At the heart of this unfolding transformation is a new story of place. Cities have a crucial role to play as catalysts of the system change we need.

1: Change and innovation are no longer about finely crafted ‘visions’ of some future place and time. Positive change happens when people reconnect – with each other, and with the biosphere – in rich, real-world, contexts. Rather than ask about utopias, I challenge city leaders to answer two questions: “Do you know where your next lunch will come from?” and, “Do you know if that place is healthy or not?”

This approach expands the design focus beyond hard infrastructure towards a whole-system concern with the health of places that keep the city fed and watered. Within this frame of the city as a living system, the health of farm communities, their land, watersheds and biodiversity, become integral aspects of the city’s future prosperity, too. This focus acknowledges that we live among watersheds, food sheds, fibersheds and food systems – not just in cities, towns or “the countryside”.

2: The presence of good bread is a reliable indicator that a city’s food system is healthy. Good bread denotes microbial vitality. In dozens of major cities, real bread pioneers are creating shorter grain chains by connecting together a multitude of local actors in ways that reduce the distance between where grain is grown, and the bread consumed: urban farmers, seed bankers, food hubs, farmers markets, local mills and processing facilities. As this lattice-work of activity, infrastructure and skills connects up, regional “grain sheds” are beginning to take shape.

3: New distribution platforms are also important role. La Ruche Qui Dit Oui for example –‘The Hive that Says Yes’ – is the brainchild of a French industrial designer and chef, Guilhem Cheron. La Ruche combines the power of the internet with the energy of social networks to bridge the gap that now separates small-scale food producers from their customers. Food platforms such as La Ruche embody a whole systems approach in which the interests of farm communities and local people, the land, watersheds and biodiversity, are considered

4: A focus on living systems means a new kind of infrastructure. New kinds of enterprise are needed: food co-ops, community kitchens, neighbourhood dining, edible gardens, food distribution platforms. New sites of social creativity are needed: craft breweries, bake houses, productive gardens, cargo bike hubs, maker spaces, recycling centres and the like. Business support is needed for platform co-ops that enable shelter, transportation, food, mobility, water, elder care to be provided collaboratively – and in which value is shared fairly among the people who make them valuable. Technology has an important role to play as the infrastructure needed for these new social relationships to flourish. Mobile devices and the internet of things make it easier for local groups to share equipment and common space, or manage trust in decentralised ways.

5: At the heart of this unfolding transformation is a new story of place. Cities have a crucial role to play as catalysts of the system change we need. They can embody a new new story about development and progress in which the health of biodiversity, foodsheds and watersheds are key indicators of success. A city is most healthy as a meeting place for change agents, outliers, and shadow networks. The healthy city is about participation, not spectacle. Connecting is itself a form of innovation.


I was asked to write a provocation for DAMN magazine in Italy.

Originally published in Doors of Perception.

Photo by Tom Olliver

2 Comments Manifesto For Utopias Are Over: Cities Are Living Systems

  1. Michael Anthony

    “Business support is needed for platform co-ops that enable shelter, transportation, food, mobility, water, elder care to be provided collaboratively – and in which value is shared fairly among the people who make them valuable.”

    I’m a Peer Advocate with Homeless Solidarity Project in Maine, and this is very much in line with the aproach I like to take with my work. I use the language of “peer advocacy” “peer leadership” and “peer run” in discussing what is needed to address the fundamental problem with existing services under capitalism.

    Peer advocates need to empower peer leaders to develop peer run co-ops as alternatives to the crumbling social services people need. Peer run co-ops are essentially self sustaining and interdependent social services.

    They need to be as much enterprise, creating jobs, and growth for the member owners, as they are social service, serving the unmet needs of the member owners, and those prospective members who first come to such organizations looking for support.

    Diversification of funding mechanisms is needed, with ever unstable political and economic climates, social services cannot depend on federal or state agencies for funding, and there are just too many programs and needs in most cities to compete for limitted municipal funds.

    Private grants are an option but still, much competition, its hard for more informal peer run efforts to rise above the noise of already large, powerful, and out of touch institutions that are desperate to fight against the rising tides.

    By incorporating enterprises into social services, we can all do a part to help sustain the services we depend on, and support those of our peers who may not be able to help in that capacity(they may help in another however, and peers are best suited to identify and empower people to act in whatever capacity we can.)

    I’m really eager to see this stuff find root, and grow. I’m also concerned it may not be happening fast enough, and that many are trying to exploit this process, the rise of peer leadership and collaboration in social services.

    I’m glad people are learning to acknowledge it as necissary though. As with many things, those on the front lines of these issues have been fighting for this stuff for generations, and now experts and theorists confirm what we already know. It is what it is, and water is still wet!

    Thank you for this great outline of alternatives we can all be working on.

    Solidarity for a new future!

  2. Tom Christoffel

    The City as the original development district. It uses the municipal corporation form as a mechanism for self perpetuation and carrying on the intent of the founders. This is done with the community motive which, in the evolution of humanity preceded the profit motive. Community motive must manage the profit motive. The profit motive exists in all economic systems as the need for power and domination. Cities are grown from settlements which serve a region and expand, in many cases to serve many regions. Cities must nurture the hinterlands, not exploit them. This is the right to the benefit of the City, the product of evolving human civilization. The Nation-State is the region which protects and nurtures it’s Cities and their regions. All must be in dynamic balance, or the natural environment is depleted by the built environment and attendant damage of its wastes, such as plastic in the oceans. This my working theory.

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