Friday, 9 January 2015

Sustainable urbanisation: another oxymoron?

Just as 'sustainable farming' might be a contradiction in terminology
Futures Forum: Sustainable intensification of agriculture: an oxymoron?
... so too might the notion of a 'sustainable city':
Is ‘sustainable city’ an Oxymoron? - Local Environment :: Taylor & Francis Online
Sustainable cities: Oxymoron, utopia, or inevitability?
Sustainable Cities: Oxymoron or the Shape of the Future? 

The UN has just published its report on population and city growth:

The planet's urban population – which overtook the number of rural residents in 2010 – is likely to rise by about 2.5 billion to more than 6 billion people in less than 40 years, according to a UN report.

Future development targets should focus on creating inclusive cities with adequate infrastructure and services for all residents, said John Wilmoth, director of the UN's population division. "Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century," he said. "Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda."

The UN cautions that sustainable urbanisation requires cities to generate better income and employment opportunities, and "expand the necessary infrastructure for water and sanitation, energy, transportation, information and communications; ensure equal access to services; reduce the number of people living in slums; and preserve the natural assets within the city and surrounding areas".

Urban population boom poses massive challenges for Africa and Asia | Global development | The Guardian

The problem is how an expanding city can 'preserve its natural assets'.

When cities expand, they tend to build on agricultural land:
Can we stop farmland losses? California Agriculture Online
Urbanization and its implications for food and farming | Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Sydney Must Not Destroy Market Gardens | Greens NSW
Urban expansion and loss of agricultural land 

Looking at an example closer to home, the 'urban development' brought by the London Olympics also had an impact on agricultural land:
Manor Gardens Allotments: a Scandalous Legacy | Games Monitor
Manor Gardens - londongardenstrust.org

Some would even say the the city per se is an unsustainable entity:

Forget Chinatown, Get the Real Story of California's Most Famous Water War | Los Angeles | Artbound | KCET
Los Angeles, City of Water - NYTimes.com

Ancient Cities Were Unsustainable Too

January 9, 2014 JONATHAN NETTLER

Over the last several decades, researchers have examined how our cities deplete natural resources and change the climate and ecosystems of their surrounding areas. But new evidence shows that such impacts aren't a purely modern phenomenon.

"Writing for Nature’s Scientific Reports, a team led by David Kaniewski showed that the development of Akko, a port city along what is now Israel’s northern shores, coincided with a collapse of the local ecosystem, with dense coastal forests transforming into a dry, shrubby grassland," writes Colin Schultz for Smithsonian.com. Researchers conclude that residents of Akko, one of the world’s oldest cities, taxed the local water supply and produced an urban heat island effect that helped transform the area's climate and ecosystem.

Ancient Cities Were Unsustainable Too | Planetizen: The Urban Planning, Design, and Development Network

Are Cities Sustainable?

16 November, 2009

A reporter from Dubai phoned last week and asked, "Can Dubai become a sustainable city?" and specifically, "Could the tourism industry be sustainable?" In the age of global warming and declining fossil fuels, the entire airline industry is probably not sustainable. Dubai, of course, is not even remotely sustainable.

The sustainable cities are small, modest, usually poor, semi-rural centres, closely linked to local food and energy sources. One of the most ecological western consumer cities is Lingköping, Sweden. In the 1980s, Lingköping's seven political parties agreed to pursue a non-partisan 'Environment Path'. They replaced oil and coal heat with electricity from municipal waste and reduced city CO2 emissions by 40 per cent. The city offers free recycling, public transportation that runs on electricity and waste-biogas, bicycle paths, and reduced taxes due to income from the public waste-energy utility.

Even so, Dubai, Lingköping and all cities rely on goods, services, energy, and resources from around the world, delivered by fuel-guzzling transport. We hear a lot these days about 'sustainable cities', but let's look at the reality.
Cities in history

Hunting and gathering is a sustainable lifestyle. We know this because all animals live this way, and humans lived this way for several million years. Early human fire-making hunters caused local extinctions and disturbed natural habitats, but the real problems with sustainability began with urban concentration.

Four thousand years ago, Sumerian cities on the Euphrates river plains required intensive agriculture and irrigation, causing erosion and salt accumulation. Sumerian texts describe barren soils and 'earth turned white'. The communities migrated north along the river seeking new fertile soils, leaving abandoned cities to disappear under the sand.

By 500 BC deforestation and soil erosion had left most cities gasping for food and resources. In 460 BC, as the population of Athens swelled with war refugees, filth piled up, and a plague (probably typhus) killed over a third of the population. Cities everywhere began to experience similar plagues, and the human population growth rate began to decline for the first time in history.

Forty thousand years earlier, in Cro-Magnon communities, human population growth remained extremely slow, a few thousandths-of-one per cent each year. But this rate climbed steadily, and by 500 BC the growth rate reached 100 times higher, over a tenth of one per cent - about 0.13% -a year. However, cities became population drains, and by about 200 AD, the population rate had dropped below zero, and total human population decreased for the first time in history.

This growth rate did not recover to the 500 BC level for two thousand years, until about 1750 AD. During those two millennia, cities - centres of filth, disease, toxic smoke, and conflict - killed off more people than they produced. Lewis Mumford explains in The City in History that small, rural Mediaeval towns remained relatively clean and functional, but between 1200 and 1500 AD, large cities became centres of death and human population dropped incessantly. Meanwhile, burgeoning empires required ever more resources from distant lands.

Deep Green: Are Cities Sustainable? | Greenpeace International
Futures Forum: Lewis Mumford: "The physical design of cities and their economic functions are secondary to their relationship to the natural environment."

However, cities are a reality, and perhaps the 'solution' is to be 'smart'...

The Open University in Milton Keynes has some technological ways forward:

The consultants McKinsey offer an index to measure sustainability:
New models for sustainable growth in emerging-market cities - McKinsey on Society

There are some very clever ideas out there:
Smart cities | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian

Smart Growth

LEED for Neighborhood Development

LEED for Neighborhood Development

New standards created by an NRDC partnership are providing a guide for developers and communities to build greener neighborhoods. READ MORE »

Building Green

The market for high-performance homes and workplaces is soaring. This guide can help builders and developers find out how building green can work for them. READ MORE »
Change Your Commute, Change Your City

Change Your Commute, Change Your City

Being able to walk and bike safely and conveniently in your city means more than having a pleasant way to get around. It also indicates what your city is doing to become smarter and more environmentally friendly. READ MORE »

Affordable Green Housing

The Green Communities Initiative is building thousands of affordable, environmentally friendly homes across the country. READ MORE »
Building Better Communities

Building Better Communities

Smart growth strategies can save Americans thousands of dollars a year in transportation costs while improving quality of life. READ MORE »
California's Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act

California's Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act

California's SB 375 is the nation's first legislation to link transportation and land use planning with global warming. READ MORE »

Sustainable Communities - Smart Growth of Cities across the US | NRDC
Natural Resources Defense Council – The Earth’s Best Defense | NRDC

In fact, the 'sustainable city' has become a really big idea:
Sustainable city - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

And the likes of English Heritage are using the notion to campaign for greater protection:
The Sustainable Growth of Cathedral Cities and Historic Towns | English Heritage

However, it still remains a hugely contradictory idea.

In Exeter, there are all sorts of competing ideas and organisations:
Exeter City Council : Sustainable Community Strategy
Exeter, the South West's most sustainable city is a sell out success!
TedX Sustainable Exeter
Sustainable Growth - Exeter and East Devon Growth Point
Transition Exeter
Environment and Sustainability Institute - Environment and Sustainability Institute - University of Exeter

Meanwhile, Bristol, the UK's most 'green city', provides some interesting projections and projects:
What makes Bristol the UK's green capital? | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian
Sustainable cities network | Sustainable Bristol
Sustainable Bristol city-region | Forum for the Future
Sustainable building design and construction | Bristol City Council
Transition Bristol | A not-for-profit company working to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and to promote sustainability
Environment in Bristol - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Bristol Green Capital
BBC News - Bristol named European Green Capital for 2015

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