Everywhere and nowhere

Urbanisation and the need for sustainable development

Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Helmut Holzapfel, May 2010.

Since the creation of the railways, the desirable lifestyle has been in constant motion, always expanding and demanding that everything – goods and people – move and be moved. It may only have been a phase in human history.

The Swiss people launched a remarkable initiative in 2000, intended not just to restrict road traffic in Switzerland but to halve it. They collected thousands of signatures and won enough votes for the project to be put to a popular referendum. This failed to change the law, but did win a surprisingly high approval rate: 21.9% of the population voted in its favour. 

Moritz Leuenberger, then Swiss minister for transport, said at the time he could not understand the project, since the need for mobility “is simply there”. That may be true, but there is also discontent, even in the distinguished Swiss Council of States. During the debate about traffic, Councillor Thomas Onken addressed a letter to the project, in which he explained that he had “some reservations but also a lot of sympathy” for the proposal.

What does the project mean for the rest of Europe? Must we drive around ever more and ever further? A few years ago writers such as Sten Nadolny (1) and the cultural historian Wolfgang Sachs (2) coined the words “the New Slowness” to open the discussion and make the first effective critique of a society of restless haste. They said that for millennia mankind had to rely on the limited speed of man and animal to get anywhere. Only in the past 200 years have the distances that people can cover expanded dramatically. This expansion has decisively changed our perception of space, landscapes and more generally of space and time. And by now, this expansion seems to be indispensable and irreversible. People have forgotten that care, clarity and reflection require time.

A “distance-intensive” lifestyle has emerged and is taken for granted, at least in modern industrialised societies; it has become a typical way of living shaping attitudes and behaviour for part of the population. A distance-intensive lifestyle means large distances covered in ever-smaller units of time, not only in personal travelling, but by the products consumed. Even in health food shops, Argentinean honey or apples from oases in the Brazilian jungle are freely available. The lifestyle means constant availability and spatial accessibility for people and products: Australian or Californian wine, strawberries at Christmas, most likely from South Africa. People fly from Hamburg to Milan for an evening at the opera, and back the next morning. And they live in the suburbs in a detached house with a double or triple garage outside (an SUV is a must); the house is in a beautiful location, yet a blot on the landscape.

The reality of modern consumerism: … //

… Nobody wants to return to an isolated way of life, eking out an existence in a mountain valley. But distance-intensive behaviour is at a point where the disadvantages almost outweigh the benefits, and have already done so in some areas. Logistics providers at warehouse chains have already tried out delivery models for urgent goods, sending out two radio- and GPS-equipped vans on different routes to their stores at the same time. One will arrive promptly; the second will be diverted by radio to provide back-up elsewhere. Yet this complex system functions in the centres of congested Istanbul, Athens and Paris no faster than a 19th-century stagecoach.

A change of lifestyle cannot be imposed; it has to evolve from insight, wise restraint and changes in perspectives on social values. In some areas this is already visible: buying food from ever farther away is no longer quite so popular. Local products – especially food – are already showing that nearness has strengths, and can compete with distance. After much neglect the region has been revived as a unit, in which experiences that today are sought after further away may still be possible. People can find more calm in nearness. Bike rides can reveal undiscovered qualities in closeness, in lieu of sitting in weekend traffic jams on the motorway. But members of the jet set, who want to discover fresh peace and quiet ahead of the advancing middle classes, are poor propagandists for the new nearness. What are needed are role models rather than moral appeals. And restoration of the qualities that once characterised cities in Europe could perhaps work.

The initiative in Switzerland had a flaw: it wanted legal sanctions. Halving traffic isn’t unthinkable (we would only have to go back to the volume of 1970), but it makes little sense to leave this to the state. Perhaps those behind the initiative noticed that themselves: after the referendum people began to devote far more time to creative activities in their localities. Already people are voting for improvements to the local environment. Perhaps when the boredom of a travelling, timesaving society reaches a critical point, ubiquity may lose its power, and proximity will regain respect and attention. (full text).

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