Arts and Transition towards Sustainability of Cities[1]

My interest in both arts and environment stems from the source of my curiosity: cities. I started studying cities from architectural discipline, and ending up looking at architecture from the city’s perspective.  The issue on sustainability of cities is appealing not only because of its urgency with regards to climate change, but also because it offers an opportunity to think of, and search for, new ways to live wholly sustainably by also taking care of other problems pre-existing in cities. This opportunity challenges societies to be humane again, to take care of other ecological and non-ecological problems that have been outstanding in cities, such as poverty, social justice, and migrant workers. Confronted with the predominant, yet ineffective, urban planning approach that failed to make our cities a better place for all, I have for the last ten years turned to arts and other disciplines to search for alternative ways to engage urban societies.

A dynamic definition of culture and an expanded definition of urban sustainability.

As more than half of humanity now live in urban conditions, and urbanisation seems to be irreversible and intensifying, much works needed to actualise that opportunity are in the cities.

Sustainability of cities concerns not only ecological, but also social-cultural and economical dimensions. It is impossible to imagine a city as sustainable only ecologically without its population having social justice, cultural freedom and minimum equitable welfare.

Indeed, if we moved to save ourselves from the climate change, we become only better animals, because that way we save ourselves only from a basic threat to the whole  species. It is an instinct for survival. We will become better human beings only when we solve also those problems such as poverty, human rights violations, cultural repression and others, because they require active compassion unique only to human beings.

However, of course it is true that no society can exist without a sustainable physical environment. Environment is a resource without which any social and economical entity cannot exist. There can be no trade-off between environment and others, because it is simply the existential basis for the latter.

To be sustainable, a city needs to be whole in its relationship to the environment and its intercultural society. The principles of craddle-to-craddle[3] and Japanese mottanai treat waste from a process as a resource for the next processes. Diversity should be encouraged for its intrinsic goodness, and to counter globalized standardisation and homogenisation. Citizens should be actively engaged in decision-making process through participatory democracy. A city should grow together with its local resources and context, so that it would be rooted in its environment, and become a place with identity. The city needs build a future based on renewable energy. An endogenous development, with growth based on maximal use of local knowledge and resources, is possible when a city is embedded in its region.[4]

To achieve such a sustainable city, changes will have to take place at different levels, at practical behavioural pattern as well as at values, and at everything else in between them, including our systemic supports such as urban infrastructure, industrial complex, and democratic institutions. We need to recreate appropriate values, consensus and trust, as well as re-invent our daily life. There is a whole set of nitty-gritty works that needs our creative capacity and personal commitment to change individually and collectively.

Opportunely the world has come to understand culture as something active: a way of life, and a way of living together in a dialogical coexistence, creatively adjusting to changes and encouraging them.[5]

Such a view makes it possible to see that arts could help us to change, to engage in the transition towards sustainability of cities.

The required changes.

We can see the required changes as broadly distinct at the supply and demand side. At the supply side we are concerned about energy source and production system. At the demand side we are particularly concerned with changes in consumption pattern. Although theoretically it is possible in the future to have unlimited sources of renewable energy, change in consumption pattern is required immediately. Moreover, climate change is not the only ecological problems. Bio-diversity, for example, is decreasing due to both over-consumption and neglect of certain species because of standardisation and homogenisation in our industrialised consumption. Even if the age of “free and clean energy” would be achieved completely sometime in the future, changes towards sustainable consumption are a necessity. This concerns values and daily decision-making process. Even if the sun is free and available all daytime, one still have to decide to sunbathe in the morning or the whole day.

Both our political and economic spaces have not been always successful. We must continuously and diligently feed values and will to direct both the state and the market. We cannot just relinquish too much power to both and become passive afterwards. We have to keep on working as civil society to reclaim the state to be more responsive and the economy to be more substantive, to primarily fulfil our needs, not to make maximum profits of any resource.[6]

Position and role of arts in civil society.

Arts could position itself to help build a humane society that actively and continuously think and take care of the welfare of the whole humanity, not just the majority of it, and that which perceives the problems of a few as collective problems of the whole humankind. Consequently we need a “responsible society” that actively takes into their hands the nitty-gritty of works that need to be done for that purpose, a society that has the necessary capacity to continuously respond to outstanding and emerging problems, both in direct actions and advocacy to reclaim state policies and market directions, a reinvigorated civil society that coordinate its actions in dialogue in public space, to work on both practical level and continuous recreation of values to guide state’s policies and market’s directions.

Given the inevitable frequent market failures and often inert political stalemates vested with power webs, the third sector, civil society, both as public space and as associations of active, self-organised individual citizens or groups, will have to take up those challenges. In rapidly densifying cities with diversifying diversity, those challenges could be either easier or more difficult, depending on how well civil society is re-organising, vis-à-vis the political and economic spaces.

Aspiration for sustainability of cities may make politics more complex, but also potentially more focused with a sense of urgency. It re-asserts the very basic of democratic processes, transparency and accountability, in almost scientific sense. With recent progress in technology and collaborative institutions, humankind is actually well equipped to face the challenge successfully. We can undo global warming while develop new ways of living better. However it requires that the challenge be responded actively, by changing the current unsustainable patterns.

The first role of arts is therefore to use its creative capacity to help breaking the current pattern, and deconstructing current values, in order to change towards sustainability.

Values offered in public space have their origins in private space of individuals or communities. Public space depends on private spaces for feedings into its content. Arts critically process values in private space, then feed them into the public space of civil society, and through it into the political and economic spheres. Arts are at the core of civil society. It strengthens civil society at its base, the values creation that is fundamental to its capacity in owning the state and the market.

In doing that, arts fullfil human needs that are not necessarily instrumental, but somehow fulfill human needs: mimetical communication with nature, with bodies, aspiration to live in solidarity with others, and a will to experience non-pragmatic communications with others.

In our changing societies there are always values to be reproduced. There are always gaps between values and their realisation through our modern institutions. Arts and artists do develop strong sensitivity towards values and gaps because to produce successful creative works, artists must satisfy the conditions of authenticity and originality.

The role of arts is to help build a responsive civil society to feel the gaps, to beyond the instrumental use of arts to promote “awareness”, beyond arts as mere communication “technique”, or arts as the “cute” way to understand the urgency and the order of things.

A society in need of urgent change towards urban sustainability should not just use arts as its reflection and force it into straightforward instrumentality, but gives arts a chance to be its dialectical anti-thesis to promote genuine humane progress while at the same time fulfil human’s need for non-pragmatic relationships with others, including the nature. The recent increasing infusion of arts into design (of daily products and architecture), for example, show how arts are not only reflecting on, but are offering critical forms as anti-thesis to available forms of daily life. Artistic projects are both personal and offering open alternatives that are generously left to be questioned and deliberated in public spaces.

Arts, by its quest for authenticity and originality, could also help society to change in genuine way with commitment at personal level.

I would argue that civil society should take advantage of arts in the above capacity, and reproduce that capacity into public space. And I would recommend that we create more spaces for artists to interact in concrete ways with civil society and our common problems, and encourage their free, creative investigations into them, and facillitate their creative works to enter into much more interactive public spaces. Artists could play their role as relevant “public intellectuals” by offering their arts and thoughts into public space. As such they also exercise the existence of public space, at the same time strengthening it and the society that it serves. Arts and thoughts could substantiate non-violent public spaces.  On the other hand, artists cannot exist as public intellectuals without the existence of healthy public space. Public space is the necessary engagement between artists and their societies to prevent it from being defenselessly instrumental such as in the case where artists try to by-pass the public space to serve power directly.

The transition into ecological age might have violent moments in its process, due to its depth and the given brief period of a generation. This is an other important motivation for engagement of arts to strengthen non-violent and critical public spaces, to moderate exchanges in the transition process.

In different parts of the world, public spaces are undergoing different crises. They are non-existent in non-democratic countries such as Myanmar, a great deficit. In advanced industrialised countries they might have become too formalised and over-mediated with very few chances of direct interactions. In newly emerging democracies such as Indonesia they are abundant, euphoric and in a very fluid stage. Each will pose a different challenge to artists and other public intellectuals.


[1] Written for Asian Europe Foundation (ASEF)‘s invitation for the conference “Culture for the Future and the Future of Culture: The Transition towards an Ecological Age 2050″, Copenhagen, December 6-9, 2009.

[2] Architect-urbanist, Director of Jakarta Arts Council, Indonesia.

[3] William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Craddle to Craddle, North Point Press, New York 2002.

[4] John Friedmann, The Wealth of Cities: Towards an Assets-based Development of Newly Urbanizing Regions, This paper was given in 2006 as the First UN-HABITAT Award lecture at the Third World Urban Forum in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

[5] UNU-IAS and IICRC, 2002, “Kanazawa Resolutions on culture in sustainability of cities, in Report of the International Congerence on Culture in Sustainability of Cities II, Kanazawa: IICRC, p.98. As quoted in M. Nadrajh an Ann Tomoko Yamamoto ed., Urban Crisis, Culture and the Sustainability of Cities,  p. 37.

[6] Karl Polanyi’s substantive economy: people acquiring material means by having an impact on the natural environment and/or through relationships of mutual interdependence in order to satisfy their various needs that arise as they engage in their day-to-day lives; and economy in formal sense: the process of obtaining the maximum effect by making the best use of a scarce means, in Makoto Maruyama, Sustainable Economy and Urban Sustainability, in Hidenori Tamagawa, ed., Sustainable Cities, United Nations University Press, 2006, p. 771-72.

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