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"Renewable energy and persistence alter all things"

After Benjamin Franklin


Cities and the Culture of Sustainability

Herbert Girardet

Urban growth is changing the face of the earth and the condition of humanity. In one century, global urban populations have expanded from 15 to 50 per cent of the total which itself has gone up from 1.5 to nearly 6 billion. By 2000, half of humanity will live in cities, with much of the other half depending on urban markets for their economic survival. Urban agglomerations and their resource uses are becoming the dominant feature of the human presence on earth, profoundly changing humanity’s relationship to its host planet and its eco-systems. Will it be possible to limit the physical impact of cities on the global environment? Will it be possible to limit the size of cities in the age of the mega-city?

The size of modern cities, too, in terms of numbers as well physical scale, is unprecedented: in 1800 there was only one city with a million people, London. At that time the largest 100 cities in the world had 20 million inhabitants, with each city usually extending to just a few thousand hectares. In 1990 the world's 100 largest cities accommodated 540 million people and 220 million people lived in the 20 largest cities, mega-cities of over 10 million people, some extending to hundreds of thousands of hectares. In addition, there were 35 cities of over 5 million and hundreds of over one million people.

In a world now dominated by cities, the international community is starting to address the issue of urban sustainability. The process began in Rio with Agenda 21 and continued at the 1996 UN City Summit in Istanbul. The 100-page Habitat Agenda, signed in Istanbul by 180 nations, states: ‘Human settlements shall be planned, developed and improved in a manner that takes full account of sustainable development principles and all their components, as set out in Agenda 21. ... We need to respect the carrying capacity of ecosystems and preservation of opportunities for future generations. … Science and technology have a crucial role in shaping sustainable human settlements and sustaining the ecosystems they depend upon.’

We are dealing with a new reality. Mega-cities depend on mega-structures that have little to do with the world of small-is-beautiful that Resurgence readers subscribe to. Large scale urbanisation is an essentially unsustainable process. It greatly increases per capita use of fossil fuels, metals, timber, meat and manufactured products, with major external environmental implications. Unlike most traditional cultural systems, modern urban systems crucially depend on a vast system of external supply lines to rural areas and manufacturing centres, facilitated by global transport and communications infrastructures. This is not culture, or even civilisation in the traditional sense, but mobilisation - of people, resources and financial capital.

City people often have very limited understanding of their use of resources. Energy is a case in point. When city dwellers think heat and light they usually don’t think firewood, but switch on electric or gas appliances - yet they are hardly aware of the power station, refinery or gas field, that supplies them. And they hardly reflect the impacts of our energy use on the environment because they are rarely experienced directly, except when they inhale exhaust fumes on a busy street.

Demand for energy defines modern cities more than any other factor. Most rail, road and aeroplane traffic occurs between cities - for business, social contact or pleasure. Most urban activities depend on fossil fuels - to warm, cool, or illuminate us, or to supply us with goods and services. Without routine use of fossil fuels, mega-cities of ten million people and more would not have occurred. As far as I am aware, there has never been a city of more than one million people not running on coal, oil or gas. But there is a price to pay: not only is air pollution a continuing menace in cities, but most of the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is attributable to combustion in or on behalf of the world's cities. Yet, most city people find it hard to make the connection with something that is not happening here, but out there.

Urban food supplies are another case in point. The direct experience of growing food is largely absent in urban life; people harvest at the super market and most people have come to expect food to be served up packaged and branded for enhanced recognition. As city people they are hardly aware of the impacts of food consumption on the fertility of farmland supplying them, often from some distant place.

Urban standards of living have come to be the norm also in the countryside. As we put cling wrapped meat or fruit in a super market trolley, we are blissfully unaware that humanity now uses nearly half the world's primary production from photosynthesis and that most of this is utilised by urban people. Our knowledge system fails to inform us that the human species is changing the very way in which the 'the web of life' on earth itself functions: from the geographically scattered interaction of a myriad of living species, to which local cultures are intimately connected, into an assembly of concentrated urban centres into which the one species, humanity, funnels resources from all over the world; cities today take up only 2 per cent of the world's land surface, yet they use over 75 per cent of the world's resources.

Arising from the work of William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel I have examined the ecological footprint of London - i.e., the land surfaces required to feed it, to supply it with wood products and to re-absorb its C02 output. In total, these extend to 125 times London’s own territory of 390,000 acres, or nearly 50 million acres. With only 12 per cent of Britain's population, London requires the equivalent of Britain's entire productive land. In reality, these land surfaces, of course, stretch to far-flung places such as the wheat prairies of Kansas, the Soya bean fields of Mato Grosso, the forests of Canada, Scandinavia and Amazonia, or the tea gardens of Assam or Mount Kenya. But this global dependence of Londoners has never been a big issue. Food is there to be enjoyed - the environmental impact of food supplies, including the energy used to produce and supply them, is rarely discussed.

The same applies to the metabolism of cities. Like other organisms, they have a definable metabolism. That of traditional towns and cities was characterised by interactions between dense concentrations of people and their local hinterland, with transport and production systems centred on muscle power. Beyond their perimeters, traditional settlements were usually surrounded by concentric rings of market gardens, forests, orchards, farm and grazing land for use by towns people. Today urban farming is still alive and well in cities in many countries. In Chinese cities, for instance, people still practice returning nightsoil to local farmland to assure sustained yields of crops. With their unique systems of governance, Chinese cities vast administer adjacent areas of farmland and aim to be self-sufficient in food from this. Is this model of urban-rural linkages relevant to cities elsewhere in the world?

The metabolism of many traditional cities was circular, whereas that of most 'modern' cities is linear: Resources are funnelled through the urban system without much concern about their origin, and about the destination of wastes; inputs and outputs are treated as largely unrelated. Contemporary urban sewage systems are a case in point. They have the function of separating people from their wastes. Sewage, treated or not treated, is discharged into rivers and coastal waters downstream from population centres, and its inherent fertility is lost to the world’s farmland. Today coastal waters everywhere are polluted both by sewage and toxic effluents, as well as the run-off of fertilisers applied to farmland feeding cities. This open loop is utterly unsustainable.

The linear metabolic system of most cities is profoundly different from nature's own metabolism which could be likened to a large circle: every output by an organism is also an input which renews and sustains the whole living environment. Urban planners and educators should make a point of studying the ecology of natural systems. On a predominantly urban planet, cities need to adopt circular metabolic systems to assure their own sustainability and the long-term viability of the environments on which they depend. Urban outputs will need to be regarded as potential inputs into urban production systems, with routine recycling of paper, metals, plastic and glass, and composting of organic materials for re-use on local farmland.

The local effects of urban resource use also need to be better understood. Cities accumulate materials within them. The 1,6 million inhabitants of Vienna, every day increase the city’s actual weight by some 25,000. Much of this is relatively inert materials, such as concrete and tarmac. Other substances, such as heavy metals, have toxic effects as they leach into the local environment. Nitrates, phosphates, or chlorinated hydrocarbons accumulate in local water courses and soils, with as yet uncertain consequences for future inhabitants.

These issues need to be addressed by national and urban policy, to establish new ways in which to engineer and plumb our cities. They also need to be addressed at a subtler level. The value system of city people needs to ascertain that this is not taken for granted indefinitely. Our separation from natural systems and our lack of direct experience of the natural world is a dangerous reality as it reduces our understanding of our impacts and of the ways in which we might reduce them.

Can cities maintain their living standards whilst curbing their local and global environmental impacts? To answer this question it helps to draw up balance sheets comparing urban resource flows. It is apparent that similar-sized cities are supplying the needs of their people with a greatly varying throughput of resources. Many cities could massively reduce their throughput of resources, maintaining a good standard of living whilst creating much needed local jobs in the process. Cities in the North often have a much less impressive track record than those in the South, though poverty there is a significant driving force for the high levels of waste recycling.

Towards Sustainable Urban Development

How can city people improve their understanding of the impacts of their lifestyles? Can large modern cities adopt more local, more frugal, more self-regulating production and disposal systems? How can the growth of cities be kept under control?

An answer to these questions may be critical to the future well-being of the biosphere, as well as of humanity itself. Maintaining stable linkages between cities and their hinterland - local or global - is a new task for most city politicians, administrators, business people and people at large, requiring new approaches to urban management. Many of the world's major environmental problems will only be solved by city people conceptualising new ways of running their cities. Some cities have already made circularity and resource efficiency a top priority. In Europe, many cities are installing waste recycling and composting equipment. Throughout the developing world, too, city administrations have made it their business to encourage the reuse of wastes.

Given that the physiology of modern cities is currently characterised by the routine use of fossil fuels, a major issue is whether people will see the potential of new, clean and efficient energy technologies for powering their cities, such as combined heat-and-power systems, heat pumps, fuel cells and photovoltaic modules. In the coming decades enormous reductions in fossil fuel use can be achieved by incorporating photovoltaics modules in urban buildings.

To make cities more sustainable a whole new range of initiatives is required.

Urban agriculture is a case in point. If well developed, it could make a significant contribution to feeding cities and providing people with livelihoods.

Urban food growing is certainly common in the late 20th century and not just in poorer countries - a recent book called Urban Agriculture proves the point: 'The 1980 US census found that urban metropolitan areas produced 30 % of the dollar value of US agricultural production. By 1990, this figure had increased to 40 %. - Singapore is fully self-reliant in meat and produces 25 % of its vegetable needs. - Bamako, Mali, is self-sufficient in vegetables and produces half or more of the chickens it consumes. - Dar-es-Salaam, one of the world's the fastest growing large cities, now has 67 % of families engaged in farming compared with 18 % in 1967. - 65 % of Moscow families are involved in food production compared with 20 % in 1970. There are 80,000 community gardeners on municipal land in Berlin with a waiting list of 16,000.’

Urban agriculture is only one aspects of a more sustainable urban lifestyle. City people need to formulate new cultural priorities and this should centre on formulating value systems for urban living, giving cities the chance to realise their full potential as centres of creativity, education and communication. Cities are nothing if not centres of knowledge and today this also means knowledge of the world and our impact upon it. Reducing urban impacts is as much an issue of the better uses of technology as of education and of information dissemination.

As I have suggested above, currently cities are not centres of civilisation but mobilisation of people and goods. We need to revive the vision of cities as places of conviviality and above all else of sedentary living. This means reviving more local lifestyles within cities themselves, focusing on the concept of the urban village within the city, where community living can be a reality. A calmer, serener vision of cities is needed to help them fulfil their true potential as places not just of the body but of the spirit. The greatest energy of cities should be directed towards creating masterpieces of human creativity.

The future of cities crucially depends on the utilisation of the rich knowledge of their people, and that includes environmental knowledge. Urban communications systems have a particularly important role to play in helping city people to understand their impacts and to bring about the necessary changes in the way we run our cities. In future, cities need to develop communication strategies that help people to confront the global impacts of their economic power and consumer habits. City people need new communication channels to help them improve their decision making, particularly regarding the impacts of their lifestyles. Here we can learn a great deal from the cultural feedback methodologies practised by traditional cultures which use regular village meetings to reflect their impacts on the local environment. New communication systems can enable city people to monitor and ameliorate their impact on the biosphere.

Today new communication technologies should also be utilised to enhance the way cities function by improving communications within them, leading to better decision making. Urban Intranets, now in place in a growing number of cities, should improve the communication flow between various sectors of urban society. If such changes occur, using the best of modern communication systems, we may yet learn to run our cities in more sustainable ways, improving their metabolism, and reducing their ecological footprints. Large cities are not going to go away for the time being, but the way they work certainly need not be as damaging and wasteful as it is at the present time.

Cities for a new millennium could be energy and resource efficient, people friendly, and culturally rich, with active democracies assuring the best uses of human energies. Prudent investment in infrastructure could enhance employment, improving public health and living conditions.

Eco-friendly urban development could well become the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century, not only for human self-interest, but also to create a sustainable relationship between cities and the biosphere. Ultimately that cannot be done without changing the value systems underpinning our cities. In the end, it is only a profound change of attitudes, a spiritual and ethical change, that can assure that cities become truly sustainable.

Herbert Girardet, a UN Global 500 Award recipient, is author of THE GAIA ATLAS OF CITIES and EARTHRISE. He co-authored the report CREATING A SUSTAINABLE LONDON. He is currently working on a six-part TV series called The People's Planet, for CNN, and NHK, Tokyo. He is visiting professor at Middlesex University, London, and chairman of the Schumacher Society, UK.

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