Book Review: From the Ground Up—Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities

Alison Sant’s inspiring book showcases how individual communities, local community leaders, and grassroots organizations have put the classic adage “Think global, act local” into action and made real, meaningful improvements to quality of life while reducing carbon emissions in major American cities.

From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities

By Alison Sant (Island Press, 2022)

REVIEW Anne Lissett

As the climate crisis worsens, and we await strong national and international responses to tip the GHG emissions curve downward, it can be hard to remain hopeful. Alison Sant’s inspiring response is to showcase how individual communities, local community leaders, and grassroots organizations have put the classic adage “Think global, act local” into action and made real, meaningful improvements to quality of life while reducing carbon emissions in major American cities. Her case studies, starting with simple parking stall conversions in San Francisco, spanning micro-scale storm water management improvements in New Orleans and bikeways and bike-sharing in Minneapolis-St. Paul, to oyster-reef restoration projects in New York City’s harbour, illustrate a range of practical interventions to create more resilient cities in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

No wild technological silver bullets or radical visionaries populate these pages—just regular people identifying a need in their city: whether a lack of public green space or diminishing urban tree cover, or redevelopments which could displace existing disadvantaged communities. Those same individuals build a coalition of supporters through outreach to neighbours, gain incremental funding, implement their approach, get feedback, and make improvements. Many leaders are people of colour, and they focus on helping their own communities adapt and improve their urban environment without displacing residents. Sant interviews key players and quotes them extensively, bringing firsthand perspectives on approaches they employed and making these people the focus of the cases. These stories show how genuine understanding of a community’s needs, matched with effective public outreach, can build support and get things done, and how the lack of public support can kill an otherwise good idea.

As part of a grassroots effort to improve green infrastructure in the area, volunteers install stormwater features along a demonstration block in the 7th Ward, New Orleans, in 2020. Photo by Raymond Sweet/Healthy Community Services

Sant delves into the complex historical and regional scale of each case, especially in the chapter “Living with Water.” Here she examines the history and impacts of flood management in New Orleans—how it allowed the city to thrive since colonization, but also how vulnerable it has made the cityscape to heavy rainfall (never mind catastrophic storms like Hurricane Katrina). We meet Angela Chalk, a local activist who was among the first to return to her home in the devastated 7th Ward and rebuild. The chapter follows her journey form learning about green infrastructure, to implementing measures herself, to becoming an advocate and educating others. Sant then explores a funded, larger scale effort in the 7th Ward to implement a green infrastructure district, and the challenges faced in gaining community support for the project, some caused by the nature of the funding grant itself. Zooming out further, she considers the regional watershed context, and how planners and ecologists struggle to communicate the long-term challenges facing the region to the public. Sant finds answers in the words of her interviewees, showing how leadership at higher levels needs to listen to leaders and experts within impacted communities instead of imposing solutions.

The book is organized into four themes, covering street reclamation, rainwater and green infrastructure, urban tree cover, and shoreline restoration. Each includes a topical essay by other activists and thinkers to supplement the case studies. Most Canadian city dwellers with an interest in building local climate resilience will find a relevant project here. Unlike many environmentalist messages which admonish us to give up the conveniences we are used to, Sant shows how fighting and adapting to climate change can make our cities better for everyone—including those with the least resources—and can start at home. Sant’s call to action challenges us all to find ways we can improve our cities now, without waiting for national leadership to give us permission. Her vision of inclusive, nourishing, resilient cities, ready for the crisis already upon us, may not be the one we were expecting—but it’s the one we need.

Architect Anne Lissett is a Senior Associate with VIA – A Perkins Eastman Studio in Vancouver, BC.

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