Making the regenerative city

Posted in cities, design, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 30 August, 2016
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Visualising the regenerative city. Source, Herbert Girardet, “Towards the regenerative city”, World Future Council, 2013.

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.

And more:

Urban resource demands and outputs define human impacts on our home planet more than any other factor.

Managing flows

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:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else
  2. Everything must go somewhere
  3. Nature knows best
  4. 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.

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London’s orchards in the 1890s. Map by The Urban Orchards Project.

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.

Happy city

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.






From urban paradox to Ecopolis [2/2]

Posted in cities, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 2 March, 2015
Christie Walk in Adelaide. Source:

Christie Walk in Adelaide. Source:

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 trouble with Petropolis [1/2]

Posted in cities, environment, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 1 March, 2015
WP_20150225_002 Girardet

Herbert Girardet at the LSE (Source: Andrew Curry)

I first read the work of Herbert Girardet in Undercurrents in the early eighties, and his short book Creating Sustainable Cities – published in 2006 by Green Books – was fundamental in shaping my view of the planet’s urban boom. This was the book where he calculated that London’s ecological fooprint was 125 times larger than the city itself, and so larger than the UK. So when I found that he was talking at the LSE as a guest of the LSE Cities programme, I made sure I could go along.

The story he told, based on his book, Creating Regenerative Cities, published last October, is that we are on the cusp of a transition to the third age of the city – or at least we’d better be, if we are going to avert the worst effects of climate change. The first age he called Agropolis; the second Petropolis, and the third, Ecopolis. In this post, I’m going to talk about the first two; in the next post, I’ll look at Ecopolis.


Ten notes on the financial crisis (guest post)

Posted in blindspot, climate change, economics, finance, politics, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 2 April, 2013

RobTheWorldOver at the excellent Global Dashboard, Alex Evans has a post reflecting on the things he and David Stevens called wrong (and less wrong), looking through their development and poverty lens, in the aftermath of the crisis. In a similar spirit, my sometime colleague Ian Christie sent me ‘Ten notes on the crisis’, representing his take on what we’d learnt about economics and politics since 2008. I thought they deserved a wider audience. And so, with his permission, I’m republishing his Ten Notes here. They start below the fold.


Some notes on fish

Posted in biodiversity, food, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 27 August, 2012

20120825-133935.jpg Even official agencies are getting impatient about collapsing fish stocks. But it needs policy intervention to change behaviour.

I’ve written here before (a couple of times) about the accelerating disaster befalling the world’s fish, as a combination of market-driven greed, vastly improved technology, short-termism and weak governance combine to allow a vast amount of over-fishing.

Earlier this month (via an article in the Financial Times) I picked up on the latest annual State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The argument is summarised by the FT in one line: “too many countries have too many boats doing too good a job”. And while this is pretty much what it has said each year since 1994, this year the tone has changed. They’ve moved from palliative concern to something a little more strident, at least by the standards of international organisations.


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Re-reading The Limits to Growth

Posted in environment, future, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 11 August, 2012

The Limits to Growth tells a credible, and alarming, story about likely outcomes for the planet over the next two decades. But these are still scenarios, not predictions.

I was prompted by a post on the Smithsonian blog a few months ago to go back to read The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. The Smithsonian post had evaluated the Limits’ 1972 main case projections against actual consumption to 2000, and found them impressively close. Since the most common outcome of the model is “overshoot and collapse”, in a bit more than a decade’s time, it seemed a good idea to understand it a bit better. Quotes and page numbers are from the 30-Year Update edition, published by Earthscan in London in 2005.


The human factor

Posted in energy, oil, sustainability, water by thenextwavefutures on 20 May, 2012

I had a discussion recently with futurist colleague Wendy Schultz about defining the change that happened in Europe and America in the late 18th century. It was the enlightenment, certainly, through which a whole host of new political views about public voice and the independent integrity of the individual emerged into the mainstream, even if took another 150 years, or even 200, to work themselves out. And at the same time it was the beginning of the age of extraction, when humankind started to use the stored resources of the planet at scale for their profit and endeavour. Both of these ideas are still the dominant frames of our public discourse, certainly in the richer world, and shape (almost completely) competing arguments about sustainability. So I was lucky – even privileged – this week to hear the Canadian landscape photographer Ed Burtynsky talk about his work at a private event organised by Arup in London.


From ownership to stewardship

Posted in emerging issues, land, politics, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 22 April, 2012

Picture via IndyMedia

I find that I’ve written a lot over the last couple of years about ownership – and by extension, about land and property. Not enough, it turns out, as I read the news this week that the activists who had occupied an education and environment centre in the Forest of Dean, to try to prevent Gloucestershire Council from selling it off, have been evicted. Legally, of course, it is the Council’s to sell. The argument of this post is that it shouldn’t be.

Here’s my starting proposition: (a) public bodies should not be allowed to sell off capital assets.
(b) we need a new class of property – a stewardship category – which enables property to be held in the public good in perpetuity.

The future of food (2 of 2)

Posted in food, future, global, politics, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 30 March, 2011

Missing from Foresight’s report on the future of food: some good old-fashioned political economy.

In the first of these two posts, I reviewed the Foresight report on the future of food, and noted that it seemed to be blind to potentially disruptive change. It also seems to be blind to the political economy of global food. In this post, I’m going to look at this second issue in more detail.


Leadership, resilience, and ‘Lord Franklin’

Posted in history, organisational, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 27 October, 2010

Franklin’s failed expedition to the Northwest Passage in the 1840s teaches us a lot about organisations and resilience.

I spent some time on holiday this summer learning ‘Lord Franklin’, the 19th century English song made popular in the 1960s by Martin Carthy and by Pentangle. The English love their heroic failures, and Captain John Franklin was one of the great heroic failures of the 19th century. In 1845 he took two British Navy ships, Erebus and Terror, and more than 120 officers and men to try to navigate the Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The ships were trapped in the ice and all of the men died.

As the song puts it,

Through cruel hardships the mainly strove
Their ship on mountains with ice was drove
Only the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through.

When he disappeared, the Navy sent search parties and offered a huge reward. There were searches by others as well, more than 40 in all. Later, statues of Franklin were raised in his home town of Spalding and in central London. The passage was successfully navigated by boat 60 years later by Amundsen, brought up on stories of Franklin’s doomed voyage. The contrasting stories of the success of one and the failure of the other tell us quite a lot about how organisations can use resilience to manage complex and unpredictable environments.