Green Urbanism

Review of

Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age

Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004, 392 pp.

In Native to Nowhere, Timothy Beatley builds on the rich literature about the importance of the built environment in fostering and strengthening a sense of place in a community. Thanks to the efforts of urban planners, architects, politicians, and many ordinary citizens, some remarkable successes have been achieved during the past three decades. New public plazas, art museums, waterfront promenades, and retail centers have helped revitalize cities and towns across the United States, helping to boost community identity and pride. At the same time, however, powerful economic and social forces have worked to drive Americans apart, often into sprawling, anonymous communities that are indistinguishable from one another. A major challenge for policymakers today, Beatley says, is to help create civic environments that allow more Americans to become “native to somewhere.”

Beatley argues for the need for vital public places with genuine zeal, although this is fortunately tempered by the many practical examples he provides for achieving his vision. He believes that the lack of meaningful public places is one of the great crises in American life today. His thinking complements the views of Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone about today’s diminished level of social engagement and public and political involvement, as well as those of Juliet Schor, who complained in The Overworked American and The Overspent American about the long hours Americans spend working to support increasingly high levels of consumption. In Beatley’s view, the creation of better public spaces could help to slow life down and make it more meaningful. He applauds the “slow city” philosophy of a group of cities in Italy, which aims to elevate the unique and special qualities of place. “We need places that provide healthy living environments and also nourish the soul—distinctive places worthy of our loyalty and commitment, places where we feel at home, places that inspire and uplift and stimulate us and that provide social and environmental sustenance,” Beatley writes.

Beatley, the Theresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, provides a workmanlike review of the literature on place-building and place-strengthening: the role of history, of vital pedestrian places, and of public art and civic celebrations. He also reviews ideas and strategies for overcoming sprawl and reducing sameness in community building. None of this discussion is original, but Beatley enlivens it with many interesting examples drawn from his extensive travels in Europe and the United States. The immense Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord in Germany, crafted around and among industrial ruins, including the superstructure of a blast furnace, demonstrates, Beatley writes, “the importance of building on the unique and particular histories of places and creatively utilizing them as strategies for overcoming the sameness that exists in so many regions and communities.” Several U.S. cities, including Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California, have prepared pedestrian master plans, putting pedestrians on a more equal footing with cars and creating comprehensive visions of a walking city. Pedestrian places are experienced and lived at a slower pace. “I’m not sure we can truly love places that we only drive by at high speeds,” Beatley writes.

Nature and place

The best and most forward-thinking chapters in the book are the ones on the roles of natural environments and locally sustainable energy policies in strengthening commitment to place. These are areas that until relatively recently have been largely unexamined in the literature. Beatley helped to pioneer this thinking with his 2000 book Green Urbanism. In Native to Nowhere, he builds on that work.

Humans need nature, and green neighborhoods and green cities will instill both greater love of and commitment to these places, he argues. “One of the primary goals of . . . community-building should be to find ways to make urban life rich with the experiences of nature,” he writes. This will be a major challenge for planners, because modern Americans have become so physically disconnected from natural processes. Yet much original thinking has been done in recent years on applying the lessons of nature to buildings, commerce, and other aspects of society. To be sure, little of this thinking has actually been applied to the functioning of communities. Still, Beatley provides a road map of how it can be done.

Some projects now under way aim to reconnect citizens, even those in dense urban environments, to natural landscapes. A prominent example is an initiative called Chicago Wilderness, an effort of more than 160 environmental and community organizations to document the richness of the biodiversity in the Chicago region, to educate the public about it, and to work to restore and protect it. In 2004, the organization released the Chicago Green Infrastructure Vision, a strategic plan aimed at eventually protecting and restoring nearly 2 million acres of land.

Most of the projects Beatley writes about are much smaller than this, and many are being done for nakedly economic reasons in addition to their ecological benefits. Indeed, there is a growing realization that moving from a gray to a green infrastructure can actually save communities money. An innovative example of this is taking place in Seattle, where residential streets are being redesigned to incorporate a system of rainwater swales, trees, and native vegetation that is designed to handle all storm water on site in a way that will provide substantial savings in long-term maintenance costs when compared with conventionally engineered storm-water collection systems.

The local-global connection

Beatley believes that any real solutions to our current environmental and sustainability challenges will by necessity be local. He does not use the now-clichéd phrase “think globally, act locally,” but this is what he means. This is not wooly thinking on his part, because he demonstrates, again through a wealth of examples, the ways in which communities all over the world are using advanced technology to reduce pollution and energy use and beginning to live in more sustainable ways. Indeed, energy, Beatley convincingly argues, represents a significant opportunity for every community to strengthen its place qualities.

Some of the innovations are far-reaching and eye-opening. For example, in the London suburb of Hackbridge, a neighborhood is being created that is designed to be energy- and carbon-neutral (it will produce as much energy as it uses and will produce no net increase in carbon emissions). “Cities ought to aspire to be energy-neutral, to produce the basic energy they need in renewable, nonpolluting ways,” Beatley writes.

Although Europe appears to be moving much faster toward place-based energy strategies than is the United States, Beatley also cites some innovative U.S. cities, notably Chicago. “Few large cities in the world have taken as many steps toward building a renewable-based energy strategy as has Chicago,” he writes. For example, the city has agreed to purchase electricity produced from renewable sources to meet 20 percent of municipal demand, and it is retrofitting 15 million square feet of public building space to be more energy-efficient.

Native to Nowhere concludes with a slightly utopian call for a new “politics of place.” “Longterm commitment to sustainable places will require a politics in which people and organizations work together to create a positive future, not simply to oppose specific projects or decisions,” he writes. In short, we need to shun NIMBY (not in my back yard) tendencies and embrace our better YIMBY (•̀ᴗ•́)و ̑̑ instincts. But he is certainly correct that a local politics that encourages and makes it easier for neighbors to come together to, for example, reconceive a bridge as a forest (as they did for a pedestrian bridge in London that is designed with trees and shrubs) is a positive step forward. Those with their heads in the clouds, as well as those with their feet firmly planted on the ground, will find plenty of inspiration and many practical ideas for change in Native to Nowhere.

Cite this Article

Hendrickson, Bill. “Green Urbanism.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 4 (Summer 2005).

Vol. XXI, No. 4, Summer 2005