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 distinguished artist and illustrator David Gentleman gave this year’s Kelmscott’s Lecture last month, and he used the occasion to look back at his own career for points of contact with William Morris. I thought I knew his work quite well (when I was a television producer I worked briefly with him on a short film based on his book A Special Relationship) but the range of the work he shared during the lecture was, frankly, stunning. Everything from a huge number of stamps to the Penguin New Shakespeare covers to Charing Cross Station to political posters to his more conventional illustrated books.
Listening to his talk, I think I discerned three themes that Morris would have recognised.
British public space increasingly seems to be governed by the poetics of the Poor Law, with designers trying to find ways of preventing people stopping and socialising, at least unless they’re willing to pay Starbucks for the price of a coffee. The main – and unspoken – purpose, of course, is to prevent the poor (and perhaps the young) from stopping and socialising, lest they lower the tone of the place, and its asset value.
It can only be a matter of time in England’s unkind political culture before one of Theresa May’s Special Advisers proposes whipping vagrants and ne’er-do-wells to the parish boundary before then fulminating that the Human Rights Act prevents them from introducing this essential reform.
One of the topics I’ve found myself writing on here more than I expected is that of public space – or, more precisely, its privatisation. I found it on my mind again on holiday in the Pyreneean village of Anso.
Anso was burnt to the ground during the Napoleonic wars and almost immediately rebuilt, this time in stone. It’s largely unchanged since then. One of the features of the village is that many of the houses have a seat built in to the outside wall, as in the photo at the top of this post.
The two public water fountains in the village also still work (try finding that in London). The villagers obviously like this way of arranging things, since in the central square, shown below, there is a row of more recent wooden seats, complementing the cafe tables.
Designing in ‘security’
Of course, when you look at recent city design, it has been going in exactly the opposite direction. One of the main features of urban design has been about designing out spaces in which unmanaged public and social interaction might occur, and designing in “security”. The rationale for this is that if you create areas where people can stop and talk they become magnets for the indigent and the homeless. (Of course, whisper it not, this is something of a ‘downpipe’ response to this particular problem).
Certainly the last time I was looking for somewhere to sit for a few minutes in the City of London (I had to make a call and wanted to be able to take notes) the areas I could find where I should have been able to sit had been spiked to prevent anyone sitting down.
The paraphernalia of control
The partial exceptions, of course, are in the public areas that have been handed over to private management, such as More London on the south bank of the Thames. The reason they tolerate it? Because with private management comes the paraphernalia of control, with rules, security guards and the like. The other reason they tolerate it? People like it, so it’s good for business.
I know it’s easy to say that different rules need to apply in the city, in the soft space where our identities are not necessarily known, unlike the village. But that’s almost exactly the point. The old German saying was stadtluft macht frei – that city air makes us free. The same freedom to talk and mingle that creates social exchange, energy and innovation also creates dissent (after all, just a form of social innovation). You can’t have one without the other. If you try to choke off the parts you don’t like, you choke the life out of the city.
The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.
Here’s a second post on digital technology from my contributions to Ogilvy Do.
The revolving door that takes you into my office in London has just been replaced after five months out of action. You needed to push the old doors; the new ones are automatic (and stop the instant you touch them). Sometimes, watching people trying to unlearn their old behaviours and apply new ones, I’ve been wondering if someone in the building is carrying out an experiment to see how quickly people are able to change learned habits in the absence of visual cues.
And this thought was partly prompted by a recent post by Alex Pang on the fad on the invisible interface. As Alex writes:
I think that, when it comes to interacting with the world or with information at a level above randomly waving your arms and legs around, there’s no such thing as an intuitive gesture that could be used by digital devices or wearables to trigger some action.
And he quotes the director and designer Timo Arnall, who has amassed a splendid collection of faddish cuttings on the notion that “the best design is invisible”. (more…)
In The Future of Futures, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, the architect and futurist Cindy Frewen has an essay called ‘The Temporary City’, which opens up the idea that as the global population starts to shrink, so our cities will start to shrink as well. Globally, this may not happen until the 2040s or 2050s, although others see it as happening sooner (Jorgen Randers, in 2052, projects it to the 2030s). But whatever the global picture some countries and some cities will experience depopulation and de-urbanisation sooner, as the case of Detroit shows us.
I liked the essay because it takes a familiar futures idea – the apparent inevitability of urbanisation – and points a bright light at it, challenging our assumptions. And we know from our recent history that de-urbanisation can be ugly; there is a quality in some of the pictures of Detroit’s abandoned public buildings which is reminiscent of the about-to-be abandoned Precinct 13 police station in John Carpenter’s film. Similarly, when New York shrank in the 1970s, the city’s collapsing tax base brought it close to bankruptcy.
London, too, shrank in the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps with more positive results; the empty housing in the city centre areas attracted activists and innovators to the city, I don’t want to stretch the point too far, but it as least arguable that London’s eminence now as a cultural hub is at least partly due to the wave of young people who found their way into the city through that cheap housing (see, for example, Joe Boyd’s account of the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival in White Bicycles.
In my earlier post a few days ago, I wrote about the background to the widespread privatisation of public space. In this second part I look at some of the activist and political responses.
It is the essence of public freedom: a place to rally, to protest, to sit and contemplate, to smoke or talk or watch the stars. No matter what happens in the shops and cafes, the offices and houses, the existence of public space means there is always somewhere to go to express yourself or simply to escape. … From parks to pedestrian streets, squares to market places, public spaces are being bought up and closed down.
One of the issues that the Occupy movement has brought into sharp focus is that of city land and its ownership. On Wall Street, Zuccotti Park is owned privately but heavily constrained by covenants. Occupy LSX ended up camped on ground partly by St Paul’s Cathedral and partly by the City of London Corporation because Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is located, is private land. In practice, urban land is increasingly owned or managed by private interests, even when it appears to be public space. This is a new enclosure movement.
I noticed last week that a presentation I’d given three years ago on the museum of the future had disappeared from the site that had been created for the event, so I’ve uploaded a version of the presentation to Slideshare. The Museums of the Long Now event at City University had explored how museums might evolve. I’d posted some notes here at the time.
While I was looking, I also found a piece of work which I’d done for the Arts Council in 2005 on ‘thriving in the 21st century’ which had been put online – in powerpoint here, with the full report here (opens pdf). The argument runs as follows:
Thriving requires a consistency of approach to output, structure, users, and talent, but this on its own is not enough. The missing ingredient is that the thriving organisation is able to construct a web of relationships with other, different, organisations. In doing so it gains access through co-operation to talent, or to resources, or to audiences, which would otherwise be closed to it. Such collaboration creates outcomes which are greater than the sum of its parts.
The report suggests that these relationships also create innovation pathways which can link new work to different audiences. Openness, as I have argued elsewhere, is a feature of success in the 21st century, and one where cultural organisations create models which other organisations could learn from.
The geographer Saskia Sassen is one of the sharpest analysts of the detail of globalisation – and I was able to see her speak on Thursday evening in London at an event organised by the RIBA ‘Building Futures’ programme. (I’ve posted before on her analysis of how different parts of government gain or lose from globalisation).
Her talk was based on a big academic study in which she and her researchers ranked 63 leading cities – cities, in her terminology, with a ‘global city function’ – by a whole set of criteria. Different cities came top on different assessments; Vancouver, for example, was top on the criteria of “ease of doing business”. Her conclusion from this is that the global economy extracts value from the (often small) differences between cities – but the small differences are critical to the value which any particular city creates.