Green City: An Introduction

by Kathryn Cholette, Ross Dobson, Kent Gerecke, Marcia Nozick, Roberta Simpson, and Linda Williams

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

The way we live in cities today is probably the greatest threat to our survival. Cities unconscionably consume resources and spit out horrendous waste. The green city movement does not face this reality by turning to the countryside. It recognizes that most of us live in cities and will continue to do so for some time. It faces up to the reality that cities are basically anti-nature; but instead of writing them off, it looks to ecologize them. Green city sees the city ecologically—in the context of its bioregion and the world.

Another important aspect of green cities is the affirmation of urban life. Beyond the crass recognition that most of us live in cities and will continue to do so, green city thinking accepts social organization in cities as being part of social evolution; thus part of nature.

The focus on practical everyday actions was wonderfully evident at the Green City conference in Chicago, 1989. In the city itself we saw urban gardening as slum busting. And the people at the conference represented actions on recycling, permaculture, neighborhood struggles, industrial reclamation, new jobs in the city, organic gardening, community gardens, housing, recycling research, developing neighborhood economics, preservation of parks, peoples’ architecture, alternative energy systems, tree planting, graywater use, and more than we could recount. There is simply too much here to even attempt a summary. A unique Chicago example, however, is too outstanding to go without special mention: beyond Chicago’s “magnificent mile” lives “Maxworks.”

To envision a green city while living in the wasteland of a neglected, decaying inner-city neighborhood is quite a feat in itself; to actively work towards such a vision against overwhelming odds is indeed a daunting prospect. But that is exactly what a small, dedicated community is doing in the area around Maxwell Street in Chicago, and the result is a project known as Maxworks. To use the term “project” in describing Maxworks does not do justice to the people whose collective vision and energies have created a self-empowered, self-reliant community.

Maxworks operates out of what was an abandoned three-story warehouse in an area where entire city blocks have been neglected to the point where it is no longer feasible for the owners of the buildings to pay taxes. Decaying buildings are simply allowed to deteriorate and are then abandoned. Amidst these conditions, Maxworks obtained an abandoned warehouse and turned it into a neighborhood recycling center, research (tire recycling), and publishing center (Things Green and another newsletter), hostel and residence. Inside, floor to ceiling, are three floors of clothes, books, machinery parts, and household items of every description. Also there are some primitive sleeping spaces on raised platforms wherever there is room. Outside, the yard is divided into collection areas for paper, lumber, glass, scrap metals, tires.

The Maxwell Street area has had a weekend market for over one hundred years. Today it is primarily an open-air recycling market spread out on hundreds of makeshift tables occupying several city blocks. Within this stands the Maxwell area’s “blues tree:” an old tree where people have been gathering every Sunday for over a hundred years to sing and play the Chicago blues. Inspired by this linkage of nature and culture, Maxworks is involved in neighborhood tree planting. A “Rose of Sharon” growing amid the garbage and rubble of a vacant lot is truly an affirmation of life. In the wasteland of a decaying Chicago neighborhood, the people of Maxworks are green urban pioneers.

Excerpted from City Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 1 Summer/Fall 1989.

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