Sustainable Cities in American Democracy

From Postwar Urbanism to a Civic Green New Deal

Carmen Sirianni

We face two global threats: the climate crisis and a crisis of democracy. Located at the crux of these crises, sustainable cities build on the foundations and resources of democracy to make our increasingly urban world more resilient and just. Sustainable Cities in American Democracy focuses on this effort as it emerged and developed over the past decades in the institutional field of sustainable cities—a vital response to environmental degradation and climate change that is shaped by civic and democratic action.

Carmen Sirianni shows how various kinds of civic associations and grassroots mobilizing figure in this story, especially as they began to explicitly link conservation to the future of our democracy and then develop sustainable cities as a democratic project. These organizations are national, local, or multitiered, from the League of Women Voters to the Natural Resources Defense Council to bicycle and watershed associations. Some challenge city government agencies contentiously, while others seek collaboration; many do both at some point. Sirianni uses a range of analytic approaches—from scholarly disciplines, policy design, urban governance, social movements, democratic theory, public administration, and planning—to understand how such diverse civic and professional associations have come to be both an ecology of organizations and a systemic and coherent project.

“Set against the twin crises of climate change and the erosion of Western democracy, Sirianni combines an empirically rich account of the gradual emergence of a ‘sustainable cities’ civic action field in the United States with an analytically grounded vision for a more sustainable, just, and democratic future for our cities. Anyone interested in our cities, or the fate of American democracy, will want to read this book.”

—Doug McAdam, Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, Stanford University, and coauthor of A Theory of Fields

“Sirianni reveals that cities cannot become more sustainable unless they help connect institutions, policies, and social movements that are too often fragmented and siloed. This work is extremely important for understanding how to move toward lasting and equitable policy change around many of today’s most pressing issues of human and planetary survival.”

—Jason Corburn, professor, Department of City and Regional Planning, director, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Toward the Healthy City

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The institutional field of sustainable cities has emerged with some core democratic norms and civic practices but also with many tensions and trade-offs that must be crafted and revised strategically in the face of new opportunities and persistent shortfalls. Sirianni’s account draws ambitious yet pragmatic and hopeful lessons for a “Civic Green New Deal”a policy design for building sustainable and resilient cities on much more robust foundations in the decades ahead while also addressing democratic deficits in our polarized political culture.

About the Author

Carmen Sirianni is Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought and professor of sociology and public policy at Brandeis University. His books include Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance and, with Lewis A. Friedland, Civic Innovation in America: Community Empowerment, Public Policy, and the Movement for Civic Renewal.

Additional Titles in the Environment and Society Series