In the previous post on Herbert Girardet’s recent talk at the LSE, I described how he sees us as being on the verge of a transition to a “third age of the city” – from Agropolis to Petropolis to Ecopolis. That post spent more time on the first two – especially the Petropolis, the city’s current dominant incarnation, and its limitations. The chief limitation: the city, as currently designed, is dependent on huge flows of food, energy, and waste, an “urban metabolism” that extends across the planet and is largely powered by fossil fuels. In this post, I’m going to turn to the Ecopolis.
The paradox of the city
As Edward Glaeser showed, the city “magnifies” talents and increases living standards. But there’s a high price to be paid, in terms of social instability, the damage to nature, and the size of the resource footprint, and all of these undermine the health and the wealth of the city. The externalities that the city exports represent about 12% of its living standards, and we experience this as eroded soils, polluted water, and degraded atmospheric conditions. Just last week the academic John Dearing reported in The Conversation on the tensions in China between feeding the cities and the damage caused by intensive farming to land and water systems.
Girardet’s point, which seems obvious now, but wasn’t when he first made it, is that “petropolis cities” are built on the linear logic of the industrial age; inputs in, used up, wastes out, without too much regard for where they end up. And they need to move to a circular logic, where by-products end up being reused or returning to the biosphere.
And simply because of the scale of the city metabolism, this needs to be done quite urgently if we are to have another three billion people living in cities by 2050.
Much of the language we have about the future city doesn’t really address the scale or depth of the problem. We talk about “resilient cities”, about “liveable cities”, about “smart cities”, about “sustainable cities.” All, in Girardet’s view, focus too much on the city itself, even if the last one at least has an implicit view of the wider networks that the city depends on.
The “ecopolis,” then, is built on the four laws of ecology, which Girardet has adapted from the The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner.
- Everything is connected to everything else
- Everything must go somewhere
- Nature knows best
- Nothing comes from nothing
Renewable energy creates new opportunities for the city, which is just as well, since a global urban population of 6.4 billion can’t live in Petropolis. We need to think beyond the edge of the city. Given both the size of the footprint, and its destructive effects, we need to make this whole process more circular, which means both reducing impact and recycling organic wastes and materials.
He pointed to a couple of valuable trends: materials innovation is proceeding apace, so that vacuum insulation panels which are very efficient in terms of retrofitting buildings also don’t take up much space. And cities are increasingly investing in renewable energy systems. No one talks about it much, but 20% of London’s domestic
energy comes from offshore wind, thanks more to Ken Livingstone than Boris Johnson, while solar is making huge strides, often in the shape of community investment schemes, along with storage technologies. Biogas, too, is developing as an energy source. The slogan of Bristol’s biogas buses is, “This bus is powered by your waste.” And alongside this, urban agriculture is developing quite quickly. Havana, where they had to start earlier than elsewhere to feed the city during the “Special Period,” is a pioneer. It has 20,000 hectares of organic farming inside the city limits.
One Ecopolis project where Girardet has been involved as an adviser is in Adelaide, Australia, where the Mayor had concerns about water shortages and their impact on the sustainability of the city as an urban system. (Water isn’t always the canary in the coalmine, but increasingly it’s a critical indicator.)
The plan for the city included solar powered buses (from panels on the roof of the bus garage), creating windpower generation at the edge of the city, and creating a system for the decomposition and recycling of technical materials. 180 tonnes of compost is now created in the city, and combined with waste for local market gardens. 40% of the electricity supply comes from wind: solar generates 250MW via solar PV on the roofs of 600,00 houses. And recycled plastics are used to make city fenceposts and benches. And all of this creates thousands of new jobs, effectively created by bringing the city’s energy production back into the city boundaries.
The regenerative city
This is the idea of the “regenerative city.” And when it’s described like this, it’s striking that the Ecopolis has a lot of the features of the Agropolis, but at scale. Local food production, local energy production, and more local waste management.
So how far can it scale? Girardet was asked this during the Q&A, by someone from the LSE Cities project, and he suggested that “Your department can get stuck into that.” It will work in Europe, provided the political will is there, because Europe’s cities aren’t that large. Some of Asia’s cities, which are now climbing well past 20 million, may be more problematic. And some – such as those in the Middle East – are in places that can only sustain urban populations through massive desalination plants, which so far don’t run on solar energy.
Another question was about inequality, which Girardet referred to briefly, and the relationship of the city to global capitalism, which was more implicit. He told the questioner that he’d focussed on the ecological issues of the city because it had seemed to be the biggest gap when he started the research. But he also positioned the “regenerative city” – the Ecopolis – in opposition to the “neo-liberal city,” which I took to be the Petropolis.
There’s much more that could be written here, but it’s fairly clear that to function, the Ecopolis has to reinsert some human values that, in contrast, the Petropolis can mediate through money. And one of the things we now know about flows, certainly on the scale required by Petropolis, is that as they increase in volume and value financialisation is only ever one step behind.