That we are seeing a rapidly expanding focus on sustainable cities is hardly surprising. Cities have become the principal engine of economic growth in a global economy—and they are having a disproportionate effect on the ecosystems of their regions and the biosphere as a whole.
Currently, the pressing nature of climate change and peak oil, together with our long love affair with technology, have made efforts to reduce the impact of cities the central focus of the sustainable cities movement. While critical, meeting the challenge of a deteriorating planet requires more. It demands that our cities become active contributors to the social and ecological regeneration of their regions. Cities at the forefront of sustainability are recognizing that they need to take up both halves of the sustainability challenge—reducing damage while growing connection to and among the living systems of their place.
There is a growing understanding that even as we establish and achieve new standards of resource efficiency and minimal impact, our solutions continue to treat symptoms rather than root causes. Because they are technological in their orientation, these “solutions” fail to address a much deeper issue—the fractured relationships between people and the complex, multi-layered living web of relationships within which they live and work. This fracture is most evident in urban settings. The growth of modern cities has greatly oversimplified this web, making the land less resilient and alienating people from nature. While strategies to limit sprawl, carbon emissions and resource depletion slow the damage to this web, they do not address the need to re-weave human and natural communities into a co-evolutionary whole, where humans exist in symbiotic relationship with the living lands they inhabit.
Ultimately, our cities’ regeneration—and their ability to become regenerative forces, depends on our ability to create a culture in which we are all “citizens of place.” Unlike carbon neutrality, such a culture cannot be constructed, invented, or legislated. It starts with a change of “mind”—a fundamental shift that involves seeing ourselves, our cities, and our places as nested living systems rather than physical and political artifacts. Each place has its own identity—a unique character and purpose within the larger systems it inhabits. We know that cultures that foster an attachment to their place as a living whole are best able to bridge differences and maintain the collective enterprise of growing a sustainable future together. Place is where we can unite our social and ecological worlds, and regenerate a shared sense of identity and meaning.
One of the most powerful resources we have for accomplishing this shift and tapping the power of place is story. Story is a universal vehicle for making complex wholes comprehensible and meaningful. For millennia humans used stories as cross-generational “guidebooks” for harmonizing cultures and economies with their ecologies—capturing generations of accumulated wisdom about how to sustainably live and thrive in a place. The power of these stories grew from, and was continually regenerated by, an intimate, experiential understanding of place—the understanding of land-based cultures that cities are displacing at an increasing rate. While we cannot simply transfer these stories to our urban cultures, we can learn much from them about what makes a story that can reknit a place.
A story that taps the power of place is grounded in a deep, pattern understanding that illuminates how the web of life works in that place. It is integrative and holistic, speaking to what is shared by all who live there. Through metaphor it captures the heart and spirit of a place’s unique character as a source for a collective identity that bridges cultures, classes, and generations. It depicts the potential of that identity within its region and beyond, lifting up a unified vocation for a city, one to which every member can contribute and gain meaning from. Finally, its power endures and grows because it is continually and consciously regenerated as a place evolves.
Regenerative Communities Group was formed to help communities regenerate their story of place—deepening collective understanding, and creating a unity of purpose that enables designing, governing, educating, and living in a place sustainably.
A version of this post will appear in the 2010 Sustainable Santa Fe Guide