Imagining the Future: How to Build in Place

Apartment buildings transformed into an ecological community with gardens and solar panels. Envisioned by Katie Patrick, @katiepatrick.

Ursula K. LeGuin, who broke science fiction out of its obsession with gadgets and gizmos to humanize it with stunning vistas of starkly different worlds, had vital insights into how imagination could illuminate other possibilities for human life. LeGuin saw imagination’s subversive potential.

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”

“Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan,” LeGuin wrote. “The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.”

“I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.”

In our world today, seemingly locked in a momentum towards climate breakdown, social conflict, and global war, it’s more important than ever to imagine the world as it might be, to inspire action to make it. We need to begin in the part of the world we understand best. We need to imagine how life might be different and better in the places we live. Here I imagine what people might accomplish, a scenario for how people come together in a city to confront our multi-faceted global crisis, aka the polycrisis, and begin to build the new in the shell of the old. It’s only a partial vision and does not cover all aspects. But it does hit some of the important bases.

Fortunately, one does not need to be a virtuoso of the imagination as LeGuin was to imagine this better world. For each of the aspects of this vision is being pursued, and many are envisioning this better future, this other world that is possible. Here I make my own humble contribution.

Coming together to grapple with tough times

The years had been rugged. The rickety structure that was the global economy had plunged into depression with the collapse of the various financial Ponzi schemes that had artificially pumped it up. Joblessness was rampant, as was mass homelessness and social upheaval. At the same time, climate chaos was sweeping in as never before. On top of cycles of drought and wildfires smothering whole regions in smoke, and inundations drowning them, came one of the greatest mass impacts of the climate crisis on human populations. The years had seen multiple breadbasket failures, leading to food shortages that raised prices for those who could afford them, and hunger for those who couldn’t. The assumption that supermarkets would always be full was shattered, even in richer countries.

Meanwhile, the systems through which society had coped in the past were overloaded, whether in civil society or government. They just could not keep up with the intensifying crises seemingly hitting from all angles. On top of that, long-simmering social conflicts disabled the power of governing institutions to respond, especially at national levels. It was at this point people in the city began to come together to see how they could meet these challenges.

Recognizing that they should have been talking with one another before the polycrisis became critical, local leaders began to meet. People who had led advocacy campaigns for various improvements realized all their efforts had fallen short, operating in silos cut off from one another. Some enlightened elected officials and civic leaders joined the table. But the primary energy came from the many local grassroots efforts that had sprung up to deal with issues ranging from homelessness to hunger, often led by younger people and people of color.

The civic table concluded they needed to help build a new consensus across the city. Meeting the multiple crises called for a comprehensive agenda to deal with the broad range of challenges in a coordinated manner. So working together, they began to convene assemblies in neighborhoods and then the city as a whole. The critical need seen by most was to build a different economic base, an ecological economy that met human needs and operated in harmony with nature. The community came to a consensus on building in six areas:

+ Public Banking

+ Social and Community Housing

+ Community Energy Cooperatives

+ Sustainable Materials

+ Local Food Systems

+ Worker Cooperatives

Public Banking: Reclaiming capital for community

The civic assemblies concluded that the most important first step was to create a pool of community capital to invest in the new economy. The financial crisis had underscored the unreliability of the private banking system. And a system guided by private profit had failed to invest in critical community needs such as affordable housing and job creation in ecologically oriented sectors. So the civic agenda made its first priority to establish a city public bank in which all local government funds are now deposited. The bank also receives deposits from individuals and businesses.

No longer does the money go into private banks that shipped it around the world to invest in activities deleterious to the local area, such as fossil fuels and overseas factories. The bank’s charter requires that funds be invested locally and in the surrounding bioregion, according to social and environmental criteria. With the power to create credit that had always been in the hands of private banks, essentially the power to create money, the public bank can fund public infrastructure, thus saving the city interest payments on bond issues that formerly enriched Wall Street. It also invests in a range of activities that had been starved by the private banking system seeking maximum returns, areas where the private capital market had failed to meet community needs. Instead, the public bank represents patient capital willing to invest in the long-term needs of the city and bioregion.

Today, funded by the public bank, an ecosystem of community-based institutions is thriving throughout the city, working cooperatively with one another.

Social and Community Housing: Shelter for all

The housing crisis which rose before the financial collapse and only grew worse during the depression years has been substantially resolved. Today, a range of social and community housing options are available. Tent camps and RV colonies have disappeared. The right of shelter for all has been recognized.

The city now offers social housing options in several forms. It has become a housing developer, owning and operating its own social housing. Unlike public housing in the past, social housing is open to people in diverse income ranges from lower through middle. The housing is high quality and well maintained. Nonprofit housing developers, now with a much more abundant source of funding than before, also offer significant housing opportunities for many income levels. The public bank invests in building new housing and placing formerly private properties in common ownership. Social and ecological criteria include, where possible, on-site energy generation, on-site capture and treatment of water, use of non-toxic and sustainable materials, and community gardens. Areas well served by transit are prioritized for housing development.

There is also an emphasis on creating community models in housing such as cooperatives, cohousing, and ecovillages. Community land trusts ensure that housing remains affordable. Structures for self-governance enable self-management. Emphasis is placed on shared resources, such as vehicles and libraries of tools and things. Much that people used to own individually is now owned in common, reducing material demands and consumption.

Much housing is still in a private market format. But with the check on costs offered by a large community and social sector, housing has become less attractive to speculators, and rents have returned to balance with incomes.

Community Energy Cooperatives: Efficient, clean and renewable

While a private utility used to offer energy services, a city-owned utility has been created. But the civic process concluded it alone was not enough, so community energy cooperatives now operate at the neighborhood scale. A network of energy coops now exists within the grid, working cooperatively with the public utility to reduce the impact of energy production to the greatest extent possible.

The coops were important in breaking the tendency in utility culture to see the prime goal as delivery of energy. Instead, the coops focus on delivery of services. The most important is comprehensive energy efficiency. Recognizing that all energy sources have environmental impacts, the goal is to use as little energy as possible. So the coops organize energy efficiency retrofit campaigns targeted at blocks and sections of neighborhoods. An ecosystem of service providers offers energy retrofits. Energy efficiency had been a game of seeking the low-hanging fruit, the investments with the most rapid payback. But with new, patient capital financing tools, buildings receive deep retrofits that more fully capture the full range of savings possible. At the same time, retrofits convert buildings that had run on gas and oil to heat pumps and electrical systems.

Coops work with the utility to provide clean and renewable energy. Community solar and wind installations are now common. Coops also situate solar panels on private homes and businesses while retaining ownership, providing electricity to owners and feeding surplus for the overall grid. This has made solar accessible to people who formerly could not afford it. Neighborhoods are now served by microgrids that are resilient in the face of increasing climate disturbances. Much of the utility now operates as a confederation of microgrids that ensure the lights will stay on.

Capture of wastes is also important. The astoundingly large share of heat that used to be released from installations such as factories and computer server farms is now channeled into networks of pipes that run throughout neighborhoods and provide energy to homes and businesses. Another important renewable energy source is biogas from organic wastes that cannot be redirected to composting for food production. They are fed into community facilities that break down materials into biomethane used to run small-scale electrical generating plants.

Though some energy still comes from renewable installations outside of the city, much is now generated in the urban grid. The city has eliminated the use of fossil fuels in electricity and heating. It has made its own contribution to stemming the climate crisis, while putting its own energy supplies on a much firmer and more resilient basis. Meanwhile, the local economy is enriched by no longer shipping money out of the city to buy fossil fuels but keeping it in circulation locally.

What do you think about these scenarios for finance, housing and energy? What would you add? Take away? In Part 2, I’ll tell the story of how the city built sustainable materials industries, local food systems, and worker cooperatives.

This originally appeared on The Raven.