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Sustainable Cities: A Strategy for a Post-Terrorized World, by Richard S. Levine, Ernest J. Yanarella, Taghi Radmard, and Heidi Dumreicher

by Richard S. Levine, Ernest J. Yanarella, Taghi Radmard, and Heidi Dumreicher


Terror as a political weapon of the poor and the oppressed is an older phenomenon than the terrorism crisis spawned by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, would suggest. Indeed, the word terror is rapidly becoming one of the most overused and least understood concepts in our modern mass-mediated political vocabulary. Not least of all, it is caught up in a body of concepts (violence, coercion, oppression, military force) that are themselves heavily tinged with ideological baggage and weighted down by the class system and the international division of labor. Thus it inhabits the nebulous terrain of essentially contested concepts that defines the speaker’s deepest assumptions about the world and his or her attitudes toward those who count as Us and those who count as Them. This article posits that if all the concepts and interpretations of terrorism were aggregated under a single term—that of unsustainability—a better knowledge of the nature of terrorism as well as its antidote can be understood.

From Godless Communism to the Specter of Militant Islam

As we survey the wreckage of the immediate post-Cold War years caused by the stunning events of September 11, 2001, it is apparent that in its wake has emerged a local-global dynamic that has decisively surpassed the heady optimism accompanying the fall of Communism as a global challenger to the capitalist world. What has replaced it is a new environment of fear and apprehension bordering on a kind of collective neurotic syndrome fixated on the pursuit of absolute security.

During the Cold War years, the United States understood the Soviet Union and its hegemonic bloc to be the enemy. Our mainstream Americanist ideology saw it economically, philosophically, and militarily as determined to compete with us on every front. In short, it posed itself as a threat to our “way of life”—a danger so severe and ominous that it shaped our world outlook and infused every policy decision, whether domestic or foreign. Communism was a formidable foe, administered by a one-party authoritarian state apparatus, and lodged in institutions and practices of its centralized command economy. But within a scant four decades after extending its reach over parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, and even North America, it faded away as its secular ideology failed to deliver its material promises and its quasi-religious ideology succumbed to the reactivation of deep-seated native cultural traditions and the power of mass demonstrations and protests in public squares throughout Eastern Europe.

What the post-Cold War era suggests is that the United States seems unable to steer global capitalism without a palpable enemy against which it can test its performance and measure its accomplishments. It also suggests that without the counterweight of communism (for all its problems and shortcomings) to restrain it, the global capitalist juggernaut falls prey to some of its most extremist tendencies.

European city.

Since that fateful day in September 2001, we seem well on our way to constructing a new enemy, an enemy that may prove far more formidable than the one that exited. American foreign and military policy makers may already have come to miss the predictability and inherent vulnerabilities of their communist foe. So far the Bush administration has been careful to avoid officially acknowledging this new enemy. With the momentum created by war preparations and engagements in Afghanistan and elsewhere and the revisions in federal law regarding the balance between security and civil liberties, the outlines of this new enemy have become all but fully constructed. Already many Christian and secular extremists in America have declared Islam the enemy, while fundamentalist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere have declared war on us in the name of Islam.

Why do they hate us so? Why are we perceived as being such an overwhelming threat so to mobilize believers to sacrifice their lives to defend themselves and their clan from our actions? The answer is by no means easy to fathom for most Americans, given the role of a dominant stream in American foreign policy that encourages us to see ourselves as a redeemer nation ordained by God to cleanse the world of evil This presumption that the United States has a god-given international mission is compounded by an increasingly corporatized mass media that colludes with political and economic power to occlude the national-global conditions of our individual and collective existence.

Why as declared enemy is Islam being trumpeted today as vastly more dangerous than communism was? We are creating an enemy that cannot be fought with great armies, missile defenses or homeland security. We are in the process of mobilizing against us, the West, and modernity a whole religious belief system of more than a billion potential suicide terrorists. The more we attack it, the more we threaten it, the stronger it becomes. The more we define it as the Other, the more that US-Them dualism denies us the space to exist separately. The more we threaten Islam, the more we empower Islam to defend itself from our threat and to take up weapons of terror, stealth, and surprise to thwart our military advantages.

Global Capitalism and the Roots of Terrorism

We have come to accept our newly evolved economic system of global capitalism as the only way things can be—the way things must be—not just for ourselves, but for all the peoples of the planet. It is still a minority view that the way of life that global capitalism insists upon in the long run is a disastrous system for our Western culture. Because it promises and has so far largely delivered an increasing level of material well-being for a small minority of wealthy peoples, it is easy for us to temporarily ignore where global capitalism is clearly leading us. This is not true for the great majority of the earth’s peoples, particularly the followers of Islam. Like canaries sent into a mine, these peoples are experiencing the assaults on nature whose consequences the United States has either built countermeasures to soften or disregarded because of ideological blinders.

The problem with global capitalism is that its design is faulty. A healthy natural environment is the basis and precondition for any society, and a healthy economy should be the basis and precondition for any society. Economic systems should exist for the purpose of sustaining a desirable way of life, and not the other way around. Because the dominant structuring of the globalization paradigm is effectively designed to marginalize certain kinds of social, cultural and environmental values, it is destructive of the underlying basis for its own existence as well as its own raison d’être. Because it secretes a set of social, cultural or environmental assumptions and concerns inimical to a healthy ecosystem, the growing dominance of the globalist economic system systematically degrades the very basis of any self-sustaining economy. Moreover, global capitalism and technological modernity rob people of their local culture by substituting modern possessive-individualistic and profit-driven values for the traditional, often anti-modern values of their own cultures. In the process, these processes rob peoples of their identity and the enjoyment of a sense of place that roots that identity in a set of durable community relationships with memory, tradition, geography, and culture. Systematic marginalization of culturally embedded religious values is a dangerous pursuit for it involves not only the theft of a person's identity in this life but the promise of one in the afterlife as well.

As we have seen, this economically sanctioned cultural genocide is so threatening that it motivated a group of young, committed believers in a fundamentalist strain of Islam to sacrifice their lives in order to defend a way of life against those modernizing and globalizing forces symbolized in American hegemonic military and economic power.

In the events of September 11, 2001 we have witnessed the first major battle in the wars against globalization. These wars will be unlike any previous wars. Like globalization itself, they will not be about territory and they will not be waged by nation states. They will be fought instead by diverse subnational groups and individuals driven by real or perceived threats against their traditional ways of life under the emerging perception that they have in effect a common enemy.

San Francisco neighborhood and skyline.

Although it may still be very much a minority view, there is a growing realization that the dominance of top-down globalization constitutes the most pernicious force in the world today. But even the great majority of those who decry it acknowledge Margaret Thatcher's famous pronouncement that "there is no alternative." Such fatalism counsels that our only option resides in resisting the juggernaut as best we can and moderating its most destructive tendencies as best we can. But such a strategy can only buy a little time. If that time is not used to pursue a transition to another way of operating, the ultimate outcome will be the same and any positive efforts will have been wasted.

A Strategy of Sustainable Cities:
A Viable Alternative

Sustainability is an old term that has appeared in many guises from time immemorial. Whenever communities of human beings have approached the earth, their built environment, and social relations with a sense of reverence, the foundations of sustainability have surfaced and woven nature and community into a whole cloth through the loom of sustainability. Unsustainability, on the other hand, has been a more recent phenomenon. It is only with the advent of industrial capitalism that the bonds of sociality and nonexploitative relations with nature were broken that unsustainability increasingly became the guiding norm. Actually, unsustainability as an outgrowth of capitalist modernity’s irreverence toward limits is ruinous of all social life; even under the regime of capitalism, means must be constantly found either to ameliorate its negative byproducts or to postpone a day of reckoning with its destructive logic. While penalties against environmental damage have found their way into the law books, unsustainability itself as a way of life or an orientation to continued economic growth has not been declared a crime. Given the palpable impacts of global warming acknowledged by all but the ignorant few, why is unsustainability as a scourge against the future now not a crime? Does a civilization or do sectors within a civilization have the right to commit mass suicide in the name of the whole civilization? Have the temptations and pressures of global capitalism created a future where the dominant economics of greed have created a system that will continually outpace the ability of the legal system of civil society to catch up in its accelerating race to the bottom?

It appears that previous civilizations evolved laws and customs to ensure the continuity and thus the sustainability of their way of life. By law or by custom each local culture would evolve a system whereby economic, political and ecological balances were continually renegotiated as a precondition for the continuity of the local way of life. Even today, we can witness the cultural monuments and architectural residues of the collective genius of city-states and hilltowns in ancient Greece and medieval Italy. In today’s political economy these preconditions and that collective genius are absent.

If we are to circumvent the immobilizing effects of political fatalism and cynicism, the political imagination must find a basis for hope in the future. Fortunately, an alternative does exist. As we will show, sustainable city-regions are places having sufficiently high degrees of diversity and self-determination that their citizen stakeholders are able to negotiate among themselves their own sustainable way of life whose only constraints are the limits of nature, appropriate technology and their own traditions and creativity. Long-term unsustainability is often measured on the national or global scales (e.g., climate change, mounting drug abuse statistics, and deteriorating housing conditions). This view forgets that all contributions to national or global unsustainability are actually produced locally. This observation gives rise to the realization that if a city were able to take itself out of this global equation of unsustainability and still demonstrate a vibrant local economy and quality of life, then this would provide a model for cities around the globe to emulate in their own way and through their own cultural patterns. A planet constituted by such city-regions exercising a high degree of autonomy and self determination whose only precondition is that they operate within this rule of sustainability would be a planet whose local cultures are not threatened by competing creeds, whether economic or religious. Such a planet would be one with no fuel for the sorts of terrorism threatening us today.

Sustainable Area Budget

If issues of equity and human rights are to be respected, every individual is entitled to his/her share of the earth's bounty on a regenerative basis that is, wthin its capacity to absorb offences. We have developed this concept as the Sustainable Area Budget (SAB). This metric of sustainability means that each individual is entitled to one six billionth of the earth's regenerative capacity interpreted as land area. A town's or city's working budget is thus the aggregated SAB of its citizens.

Working with these principles and within this budget, we have developed a participatory design approach that generates new urban models and architectural scenarios for Sustainable Cities. These principles were initially applied to the evolution of the Sustainable City-as-a-Hill project at the Westbahnhof in Vienna—a computer aided design process using a modular, participatory approach. The successful implementation of such Sustainable City Implantations and the environmental and cultural economy they reflect provides a powerful alternative model to the now dominant globalist paradigm.

Thin German street.

The Sustainable City Game

The proposed program works from an extended definition of the architectural endeavor. A city is not something that is first designed and then built. Its design, construction, maintenance and reconstruction is an ongoing process. When such a process historically was an organic process responding to the needs of people and institutions and modifying previous interventions that did not work or are no longer appropriate, it became a process that continually increased the dynamism of the local culture and the living quality of the environment. If by contrast the process of city development primarily responds to the cues and guiding hand of economic globalization, then the quality of its urban structure, culture and public life will most certainly deteriorate.

The Sustainable City Game works with a city-region or a large bounded site within an existing city (e.g., a brownfield site) together with its SAB-determined rural partner region. Gameplayers who may be potential stakeholders are assembled and from them a program of needs is developed. Initially, the exercise produces a shopping list that, because it represents the ideas and desires of diverse interest groups, contains many inherent conflicts and contradictions. Initially a coherent set of specifications for the nature of the future Sustainable Urban Implantation proves to be impossible to put together because of these conflicts. Rather than allow the design process to bog down amid a flurry of single issue confrontations, the process is separated into several steps. In the first step, the Sustainable City Game encourages players to place any legitimate needs and ideas on the table. In the second step, varied teams of stakeholders together with designers and other professionals attempt to assemble design scenarios that represent a full spectrum of urban facilities and services, within the initial framework conditions and within chosen urban design strategies. Thus the design and development of the city becomes an empowerment process engaging citizen stakeholders in the shaping of their common sustainable destiny.

The Sustainability Engine™

These scenarios are then modeled as both physical designs and energy and material flow models using the Sustainability Engine™, a utility under development at the University of Kentucky that combines some of the attributes of CAD, facilities management and GIS software together with systems modeling software to become the principal feedback, design and management tool in the negotiation of sustainable city-regions. The practice of architecture in recent years has increasingly gravitated toward the delivery of contract documents in a CAD and/or facilities management format. Through embedded databases these formats provide the capability of extracting many sorts of useful information about the virtual building as it has been constructed within the computer program. Material takeoffs of virtually every nut and bolt together with their locations and specifications are easily charted. Maintenance and replacement schedules can be developed and recorded. Changes made in material, size and energy performance are automatically projected through the building model and its database and the reverberations of those changes can be displayed almost instantly.

It is but a small conceptual step—though a sizable programming leap—from the design and management of conventional buildings to the design and management of sustainable cities. One difference is that in the case of sustainable cities, much more information is attached to the components, systems and building blocks that make up the city implantation. Within the memory storage of the Sustainability Engine™ are module libraries of components and building blocks containing myriad attributes—including such things as embodied energy, distance from source, cost, availability within the SAB, labor requirements, recyclability, u-value, land use implications, energy and material flow connections to other regenerative systems and the various inputs and outputs involved in the functioning of the module within the city-system. These modules function as plug-in, "free body" objects that provide inputs and outputs when attached to a larger Sustainable Urban Implantation scenario model. Similarly, the Engine contains libraries of regenerative energy modules, agricultural modules and other modules of means and technologies that are particularly supportive of ecological living.

In the playing of the Sustainable City Game, stakeholders together with architects and technicians attempt to assemble a Sustainable City Implantation, drawing on the existing building blocks that most closely meet their needs and desires already developed within the libraries. If no building blocks are suitable, existing blocks are modified or completely new ones developed by the architects. The architects also provide overall urban design strategies, either as modifications of pre-existing ones taken from the library or new urban configurations crafted to suite the particular site conditions.

Because any urban design that represents the needs or interests of only one stakeholder or group of stakeholders will not contain the diversity or complexity of a real town, such a limited model when run on the Sustainability Engine™ will appear in its first trial run as a city-system that is grossly out of balance. The feedback of this gross imbalance becomes an important moment for the stakeholder-players. It indicates to them that in spite of the fact that their immediate needs may have been well satisfied by their preferred urban proposal, still because their interests represent only a portion of the city-system, many other needs must be met in order to be approaching equilibrium. This feedback then supports a significant operational principal of the sustainability endeavor, to wit: any proposition may be put on the table, but in order to be carried forward in subsequent iterations of the Game, the overall city/system scenario in which the proposition is imbedded must be approaching equilibrium. Very quickly it is seen that no matter how beneficial a given proposition may appear at first blush, it must still attach itself to a network of mutually supportive propositions to form a larger, well-balanced scenario in order to remain viable as the Game progresses.

The Game is played through many iterations and at each successive step the scenarios become more sophisticated and more complex. In a similar fashion, the game itself and its module libraries take the form of learning ecologies, becoming more elaborated and accumulating more options and being able to provide more sophisticated feedback as the Sustainability Game learns through repeated gameplaying. Because of its growing successes the Game and the city models its playing generates, it becomes an attractor of people and interests who are in a position to act upon what they have negotiated to be their preferred form and structure of a locally determined Sustainable City Implantation. As the game becomes sufficiently serious that construction is planned and carried out and people come to live in the city, the same stakeholder process that generated the city form and structure using the Sustainability Engine™ continues to be employed as the process by which the city continues to advance its development, modification, maintenance and governance.

Big city skyline.

The Dividends of Sustainability

Sustainable cities will not materialize out of any hidden historical or political dialectic. They will have to be striven for at all levels of governance and every realm of policy. At the center of this war of position is the idea that the unsustainable city is the vulnerable city—the city subject not only to terroristic assaults, but to other modern or post-modern threats. The construction of the first sustainable city will certainly be a matter of no small moment in that it will demonstrate that the feasibility of designing and building a second environment, a built habitat, a true home for humankind existing in convivial relationship with the ecosystem. Still, the political and cultural tasks of achieving this first role model or exemplar will be formidable.

In the face of terrorism as a worldwide political phenomenon and top-down globalization as an economic and cultural phenomenon, the political arguments for sustainable cities as a viable alternative are compelling. Several that come to mind are these:

  • Sustainable cities and the supercession of blowback: Sustainable cities can serve no greater service to the so-called 'war on terror' than removing such sustainable city-regions from the global unsustainability equation and reducing or eliminating the conditions fostering what Chalmers Johnson has called "blowback"—i.e., the unintended and negative consequences of often military adventurist policies elsewhere upon the homeland. For example, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the United States covertly poured billions of dollars into the campaign in such a way that it created a militant Islamist terrorist network that later supported or carried out the terrorist actions against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Insofar as sustainable city-regions project equity into the future, they reduce or eliminate the ecological demands on other peoples and regions around the world and “let them be”—i.e., allow them to determine their own destiny or fate based on indigenous political design and native economic and natural resources.
  • Sustainable cities and the reduction of the environmental load on the earth's carrying capacity: Insofar as sustainable city-regions emerge, grow, and proliferate across the community of nations, their blessings to the Mother Earth who has nurtured human and other life are manifold. Not least of their benefits is reduction of humankind's ecological footprint and their mounting success in taking pressure off the Earth's carrying capacity—already exceeded in most parts of the globe. By adopting what we call the Sustainable Area Budget and academics William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel label the fair Earthshare as nonnegotiable yardsticks of sustainability, sustainable city-regions restore growing parts of the globe to ecological health and remove the many preconditions fueling the expected "resource wars" of the twenty-first century.
  • Sustainable cities and the new political economy of bottom-up globalization: As more geographic territory comes under the sway of strategic design of local-regional sustainability, the building blocks of an alternative to top-down globalization will emerge. Presently global and regional economic integration advanced especially by the United States and multinational corporations has promoted forms of trade liberalism that have disproportionately advanced the interests of global capital while disadvantaging labor and the environment. Despite the NAFTA labor and environmental side agreements, a fair shake for collective bargaining and union solidarity has been lacking just as environmental protection has been implemented in a manner that has promoted policy harmonization downward and encouraged a "race to the bottom." Simultaneously, heavy pressures have been brought to bear on target nation-states of the developing world to expand free trade regimes to other countries whose economies would likely suffer from the demolition of protectionist barriers. A local-centered economy that either detaches itself from the globalized economy or participates peripherally on its own terms would do much to decouple its economic fortunes from the central tendencies of a global economy increasingly shaped by, and skewed to, the interests of economic superpowers and multinational and transnational corporations.

    In addition, guided by the SAB sustainable yardstick, sustainable cities tied to their regional partner lands would obviate many of the forms of energy and food dependencies that have precipitated the specter of energy shortfalls or skyrocketing energy price increases that are likely to obtain from attempted military solutions with their attendant "blowback" risks. Sustainable city-regions of the world would be effectively immunized from trade disruptions, energy crises, and food security issues their unsustainable counterparts would likely confront.
  • The sustainable city as the resilient city: For the last five years or so, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has been struggling with the concept of the resilient city. This effort to shape the foundations of such a new formulation began prior to September 11, 2001, although that watershed date has mobilized interest and energy within FEMA to hasten its development. In conversations with FEMA staff about this concept, we have continually asserted the relevance of a theory of sustainable cities in the face of FEMA's organizational biases toward thinking "inside the box" about more durable construction materials and more disaster resistant design. For our perspective, the sustainable city is the preeminent resilient city. Shifting conceptual frameworks from traditional fears about natural and human-made catastrophes to more enduring risks generated by terrorism and its causes and other twenty-first century dangers stemming from ecological scarcity, environmental degradation, and urban-rural devastation quite naturally points to sustainable cities as more timely and creative solutions to the building of more resilient cities.
  • Sustainable cities and the exploitation of nature and human beings: One of the hallmarks in the modern epoch among industrial capitalist and state socialist societies (read: communist) observed by critical social theorists like Herbert Marcuse and William Leiss has been the historic tendency in such societies for the exploitation of nature by humans to be socially and culturally transformed into the exploitation of humans by other humans. Sustainable city-regions are uncompromising in their adherence to the principle of sustainability. The overcoming of this historic tendency involves neither the liberal environmentalist effort to counterbalance economic exploitation with environmental repair nor the technocratic solution to apply techno-fixes to otherwise structural contradictions between economy and society. Instead, sustainable cities in partnership with appropriated land sublate this historic conundrum by emulating ecological principles and practices of nature that involve the nonexploitative appropriation of nature. By adopting nonexploitative means of appropriating water, food, and other natural resources for human use, the sustainable cities strategy avoids implicating practices of exploitation at the very first step in the shaping of relationship, between human beings and nature.
  • Sustainable cities and healthy cultures of diversity and difference: So much of the laying on of culture in the marketplace of global capitalism involves a process of homogenization. That is, its driving impulse is a logic that works to replace variegated local cultures of singularity and richness with an emergent world culture of rank consumerism and monotonous sameness. While exceptions can always be found, as the writings of Wendell Berry has disclosed time and again, healthy cultures are generally local cultures, and local cultures are cultures of place, memory, and traditions. In opting for sustainable cities, one need not fully embrace Berry's anti-modern and anti-governmental inclinations. Sustainable city-regions can be the ground of healthy cultures precisely because place, memory, and traditions matter. But so do forms of convivial high technology that allow human beings to exercise control and discipline over social needs and economic processes through democratic political practices. The promise of sustainable cities, as John Todd pointed out., is that "elegance of solution will be predicated on uniqueness of place." Far from conceding the inevitability of a global culture, sustainable city-regions open up the possibility of another kind of globalization where instantaneous information and rapid transportation means can provide the diversity of sustainable local cultures to cultivate difference, not obliterate it, and mutually enrich human experience, not homogenize it.

Island city.


The “War on Terrorism” as currently formulated by the Bush Administration is a war that in its own terms cannot be won. Because its true enemy is the very adversary it is continuing to create by its policies of marginalizing local cultures and fostering top-down forms of economic dependency, the war can only continue indefinitely, eroding traditional democratic values and alienating ever larger numbers of peoples by increasing the inequitable and oppressive dominance of a hierarchical globalist economic system. Moreover, insofar as this evanescent war takes the form of overt military combat involving territorial conquest as a substitute for addressing the conditions that produce and reproduce cadres of terrorist and terrorism as an instrument of the otherwise political powerless, it is a war that creates its own growing enemy as consequence of its implementation. Because there is now only one global super power and only one dominant economic system, such a war cannot be successfully confronted by alternative forces. There is however, a local alternative. A bumper sticker in the 1960s read, “What if they held a war and no one came?” Perhaps the only way to end this war is to opt out of it.

This option is not available at the individual level. But as citizens and pressure groups within sustainable city-regions operating in balance with our ecological budgets, we can create regions that remove themselves from the global unsustainability equation. An alternative that builds within local cultures and local conditions, exploiting neither its own people nor people in distant places—such an alternative is both necessary and possible.


Richard S. Levine is professor of architecture and co-Director of the Center for Sustainable Cities. The author of numerous studies on sustainable cities, he did pioneering work in the development of solar architecture. He was the director of three studies for the development of a Sustainable Urban Implantation over the Westbahnhof railroad site in Vienna and is a member of the European Union-funded SUCCESS project, which is studying seven Chinese villages in order to advance a sustainable cities agenda.

Ernest J. Yanarella is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. He currently serves as Senate Council chair, Environmental Studies co-director, and Center for Sustainable Cities co-director. A contributor to Terrain.org in past issues, he continues work on sustainable urban design with UK architecture professor Richard S. Levine and studies of the costs of prison recruitment as an economic development strategy of small rural communities with Susan Blankenship.

Taghi Radmard is an architect whose projects range in scale from urban design and building design to furniture design. He was project architect for the Westbahnhof Sustainable Urban Implantation studies sponsored by the city of Vienna and the Bank of Austria.

Heidi Dumreicher is Director of Oikodrom, the Vienna Institute for Urban Sustainability and Editor/publisher of the quarterly journal “Stadtplaene,” (Cityplans). She is leading the EU-supported SUCCESS (Sustainable Urban Concepts for China Engaging Scientific Scenarios) project, which brings together a European, American, and Chinese team of experts and specialists in a study of seven Chinese settlements.

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