The regenerative city applies ecological principles to urban redevelopment to make the city environmentally viable. It should make the city socially viable as well.
The great urbanist Herbert Girardet introduced the idea of the ecological footprint of the city more than 20 years ago. In the current edition of Resurgence he has an article about “the regenerative city”, based on his most recent book, ahead of the next UN city summit, Habitat III, in October this year in Quito, Ecuador.
As the planet has urbanised, so the ecological footprints of the city have also grown. As Girardet notes:
Urban populations use the bulk of the world’s resources, and they are prime contributors to pollution. environmental damage, biodiversity loss, and climate change.
Urban resource demands and outputs define human impacts on our home planet more than any other factor.
Buried in this observation is a deeper observation about the history of the city: that their ability to manage the flows caused by density defines both their size and their impact. By flows, I mean flows of food and water and power (or energy), of sanitation and waste, and of people and goods.
And so, looking back at 19th century London, Bazalgette’s vast sewer project followed the “Great Stink“, caused when raw sewage from a growing city had overloaded the Thames. London’s repeated cholera outbreaks in the 19th century followed the city’s expansion, pre-Bazalgette, to a point where the night-soil men could no longer cart (literally) the sewage away overnight.
The 19th century solution to these problems of flows was to build new networks, or grids, which engineered scale and speed into the system. The sewage project is only the most spectacular example of this; rail and roads, electricity grids, and reservoir-based water systems did the same thing for other flows, moving from municipal to regional and national scale.
‘We move more stuff’
In case you’re thinking that digital and ICT changes this, think again. It might, but not any time soon. As John Thackara reminds us memorably in a fine passage about the Barcelona-Marseille motorway in In The Bubble,
The traffic is a solid line of sixteen-wheeled trucks, nose to tail, a couple of meters apart. In front of me is a Croatian truck: ‘‘Engine parts from Zagreb.’’ Behind me is a Spanish truck full of tomatoes. The lines of trucks stretch as far ahead, and as far behind, as the eye can see. From the crest of a hill, I can see hundreds of trucks flowing in each direction… That torrent of trucks was a reminder that thanks to all the design we do, man-made flows of matter and energy all around us are growing in volume. We buy more hardware than ever. We print more paper. We package more goods. We move more stuff, and ourselves, around at ever-increasing rates.
Trucks, motorways, trains, power lines: these engineering solutions, and the mental models that sit behind them, are why the ecological footprint of cities is so large. (London’s is larger than the whole of the UK). They mean that cities can export the costs of scale–usually ecological costs–to other locations. Indeed, if you look at the geography of the Thames Estuary, whole chunks of the Essex coast are there to process London’s waste, downstream both literally and metaphorically.
The urban metabolism
I’m writing about London because I know it, but most cities are built on the same intensive, ecologically expensive principles. As Girardet put it:
The urban metabolism currently operates as an inefficient and wasteful linear input-output system. It needs to be transformed into a resource-efficient circular system instead. The only way to overcome notions of ever-greater scarcity is for cities to continually regeherate the living systems on which they rely for their sustenance.
That’s where the idea of the regenerative city comes in. It is the reconnection of the city to ecology. Girardet quotes Barry Commoner’s “four laws” of ecology, summarised like this:
- Everything is connected to everything else
- Everything must go somewhere
- Nature knows best
- There is no such thing as a free lunch
Cities and nature
To make the regenerative city, therefore, it’s necessary to reimagine these flows of production and consumption, of transport and construction, through an ecological lens, and then to re-engineer them. This involves remaking the links that once existed between cities and nature (think of the orchards and market gardens that once ringed London), between urban systems and ecosystems.
The regenerative city is more than just being “sustainable.” Ecological debt has already degraded the soils, forests and watercourses that cities depend on. “Sustaining” implies no improvement on this degraded state, just as “carbon neutral” makes no inroads into our carbon debt.
Regenerative and regeneration
One of the questions that all of this raises is the relationship between regenerative and regeneration. I’m not a fan of much urban regeneration: it’s often based on an economic model that depends on creating clusters of work, leisure and retail that usually also enriches developers, privatises public space, and prices out local communities. It often increases flows.
It seems clear that the regenerative city should be an attractive place to live. If cities are “magnets and glue“, to use Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s resonant phrase, there’s quite a lot of quality of life “glue” in there.
It feels, for example, more like a “happy city” than a “smart city,” for example, drawing on some of the thinking of Lancaster’s Institute of Social Futures. This is probably worth a post in its own right another time, but the discourse around the happy city emphasises the small scale and the local, whereas the smart city emphasises connection, “always-on”, and notions of global connectness and competitiveness.
A paper by the late John Urry for the ISF, which I can’t find online, noted some of the features of the “happy city.”
- “Happy cities thus involve a smaller scale system of neighbourhoods, indeed with cities fragmented into more self-sufficient neighbourhoods without rigid zoning.”
- “Collective ownership would also be key. Car-[and bike-] sharing schemes are an example of a new ‘access’ economy incorporating wider systems of mobility.”
- “A liveable city would involve much less energy use through enabling social practices on a smaller scale.”
- “Happy cities involve re-designing places to foster higher density living and shifting towards practices that are just much smaller in scale….There should be a systemic reduction in distances travelled by people, objects, goods and money.”
- Finally, and this is an important point: “Such a city would be one with reasonable levels of wellbeing although in terms of normal economic measures most people would be ‘poorer’.”
Of course, most of the examples of such urban innovation are from the richer world–Copenhagen always gets a namecheck here–although the largest bike-sharing scheme in the world is in China and there has been significant public transport innovation in Latin America. Girardet expresses the hope that in emerging markets cities can be “smart from the start”, and there’s some evidence elsewhere that in places like Vietnam the energy model is more likely to be based on the distributed production of renewables.
Being smart from the start requires more than just being persuaded of the industrial, social, and ecological logic of the regenerative city. It also requires that this model of the future city is seen by politicians and policy makers as a desirable vision of the future. As Sohail Inayatullah reminds us, the last time Asian cities made a choice about the future, in the ’60s and the ’70s, they opted for the “used future” of cars and highways. That model is discredited now. But getting to the future, especially to a large-scale complex urban future that involves long-term planning and investment decisions, still requires making choices.
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Resurgence is available now from the publishers. There’s a good short introduction online to the regenerative city in the shape of a report (opens pdf) written by Herbert Girardet for the World Future Council. I have written before about Girardet’s work, here and here.
The International Futures Forum, based in Scotland, has been at the forefront of developing the Three Horizons model as a framework for futures practice. They have an article published in the current issue of Ecology and Society, called “Three Horizons: a pathways practice for transformation”, that is worth discussion. The full article can also be downloaded from the Ecology & Society site.
I’ve written about Three Horizons before on this blog and in the Journal of Futures Studies, and have used it as a futures tool in my own practice. I’ve found it valuable as a method to help groups focus on the challenges of “acting on the future.” In brief, it is a systems framework that has a model of change embedded within it.
Horizon 1 is the current dominant model in any given system; Horizon 3 is the range of emerging practices in the system, often associated with visionary models of change; and Horizon 2 is the adaptive resonses by Horizon 1 actors to Horizon 3 ideas and practices.
The “pathways practice” described in the article involves five steps, and in this article I am going to reflect on these.
- Step 1: Examining current concerns
- Step 2: Exploring future aspirations
- Step 3: Exploring inspirational practice in the present
- Step 4: Innovation in play
- Step 5: Essential features to maintain.
Although futurists aren’t supposed to make predictions, the notion that our energy system is switching much more quickly than expected from fossil fuels to renewables, and that solar energy will be at the front of that change, suddenly doesn’t seem so controversial. Of course, the speed of the change still matters, certainly in terms of global warming outcomes.
And yet until recently the notion that solar energy would be the leading energy source was a possible future that was, broadly, regarded as impossible.
The International Energy Agency didn’t think that solar power would ever be affordable at any great scale, and didn’t include it in its projections. In 2013, George Monbiot wrote that “solar power is unlikely to make a large contribution to electricity supply in the UK.” Goodall himself admits that he didn’t think it had much to offer until very recently.
Or, as Bloomberg put it:
The best minds in energy keep underestimating what solar and wind can do. Since 2000, the International Energy Agency has raised its long-term solar forecast 14 times and its wind forecast five times.
So what’s happened? The answer, in headline form, is in the chart at the top of this post.
I co-wrote a post with my Futures Company colleague Joe Ballantyne after the Brexit vote that was published on The Futures Company’s Medium site. In the article we argue that the referendum revealed a deep “fear of the future” among many Britons, and that this could have significant implications for brands. Referencing it here for completeness’ sake: here’s an extract.
“The values split
We’ve written before about the deep values split across Europe and north America between an emerging generation of “post-materialists” and the existing “traditionals” and “moderns.” The “post-materialists” are close to becoming a majority, which is always when conflict becomes most intense. The social markers of “post-materialists” are that they are younger, better educated, and more urban, but the values differences are more important. “Post-materialists” are more likely to value diversity; “traditionals” and “moderns” hierarchy. There’s a revealing chart in polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft on the day of the vote.
The values gap on the Brexit vote
Four times as many Leavers think Multiculturalism is a force for bad as do Remainers; three times as many Leavers think social liberalism is a force for bad. More than twice as many Leavers think globalisation is a force for bad, and a slightly higher proportion of Leavers think the internet is a force for bad. The gap on cultural differences around multiculturalism, feminism and the environment is wide, and these values differences speak to profound differences in worldview. These are not unique to the US and the UK. We can see the same differences, with different forms of political and party expression, right across Europe and the United States.
“The disappointing future
And these speak to a deep disappointment in an idea of the future, and of progress, which propelled post-war politics from the mid-1940s to the 1990s. In the UK, the 1997 election was the last in which the winning party had campaigned on an optimistic platform. “Things”, went the song, “can only get better.”
Since then, and even before, globalisation promised prosperity for everyone, but instead, while having profound effects on living standards in Asia, at home it has concentrated wealth even more sharply in the hands of the few. The internet was to be a tool of liberation, but our experience of it is as likely to be of intrusion, a loss of privacy, and a loss of control. The result is that people seek to pull up the drawbridges.
“Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.”
The notion of “solastalgia,” is relevant here, a word used by environmentalists for “the loss of a sense of belonging to a particular place and a sense of desolation about its disappearance,” even though the place is still physically there. In their enthusiasm for change, brands pursue the leading edge, but they need to be more alert to what it feels like on desolation row.
For the list of values in the Ashcroft research represents a direct challenge to the idea of innovation. Think of it for a moment: for most brands innovation is about novelty, about progress, often about technology. It is clear that the values represented by leavers aren’t those that welcome continual change in the name of improvement.
*The whole article is here.*
Since we are suddenly in the worst moment of racism in Britain since the 1970s, I thought it was worth a reminder that defending migrants is not new in British culture. Shakespeare lodged for several years in a house in Silver Street owned by a Huguenot, and was in London when the apprentices threatened to kill foreigners they saw on the streets.
Perhaps as a result of this, one of his contributions to the probably unperformed play Sir Thomas More is one of the great appeals to humanity.
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
The history: the original play, according to the British Library, was written by Anthony Munday in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, but the censor, the Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney, refused permission for it to be staged. He may have been “worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest on the streets of London.”
The left case for Brexit, or so called Lexit, has been well articulated during the referendum by Tariq Ali, John Hilary, and others. Paul Mason made it in one column, then rowed back again in another. A number of notable Greens have been leavers: Rupert Read, who changed his mind, and Jenny Jones, who made her case in the Guardian.
In the most recent edition of New Left Review, Susan Watkins summarised this case succinctly:
[A] vote to remain, whatever its motivation, will function in this context as a vote for a British establishment that has long channelled Washington’s demands into the Brussels negotiating chambers, scotching hopes for a ‘social Europe’ since the Single European Act of 1986… A Leave vote… would not bring about a new golden age of national sovereignty… But the knock-on effects of a leave vote could be largely positive: disarray, and probably a split, in the Conservative Party; preparations in Scotland for a new independence ballot.
And God knows, it’s hard to hold progressive views and not have one of Polly Toynbee’s famous clothes pegs over your nose as you approach the EU. [Update: Or to vote Remain through gritted teeth.] Peter Mair’s argument that the EU has the form of a democratic organisation but none of the substance is hard to argue with. The Lisbon Treaty, with all of the shenanigans involved, shifted the centre of gravity of the EU sharply towards neoliberalism and away from the social market; Germany’s imposition of ordoliberalism on the Eurozone and the brutal bullying of Greece was plain ugly.
The notion that the EU “needs to be taught a lesson”, put to me last week in a bar in France by a woman who said she’d vote Leave if she was British, has an obvious attraction.
But there’s something deeper going on, and that’s why I think that progressives have to vote Remain despite the EU’s evident problems.
Cambridge University Library has a small but perfectly formed exhibition called Lines of Thought running until September to mark the 600th anniversary of its founding in 1416. (The longevity does make you pause a moment.) It draws on elements of their fine collection of books and papers, and is built around six themes: communication, literature, faith, gravity, anatomy and genetics. (There’s a short video explaining more.)
The first books in the library were deposited as security in exchange for loans, underlining how expensive books were in the 15th century.
Walking around the collection was a reminder of how effective books, and paper, have been as a way of transmitting knowledge. Tyndale had to leave the country to get printed his translation of the Bible into English, then an infinitely radical act. The first attempt, in Koln, was raided by the authorities, but he succeed in publishing it in the Netherlands in 1534, and copies were smuggled to England. Tyndale was executed for heresy in 1536, but copies survived–Anne Boleyn owned one. When King James I/VIth commissioned his official translation 70 years later, much of it was taken from Tyndale’s version.
In her film The Divide, a documentary adaption of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Katharine Round has taken a fairly analytical book and tell a set of stories around it. This is not a criticism. Film and book are different media, and The Divide works as a companion piece to the book, pulling out the experience of inequality at a visceral level.
One of the purposes of good futures work should be “to make the future strange,” to push people out of their assumption that what is normal now will go on being normal in the future. One of my favourite exercise for this is Douglas Coupland’s “Reverse Time Capsule“, published in Wired magazine in the 1990s, that listed things in the present that would have seemed unlikely, or worse, 20 years previously. One favourite example from his list: the Japanese luxury car.
When I run workshops, I sometimes get people to bring objects that would have seemed unlikely in the mid-1990s, while discouraging the obvious consumer-techno choices. Having re-read some of the early history of the AIDS epidemic recently, and the way in which it wasn’t taken that seriously at first because the main victims were gay men and drugs users, in 2016 gay marriage seems a strong candidate for the current reverse time capsule.
The past is strange
But it’s also useful to remind people that the past is also strange, and there were two good examples of this in Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare, which I cantered through recently, both on the colour black.
The first is that black clothes, as seen in this portrait (probably) of Shakespeare, were a sign of wealth and status. The reason for this was that black dyes were much more expensive than other dyes. This was at a time when–according to James Wallman’s book *Stuffocation*–it took two months’ work to make a shirt, which would cost the equivalent of arounf £2,000 ($3,000) at current prices.
The second is more surprising. Sugar arrived in Britain in the Elizabethan period, but again it was expensive, and therefore only the well-off could afford it. The result: they ended up with blackened teeth (dentistry didn’t catch up until a few hundred years later). So the less affluent would blacken their teeth to pretend that they too could afford sugar, and were therefore wealthier than they were.
The image of Shakespeare is from Wikimedia. It was painted sometime between 1600 and 1610, perhaps by John Taylor.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge marks its 200th anniversary this year, and has a small exhibition of prints connected by that date: some from Turner’s print series Liber Studiorum, of British and European landscapes, some from Goya’s bullfighting series La tauromaquia, and Peter Cornelius’ Faust series.
1816 was also “the year without a summer”, following the vast volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year. According to the curators’ notes for the exhibition, written by Elenor Ling and Amy Marquis,
swathes of volcanic gas were thrust 40km skywards into the stratosphere, far above any rainclouds that could have sped up their dispersal. These gases and particles circled the planet and played havoc with the world’s weather systems.