How to shore up our cities

March 21 1983

How to shore up our cities

March 21 1983

How to shore up our cities


The current economic squeeze is forcing North American cities to cut back on municipal budgets, and civic officials are increasingly looking at new ways to generate wealth. One method is to marry modern technology and political authority, according to David Morris, the director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a U.S. organization that advises cities to take more direct control over the resources they produce

and consume. The institute has met with considerable success since it opened in 19 7If. It has designed community-owned insulation-manufacturing plants, local heating systems and, in New York City, the first large-scale urban composting operation. Maclean’s Ottawa bureau writer Ian Anderson spoke with Morris at his Washington, D.C., office.

Maclean’s: What is so new about self-reliance?

Morris: The concept of self-reliance is an old one. It has always been considered philosophically attractive, it has just not been seen to be technologically practical or economically feasible. Now it is. We are talking here about harnessing modern technology. I want to stress that. We are talking about the most sophisticated forms of technology. To bring these things together, if a citystate looks at its balance of payments and says we want to reduce our imports, we want to use technologies to generate wealth locally and internally.

Maclean’s: What makes your institute particularly relevant to today's dilemmas?

Morris: What we are finding in 1983 is that, on the one hand, there are cities desperate for new resources to meet their increased responsibilities. There is also a new generation of people who are enthusiastic about regaining a measure of control over their lives, about getting production back to where they live. And we have had an energy shock that has encouraged us to reduce long distribution lines. It no longer makes sense to grow a tomato in California and eat it in Ottawa.

Maclean’s: How can cities go about making themselves less dependent on outside sources?

Morris: We suggest that cities take a look at the resources that they may have locally. One might look at the garbage stream, for example, which cities do not usually see as a resource, but as a burden. We can redefine that solid waste as a raw-material resource. In Nebraska, for example, communities said that they had, littering the countryside, literally millions of scrap tires that cost them a great deal to get rid of. Recycling tires is not new, but it turns out that most of the new tires are steelbelted radiais which do not lend themselves to being recycled in the same way

‘It no longer makes sense to grow a tomato in California or Mexico and eat it in Ottawa ’ as very old tires. So we located a small manufacturer that had developed a cryogenic (deep-freeze) process that takes the rubber and freezes it to the point at which it becomes very brittle and is easily pulverized into a powder. You take that powder and use it as a feedstock for making anything from shoes to road-paving material. Maclean’s: Why have you concentrated on cities?

Morris: The institute was set up to investigate the technical feasibility and economics of cities generating a significant proportion of their wealth from local resources. Basically, what we are doing is looking at a city as a nation. That does not mean a self-sufficient entity, because no nation is self-sufficient. But we look at how cities can redefine their local resource base and maximize the value they get out of it. For example, a city of 100,000 people will be spending close to $1 billion collectively for all of its goods and services. Given budget cuts and economic problems, it is our feeling that this city needs to keep as much of that capital within the local economy as possible. Today, cities look outward to private corporations for development and to the federal government for funding. In the future I see our cities importing not 100 per cent of their needs but possibly only 25 per cent— and generating the rest internally. Maclean’s: How has the current recession affected this new drive to municipal self-reliance?

Morris: There is now a very strong necessity for cities to look at new ways of doing things. For local officials there is the need to save money and pump health into the local economy. But from the citizens’ point of view it is a measure of bringing production closer and closer to their homes. That is, making them more producers of wealth than just consumers of goods.

Maclean’s: So this is the old conflict between centralization and decentralization?

Morris: We are going through a true conflict between centralization and decentralization. There are two metaphors. One is the global village, but the one I prefer is global villages. It is not clear which way we will go. A reversal of that (centralizing trend) will be one that comes from the bottom up, one in which people say, no, I do not want to spend a lot of money to build a very large power plant located 500 miles from my house. I prefer to spend the same amount of money to build 1,000 much smaller power plants, located either in basements or at the end of each block. This requires a political redefinition. One of the positive aspects of the current downturn in the economy is that it provides a catalyst for these new ways of thinking. Five or 10 years ago they would not have been given a fair hearing.

Maclean’s: Can you not argue that this is a very selfish philosophy, that the wealthier cities will prosper while the poorer cities will grow even poorer? Morris: I am not arguing for self-sufficiency, but for self-reliance. The fact is that if you asked a rich neighborhood and a working-class neighborhood to move toward self-reliance, it would be the working-class neighborhood that would achieve it. It is not the rich cities that are moving in this direction; it is the cities with an industrial base. Maclean’s: Can you name a few?

Morris: St. Paul, Minn., and Hagerstown, Md. Hagerstown is a marvellous example. It is a small, industrial city of 35,000 people where they have a sewage plant that had cost them about $1 million a year to operate. Their municipal authority decided to transform the disposal facility into a production plant. So by the end of 1982 they were generating enough methane gas from their sewage plant to operate the entire municipal vehicle fleet. The cost, including everything, is between 30 and 35 cents a gallon. Hagerstown is not stopping there. There is sludge available, and sludge is an excellent fertilizer. Hagerstown had to go through a politically risky fiveyear period in which it got individual industries to put in pretreatment plants at their sites to eliminate the heavy metals in the sludge. They now have a commercial-grade fertilizer called Hagonite. But instead of selling the Hagonite on the market, which would get them an okay price, they use it internally, once again to get the maximum value from that product. So last April they planted, on city land, 300,000 hybrid poplar trees—some of the fastestgrowing trees in the world. In two years they will harvest them and convert them into gas or ethanol, as fuel, and use the byproduct of that operation as animal feed. They expect to be able to support 100 head of cattle and hogs and will be generating an income of $1 million—a turnaround of $2 million. Maclean’s: You argue in favor of diverse economies whereby a city will not have to rely only on, say, the manufacture of electric fans or hubcaps. You have indicated that you would apply this type of thinking to rural areas, also.

Morris: In the West, certainly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, you have farmers who raise produce to be fed to cattle, and therefore the farmers are dependent upon only one kind of demand. The new era is bringing the possibility of turning not only agricultural products into fuel—ethanol and so on— but agricultural products into chemicals. Then you basically have the possibility of substituting starch for plastics. If you do that, then the processing plants will be located in those agricultural areas—why would you want to take all that volume and truck it to

some other place? With changing energy prices and new technologies you now have a farmer who can raise corn, for example, but the corn can be sold for feed or for ethanol or for the manufacture of industrial chemicals—a value of between $8 and $10 a bushel, instead of $2 or $3. If any one of these markets declines, then the farmer can sell to another market. So we are also talking about an economy based on resiliency— that is, an economy built on a diversified base.

Maclean’s: And ultimately the goal is to bring things closer to home, to make peo-

ple feel more responsible for their lives? Morris: In Massachussetts at the beginning of the 19th century a new town came into being whenever the walking distance to the town meeting place got to be too great. It seems to me a very human principle—when people get too far away from the decision-making focus, you create new villages with new meeting places. Well, we are now sometimes thousands of miles away from the decision-making focus in the private and public sectors, and what we are doing now is looking at re-creating villages,