As the People’s Climate March moved down Central Park West on September 21, I live-sketched it block by block.
As the People’s Climate March moved down Central Park West on September 21, I live-sketched it block by block.
by Janet Biehl
Automobile use is the single greatest contributor to greenhouse emissions, and since 1850 the United States has been the greatest user of automobiles. Far too much of the American built environment is auto-dependent: more than half the population (51 percent in 2010, or about 158 million people) live in sprawling suburbs, where each adult in every household, in order to function, must have a car.
But sprawl was built by conscious design, and it can be unbuilt by conscious design as well. In the past 20 years a new generation of urban planners has emerged who have devised concrete ways to shape our built environment that will enhance sustainability rather than destroy it. The Congress for a New Urbanism, founded in 1993 by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, and others, are a group of about 2,500 architects, planners, designers, developers, policymakers, and others who are showing the way to reduce auto dependency by designing public spaces that open alternatives to the automobile. They call themselves “the leading organization promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an antidote to formless sprawl.”
They understand that our environment shapes our behavior. Compact, dense cities are inherently greener than low-density suburbs, as David Owen points out in his landmark 2009 book Green Metropolis. For one thing, energy efficiencies are built into the urban infrastructure: in apartment buildings, units share adjoining walls and heat escapes into the units above, meaning that less energy is wasted than in single-family homes. Moreover, people who live in cities have access to public transportation, which suburban housing developments are insufficiently dense to support transit.
But even more important, cities are compact and walkable. In compact settlement patterns the distances between the places where people want and need to go are reduced: destinations are within walking distance. One of the most pernicious aspects of the sprawl was its adherence to separate-use zoning: land-use zoning codes separated out the various functions of life–living, working, shopping, and playing–into separate enclaves: residential, workplace,, commercial and recreational. Since these various enclaves are separated by distance, people in suburbs have to drive just to get from one to the other.
The new urbanists have shown that separate-use zoning must be discarded; we must return to the mixed-use zoning that characterized downtowns before the Second World War, when people could live in apartments above shops. Using traditional town planning methods, the new urbanists are bringing houses, stores, offices, civic buildings, and streets together. Their closely woven, small-scale neighborhoods have a variety of home types including rowhouses, narrow and tree-lined streets, sidewalks, and parks. New urbanists create easily identifiable town centers with plazas, and other common spaces that welcome pedestrians rather than threatening them with car dominance.
Their concerns are not merely architectural. Walkability enhances interactions and encounters among people on foot, knitting communities together instead of tearing them apart. Walkability nourishes the public realm. While the sprawling suburbs separate people by income and age and still to a great extent by race, good urban design promotes diversity, so that rich and poor, whites and nonwhites, elderly and young can live near each other and meet in the street. We all need opportunities to interact so that we don’t become afraid of one another and can learn to talk together. As Duany and colleagues point out in Suburban Nation, “A society is healthier when its diverse members are in daily contact with one another.” Thus walkability strengthens not only sustainability but the civic sphere that underpins a robust democracy.
To date new urbanists and others who think like them have created several hundred neotraditional neighborhoods using these principles. The last choice is to go out into greenfields and construct anew in open farmland. It’s far more preferable to restore existing urban centers and towns. Towns and city neighborhoods that were built before the era of the car already have compactness, walkable streets, a mixed-use infrastructure. For the many decades in the twentieth century when Americans were enchanted by suburbia, these urban cores were neglected, falling into disrepair and decay. Now that we understand the value of traditional neighborhoods, abandoned buildings and neighborhoods can and are being rebuilt and renovated.
Even better, new urbanists are reconfiguring sprawl into neighborhoods with communities. According to architect Ellen Dunham-Jones, “The big design and development project of the next fifty years is going to be retrofitting suburbia.” Many of the indoor shopping malls in the United States (Dunham-Jones says about two-thirds of the existing 1,200) are struggling to survive. Some have gone out of business, and when they do die, their huge concrete shells can and are being put to new uses: as civic centers, medical centers, schools, offices, nursing homes, even universities. Dead big-box stores can become churches and libraries.
So-called “underperforming asphalt” is being repurposed as well. Many parking lots built in the early years of sprawl are now underused, as construction leapfrogged over them. They are now being dug up and converted into downtowns for suburbs that never had downtowns. The oldest retrofit, Mashpee Commons, in Massachusetts, was created this way, on top of old parking lot. Incrementally, the result was a compact, mixed-use New England village.
About forty shopping malls have been razed to the ground altogether, giving place to city halls and parks and even entire downtown cores. In Lakewood, Colorado, for example, one hundred acres that were once home to a regional mall are now dedicated to 22 blocks of walkable streets, lined with multiuse buildings and a range of housing types, with 1,500 households. The buildings have PV arrays on the roofs, and wind turbines. Eight bus lines serve this community, called Belmar; it has two parks.
In some places densification doesn’t work—for example, subdivisions that are just too far from transit and where people choose not to live there. They can be returned to green areas or suburban farms. When a shopping center in Phalen Village, outside Minneapolis, went under, the city tore it up and restored the wetland that had been there before. Creeks are being daylighted.
Some of the most sprawled-out American cities are developing plans and goals to retrofit. Phoenix, Arizona, the epitome of a low-density, car-dependent city, has adopted a program called Reinvent PHX to create more walkable centers and connect them by public light rail. New urbanism principles are being accepted even in Texas: the city of El Paso now requires that architects working in city projects have accreditation in new urbanism. And the Texas department of transportation’s new rulebook actually recommends new-urbanist street design.
A large share of today’s Millennial generation (the 80 million people born between 1977 and 1995) are rejecting the car-dependent lifeways of their parents. Accurately viewing car ownership as a trap, they are choosing to drive less: in 2010, only 47 percent of seventeen-year-olds had driver’s licenses. For the first time since the advent of the internal combustion engine, we have a generation that is less enthusiastic about driving than the one before. Seventy-seven percent of Millennials prefer to live in urban areas: cities with walkable neighborhoods, transit, biking facilities, and a lively urban pulse.
The big question, according to Leigh Gallagher in The End of the Suburbs, is what the Baby Boomers (about 77 million Americans) will do. As they retire, will they prefer to age in place, even if it means heating too-large houses, even if their declining eyesight makes driving more precarious, and even if their houses isolate them socially? They, like the Millennials, may find that compact, mixed-use, walkable communities with convenient transit linkage to be highly desirable.
Whatever they decide, a rejection of suburbia is under way. American urban form is no longer reflexively being dictated by the automobile. and planners are discarding the old land-use codes that generated sprawl. In my view, overcoming sprawl is one of the most promising developments now under way in mitigating our carbon footprint.
by Janet Biehl
At long last the war against the Islamic State has brought Westerners’ attention to the North Kurdish (i.e., Kurds in Turkey) freedom struggle. For three decades the PKK has been fighting an insurgency against Turkey, and Turkey has fought back, leading to nothing except bitter reprisals, protracted conflict, and the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages in the 1990s. Originating in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist organization, the PKK got placed on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. So even as the Kurdish struggle evolved into something quite different from its original state, Westerners continued to avert their eyes due to the terrorism listing. And of course Turkey, a NATO member, is intransigently wedded to keeping the PKK securely on that list, fearing that anything less could lead to the emergence of a Kurdish state.
But the Kurdish freedom movement no longer seeks a separate Kurdish state—it shed even the idea of a state years ago. Now embodied institutionally in a confederal association called the KCK and other groupings, it now subsumes freedom and democracy for Kurds into freedom and democracy for Turkey as a whole. Radical Kurds wish to create a stateless base democracy throughout Turkey and indeed throughout the Middle East. Let me repeat that: Kurds, they now believe, will not have justice and freedom in Turkey till everyone in Turkey and indeed the Middle East has justice and freedom.
It’s a breathtaking concept, especially given that it was promulgated amid war. It was the idea of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurds’ imprisoned leader, serving a life sentence in Turkish prison since 1999. A onetime Marxist-Leninist and founder of the Kurdish struggle back in 1978, Öcalan has done penance for his bullying, authoritarian past and transformed himself into an inspirational advocate of radical democracy as an alternative modernity. In prison he wrote books, influenced by Murray Bookchin, on this new path; those writings are being translated into English and German and are available here.
For the democracy that Öcalan calls for is not representative democracy (organized around a state) but assembly democracy, grounded in base democracy, gender equality, alternative economics, and ecology. It would consciously not be based on ethnic homogeneity. It would be an alternative modernity, one that avoided the West’s highly problematic ventures into the nation-state and capitalism. On Öcalan’s recommendation, ordinary people in North Kurdistan, and the PKK based in the Qandil Mountains in Northern Iraq, began studying these ideas.
Öcalan issued the Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in 2005; six years later Kurds declared democratic autonomy—they set about attempting to implement the ideas, which some might dismiss as utopian, even under wartime conditions. How does it work out in practice? It was still incipient when this field study was undertaken in late 2011 and early 2012; it’s available in English and German. Here’s more a recent piece.
In March 2013 a cease-fire was declared between the Turkish state and the For over a year now, a peace process has been under way between Turks and Kurds, in which Öcalan is consulted regularly. There has been no violence in over a year. Hold that thought.
Democratic Autonomy in West Kurdistan
Kurdish culture easily cross borders between the four Middle Eastern countries that have Kurdish populations (Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq). So have , the ideas of democratic autonomy. They too have become part of the culture of Rojava, or West Kurdistan, the ethnic Kurdish area situated in northernmost Syria.
The PYD (Partiya Yekitiya Demokratik, or Democratic Union Party), formed in 2003, sided neither with Assad’s regime nor with the opposition. An illegal party, it was persecuted by the Syrian Ba’ath regime, and it led a Kurdish uprising in 2004; two thousand of PYD members were arrested. By 2011 it had the support of most Syrian Kurds. It is a major part of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCB), a broad revolutionary leftist coalition in Syria. At a general conference on November 12, 2013, representing 35 parties, the NCB embraced the project of democratic autonomy for Rojava.
Kurds exhibit a remarkable willingness to launch far-seeing utopian efforts during wartime. Two years earlier, Bashar al-Assad had cracked down on a pro-democracy uprising and thereby launched the Syrian civil war, and Syria disintegrated into factional strife. In Rojava, a Ba’ath regime had been in power, but the PYD’s forces expelled it in mid-2012. Damascene control over Rojava collapsed, and local councils sprang to life, distributing food, forming self-defense committees, and established a Kurdish-language school.
In January 2014 Rojava divided itself into three autonomous Kurdish cantons (Cezire, Kobani, and Afrin) and declared Democratic Autonomy. Each canton has a parliament, a prime minister, 22 ministries. Each ministry is led by one minister and two deputies, one Kurd, one Arab, and one Assyrian each; and one must be a woman. Gender equality, here as in North Kurdistan, is crucial—a co-presidency is split between one woman and one man. How closely these institutions are grounded in base democracy (or can be, given the war) is unclear; but it sees itself as opposing “the modern system of nation-states.” According to one observer, they employ a barter economy and “have formed communes at all levels to solve their problems.”
On January 21, 2014, one of the three Kurdish cantons, Cezire declared the establishment of a democratic autonomy. It’s based on a 101-seat assembly and the 22 local ministries. The Canton’s president, Ekrem Heso, says that the project of democratic autonomy would be built on the principle of brotherhood among the peoples and the principle of the democratic nation. Celebrations broke out around the canton. About two weeks later a second canton, Kobani, also declared democratic autonomy, and Afrin shortly thereafter.
Qamishli, the largest city in Rojava, is its would-be capital. It too has seen a devolution of power. In its neighborhoods communes have organized to solve problems with the water and electric supply.
The YPG: Hope of the West?
The Syrian Kurds’ armed force is the YPG, or People’s Protection Units. The YPG has been trying to beat back Islamic State since long before many in the West heard of Islamic State. It has united with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other forces, creating a joint force called Burkan El Firat. In the summer of 2014 the YPG helped rescue the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar by creating a humanitarian corridor and now are actually training Yazidis to fight Islamic State.
In July 2014 the Rojavan city of Kobani, on the Turkish border, seemed about to fall to Islamic State. That month the KCK (Union of Kurdistan Communities), the Kurdish communalist association, announced that the looming Islamic State attack on Kobani would be an attack on all Kurds, and it called on Kurds to go to Kobani and help secure it. The PKK, its guns silent during the peace process, decided to make itself useful. Arriving in Rojava, PKK units joined forces with the YPG, forming a joint force called and repelled the attack on Kobani and halt Islamic State.
The PKK has also sent fighters to help the Peshmerga fight the Islamic State in Iraq; while the Peshmerga initially retreated, united they helped retake several Kurdish cities there and retain Kurdish control over Erbil. The United States is sending arms to the Peshmerga, but not to the PKK or the YPG.
Where the Iraqi army has fled Islamic States, the YPG has succeeded in pushing back. YPG soldiers carry AK-47’s and wear sneakers but fight fearlessly on behalf of the society to which they are devoted. Secular, their ranks are laced with women as well as men. Yet with their passion and commitment, reinforced by the PKK, they may, at least for now, be the United States’ most helpful ally. If only the United States would allow itself to be helped. It’s time for the United States to remove the PKK from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. But maybe it already knows: the PKK has been fundraising in the West even as governments cast their gaze in the other direction.