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Book Reviews

Deep Blue Reads: Blue Urbanism, by Timothy Beatley

I lived in Seattle for about a year before I started to really notice the water. It’s an impressive feat, when you think about it – Seattle is a city surrounded on almost all sides by water: Lake Washington to the east, Puget Sound to the west, and Lake Union and the ship canal cutting through its center. Every day, I took a bus across the Montlake cut that connected the Lake to the Sound.

Over time, as I explored the city, I started to realize that everywhere I went seemed to inevitably touch water. At Pike Place Market I gazed across the Sound to the Olympic Mountains, and almost each park I went to on the weekends had a beach, their rocky intertidal shores giving way to the ocean under often-gloomy skies.

But while water became a central part of my life, I didn’t necessarily think about how each of my daily choices – the bus I took, the food I ate, the cloth bags I carried my groceries home in – actually affected those bodies of water. I eschewed plastic water bottles because in my mind they were generically wasteful, because I wanted to be “green” – not specifically because that plastic might end up in a fish’s belly in the Pacific Garbage Patch.

And now, living in Washington DC, the city I grew up in, I’ve noticed the same trend. For most of my life I have been intimately familiar with the Potomac River, but as a space for recreation. I’ve not often thought of how the time I’ve spent paddling or rowing on it connects me to its flow into the Chesapeake Bay and from there into the Atlantic Ocean, or how the fact that I now rely on a garbage disposal system in my apartment instead of a compost bin affects the river’s cleanliness and its nutrient levels.

But in reading Timothy Beatley’s Blue Urbanism: Exploring Connections Between Cities & Oceans, I’m starting to see new possibilities.


Beatley’s book has a relatively simple premise: human cities, whether coastal or inland, are indelibly tied to the oceans, through goods that are shipped in and out, food and water that’s consumed, and waste that’s released. And because of this, cities are crucial places to begin thinking about how we can harness the power of city planning and urban ethos to help the ocean thrive.

Rather than focusing on the science of ocean conservation, Blue Urbanism looks at the issue primarily from an urban planning and policy perspective. Throughout the book, Beatley provides a review of the ways cities are currently working to transform their relationships to the ocean, from floating homes in Amsterdam that are engineered “to move up and down with the sea” to be more resilient to ebbing and flowing tides, to the Seattle Aquarium’s Beach Naturalists program, which trains citizens to serve as field educators on Seattle’s many beaches. Beatley also explains what cities could do given the resources and willpower, from producing seaweed biofuels to reimagining parks to integrate the water rather than viewing the shoreline as a solid barrier. In this way, Blue Urbanism serves as an urban planning roadmap, explaining what has worked for some cities and the possibilities that exist to be developed.

One of Blue Urbanism’s greatest strengths is its focus on the holistic. Rather than declare that the answer to a healthy ocean is sustainable energy or different food sources or reworked waste management or education, Beatley recognizes that the answer is all these things, and that cities, with their mélange of people and ways of living, are the ideal sites for synthesis and innovation. He acknowledges that “what is striking today is that there seems to be not one tipping point toward irreversible ecological damage to our oceans but many,” and mitigation therefore requires a many-pronged approach. And while small-scale efforts like local cleanup days are meaningful, Beatley points out that “the scale of the current problem is so vast that such efforts are likely not enough.” This is where the coalitional possibilities of cities come in.

As the climate changes, Beatley writes, it is increasingly important for cities to focus not only on having a healthier relationship to the oceans in terms of impact, but also in terms of adaptability. This is especially crucial for coastal cities, where “population growth, alternatives to slums, and exploring the idea of a ‘soft division’ between land and ocean are central concerns.” For these cities, it’s important that adaptation to climate change also function as a response to poverty, because – as in the case of cities like Dhaka, Bangladesh – “a combination of poverty and high population density [creates] a high degree of human vulnerability,” particularly where environmental changes and disasters are concerned.

Ultimately, Blue Urbanism is a call for us to rethink our relationship to the ocean and the role that cities can play in stalling, and hopefully reversing, some of the damage that has been done. And the key to this, Beatley explains, may be to stop thinking of land and sea as two separate, distinct entities. “Perhaps it is time,” he writes, “to imagine a way of designing and planning modern cities that seeks to overcome the perceptual physical barriers between water and dirt and encourages a more conscious, thoughtful integration of land and ocean.” Out of that arise two major questions: what would that look like and how could we do it? Blue Urbanism has suggestions, and it’s up to us to pick them up and run with them.


Know of a book that would make a great Deep Blue Read? Email Elizabeth at elizabeth.weinberg[at]gmail.com.


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