Solarpunk Cities: Notes for a Manifesto

Solarpunk activism is an organic blend of traditional practices and high-tech in service of social and environmental justice.

The solarpunk cities we imagine are centers of collective action, governance and sharing of resources rather than of individualistic consumption. They are places where individual sufficiency is ensured and public abundance is available to all. We want to show how present cities can be made sustainable through improvement of existing good practices, restoration of beneficial old ones and introduction of new, sustainable technologies.

How to build a solarpunk city is a problem of design, so even though solarpunk is a highly aesthetic movement, according to the principles of good design, form and function should be interdependent.

The functions of a solarpunk city as we see it should be:

  1. Exploiting the synergy of having people with different backgrounds and skills living together, fostering communication and the circulation of ideas and goods through the urban network.

    The interconnected networks of cities should enable the coalescence of communities to pool resources and stimulate cooperation.

    We imagine blocks of flats sharing communal ovens for bread and ceramic, tool sheds and workspaces for the repair and upcycling of furniture, electronics or other household goods, fibercraft and tailoring equipment for repairing or refurbishing clothes and other fiber goods, as well as gardening equipment and facilities for composting waste and collecting water. We imagine tool libraries in neighbourhood centres.

    We imagine well-funded public libraries organizing study groups for children and adults to improve educational outcomes, language classes to increase the inclusion of new arrivals and broaden the horizons of other residents, book clubs and writing or fibercraft groups to help people make friends and strengthen their social networks.

    We imagine neighbourhood cinemas using the courtyards of blocks of flats to showcase local and global productions.

    We imagine neighbourhood or municipal centres being funded and equipped to enable the citizens to engage in artistic pursuits, allowing people from all backgrounds to participate in the production of culture.

    Additionally, since cities concentrate people, they are perfect sites to implement circular modes of production. The coffee grounds from the local roastery where old-timers congregate for a glass of white and to watch the football match could become compost for the hyperlocal farm producing vegetables for the neighbours, or material for the local laboratory which makes eco-inks or cosmetics. The leftover bread from the bakery could turn into beer at the local brewery. Waste plastics could become raw material for the 3D printing workshop making assistive gadgets for disabled neighbours, and so on.

  2. Implementing granular governance (at the level of block, neighbourhood, municipium, city, etc . . . ) and shared, inclusive decision-making at all levels.

    The nested structure of cities lends itself to creating a sort of fractal network of democratic entities which work together, coordinating with each other on issues of larger relevance and independently on others of more local import.

    Each level would operate through public consultations, focus/working groups and periodic assemblies to take decisions for the benefit of the local community and feed input on policies from sub-constituencies towards the higher levels of decision-making, in order to capture and coordinate the needs of the citizens to prevent duplication and increase the effectiveness of local efforts.

    Neighbourhoods would feed into municipia/boroughs, which would feed into cities, which would feed into regional networks and so on, ensuring representation of local issues at all levels.

  3. Making use of interstitial spaces and “non-places” to create social, cultural and environmental value, and to generate resources such as power and food.

    Thanks to the capitalistic mode of production, privileging private enterprise, cities are rife with “non-places”, intended as places of passage, which do not belong to the citizens. Other spaces remain empty or underutilized because they are overlooked or thought of as useless.

    Solarpunk cities as we imagine them would exist in a post-capitalist, post-growth economy, and would reabsorb non-places, giving them a new meaning within the urban fabric. No space would be “wasted” in a solarpunk city.

    Spaces dedicated to advertisement billboards could be reused for energetic and cultural purposes through the installation of solar artworks. Likewise, large glass surfaces could be turned into solar “stained glass” windows made of perovskites or solar concentrators.

    Figure 1: Integrated food production in the urban environment: a proposal for the retrofitting of offices buildings in South Street, Reading, with glasshouses on the roof to spread the production of food throughout the urban fabric. The William Morris-inspired motif is painted on thermally efficient hemp fiber plaster with a special paint that can “eat” air pollution coming from the nearby ring road.

    Urban farms (Fig. 1) powered by collected rainwater and food waste would occupy not just rooftops and yards, but also basements and tunnels to grow mushrooms, or even vegetables, thanks to optic fibers bringing sunlight to the subsoil or low-power LED banks driven by PV installations.

    Figure 2: Integrated, distributed production of energy through community projects: the reconstruction of the Reading Abbey Mill would become a new community property shared among the citizens.

    A variety of renewable sources of energy would be built into environmentally retrofitted housing and commercial spaces. Mini- and micro- wind and hydroelectric power plants would be dotted around the urban fabric (Fig.2).

    Old commercial centres could be turned into community centres or incubators for small artisan workshops and local producers (Fig.3).

    Self-reliance would be implemented at every level in food and energy production. This would also help in dealing with adverse weather events and other natural catastrophes such as earthquakes.

  4. Eliminating food deserts and making quality food accessible through self- and community production and fair agreements with rural areas in the city’s vicinity.

    Solarpunk cities blur the distinction between urban and rural environments. The integration of food production into the daily life of solarpunk cities would increase the amount of hyperlocal, sustainable, quality food available to citizens and communities across all income brackets and demographics.

    Figure 3: Energetic retrofitting of existing buildings: the Heelas shopping center in central Reading, UK. We have imagined it with solar panels on the roof: they can be either the rigid or flexible models. The iris fresco on the walls is inspired by a William Morris pattern and is manufactured with insulating cork paint over a layer of hemp plaster.

    Aquaponic farms, insect farms and communal chicken, pigeon and fowl coops would allow local production of sustainable, quality protein for the citizens.

    Solarpunk cities would also have a thriving community of food-producing artisans such as bakers, confectioners, brewers, distillers and producers of conserves of various kinds. Local markets, farmers markets and bulk shops for dry goods or liquids (complete with bring your own bottle/refill schemes/bottle deposit schemes) would allow the citizens to acquire local goods without unnecessary processing or packaging.

    Communal production of other goods (e.g. communities establishing a rota among neighbours to make bread/soap/beer/etc in batches for the whole block), predicated on the existence of communal facilities, would be encouraged and facilitated by the increase in free time guaranteed by a universal basic income paired with a reduction in working hours.

    In order to ensure that the reduced environmental footprint of the city is not offset by increased exploitation of rural areas, solarpunk cities would establish protocols of co-operation with their hinterland and with other cities in the regional network, ensuring that production of goods for their use follows strict ethical and environmental guidelines and that routes of distribution are planned sensibly, using decentralized networks that rely on low-carbon, public transport wherever possible.

  5. Establishing public transport as central and accessible to everybody, regardless of physical abilities or medical conditions.

    We imagine that cargo trams/buses/suburban rail trains would be used for the transport of goods.

    For personal vehicles, solarpunk cities would move from an ownership model to a usership model, implementing sharing schemes for electric cars and electric bikes as well as handbikes, mobility scooters or power attachments for wheelchairs. Cargo bike rental schemes integrated with the public transport network would facilitate shopping and other high-load activities.

    These schemes would be integrated in a metropolitan public transport subscription, which would be free for the lowest income brackets and costed based on income for everybody else, ensuring a fair allocation of resources.

    All these measures would result in reduced pollution and noise levels, which in turn would bring significant improvements to health outcomes, especially among the lowest income brackets and marginalized groups.

  6. Providing adequate, energetically efficient homes to every citizen.

    Solarpunk cities would drastically cut down on their heating/cooling carbon footprint and on fuel poverty by investing in environmental retrofitting of old buildings (Fig.3), starting with social housing. New housing would be built to an exacting passive-or-better environmental standard and to equally stringent earthquake safety standards. Social housing would be distributed throughout the city, without segregating low-income families in the least appealing areas.

    Self-builds or community builds would be encouraged by implementing easy-to-understand building codes based on communal standards and structured choices, as explained for example in Making Massive Small Change by Kelvin Campbell, allowing for diversification in look, feel, and use while adhering to agreed-upon standards which include the space for green areas, services and transportation.

    Cities would contain sprawl and limit land consumption by building up density through town blocks with proper services and shops, communal areas and public transport connections, not formless suburbia. They would expand into brownfield areas, such as former industrial or commercial complexes, and would leave greenfield and rural areas intact.

  7. Improving the urban environment in terms of extension of green spaces and biodiversity.

    Just as they blur the distinction between urban and rural, solarpunk cities would also blur the distinction between urban and wilderness.

    The reduced reliance on cars would allow unnecessarily paved areas, such as parking lots, to be depaved. Riverbanks and urban parks and other green areas would be rewilded using native species, making sure to accommodate urban wildlife and pollinators.

    Trees would be used to mitigate heat island effect, improve the quality of urban soils and reduce the amount of runoff making it into the sewage system, and can be selected among food-bearing species (walnuts, chestnuts, beeches and fruit trees) to provide an additional food source for the community.

    Reforestation projects are already underway in several large cities (for example Milano in Italy has a project to plant 3,200,000 new urban trees by 2030), but solarpunk cities wouldn’t stop at lining avenues with trees. They would also integrate trees into the architecture. Buildings like the Bosco Verticale in Milano or the Waldspirale in Darmstadt wouldn’t be exceptions, but pioneers of a whole new brand of architecture.

    We imagine a city where every park and garden and condo block can become a food forest.

  8. Providing effective healthcare to the citizens, taking into account that many disabilities are such only because society does not accommodate certain needs.

Solarpunk cities would be built on the basis of public health and social care for all, regardless of income or health status.

A network of medical centres spread through neighbourhoods would provide basic and community care, while hospitals well connected with the public transport network would provide emergency and specialist care.

Additionally, progress in sensor and communications technology would allow the widespread use of telemedicine, especially to monitor people with chronic conditions that might need urgent medical intervention at short notice. This would enable these patients to spend less time in hospitals and healthcare centers and live less stressful lives, while ensuring quality care.

Solarpunk medicine should also be about prevention and vaccination, and would benefit from reduced length or abolition of patents, so that life-saving drugs are available at affordable prices or for free through the public health service.

The biotechnological revolution has made the production of therapeutic molecules affordable and feasible even for small-scale biohackers. We can imagine therefore that the production of many medicines will be done on a local scale, commensurate with the necessities of the community.

Paired with a revival of herbal/traditional medicine in the cases where this is effective, with a wide availability of mental healthcare and with a capillary diffusion of health education and income support to healthy lifestyles, these measures would result in a healthier, happier citizenship.

Solarpunk cities would also provide social care to their citizens, in the form of services to the very young, very old or vulnerable and also in the form of enhanced support and community networks.

Solarpunk cities are intergenerational and would re-create the support present in old clan or extended family structures without the resulting social pressures, including the elderly in community life and valuing their input and experience. We imagine younger neighbours helping the elders in labour-intensive tasks or in moving, and elder neighbours looking after the children of the younger ones and perhaps passing down traditions and recipes. We imagine periodic communal meals and gatherings, forming stable communities in every corner of the city and eradicating the current loneliness epidemic.

 

While unified in the struggle to respond to these universal needs, Solarpunk cities would be a product of the communities that live in them rather than of top-down master plans. They would retain and adapt their historic buildings, rather than tearing everything down and building it anew.

The form of the solarpunk city would follow local traditions, uses and aesthetic and the input of the community, serve the needs of its citizens and adopt constructive techniques and technological adaptations that depend on the local climate, vegetation and fauna.

Solarpunk Nairobi would by necessity be different from Solarpunk Oslo, and even cities in the same country, like Milano, in the middle of a well-watered plain, and Matera, perched on a rocky, arid plateau, would follow different transition trajectories and come up with different solutions to deal with their local needs.

We feel that this inbuilt plurality and divergence of expression is a very positive feature. We say no to a top-down “universal” solarpunk style with cookie-cutter glass-and steel skyscrapers plonked in the middle of an idealized, cookie-cutter rural environment; “international solarpunk” or “top-down solarpunk” are imperialist oxymorons.

Education is key to building a true solarpunk community, to political and social engagement and to making informed choices. Education should build a social consciousness and give each citizen the ability to engage in continuous education throughout their life and to adapt to technological changes in the workplace.

Solarpunk education would be free, public and inclusive, not only of different perspectives though decolonisation and intersectionality, but also of different learning styles and cognitive preferences, and should aim to develop the talents of each individual, valuing and nurturing academic skills and creative or craft talents equally. We also imagine a school system rooted in the urban tissue, with special classes taking place in different parts of the neighbourhood, taking advantage of local expertise and traditions, valuing the contributions of the older residents.

Higher learning (colleges and universities) should likewise be free, or affordable and costed based on family income.

Since state-funded research has been the basis of the major technological transformations from the end of WWII until today, in a Solarpunk future, academic research would be adequately funded in order to develop the technologies and protocols which would help us move away from dependence on fossil fuels and on the growth spiral and reduce our environmental footprint.

Traditional knowledge and skills, however, would be equally important. Solarpunk futures would value both.

Finally, Solarpunk futures would run on a different economic model from the one currently in vogue. Solarpunk economics would not be concerned with growth and profit, but rather with balancing production output with social and environmental constraints and with redistributing wealth to create social justice.

Solarpunk cities are not just an idea; they are being built right now by a million different hands, across the world, most of whom haven’t even heard of solarpunk.

From community architecture projects to participatory budgeting efforts, from the Transition Towns Network to the Food not Lawns project, from surplus food redistribution to tool libraries and second-hand swaps, from city-wide macro to building-size micro, more and more people are realizing that cities could and should be better, not places where people exist as atomized, isolated individuals who eat, sleep, work, repeat, but communities of people who live together, struggle together, and create new culture and ideas together.

Solarpunk cities are coming, and the solarpunk community can speed the process by making such cities imaginable, desirable, almost tangible, by prototyping them in fiction and art, and, most importantly, by lending its narrative and artistic instruments to the citizens so that they can play with the idea and optimize it to their needs.

As Commando Jugendstil we have started along this road with a sustainability project financed by Fondazione Punto.Sud, Fondazione Cariplo and Fondazione per il Sud, with co-funding from the European Union and delivered in collaboration with social enterprise Coop A.ME.LIN.C ONLUS and a network of local partners in the area of Milano.

Our project “Milano Cartoline da un Futuro Possibile” aims to help citizens of selected neighbourhoods in Milano redesign their surroundings to improve living standards, social inclusion and cohesion and to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis, connecting local conflicts in the management of the commons and local issues with wider processes.

A series of (in)formative sessions, focus groups and workshops, delivered in collaboration with local schools, will allow citizens to take an active role in a collective, democratic process to redesign the local environment.

Citizens will be encouraged not only to find practical short- and medium-term solutions to increase the sustainability and livability of the neighbourhood, but also to make use of narrative and artistic tools to illustrate their vision of a post-transition neighbourhood, identifying long-term projects to realize it.

The chief outputs of the project will be local ecological transition plans for 2020-2030 and an interactive IT tool that collects useful information of the present and local visions for the future, increasing awareness of local sustainability solutions.

This might seem a small step, but little by little solarpunk cities will become reality, and we will be there when it happens.

Further Reading and Inspiration

  • Kelvin Campbell, Making Massive Small Change, Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want, Chelsea Green Publishing, London, 2018
  • Energy Task Force, No Heat No Rent: An Urban Solar & Energy Conservation Manual, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Energy Task Force, Windmill Power for City People: A Documentation of the First Urban Wind Energy System, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Ezio Manzini and Anna Meroni, Creative Communities, Edizioni POLI.design, Milano 2007
  • Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008
  • Paul Auerbach, Socialist Optimism: An Alternative Political Economy for the 21st Century, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London, 2016
  • Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook, From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, Transition Books, Dartington, 2008

Coronavirus and the Digital Divide

Going into the gradual UK lockdown, two weeks ago, we expected to feel scared, worried for our relatives scattered across the world, and, after a few days of forced inactivity, bored out of our wits. We knew that there was not a lot we could do about the first two, but thankfully our core members had the luck and privilege to be well stocked of craft supplies, books and videogames. However we hardly had a chance to touch any of that.

In fact, most of us in the core team have the privilege to be able to work from home for most of our regular work activities and we have found that without a clear break between work and reproductive labour, the two blend in seamlessly in a continuum of tasks to complete, leaving hardly any interstice to sneak in an hour or so of creativity. This has been the source of a large amount of frustration among our members and we still haven’t found a way to build a new work-life balance. Perhaps time will tell, but we’re open to suggestions.

Like for most people, our social life has moved to the web. We’ve been using various video calls to contact family, meet with colleagues and organise with fellow activists and solarpunk creators. Physical distances have been simultaneously made impassable and immaterial. If all places are equally impossible or impractical to reach, there is no reason why collaborating with someone across the ocean would be any harder than doing the same with someone only a few miles away. Endless possibilities are open before us who have a good connection to the web: we can give seminars to faraway universities and collectives, attend lectures from esteemed colleagues five time zones away, reconnect with relatives we’ve not seen in a decade.

This is all well and good, however this crisis has highlighted how much of a privilege this is. For the people caught on the other side of the digital divide, the shift of all social life, education and services to the web is inevitably another source of stress as it becomes completely inaccessible to them.

When politicians and activists call for net neutrality or even for free internet connection for everyone, they are not trying to “pander to the millennial demographic”, but recognising that the internet has become an extension of the public sphere and an essential tool for daily life, and as such it should be treated like a common good with no access barriers.

Between this and the huge surveillance and data ownership issues raised by the recent controversies regarding most social platforms, there has never been a better moment to discuss and design a better way of building and managing the internet, one that centres people’s digital rights and privacy instead or profits and is built around democratic self-organisation, free open-source software and cooperativism.

Our hope for the future is that we will collectively learn from this stressful, exceptional experience and build a new, better digital normality.

 

—April 24, 2020