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.