TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
Has sustainability as a concept reached its limits? Author and academic Herbert Giradet, who was recently in London to promote his book Creating Regenerative Cities (Routledge, 2014), compares the term sustainability to “a rubber band that can be stretched almost at will in many directions”.
In my last article, I suggested that the term sustainability, more than just stretched, has been trampled and abused. Rather than guiding us towards a more environmentally sound planet, it’s been appropriated by business interests and a single vision of sustainability (the “three pillars” approach) to justify economic growth and even greater urban development, the very factors that have led to environmental degeneration in the first place.
In a recent Guardian article Giradet argues that despite all the sustainability talk, the best we’ve been able to do so far is sustain a very damaged and degraded planetary ecosystem.
Of sustainable development, he says, “it was a marriage of convenience to facilitate north-south collaboration on enhancing human livelihoods while also halting humanity’s deteriorating relationship with its host planet.”
Now after decades of breakneck development that has witnessed the tremendous growth of cities globally, and especially in the south, what is clear is that what we once assumed confidently would go hand-in-hand has actually left us in a far greater ecological peril. We live in a world awash in toxic and plastic waste, in climactic limbo, and consuming far greater resources than ever before.
Well there’s a new buzzword in town that Giradet hopes will take sustainability’s place: regeneration. We might be accustomed to hearing the term when referring to gentrifying neighbourhoods or urban renewal projects, but for Giradet, regeneration is not about tearing down and starting anew, but about promoting an “environmentally enhancing, restorative relationship” with nature.
Giradet, who previously published the books Creating Sustainable Cities and Cities People Planet as well as directed more than 50 documentaries, has largely given up on the sustainability bandwagon, saying it was clearly lacking. He now argues for us to replace the current linear model of urban resource use (resources in, waste out) with “circular urban metabolism”, where cities give back to nature as much as they take from it.
“The time has come,” writes Giradet, “for cities to take specific measures to help regenerate soils, forests and watercourses rather than just sustaining them in a degraded condition, and to make renewable energy their main sources of energy supply.”
More specifically, he argues for transforming our waste into nutrients for the soil, planting trees to offset carbon emissions, investing in renewable energy and reviving urban agriculture.
Of all the cities showing regenerative promise, you might call Adelaide, Australia Giradet’s pet favourite, a city he has worked with and advised over the years. The city has been implementing a decades-long regenerative programme which has blessed the city with an small fleet of solar powered buses, wind power farms, park benches made of recycled plastic, and best of all, an envious waste recycling capacity: 180,000 tonnes of compost from organic waste have been produced in Adelaide for market gardens, the produce of which is sold in local farmers markets. 3 million trees have also been planted by the city in the last 15 years. Adelaide is no doubt a model for cities around the world.
Seen from a wider persective, however, its obvious that this is essentially a strand of what we call ecological modernization, or tecnological environmentalism, something that’s been embraced by neo-environmentalists and the sustainable development crowd as something that can promote economic growth all while delivering a more sustainable environment.
But just as its debatable whether technology can save us from environmental peril, it’s also yet to be seen how long into the future cities can “regenerate” in a world where the only way forward is to grow economically and where most of that economic growth is based on resource exploitation and consumption. How long before economic growth eats up everything that is left to regenerate?
Giradet admitted in his talk at the London School of Economics that there are limits to what neoliberal cities can do to reign in consumption and urbanization, but he writes: “Development cannot be at the expense of the health of the world’s ecosystems and that their protection and continuous regeneration must be a guiding principle for human action. It is high time that these realisations were embedded in the teaching of economic theory at universities and business schools all over the world.”
So while a circular, regenerative relationship between cities and nature is certainly a progressive step forward and far beyond what most cities are currently doing, the question on my mind is, will it be enough?
Bristol (UK): The world’s only bus powered anaerobically by human waste.
Taipei (Taiwan): A 100% solar powered-stadium.
New York (USA): The city has reforested the mountainous Catskills to protect the city’s water supply.
London (UK): The Thames Array Estuary wind farm (the world’s largest) now supplies a quarter of all the city’s power needs.
Havana (Cuba): Urban farms now produce 90% of all the city’s fruit and vegetable needs.