Hot Town

A new book says that the fight against climate change must start in the cities.

By Sean Tanner

Clive Doucet’s new book Urban Meltdown marries poetry, political science, history, and urban affairs in an attempt to offer solutions for tackling climate change in the unique context of North American cities. An Ottawa City Councilman and longtime urban activist, Doucet possesses authentic insight into urban issues and the political structures that maintain the status quo. Too often, however, he strays from his expertise, creating a labyrinth of tangents about everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to the poetry of W. B. Yeats.

When concentrating on his home city of Ottawa and the challenges he’s dedicated his life to, such as urban sprawl, gentrification, and privatization, Doucet’s descriptions are simple yet compelling. He draws us in, recounting the histories neighborhoods and highlighting seemingly unimportant details such as cracked sidewalks. He makes us nostalgic for a time before Big-Box stores littered the landscape, and he makes the case that individual neighborhoods are threatened by North America’s obsession with expressways—a staggering 40 to 50 percent of all city budgets are usually earmarked for road construction and reconstruction. The fix, Doucet writes, lie in light rail and public transportation, since mass transit promotes local economies, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and frees up the funding for eco-friendly projects.

In these sections, Doucet weaves together the small details and big picture in a way that gives the reader insight into the importance of addressing environmental concerns at a local level. The intimate, detailed writing recalls the voice of the late Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

It is when he pulls back and attempts to link environmental concerns and politics with a multitude of historical and literary points that the book begins to unravel. Doucet believes that until large-scale institutional changes are made, climate change will continue to accelerate until it is too late to ensure our survival. Following this logic, he lays out a plan that includes national and international political reform, environmental reform, social justice, and building environmental accountability into the global economy. The blueprint is interesting but the ideas included in each topic are littered with clichés like “Democracy is not brought about by corporations” and “the War on Drugs is a needless burden.” We desperately want Doucet to give us something new about how climate change and cities are linked. Sadly, he does not.

At its best, multidisciplinary analysis can generate new and profound ideas, but Doucet’s approach leaves the reader struggling to figure out how everything presented relates. It’s a shame because when he addresses the local issues, Doucet has valuable insights. If he had stuck to those, the book might have been an entertaining-for-a-textbook resource for a college-level urban affairs class. As it is, though, it is more likely to end up on the bottom of the nightstand pile.

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