Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Problem of Models for Sustainability

Last Friday I attended a regional transportation summit for the bay area looking toward 2035.

The keynote speaker, over our catered lunch, was San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. In Newsom's clever and talented performance he spoke about how San Francisco and the bay area can become a great model of sustainability for cities around the world. This was how he ended his half-hour show. The speaker following Newsom expressed his excitement about the Chinese. He had just been in Beijing the week before to attend meetings about the nation's next five year plan, and to continue Newsom's thread, he said the Chinese took him and other bay area civic leaders aside and wanted to specifically learn from their achievements.

From my experience in participating in the campus sustainability movement at universities in California to my fairly-wide understanding of the contemporary, evolving sustainability movement as a whole, the wish to make one's city, campus, project, anything, a model for others to use, is commonly expressed.

But there is a problem with speaking of one's city to be a model.

To speak of making a city -- or anything for that matter -- great with the vision of it becoming a model in which others may use dilutes the value of one's city, and it bothers me greatly. (This problem resonates also with another idea I have seen in sustainability circles: that the best models work across every scale. This is a dangerous assumption.)

I understand many use the term with the desire others will learn from their city and achievements. I know models are very useful, especially within the process of creating something. But I am still bothered about the use of the term in this context, a context where "gathering best practices" can be lauded as innovative research. And while best practices can be learned from and are valuable, they tend to be sifted through like a bag of sweet candy jelly beans. One digs for the tasty flavor in the bag that makes the mouth water most.

To speak of making a city to be a model -- as the goal -- means one really desires others to copy from it. ...Picking and choosing, photographing and copying, digitally simulating, mass-producing a bag of city jelly beans.

To wish a city to be a model for others means that any purported greatness achieved will be many other cities with a likeness of one's own. Great cities have no cities of likeness. Great cities, of past, present and future, speak of their own identity, their own individuality. There is only one Kyoto, for example.

A great city can inspire, and it is a great process when it occurs. But inspiration, through the process of synthesis and abstraction, can produce the genesis anew and carry forth the building of greatness elsewhere that is imbued with its own distinct identity.

I am bothered by the desire to make something of our world simply in the end be a model -- it is a very post-modern thing to wish -- to wish many will copy you and become a likeness of you.

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