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Save a footpath, and save the planet

Save a footpath, and save the planet

Tony Watkins, the maverick architect, activist, and environmentalist writes about how saving footpaths can change cities and save our planet. 

At first glance it may not be apparent from the scientific evidence, but in the midst of the many crises facing our planet there is actually good news to be found.

Cities are the major cause of climate change, and most of us live in cities. Ludo Campbell Reid, General Manager Urban Design, Auckland City Council, recently put it this way "75 percent of global energy is consumed by cities, and 80 percent of greenhouse gases are emitted by cities." Another way of expressing this would be to say that we city dwellers are both the problem and the solution. There is not someone else, or even the cows, to blame. The future of the planet will be determined by the way in which we design, build, and live in cities.

The net goes wider. In our democracy political power is held by those who live in cities. It is the political attitudes of city dwellers that will determine the future of the planet. The good news is that we all have the freedom to change our attitudes. They are inside our heads. First however we need to take control of our own lives, rather than letting others set the agendas for us. We need to rise above fake media, fake architecture and fake planning. No one can pretend that this is going to be easy, but it could be both rewarding and fun.

It has been a critical mistake to assume that saving the world is all about doom, gloom and misery. Why would you bother preaching salvation unless it was both rewarding and fun?

The tragedy of our current architecture is that it promises so much and delivers so little. We feel more comradeship, warmth and delight in some corrugated iron mountain hut than we do in an environmentally-costly, award-winning architectural manifestation of greed, selfishness and ego. To be more fully alive we do not need to go without. We need rather to demand architecture that lifts our spirits up, and fills our lives with laughter and joy. Too much architecture gets in the way of life.

It was poignant to recently see the striking students demanding action. They were asking for life. A future. Their actions caused quite a few people, including teachers, to declare their hands. It was tragic that our Minister for Climate Change did not have a single bright idea to offer them.

In fact there are thousands of useful things we all could, and should, be doing. One is not necessarily better than another. Strategically it is more important to work though just any one action that interests us, and to learn along the way. The need to make connections is not a question of scale.

Small beginnings are always good. One success provides a good foundation for another, and then another. Small mistakes are not disasters.

A little knowledge is useful in gaining focus. Too much knowledge can paralyse action. It is obvious that our cities use a lot of concrete. It is not important to know exactly how much.

Concrete causes more environmental damage than any other material we use. Steel is next. Concrete causes 4-8 percent of global CO2 emissions. Concrete accounts for around 10 percent of industrial water use globally. Concrete is a major global user of energy. The Guardiansummed this all up a couple of weeks back in their lead article for concrete week.

Using less concrete would be one great way to start doing something about the planet. How? At a really small scale it is actually dead easy. All over Auckland we are currently digging up or trashing perfectly good concrete footpaths and replacing them, for no particular reason.

Concrete footpaths will make Karaka Bay go under water.

How long should concrete last? The Romans knew a bit about concrete, and after a couple of thousand years a building like the Parthenon is still in pretty good shape.  It just wasn't built by the Auckland City Council, but let's not go into that.

If we leave aside manifestos, dreams, trips around the world to talk-fests, and a few romantics on the staff, the Council, or for that matter the Government, seems to be more committed to causing climate change than to preventing it.

It would be possible to tackle the whole issue of all footpaths, but then you run into bureaucracy, power, ignorance, lack of communication, and all the other issues which taken together become the reasons why so many species are going extinct. If you home in on just one footpath you can quickly clarify the issues, and more importantly you can have fun.

So you might just pick one footpath to begin with. You can then upscale the process, and the protest. The critical move is to get the necessary change of attitude. You can do that from the bottom up. Margaret Mead explained all this at Habitat I in 1976.

Our hero only saved a small length of footpath from the Council.

Even small actions can provoke a big response, so you will need all the support you can get. Threats with 14-pound sledge-hammers and iron bars to smash you up, as well as your footpath, is not pleasant. Just as bad is the reaction you will get from the well-dressed people who are making money out of climate change. Their anger bursts out when they feel their affluence is being threatened. It is action that clarifies attitudes, not focus-groups or conferences.

The footpath at Karaka Bay should never have been concreted in the first place, as it destroyed an ecologically sensitive, very beautiful, communal shell path, but that is all another story. Really the full story is that of the slide down-hill to the collapse of the planet. However history cannot be changed and it should at least be possible to learn from our mistakes. The trick is to get the "now" right. The past is past, and the future is nothing more than the consequence of what we do now.

Most of the people at Karaka Bay hope that their homes will not be destroyed by sea level rise. There is just a failure to understand that sea-level rise is caused by concrete footpaths. You cannot have it both ways. Making connections is the most important move in dealing with climate change.

A perfectly good footpath going off to landfill

A valiant protest at Karaka Bay has only saved some of the old footpath, and only made a very small contribution to avoiding the collapse of the planet. However you need to start somewhere.

If every student who held up a placard saved one footpath it would not be long before everyone realised that it is cities, and how we build them, that are the primary cause of Climate Change and the loss of species.

We could easily change our attitude towards architecture, and change the questions we ask architects. If we ask the wrong questions and get the wrong answers we have only ourselves to blame.

Learning about the Treaty and the footpath.

"Save a footpath and save the planet" might be a useful slogan to lead the hikoi we all need to take.

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