Can the US do ‘slow’ urban development?
Monday, September 17, 2018
The Cittaslow ("Slow City") movement, launched by a group of small Italian towns in the late 1990s, professes to "do for urban planning what the Slow Food movement has done for agriculture." It calls for a slower form of city and town-making based on values of environmental sustainability, craft, seasonality, and the revaluing of local history and heritage.
As their manifesto states, the movement strives for "towns where men are still curious of the old times."
This "slow utopia" is seductive. A revolt against mass production of food, our nonstop distraction epidemic, and our deeply ingrained "culture of speed," the movement is in part about both turning back the clock to simpler times and harnessing new technology to help us maintain a better ecological balance — such as the Waterboxx tech used in Sonoma, California, to reforest arid areas. They protest accusations they are a Luddite movement.
Given that the Slow Food movement began as a protest in 1986 against the arrival of the quintessentially American McDonalds chain into Rome, it is perhaps ironic that its offshoot Slow Cities movement is now bouncing back across the Atlantic and coming to U.S. soil. Well, California at least.
But as complex as the food industry is, cities are even more complex. Is the Slow Cities movement reaching too far?
Globalization and Slow Cities
Current members in the U.S. are restricted to a trio of towns in California — Sonoma, Sebastopol and Fairfax. The U.S. has traditionally been anathema to these "slow" ideas.
The home of the drive-thru, 24/7 culture, the domination of the private car over "slower" modes like cycling. It is also the birthplace of many of the behemoths of globalization — Walmart, McDonalds. After all, the largest city is known across the world as "the city that never sleeps."
It is precisely this acceleration of modern life, and the globalization and homogenization of our neighborhoods that goes with it, that the Slow Cities movement is battling against. Concretely, this has generally taken the form of car-free centers, support for local and organic food producers, community time banks and alternative energy projects.
Ripe timing for slowing down?
Today’s political tone in the U.S. provides an intriguing backdrop to the Slow movement. The Cittaslow network is designed as a bulwark against globalization, and a celebration of those small towns which have been forgotten in the era of "competitive cities."
While its origins in Italy were very much on the left-wing of politics, an appreciation of small-town life has emerged as a key characteristic of both Cittaslow advocates and Trump supporters. However, I’m not sure how easily I can envisage Trump sending his children to a school made with reeds from the local lake, or attending a rainwater harvesting workshop.
The Achilles’ heel of Slow Cities, and the broader Slow Movement, are the doubts over its inclusivity. The movement, while advocating a "back to basics" philosophy, has been open to criticism for being elitist.
One article extolling the virtues of the movement’s philosophy appeared in the London-based Financial Times’ notorious "How to Spend It" publication, littered with references to ‘upcycled’ fashion pieces retailing at $840 and porcelain trays that start at $60. Similarly, the Sonoma Valley, where the first U.S. foray into Slow Cities was made, now sees average house prices over $700,000.
But there is a further problem. As a solution to urban planning dilemmas, how scalable is the Slow Cities philosophy?
Membership is only open to cities of less than 50,000, but does little to address how those neighborhoods fit together and work on a larger canvas. Environmental pledges appear to be only considered within the limits of the Slow City itself. In Sonoma, many residents commute an hour out to San Francisco by car (hardly a "slow" environment) and then retreat again to their idyll tired and stressed at the end of the day.
There are limits to the expansion of these cities, and to how the principles can be applied to some of our most troubled urban neighborhoods — tellingly, one proponent has commented that "towns that have been ruined already are not going to be interested," limiting the trend to identifying and celebrating existing "unspoilt" cities.
Reviving a slow-topia
Despite these misgivings, perhaps we are missing the point of the Slow Cities movement. The philosophy is not a set of planning policies, but the revival of the idea of utopia — one that sits in stark contrast to the more famous modernist utopias of the mid-20th century, built around notions of "speed" (speed was described by Aldous Huxley as the "single new pleasure invented by modernity").
It was never envisaged to deal with the nitty-gritty of affordable housing policy, transport economics or land markets. As such, it might never be the kind of transformative movement that our urban areas desperately need.
Instead, it is a sandbox, a petri dish, for exploring and imagining what an alternative might look like to the materialistic, high-octane assumptions our cities have been built on for decades.
The movement began, after all, in the country which produced Italo Calvino and his Invisible Cities — a world where cities "are constructed not of steel and concrete but of ideas," each one a thought experiment. It produces obvious contradictions, but sometimes letting our imagination run free is no bad thing.
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