A Metamorphosis for Cities: From Gray to Green

A Metamorphosis for Cities is an article that outlined the blueprint for transforming urban areas to bring them into “balanced reciprocity with natural systems.” Subsequent work by Planet Drum Foundation in cooperation with the Eco City Movement in Ecuador stems from the vision this article described.

[Excerpted with permission from Putting Power in its Place, edited by Judith and Christopher Plant (New Society Publishers, 1992)]

Once a rare and privileged way of life supported by a large agriculturally-productive rural population, city-dwelling is fast becoming the norm. In spite of the fact that they are grotesquely overgrown compared with the recent past, overextended, and subject to crippling disruptions, urban environments will soon be the primary inhabitation sites for our species. As late as 1950, less than 30 percent of the world’s population lived in cities and towns of 25,000 or more. But by the year 2000, half of humanity will no longer live on the land. In some places the figure will be much higher: over 75 percent in Latin and North America, Europe, East Asia and Oceania. Fewer people are remaining in direct contact with nature at a time when more urbanites need to somehow produce part of the resources they consume.

Cities not only restrict beneficial contact with nature, they inexorably surround and destroy it. Open spaces that previously separated urban areas fill in with new development to encircle natural areas like cages in a zoo. A nearly unbroken megalopolis that runs down North America’s eastern seaboard from Boston to Atlanta is, in effect, a wall barricading wildlife from the ocean. Cities bordering on rivers sprawl further and further along banks to thinly stretch and finally break the all-important water links of ecosystem chains.

A profound transformation is needed in the way cities are conceived. This can’t be merely an administrative reform or change in the design of systems or structures because it needs to involve a completely new set of priorities and principles. The future purpose and function of cities and the activities of city-dwelling must become the focus of social and political consciousness on a primary level.

The first step toward reconceptualizing urban areas is to recognize that they are all situated in local bioregions within which they can be made self-reliant and sustainable. The unique soils, watersheds, native plants and animals, climate, seasonal variations, and other natural characteristics that are present in the geographical life-place where a city is located, constitute the basic context for securing essential resources of food, water, energy and materials. For this to happen in a sustainable way, cities must identify with and put themselves in balanced reciprocity with natural systems. Not only do they have to find nearby sources to satisfy basic human needs, but also to adapt those needs to local conditions. They must maintain the natural features that still remain, and restore as many of those that have been disrupted as possible. For example, restoring polluted bays, lakes, or rivers, so that they will once more be healthy habitats for aquatic life can also help make urban areas more self- reliant in producing food.

Different geographical areas have different conditions depending on their natural characteristics. Bioregionally-founded values that are appropriate to each place should be agreed upon and then used to direct municipal policies. Guides for doing this can be transferred over from some basic principles that govern all ecosystems:

  • Interdependence — Heighten awareness of interchanges between production and consumption of resources so that supply, re-use, recycling, and restoration become more closely linked. Reduce inequitable exploitation;
  • Diversity — Support a wide range of means to satisfy basic human needs and a multiplicity of cultural, social, and political expressions. Resist single-interest solutions and monoculture;
  • Self-Regulation — Encourage decentralized activities carried out by groups in neighborhoods and districts. Replace top-down bureaucratic agencies with grassroots assemblies;
  • Long-term Stability — Aim policies to work under various conditions and for several generations. Minimize short-term programs and patchwork remedies.

When interdependence, diversity, self-regulation and long-term stability are consulted, it is possible to make much more ecologically coherent and therefore more practical decisions than are generally seen today. Applied to the cycle of food production and consumption, for example, these values could lead to beneficial features:

  • More small-scale farms and gardens near or in the city that employ greater numbers of people;
  • Preserve and restore green spaces;
  • Reduce transportation costs;
  • Provide fresher produce;
  • Wider use of permaculture (permanent agriculture) and native food plants to conserve and build topsoil;
  • Lower water use;
  • Maintain natural habitats;
  • Subscription buying by institutions and groups of individuals who spend a certain yearly amount to receive a specified quantity of produce thereby stabilizing farm incomes and levels of food production (community-supported agriculture);
  • Collection of tree and yard trimmings, food scraps, and other organic wastes to create compost fertilizer;
  • Re-use of urban grey water on farms and in gardens to reduce fresh water consumption;
  • Some type of food production on everyone’s part ranging from backyard, rooftop, window box and community gardens to work- sharing on farms.

Each urban area needs to develop an ecologically-oriented Green City Program that delivers a high quality of life for all its residents in harmony with its bioregion. City greening includes urban planting but extends to much more than re-vegetation. It also means:

  • Conversion to renewable energy;
  • Development of suitable transportation;
  • Extensive recycling and re-use;
  • Greater empowerment of neighborhoods;
  • Support for socially responsible small businesses and cooperatives;
  • Restoration of wild habitat;
  • Wide participation in planning for sustainability;
  • Creation of new civic art and celebrations.

There are already many separate groups working in various sectors of urban sustainability that can supply pieces of an overall program. They should help in drafting sections of it to authenticate a grassroots approach, introduce disparate elements in the same field, and eventually join together differing concerns under an overarching “green umbrella” to accomplish the massive governmental changes that are necessary. In planning the transition from polluting fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear power to renewable sources such as solar, hydro and wind, for example, representatives can be drawn from:

  • Businesses that manufacture, distribute and install renewable energy equipment;
  • Labor groups who will benefit from jobs in those areas that regulate energy production and use;
  • Alternative energy advocacy and environmental groups.Here are some examples of changes in municipal policies that might be recommended in different parts of a Green City Program whose implementation would have powerfully transformative effects:


  • Equip city office buildings, schools, libraries, fire and police stations, and all other structures with some means to produce their own energy from renewable sources.

DEVELOP SUITABLE TRANSPORTATION through a wide front of new approaches including, 

  • Company buses and vans to transport workers directly to job sites,
  • Point-to-point conveyances to replace use of automobiles for shopping and appointments,
  • In-neighborhood transit such as ride switchboards for local businesses and institutions to operate close to where people live and thereby reduce the need to travel to work.


  • Curbside pickup of household organic and manufactured recyclables.
  • Stringent reprocessing of all wastes from industrial processes.
  • Establishment of small-scale neighborhood secondary-materials industries.
  • Require municipal government to purchase recycled materials whenever possible, preferably from local sources.
  • Create grey water treatment facilities so hot water now wasted can be used to water lawns and trees, wash vehicles, clean buildings, flush toilets, and for other uses that don’t require fresh water.
  • Install household units to recycle used wash water for similar purposes.


  • Devolve a large percentage of tax revenues to neighborhood councils and assemblies for direct local use.
  • Provide space and materials to greatly enhance neighborhood communications ranging from meeting places to bulletin boards and even FM radio and cable TV facilities.


  • Greater employment and higher levels of prosperity are possible through the creation of sustainability-oriented small business and co-ops by providing “incubators” where offices, equipment, and materials can be shared.
  • City government should also establish priorities for procuring supplies from these new companies.


  • Establish new corridors of native vegetation in the city, linking habitats so that wildlife can move unimpeded through urban areas.
  • To make these corridors, restore creeks where possible by bringing them up from storm sewers.


  • Solicit neighborhoods visions of their futures and use these as standards for determining changes.
  • Adopt “statutes of responsibility” that charge officials to maintain the health of cities and their inhabitants. Citizens could take legal action against officials if air, water, and soil aren’t kept free of poisons.


  • Assist the creation of small-scale localized media (murals, billboards, markers) that feature natural characteristics.
  • Stage public celebrations of natural events such as seasons and animal migrations.
  • Provide guides to natural sites.

Some of these measures reduce costs and eliminate waste on a vast scale. Most are directly related to greatly improving the health of local bioregions. All of them involve new job opportunities and contribute to self-reliance. And they are only a few examples of the many changes that should be made.

Although cities as we know them are on the verge of collapse, people aren’t aware of the great changes that are coming. Media coverage is restricted to isolated situations like the plummeting decline of Detroit, of abysmal lack of public services in East St. Louis, and politicians are reluctant to air the bad news even as they quietly move to the suburbs. In fact, the city is at a point of major transition. We are beginning to see an historical shift comparable to the birth of the modern industrial city.

To reclaim a positive outcome from deteriorating situations, city- dwellers have to become “urban pioneers” in a concrete, steel, and glass wilderness, developing new urban forms and remaking their own lives as they simultaneously recreate the urban landscape. To do this they need to learn new skills, redirect their energy and inventiveness, and align their efforts with the more self-reliant and sustainable vision offered in Green City Programs. The profile of an urban pioneering life includes these elements:

  • Working several part-time jobs rather than a single-employment, 40-hour week;
  • Growing some food on a continuous basis;
  • Recycling household waste and water;
  • Re-fitting dwellings for energy conservation and maintaining some means for producing energy from renewable sources;
  • Restoring wildlife habitats;
  • Reducing or eliminating the use of a personal automobile;
  • Developing new cultural expressions that reflect bioregional and planetary themes;
  • Participating in a neighborhood council to decide everything from planning and justice to social services and celebrations.

Urban pioneers will replace the often deadening and escape-seeking urban existence of the present with stimulating, highly varied and creative pursuits that are more related to artists and nature-seekers than to factory and office workers. Even in a densely populated metropolis, these new urbanites will be able to claim personal home- neighborhood-villages and be fully involved with them. Many people are already doing some of the things that lead to this transformed urban life. When most people are doing all of them, urban-dwelling will be much richer and more livable.