a critical and reconstructive look at the city and its' relations with the natural world seems not only timely - but urgent.

From the earliest human settlement through to the modern metropolis the city has depended on the land. Though today, such is their separation, you could be forgiven for not realising. Major urban centres emerged in various parts of the world in history but it was in medieval Europe, which saw the clearance and settlement of vast forested areas and the development of capitalism that the city's domination of the country really took hold. There feudal and other traditional relations were increasingly replaced with exchange relations and satisfaction of need with production for profit; while the enclosure of land left thousands desolate, with no choice but to go to the cities: to work in the new factories or to die on the streets.

In 1800 London - Europe's largest city - was around 10km in diameter, had a population of under a million and could be crossed on foot in less then an hour. A century later it had quadrupled in population and size; today there are over 10 million people living in London and it would take days to walk across. In 1850 there were only four cities in the world with more then a million people, in 2000 there are over a thousand and rising.

The consequences of such massive concentrations of people combined with an economic system based on competition, privatisation and growth for growth's sake are only too apparent. In a very real sense the future health of the earth now depends on the city, and its' remaking: not just physically but socially. For a city is not only buildings and roads: the corporal shape or technologies used; it is also, potentially at least, a human community where we join together to meet our common needs. But in a capitalist system human relations are based on private ownership, inequality and work - the city becomes a factory and community becomes a product to be bought and sold. Decisions about the shape and use of cities are moulded not by human need but by the needs of the market system and its' growth - hence the sprawling urban conurbation's growing across the planet and the devastation wrecked on human and natural ecology.

Transport, pollution, poverty and crime today top the list of concerns for Londoners and the peoples' of cities world-wide and while politicians of all stripes endlessly promise solutions, the daily reality just keeps getting worse. Green spaces are disappearing, public services are deteriorating and inequalities are widening. Those who can afford to, retreat behind gated areas bunker-like, fearful; or through gentrification, redevelop the social effects of poverty out sight - and thus out of mind. This 'social amnesia' is matched by an increasing withdrawal into private life generally and a profound alienation from our human commonality as market values of rivalry and competition seep into every part of society. Paradoxically, in cities where so many people live side-by-side, we feel isolated, separated and alone.

For despite the often fawning words with which the corporate media talk of the 'vibrant', 'successful' capitals and metropolis's of the world, most people who live in them - or who attempt to walk through their streets - persist in experiencing them as increasingly noisy, dirty and dangerous. Freedom in such cities, it seems, equates mainly with being able to drive through them and any sense of community translates starkly as similar consumer habits.

Occasionally though, a sense of the social freedom possible in the city breaks through the public order. In spontaneous encounters and celebrations - in revelry and rebellion; in coming together face to face to discuss, to organise, and in attempting to directly meet our collective needs, an other city life presents itself as possible: a city life of creativity, solidarity, and diversity. A city expressed not as an efficient market machine but as a living ensemble of human relations in balance with its' natural surroundings. It is this social side of the ecological city that is left out of the dominant resource management or environmental planning approach; it is this social side of the ecological city that for present society is revolutionary.

A free city - one based on an equal sharing of political, economic and social power - could, and would be more likely to seek similarly not to dominant its' natural surroundings, allowing the diversity of life to freely develop where possible. It's inhabitants could seek to transcend the distinctions and divisions between city and countryside, going beyond simple green and grey dualities, to promote the wellbeing of both human and natural environments. A city where social arrangements stress our mutual reliance as against individualistic and competitive relations could seek to share the world's natural and social wealth with each other and with other human communities. A city that, instead of identifying with the nation-state - a structure that developed to impose the market system and continues, along with new international structures, to secure its' reproduction - recognised a geographical definition of community and control could create networks of autonomous regions continentally and globally.

It is only by approaching the problems of the city in this way that we can seriously attempt to cope equitably with the looming environmental crisis and its' social repercussions. Ideas and plans to physically decentralise, cut energy use, or adopt 'environmentally friendly' methods may seem a more immediate and practical possibility but, useful as such suggestions are, unless they are set in a social context of challenging and going beyond capitalism and other institutional hierarchies, they are doomed to irrelevance.

In fact, the history of the city is littered with attempts to add social justice and environmental protection elements to market and state structures. Like the plans of early socialists such as Robert Owen who in the early part of the last century set up the first co-operatives; or Ebenezer Howard, who in the 1920's after writing the book 'Garden Cities of Tomorrow' went on to found new towns like Welwyn Garden City; to more recent proposals for 'green' government, 'sustainable development' or new city authorities. These and other proposals share a prevalence for planning over people in the context of continuing market and hierarchical structures.

But it is how we relate to each other as social individuals, which sets the framework for how we relate to the natural world. And the logic of the present domineering and hierarchical social system, revolving around economic power - is to meet the requirements of competitive growth, minimise costs and intensify production. Both the social and the ecological consequences are staggering.

To act for the ecology of a city then, is to go beyond simply recycling papers and bottles or cutting car-use, to exploring and transforming the ongoing relationships and interactions between individuals, the social and the natural worlds; our hopes for community and the wider economic, political and institutional context. This sense of interconnection is intrinsic to an radical ecological approach. It suggests that dealing with the environmental crisis generally, and the effects of cities in particular, requires not only personal lifestyle changes but a radical remaking of social life itself.


Murray Bookchin. The Limits of the City, 1973.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967.

Takis Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy, 1999.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.

Peter Jukes. A Shout in the Street, 1990.

NI magazine. Green Cities, June 1999.

William Morris. News from Nowhere. 1895?

Colin Ward. Utopia, 1975.

From the Spoof newspaper 'Maybe' Mayday 2000

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