Sunday, July 7, 2013

Edens Lost and Found

Edens Lost and Found: How Ordinary Citizens are Restoring Our Great American Cities
©  2006 Harry Wiland, Dale Bell,  Joseph D'Agnes
285 pages

I can hear Atlanta crying loud as she looks for hope and change / but we can’t count on a government to create a life we want to see.. (“Our Cities”, The Wild)

The 20th century was not kind to American cities, and the challenges of the 21st, resource scarcity and climate change among them, seem hardly more favorable, especially as the national government continues to flounder. But across the country, citizens are taking challenges for opportunities, and effecting positive change in their own cities.  In Edens Lost and Found, the authors share stories from all stripes of people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Seattle who are doing their part to make their cities more ecologically-savvy, resilient, and overall better places to live.

Adapted from a PBS series, the book is divided into four larger chapters, each containing a half-dozen or so sections of stories about individuals or groups making a difference. The chapter starts off with a history of its host city, one which briefly details the city’s unique challenges and strengths: Los Angeles, for instance, is or was in the strange spot of simultaneously stressing about flooding and having to import water for its citizens’ needs. The citizen-actions range from the small-scale (a man stubbornly removing trash from an abandoned lot so that his daughters could have a clean place to play) to the somewhat larger, as when citizen actions catch the government’s attention and it decides to fund their efforts, as it did when  Chicagoans attempted to safeguard the prairies from further development.  Not every action is done by an individual person: one section in Seattle, for instance, covers the decision of one sporting-goods store to become environmentally friendly and more compelling at the same time by catching rainwater and channeling it to safety in the form of a waterfall. Their actions address a variety of needs, all adding value but in different areas. There are artists here, who transform empty walls into murals,  as well as those who convert an abandoned building into a hydroponics garden that doubles as an urban farmer’s market.  The editor-authors also add sidebars for those who want to recreate  the actions celebrated her: one such column offers advice on creating a nature trail.

Although the individual stories didn't mesh together well beyond sharing the same setting, the authors' attempt to create cohesion with an introduction to each city, and the marginal use of shared themes (managing watersheds, for instance),  serves the book well. It succeeds less on narrative and more on substance: these accounts of citizens engaging in direct action and rebuilding their cities are most inspiring,  giving reason for hope.

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