It's no longer possible to rely 100% on ads to keep our organization going. If you believe in why Films For Action exists, we hope you'll become a supporter on Patreon. A monthly donation of $1, $3, $5 or more per month will really help!
How to Create Abundant Cities
How to Create Abundant Cities
By Wolfgang Hoeschele /
Jan 25, 2014

Is it enough for our lives, our economy, our cities to become “sustainable”? If being sustainable means no more than being able to maintain the status quo of strife and never having enough, of contests over who gets the most of the scarce resources available, then aiming for sustainability is not enough. We should instead aim for abundance.

What’s abundance? Abundance, by my definition, is the condition when all people, regardless of their backgrounds, now and in the future, are enabled to live life as art.

Art is self-expression to others – and just like a painting, a hand-made basket, a dance performance, a dinner, or a garden express something about their makers and take on added value when they are shared with others, so also life’s activities only become meaningful if they express something about the person’s self and values to others in that person’s life.

Credit: anoldent

Life as art can only flourish in conditions of freedom, because it is based on exploring one’s own inner self, one’s own needs, wants and desires, and finding one’s own unique way of expressing oneself to others. Life as art supports social equity, both because expressing oneself to others does not depend on exploiting others, and because the more people around you are able to express themselves freely, the more you are enabled and encouraged to do the same. Finally, life as art is compatible with sustainability, both because most people’s values include the preservation of human and other life on earth, and because life as art helps overcome our addiction to an ever-increasing consumption of material commodities that do not satisfy our real needs.

The major obstacle to abundance is that our economy finds value only in scarcity. Anything abundant either cannot be sold (for example, air to breathe), or can only be sold at a low price (for example, the labor of landless rural people). An economy that runs on profits devalues everything that is abundant, leading to excessive exploitation and pollution. At the same time, somebody has to make sure that demand for marketed commodities constantly grows, so that demand exceeds supply (that’s the economic definition of scarcity). We’re told that we just naturally always want more, but in reality, we can easily observe that some people are content with relatively little and others never have enough. Also, everyone’s wants and needs are greatly influenced by their social environment. Our needs and wants only grow inexorably under specific conditions – and these conditions are expressly created by what I call scarcity-generating institutions.

In addition to keeping demand growing, scarcity-generating institutions can also manipulate supplies, for example by monopoly, where a few companies or individuals control the total supply of some commodity and thus keep prices high. The “health” of our economy depends vitally on scarcity-generating institutions, but our well-being depends on nurturing abundance.

Scarcity Generation in Cities

Some examples of scarcity generation? The way U.S. (and many other) cities are built provides lots of them. Industrial interests, real-estate markets, and urban growth machines have conspired to create sprawling cities that make it impossible, impractical, unpleasant, or downright dangerous to get around by walking or cycling or public transport. These institutions have made mobility a scarce commodity that can only be obtained by buying a car (with all its follow-up costs).

The resulting health problems (ranging from respiratory problems to obesity) contribute to escalating health care costs. The inability to meet people while walking about town leads to a decline in sociability, a reduced sense of community. Where there are fewer “eyes on the street,” security becomes scarce and depends on employing more police, installing alarm systems and surveillance cameras, imposing harsher penalties for misdemeanors, and so forth. People become afraid of walking on the street, and patronize only stores with a big parking lot around them. That brings lots of business to the big-box chain stores, and starves small independent businesses which form the heart of a vibrant local culture and economy.

Protest against "Big Brother" surveillance cameras in Abbiategrasso, Italy

Meanwhile, policies from the federal level (such as tax incentives) down to the local level (such as zoning ordinances) provide subsidies and other support for building the most space and resource-demanding form of housing (single-family houses with large lawns around them), while leading to an underprovisioning of more reasonably-priced alternatives (such as rented apartments, condominiums, and coop-housing). So, people find that the only way they can get good housing is to move into the suburbs. The resulting sprawl makes land in reasonable vicinity to the city center scarce, and drives up its cost – and also the cost of rents for families and business owners.

In fact, walkable places with a good mix of businesses and a sense of urban flair and vitality have become so scarce in the United States that they now attract a disproportionate number of people who hunger after something better than suburban desolation. That drives up real-estate prices in these “gentrified” places, and drives out many of the long-time residents who can no longer pay the increasing rents.

Farmer's market in Noe Valley, San Francisco. Credit: Maxnlexi

It’s an absurd irony, but it seems that living in a place where you can enjoy getting around by walking has become a privilege of the rich.

All of the above leads to increased consumption, increased profits to be made, increased economic “growth,” but reduced quality of life, restrained choices, increased inequality, and intensified environmental destruction. We need something else.

Fostering Abundance in Cities

Scarcity isn’t produced only in cities; it’s produced all over the place in different ways, and by individuals in families or in small groups as well as by national governments, transnational corporations and financial institutions. So cities are not the only type of place where we need to counteract the forces of scarcity generation, but they’re an important one – particularly because cities are the places where most cultural innovation occurs and then spreads both to smaller settlements and up to the national and international levels. What, then, can people – individuals, community organizations, businesses, and local governments – do at the urban scale in order to promote abundance? Here are a few answers. There are many more, and I hope that you, the readers, will think of many more, or think about what you are doing already and how that may contribute to abundance.

We’re made to believe that life consists of being born, getting a degree, marrying, buying a single-family house, car, and dog (plus lots of other consumer items), earning as much money as possible (without wasting time on questioning the meaningfulness of our work), retiring, and dying. But life can consist of so much more – if we take the time to explore ourselves, our values, our relationships to others, and the ways that we may express ourselves and our values through our work, whether paid or unpaid. In other words, we can live life as art. To facilitate this kind of exploration, there can be all kinds of schools, businesses, meditation centers, meeting places, street theatre, publishing houses, libraries, and so on. There’s lots of scope for individual enterprise here, and city governments can help in the establishment of places where this kind of cultural ferment can happen.

Cities can also support more abundant freedom of choice among their residents by ensuring that there are different ways to cater to specific needs. The need for mobility can be served not only through private cars, but also through walking, cycling, roller-skating, buses, trains, boats, horse-drawn carriages, car-sharing, taxis, and so on, provided by private businesses, public enterprises, self-provisioning, cooperatives, and so on.

The need for food can be provided by supermarkets, specialty stores, natural food stores, farmers markets, community gardens, community-supported agriculture, allotment gardens, private gardens, urban foraging, catering to all kinds of different people in different ways.

Market in Waldkirch, Germany

The need for housing can be served by owner-occupied houses, but also by rental housing, housing coops, community land trusts, and other means. One size doesn’t fit all, and we shouldn’t all be forced into one size. The more such options there are, that don’t just depend on market mechanisms but also on sharing and self-provisioning, the more likely it is that low-income people will be able to get what they need (and thus not be poor). And, it’s also more likely that people can provide for their needs without consuming excessive amounts of resources.

A perennial problem we face these days is that any solutions to environmental problems appear to drive up the cost of living – for example, organic food costs more than industrially grown food, and reducing energy needs requires up-front investments (even if it saves money within a few years). Also, there’s a conflict between trying to ensure reasonable costs to consumers and making sure that the producers of those commodities get adequately paid for their work. The producers who get the worst payment for their work are often the workers, but small businesspeople also often put in long hours for little or uncertain returns. This is especially true if they face direct competition from large retailers, who have their own means of reducing costs. In a profit-driven system, it can be extremely difficult to reconcile the interests of consumers, workers, and small business owners in the face of large corporations.

One of the ways to overcome this dilemma is to promote various forms of shared ownership. In worker coops, the workers are co-owners of the business and can decide among themselves how to distribute revenue between wages, profit (shared among co-owners, i.e., themselves) and investment. In community gardens, people produce food for themselves and are thus producers and consumers in one (sometimes referred to as “prosumers”). In customer-owned utilities, the customers are co-owners and can collectively decide how much to charge themselves for the use of electric power, and how to allocate the net revenue between profits (shared out among themselves) and investments. In all such ventures, the co-owners can collectively decide how much environmental and social goals are worth to them. They are not bound to put profits first like corporations are, and can choose to make these ventures into part of their lives lived as art. City governments can support such ventures through appropriate business incubators and by facilitating the process of obtaining necessary permits.

This piece has focused on the basic idea of how to promote abundance in cities; in the future, I hope to write some more contributions about specific examples. But in the meantime, I encourage you to read other contributions to and think about how all those initiatives are helping all people, now and in the future, to live life as art, creating greater abundance!

4.0 ·
Featured Films
The Staging Post: Courageous People Never Give Up! (2017)
61 min The Staging Post follows two Afghan Hazara refugees, Muzafar and Khadim. Stuck in Indonesia after Australia 'stopped the boats' and facing many years in limbo, they built a community and started the school which inspired a refugee education revolution. A real-life...
Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective (2015)
92 min Humanity is more than ever threatened by its own actions; we hear a lot about the need to minimize footprints and to reduce our impact. But what if our footprints were beneficial? What if we could meet human needs while increasing the health and well-being of our...
Within Reach (2013)
87 min Within Reach explores one couple's pedal-powered search for a place to call home. Mandy and Ryan gave up their jobs, cars, and traditional houses to 'bike-pack' 6500 miles around the USA seeking sustainable community. Rather than looking in a traditional neighborhood, they...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers...
Fall and Winter (2013)
102 min This stunning film takes you on a hypnotic journey, reaching to the past to understand the origins of the catastrophic environmental transitions we now face. Over two years, director Matt Anderson traveled 16,000 miles to document firsthand our modern industrial world and the...
The Economics of Happiness (2011)
65 min Economic globalization has led to a massive expansion in the scale and power of big business and banking. It has also worsened nearly every problem we face: fundamentalism and ethnic conflict; climate chaos and species extinction; financial instability and unemployment. There...
Trending Today

Love Films For Action? Become a Patron!

Our Patreon campaign is now live! We hope you'll be among the first to support this new direction for Films For Action. The goal is to go 100% ad-free by next year, and become 100% member supported. A monthly pledge of just $1 -5 dollars per month x a few thousand awesome people will ensure we can continue our work and grow our impact across the world. Click here to join.

Join us on Facebook
How to Create Abundant Cities