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Climate ChangeThe metabolism of contemporary cities

The metabolism of contemporary cities

But elsewhere we see shrinking forests, rivers brown with eroding soil, and factory trawlers sweeping the oceans.

Mines and quarries scar landscapes in unexpected places. But there may be little serious discussion concerning the linkages between cities and their distant ‘sacrifice zones’, defined as geographic areas which have been “permanently impaired by heavy environmental alterations or economic disinvestment”.

In a world facing a climate emergency, some authors argue that, by packing large numbers of individuals into relatively small areas of land, cities are more energy efficient than low-density rural settlements.

But this doesn’t hold true for cities in developing countries: here per capita energy use typically increases three or 4 times as rural-urban migrants gain access to fossil fuel energy for cooking, heating, air-con and transportation. Energy use in cities invariably rises with increasing wealth or gross domestic product per capita.

In contemplating an urbanising world, it might be useful to look back on the genesis of contemporary London. In 1800 it was the one city on Earth with over one million people, the scale of Rome in its heyday 1,600 years earlier.



From the late 18th century onwards, London pioneered a form of ‘unsustainable urban development’, counting on ever more fossil fuel energy and global resource supplies.

Combustion technologies and global trade jointly fuelled its unprecedented growth from 1 million people in 1800 to over eight million people in 1939. London was now rooted globally within the forests, farmland and mines of the British empire.

London is a powerful and popular city, with wonderful buildings and a throbbing multicultural life. Its museums, public parks and personal gardens are famed internationally. It has nearly as many trees as people, and its outward growth is deliberately constrained by a green belt.

But environmental sustainability is just not its strongest point. Just take energy: London requires three super-tankers of oil corresponding to meets its weekly energy needs. How for much longer can this systemic dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels proceed?

London set a pattern of urban growth that’s being replicated internationally. Within the twentieth century, the urban age got seriously under way: for the reason that Wirtschaftswunder years of the Nineteen Fifties and Nineteen Sixties, 1000’s of latest cities of unprecedented size have sprung up, primarily in developing countries, often on the sites of existing villages and small towns.


Under current trends, three-quarters of a human population of perhaps 9 billion will likely be urban by 2050, yet few questions are being asked about how this might affect the long-term wellbeing each of the inhabitants of those cities and of the worldwide environment.

London, as a worldwide trading centre, helped stimulate the emergence of other megacities: Hong Kong, Delhi, Calcutta, Lagos, Johannesburg, Singapore, all of them a part of Britain’s colonial empire.

Other global cities, reminiscent of Latest York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, São Paulo and Shanghai, have since been added to the list, and have recently been joined by Dubai and Abu Dhabi as major economic hubs.

The larger the town, the more likely it’s to be also a serious financial player, and the longer are its supply lines and its demands for natural resources. Whilst urban-centred communication, transport and trading systems connect humanity as never before, also they are causing ever-larger global ecological footprints and environmental externalities. More on this topic later.


UCL professor Mark Maslin has written much concerning the Anthropocene. He says: “Up until now, we have now talked about things like climate change, the biodiversity crisis, the pollution crisis, as separate things…

“The important thing concept of the Anthropocene is to place that each one together and say humans have a huge effect on the Earth, we’re the brand new geological superpower. That holistic approach then means that you can say: ‘What will we do about it?’”

I’d argue that within the ‘Earth emergency’ that’s upon us, we must make it a top priority to familiarize yourself with the metabolism of an urbanising world. Cities, as centres of production and consumption, slurp up the world’s natural resources, and spill out solid, liquid and gaseous wastes somewhere in Nature.

These are the externalities of urban systems, geographically laid out. If we would like an urban future, we’d higher find ways to revamp the metabolism of cities, while also making serious efforts to revive damaged ecosystems.

The excellent news is that, greater than ever, city planners are engaged in energetic exchanges internationally. They advise one another on creating efficient public transport systems, on techniques for reducing air pollution, on tree planting and concrete agriculture.


They exchange policies for the rapid deployment of renewable energy, for recycling and remanufacturing urban wastes, and for the expansion of latest, green economies.

There may be now wide recognition of the urgent must safeguard local environments on which cities depend. But now we’d like to deepen global exchanges on find out how to familiarize yourself with the detrimental, global impacts of cities, and that features the urban metabolism.

Can modern cities find ways of curbing their enormous appetite for energy, food, timber and consumer goods, and their astonishing discharge of gaseous, liquid and solid wastes?

Can we create resource-efficient urban systems throughout the carrying capability of planet Earth? Can the metabolism of contemporary cities ever turn into compatible with the biosphere? What measures could achieve such positive outcomes?


Agropolis: the preindustrial, traditional town defined by reliance on food and fuel-wood supplies from its local hinterland.

Where did all this start? Within the mid-Nineteenth century, the German geographer and economist Heinrich von Thünen tried to grasp how human settlements relate to their local environment.

In his book The Isolated State he drew a systemic diagram of urban–rural interdependence. He showed that in relative isolation, with limited transport access, villages and towns will assure a high degree of economic self-sufficiency, with food top of the agenda. They’re invariably ringed by a series of ‘cropping circles’.

Market gardens, for year-round fruit and vegetable supplies, are positioned closest to the town. The subsequent ring is the town forest: firewood and timber is best grown nearby since it is heavy.

After which further out, grains, root vegetables and fodder crops are grown. And beyond these fields, within the fourth ring, cows, horses, sheep and goats have their grazing. Manure from the animals is transported back to fertilise market gardens and field crops.

The entire system is powered by solar energy, with water and wind power also utilized in some places. The logic of this arrangement, prevalent before the introduction of canals, railway lines and tarmacked roads, is compelling.


Some years ago, I visited a small German town called Dinkelsbühl, certainly one of the few still surrounded by a totally intact wall. The town was still ringed by thriving market gardens.

Every night, I saw cows being herded into town from outlying pastures, to be milked in stables throughout the town partitions. Within the morning they were herded out to graze again.

The town itself is an arrangement of narrow lanes with names listing the assorted professions that prevail: bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, brewers, dressmakers, chandlers, shoemakers have their workshops and dwellings in multi-storey terraced houses. A central marketplace is about next to church, town hall and alehouse.

Von Thünen’s scheme has been applied by geographers in lots of locations. In Chinese cities, peri-urban agriculture was common practice until recently, and in some places it still plays a vital role, despite the pressures of commercial and suburban growth.


Even in megacities reminiscent of Shanghai, some peri-urban land continues to be safeguarded by the town authorities to secure local supplies of vegetables, fruit, meat and pond fish.

And until recently, night soil was routinely used for fertilising food crops. But with the introduction of piped sewerage systems, most is now flushed away, merging with artificial fertilisers (and pesticides) in rivers and coastal waters. Can latest ways of closing the nutrient cycle be found?

By and enormous, Agropolis, the town embedded in an area, productive landscape, is well on its method to becoming a historical relic.

Local food systems are giving method to globalised supplies, with food being shipped, trucked and flown into town from everywhere in the world. And the timber needs of an urbanising world are met from faraway forests, as firewood has turn into largely superfluous.


Petropolis: the trendy city defined by global fossil fuel dependence and global supplies.

Today, in fact, we don’t live in Agropolis, but in Petropolis, where the services provided by oil, gas and coal technology are seen as non-negotiable. Petropolis has turn into our latest home, counting on every day injections of ‘ancient sunshine’ stored within the Earth’s crust over a whole bunch of tens of millions of years.

Cities today take up three to 4 per cent of the world’s land surface, but they transcend local geographical boundaries, with tentacles stretching internationally to access resources.

As modern city people, what would we do without power stations, central heating boilers, locomotives and vehicle engines? Without electric sockets for our computers, TVs and washing machines?

Or without container ports and airports? Could we exist without quarries and mines, or cement and steel works? Could we feed ourselves without food being brought in from somewhere far-off?

A recent McKinsey report says this: “The world is within the throes of a sweeping population shift from the countryside to the town. Underpinning this transformation are the economies of scale that make concentrated urban centers more productive.


“This productivity improvement from urbanization has already delivered substantial economic growth and radically reduced poverty in countries reminiscent of China. The expansion of cities has the potential for further growth and poverty reduction across many emerging markets.”

There was much talk concerning the ‘triumph of the town’, linked to unprecedented economic growth. Cities are the center of what Lewis Mumford calls ‘carboniferous capitalism’, fossil-fuel-powered wealth creation and accumulation.

Cities are where things are made and consumed. As economic centres, they harbour extremes of wealth and poverty. And invariably the urban poor also suffer the worst environmental degradation – stinking rubbish suggestions, polluted air, rivers stuffed with plastic waste.

The emergence of Petropolis represents a historic systemic change in the connection between humans and Nature.

Cities with populations of 10 to twenty million persons are becoming commonplace because the hubs of growing national economies. And city regions with as much as 100 million inhabitants are on the drawing boards of planning offices. Can all this occur without oil, coal and gas? Or are there limits to fossil-fuelled urban growth?


Modern cities are vastly complex, interactive systems designed to show energy into work or motion, flowing along roads, rails, wires and pipes.

Cities function as giant heat engines which might be subject to entropy: fuels may be burned just once, and invariably they find yourself as low-grade heat and waste gases. And as raw materials are processed, their quality inevitably deteriorates.

Order, established in the shape of neat, built-up urban landscapes, causes disorder elsewhere in Nature. Concentrating human activities in high-energy cities thus increases entropy – waste and pollution – for the planet as an entire, raising major questions on the long-term viability of our cities. Is there a future for Petropolis?

The UN’s agency on urban futures, UN Habitat, states this: “Urban areas are major contributors to climate change, accounting for 71 to 76 per cent of CO2 emissions from global final energy use, and represent high concentrations of economic, infrastructure and human assets and activities which might be vulnerable to climate change impacts.

“In the approaching many years, a whole bunch of tens of millions of individuals in urban areas are more likely to be affected by rising sea levels, increased precipitation, inland floods, more frequent and stronger cyclones and storms, and periods of more extreme heat and cold.”


These are troubling sentences. We’d like latest tools to weigh up the prices and advantages of urban and mega-urban development, and to evaluate how urban systems could successfully coexist with the biosphere.

Currently cities have an essentially linear, uni-directional metabolism, with an enormous number of resources flowing through the urban system without much concern about their origin, or concerning the destination of wastes. Inputs and outputs are treated as largely unconnected.

Fossil fuels are extracted from rock strata, refined and burned, with waste gases being dumped within the atmosphere. Raw materials are extracted, processed and assembled into consumer goods that ultimately find yourself as polluting trash. In distant forests, trees are felled for his or her timber or pulp, but all too often forests are usually not replenished.

Similar concerns apply to the urban food system: nutrients and carbon are faraway from farmland as crops are harvested, processed and eaten. The resulting sewage, with or without treatment, leads to rivers and coastal waters, and the plant nutrients it accommodates are rarely returned to farmland any longer.

Rivers and coastal waters the world over are ‘enriched’ by a potent mixture of urban sewage and toxic effluents, in addition to mineral fertilisers and pesticides leaching from the farmland used for feeding cities.


The local effects of urban resource use also must be higher understood. Cities accumulate large amounts of materials. For example, Vienna, with about 2 million inhabitants, increases its actual weight by some 25,000 tonnes every single day.

Much of this is comparatively inert materials, reminiscent of steel, concrete and tarmac. Other substances, reminiscent of heavy metals, leaching from the roofs of buildings and from water pipes, also accumulate within the local environment.

Nitrates, phosphates and various chemicals accumulate in urban soils and watercourses, impacting the health of present and future inhabitants.

After all, cities are – above all else – meant to facilitate human interaction, with an enormous number of occupations adding as much as a really complex division of labour and a various cultural scene. But at what cost?

In understanding modern cities, we also need to evaluate their ecological footprint (EF): the surface areas required for food and timber supplies, and for sequestering urban carbon emissions.


In 1999 I undertook an evaluation of London’s metabolism for the Greater London Authority. The input–output figures I compiled also allowed me to calculate London’s ecological footprint. I estimated that it prolonged to at least 125 times London’s territory!

But my figures were in truth incomplete: they didn’t include food waste, or the land and sea surfaces needed to produce pet food and fish. A more comprehensive study, by Best Foot Forward Ltd. in 2002, found that London’s total EF prolonged to 293 times its territory, or 49 million ‘global hectares’: twice the realm of the UK, or roughly the identical size as Spain.

London has about 12 per cent of the UK’s population. What concerning the EF of Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff and the UK’s many smaller cities and towns? What does the EF of the entire of the country, with an 84 per cent urban population, extend to? And where are all these external surfaces positioned?

It is commonly argued that within the quite compact cities of Europe, the footprints of city people are inclined to be smaller than those of their rural cousins, who use private cars far more.


But in countries reminiscent of China and India different realities prevail: rural people there live more frugally, and after they move to cities their per capita resource consumption typically goes up fourfold: the move tends to enhance their living standard, and with that, their use of the Earth’s resources.

This has essential implications for urban planning: to get a clearer perspective of the environmental ‘performance’ of cities, balance sheets comparing urban resource flows are regularly becoming available.

It’s becoming evident that similar-sized cities supply people’s needs with a greatly various throughput of resources, but far more research is required for a comprehensive, global picture.

The case of China is especially pertinent here: with a population of 1.4 billion people, anything that China does is of world significance. Probably none more so than the multiple impacts of its urbanisation.


After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, urban-economic growth turned China into the world’s workshop. This development was intimately linked to an unprecedented scale of power station construction and industrial and infrastructure development.

Many tens of millions of individuals were lifted out of poverty, but, again, at what cost? The environmental situation throughout the country is just not looking good: rivers are polluted with industrial chemicals, fertiliser run-off and pesticides.

One-fifth of China’s farm soil is contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic and nickel, and industrial chemicals.

What is occurring in China, in fact, has historical antecedents: from the Nineteenth century onwards Europe and America pioneered high-energy urban-industrial lifestyles, with pollution rarely adequately accounted for. But what occurred there over 200 years is occurring in China in 1 / 4 of that timescale.


China – the world’s fastest-growing economy with the biggest population – leads the world in cement production, the critical ingredient that has built China’s mammoth cities, sprawling roads, and other infrastructure. China pours 60 per cent of the world’s cement; the country’s production in 2011–2013 surpassed US production for the complete twentieth century. Coal fuels energy-intensive cement plants, making these plants the highest industrial source (as much as 18 per cent) of the nation’s CO2 emissions. It takes 200kg of coal to make 1 metric ton of cement – and in 2010, China produced nearly 1,868 million metric tons of cement, representing a whopping 10 per cent of the nation’s total coal consumption.


In global terms, urbanisation in China matters greatly because its gleaming latest cities have much higher per capita energy consumption than rural communities. Coal-fired power station construction has barely kept up with ever-increasing energy demand.

Hydroelectric and nuclear power stations have also been built at breakneck speed. And the event of China’s latest Silk Road – its global ‘Belt and Road’ project – is a component of the image.

It’s all about boosting trade via investments in railroads, highways, bridges, airports, dams and power stations in other countries, enhancing access to resources and stimulating markets for industrial products.

Interestingly, China has also proclaimed the ambition to create an ecological civilisation. Whilst China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it is usually a world leader in solar and wind energy and in other green technologies.

Significant measures to deal with air pollution and water and soil contamination are under way as well. And across the country, large-scale reforestation projects are being undertaken. For example, in previously denuded river catchments, reminiscent of the headwaters of the Yellow River, eroding hillsides have been reforested on an unlimited scale.


But meanwhile China’s requirements for timber resources are being met from forests as far afield as Myanmar, Amazonia, Papua Latest Guinea, Malaysia and the Congo basin. And China’s tenfold increase in per capita meat consumption over the past 40 years is usually being met by soybean imports from the Amazon basin.

Attempting to create an ecological civilisation back home is definitely a very good thing, but is anything being done to deal with China’s global ecological footprint?

India, now also with a population of 1.4 billion people, is urbanising rapidly too, counting on fossil fuel energy, though also with substantial investments in hydropower, wind and solar. Rural-urban migration is far in evidence in every single place.

But will increasing urban affluence in India also result in increases in per capita meat consumption, like in China, or could there be religious constraints on such developments?

Back to energy, and climate issues: for the reason that start of the urban-industrial revolution in Europe, atmospheric CO2concentrations have increased from around 280 parts per million (ppm) to 420 ppm. But only half of world CO2emissions are currently being absorbed by the world’s oceans, forests and soils. Faced with a worldwide climate emergency, cities surely have a serious responsibility to minimise their emissions and to contribute to carbon sequestration.


Urban trees can only make a small contribution here. Because the world faces ever more volatile climatic conditions, finding ways of reducing urban ecological footprint would appear to be imperative.

As cities draw down the world’s natural capital, planetary boundaries are being crossed. But the attention can also be growing that we live in a world of limits.

In an age of climate change, peaking oil supplies and deteriorating ecosystems, it’s becoming abundantly clear that we’d like a latest model of urbanisation.

Can Petropolis undergo a ‘megamorphosis’? Can we learn again to live off Nature’s income, quite than squandering its capital, and will our settlements positively contribute to the health of natural systems from which they draw resources?


Ecopolis: the town that reconnects to its local hinterland, prioritising efficient renewable energy technology and regenerative, soil-restoring food-production systems.

In the previous few years I actually have written extensively about ‘Ecopolis – the Regenerative City’ in various books and articles, asking whether and the way we will make human habitats which might be good for people in addition to for the world’s ecosystems.

Ecopolis incorporates some elements of Agropolis, the standard town that pulls its resource supplies from its local countryside. But unlike its historical successor Petropolis, Ecopolis is powered primarily by modern renewable energy systems.

Ecopolis expands the concept of urban ecology: not only specializing in the interactions of living organisms inside cities, and the advantages of green spaces, but in addition encompassing the broader global living environment from which cities draw resources, looking for to define a regenerative relationship between cities and the world’s ecosystems.

We’d like to deal with local and global issues at the identical time. First, people need green, nice spaces for all times, work and play, free from pollution and waste accumulation; they need access to urban and peri-urban forests and farms; they should get a likelihood to play their part in the brand new, green economy; and in addition they must help assure the continual regeneration of ecosystems beyond city boundaries on whose wellbeing they ultimately depend.


Ecopolis is inspired by the best way by which the metabolism of the biosphere functions, as a solar-powered, zero-waste, circular system, where all outputs are repeatedly absorbed, regenerating its soils and invariably facilitating latest growth. Could cities, as a part of the technosphere, work in similar ways?

Against the background of Petropolis, so oblivious of its environmental externalities, that is actually an uphill task. But faced with unprecedented global challenges, it seems worthwhile to map out what’s crucial to be able to try to expand the boundaries of what’s politically possible.

In lots of cities internationally, elements of Ecopolis are already being implemented, particularly regarding renewable energy. Low-density suburbia in countries reminiscent of the USA and Australia, with its systemic dependence on motor cars, is well fitted to a solar retrofit. Babcock Ranch in Florida is showing the best way.

This latest, solar-powered town with some 2,000 homes incorporates greater than 700,000 solar panels. Buildings are each energy efficient and weather resistant, incorporating battery systems as insurance against energy fluctuations, and for charging electric cars.

Babcock Ranch implements the concept of ‘energy subsidiarity’, with as much renewable energy as possible supplied efficiently from as nearby as possible.


After all, Babcock Ranch is positioned in certainly one of the richest places on Earth. But much is now happening also in poorer countries, reminiscent of Bangladesh. Prior to now twenty years, some 6 million solar home systems have been installed there, bringing electricity for domestic lighting, TV and cell phone charging to off-grid communities.

With the costs now significantly lower than for electricity from imported coal or gas, solar energy is on the up and up across the country.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture are one other essential feature of Ecopolis, against the background of growing concerns about future urban food security, with each temperatures and climate variability on the rise across the globe.

Whilst creation of green places and amenity landscapes in and around cities has often had priority over food production, could regional food supplies be revitalised? The emergence of farmers’ markets in cities everywhere in the world appears to be a robust indicator of this.

On this context, the rise of urban farming in Havana, Cuba is a captivating development. Before 1989 Cuba’s agricultural policy focused on exporting crops reminiscent of sugar and tobacco to the Soviet Union in exchange for fuel, fertilisers, pesticides and wheat.


But after the collapse of this trade within the Nineteen Nineties, Cuba faced a food emergency, worsened by strict US sanctions. How could greater food self-reliance be secured? Soon city people took matters in their very own hands.

By 1995, inside Havana alone, 25,000 allotments and market gardens had emerged, growing vegetables, bananas and tree crops, tended by families and small-scale cooperatives.

The federal government, initially sceptical, soon encouraged this movement. Soil quality was improved with a combination of crop residues, organic household wastes and animal manure.

The crops grown on these organopónicos quickly improved people’s calorie intake and saved many from malnutrition. Sugar continues to be produced on Cuba’s farmland and exchanged for rice imported from countries reminiscent of Vietnam and Ukraine, but it appears that evidently the Cuban model of urban food self-reliance is here to remain.

Can modern cities ever turn into more self-sufficient in food? With competition for urban spaces in lots of cities, vertical cultivation inside buildings is now emerging, whereby vegetables and herbs are grown in multiple layers using each natural and LED lighting.


There may be little doubt that vertical farming will play an increasingly essential role in assuring urban food supplies world wide. For this reason, vertical farming enterprises have been in a position to raise unprecedented amounts of funding in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

But relating to grains, rice and animal feed, urban farming has only limited scope, because surface areas greater than the land available in cities or outside the urban periphery are required.

Cities with heavily meat-based diets require vast land surfaces beyond local landscapes. How could the food supply to cities be decoupled from large, often distant farms?

One latest option is being pursued within the labs of several firms, where researchers are developing a latest generation of fermentation-based foodstuffs that require no agricultural feedstocks.

In a recent Guardian article George Monbiot explains: “The microbes they breed feed on hydrogen or methanol – which may be made with renewable electricity – combined with water, carbon dioxide and a really small amount of fertiliser.


“They produce a flour that accommodates roughly 60 per cent protein, a much higher concentration than any major crop can achieve (soybeans contain 37 per cent, chick peas, 20 per cent). Once they are bred to provide specific proteins and fats, they will create significantly better replacements than plant products for meat, fish, milk and eggs.”                                 

Will such latest food be good for human health in addition to for Nature’s health? More will likely be known soon.

In view of the role of cities within the Earth emergency we face, a plausible urban future can only mean constructing a regenerative relationship between cities and our host planet: it cannot deal with unending streams of pollution.

The negative externalities of our newly urban world have to be addressed in effective latest ways. To this end, we’d like to activate people’s creative energy on the local level, but in addition have appropriate national policy frameworks and international agreements.


It seems only too evident that cities need to higher understand their complex metabolism, yet few urban authorities appear to have an summary of those resource flows. A system of ‘green accounting’ of fabric flows seems crucial as a primary step towards rethinking the resource balance sheet of urban businesses and public services.

Enabling the lively participation of most of the people in developing regenerative cities is crucially essential. In Curitiba, Brazil, large public displays show how the recycling of timber and forest products has dramatically reduced the necessity to cut down trees. Most of the people must be enabled on this method to play an lively role in transforming the resource use of their cities.

To grasp the metabolism of cities, we’d like to distinguish between the biological cycle and the technical cycle of urban systems. Whilst the recycling of paper, metals and glass is now well established in lots of places, technical and electronic wastes are accumulating in Nature.

And we’re only just starting to place highly problematic materials reminiscent of plastics out of harm’s way and switch them into long-lasting inert products reminiscent of fence posts and outdoor furniture.



In 2003 I used to be invited to work for 3 months as ‘Thinker in Residence’ in Adelaide. The then premier of South Australia, Mike Rann, asked me to provide a plan for greening metropolitan Adelaide, along side city planners, community groups and the business community.

The duty was to propose ways by which a highly inefficient, carbon-intensive city may very well be turned around, and the way this may benefit the local economy.

Within the mid-Nineteenth century, Adelaide had been conceived as a pioneering garden city set in 760has of parkland, covered by tens of 1000’s of elm and eucalyptus trees – an environment of great amenity value.

But after 1945, low-density, automobile-driven growth expanded this city right into a suburban region of 1.3 million people. Commuting, consumerism and throw-away attitudes soon got here to define life in Adelaide.

After 2003 remarkable things began to occur. Adelaide has turn into a green city of international acclaim. Above all else, the tremendous possibilities inherent in turning a highly inefficient linear urban metabolism right into a circular system were recognised.


In 2003 there was hardly any organic waste recycling in Adelaide, but since then it has turn into a world leader in turning the organic waste into compost to be used on nearby farmland. Along side the usage of recycled waste water, 20,000 ha of peri-urban farmland in a spot called Virginia on the northern fringe of the town supply a beautiful number of vegetables and fruit, which is sold primarily in Adelaide’s central covered market.

To cope with deforestation, to assist stabilise the soil and to counter increases in ambient temperatures, some 3 million trees have been planted in and around the town.

Metropolitan Adelaide, then, has acquired many attributes of a regenerative city. There was a remarkable profit from all these measures by way of making a latest green, regenerative economy in the town. Here’s a summary of the transformations which have occurred since 2003:

  • Greater than 70 per cent of electricity produced by wind turbines and solar PV panels
  • Photovoltaic roofs on 200,000 (of 600,000) houses, and on most public buildings
  • Tindo, the world’s first bus running on solar energy
  • Solar hot water systems mandated for brand new buildings
  • Large-scale constructing tune-up programmes across the town region
  • 60 per cent carbon emissions reduction by municipal buildings
  • 25 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions in Greater Adelaide
  • Construction of Lochiel Park Solar Village, with 106 eco-homes
  • Water-sensitive urban development across the town region
  • 3 million trees planted on 2,000 ha for CO2 absorption and biodiversity
  • A zero-waste strategy driven by ambitious recycling incentives
  • 180,000 tonnes of compost a yr created from urban organic waste
  • 20,000 ha of land near Adelaide used for vegetable and fruit crops
  • Reclaimed waste water and concrete compost used to cultivate this land
  • 1000’s of latest green jobs

Cities in lots of countries are taking similarly positive initiatives, attempting to decouple from a systemic dependence on fossil fuels and from reliance on global food imports while attempting to create a regenerative relationship between themselves and the ecosystems beyond.


Denmark’s capital has long put sustainability at the highest of its agenda, as have lots of its inhabitants. A city of over 3 million people, it’s a remarkable example of green innovation.

In its post-war urban plan of 1947, Copenhagen got down to develop along five ‘green fingers’, centred on commuter rail lines, which extend from the town’s ‘palm’, the dense urban fabric of central Copenhagen. In between the fingers, green wedges were created to offer land for each agriculture and recreational purposes.

In 1962, because the quantity of traffic had turn into intolerable in its old narrow streets, a radical redesign of the center (the palm) of the town was undertaken. Copenhagen’s city council decided to determine a car-free pedestrian zone within the maze of narrow streets and historical squares.

Today, with a complete length of virtually 3.2 km, it’s the longest inner-city pedestrian street system on the earth. This has resulted in a Mediterranean-style ambience, where markets, cafés, restaurants and green spaces proliferate.


In Copenhagen, urban green solutions mix liveability, sustainability and regenerative development in a really effective way. Initiatives on energy efficiency, renewable energy and combined heat and power have gone further than almost anywhere on the earth, and the identical goes for circular waste management.

Copenhagen also has more cyclists than most other European cities, because of a highly developed network of cycle lanes. Pedestrianisation of the town centre goes hand in hand with ubiquitous cycle routes, and electric buses predominate on the town’s streets.

Recycling is taken seriously on this city, with vending-style machines returning a deposit when a can or plastic cup is inserted.

Copenhagen is now working to turn into the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025, with its municipal strategy combining 50 different initiatives. These have already yielded significant environmental in addition to economic advantages. The green economy within the capital region has grown by 80 per cent from 2007 to 2022, generating 1000’s of latest jobs.


A crucial point in discussing an urban future is to secure adequate and clean water supplies to cities through the protection and restoration of nearby watersheds. The detrimental effects of rapid runoff and landslides from denuded hillsides internationally have been widely reported, and the importance of watershed protection and reforestation is all too evident.

The measures initiated by Latest York City within the nearby Catskills watershed are a main example. The Catskills is certainly one of Latest York City’s most vital natural resources, providing about 4.9 billion litres of drinking water to roughly 9 million people every single day.

Because artificial filtration for that much water would have been prohibitively expensive, Latest York City decided to take a position tens of millions of dollars within the protection and regeneration of the watershed as a substitute.

The Catskills, which supplies 90 per cent of Latest York City’s water, is the biggest naturally filtered water supply in the USA, covering over 400,000 ha.

Maintaining quality standards for such a big water supply without artificial filtration requires tens of millions of dollars annually, but most is just not spent on technology, but on outreach and education, land management and acquisition, as a joint initiative between NGOs and city authorities. Large-scale forest protection initiatives like this are actually being taken in various parts of the world.


We cannot manage what we don’t measure and we are usually not measuring either the worth of nature’s advantages or the prices of their loss. We appear to be navigating the brand new and unfamiliar waters of ecological scarcities and climate risks with faulty instruments.

Replacing our obsolete economic compass could help economics turn into a part of the answer to reverse our declining ecosystems and biodiversity loss.

We’d like a latest compass to set different policy directions, change incentive structures, reduce or phase out perverse subsidies, and interact business leaders in a vision for a latest economy. Holistic economics – or economics that recognise the worth of nature’s services and the prices of their loss – is required to set the stage for a latest ‘green economy’.

Pavan Sukhdev, study leader for the report suite ‘The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity’


Are there ecological limits to urban growth? To this point there is just not much evidence of concern about this issue, with urbanisation in lots of countries continuing apace.

As we glance internationally, human resource consumption appears to be closely connected to the consumption patterns of an urbanising world. But we surely can’t carry on living off the Earth’s living capital quite than counting on its annual income.

It’s time to move out of Petropolis and into Ecopolis. In pondering of making regenerative cities, the total spectrum of human settlements from village to megacity must be considered. Based on the UN, in 2016 there have been 31 cities with populations of over 10 million people (megacities), and 81 cities of over 5 million.

There have been 512 cities with over one million people, as compared with a single one, London, 200 years ago. These numbers are projected to rise considerably by 2030. But most of humanity still resides in settlements below that size.

In Europe most individuals live in cities, however the consumption patterns of individuals in rural areas are much similar to in urban regions: everybody goes shopping within the supermarket.


But as human numbers proceed to grow in other parts of the world, reminiscent of Africa and South Asia, urban growth continues to be directly linked to a considerable per capita increase in resource use, with ever more impacts on Nature.

In a world by which cities of 10 and even 20 million persons are becoming common, what does that mean for the ‘ideal’ of making regenerative cities? If the ecological footprint of London, with some eight million people, is sort of 300 times its surface area, how about Delhi, Cairo or Lagos?

And, as we see TV images of cities blanketed by smog or flooded by excessive rainfall, and see the homes of the super-rich contrasted with squatter shacks, we must ask: what does an urban future hold?

After all, way more people have to be accommodated in cities today than even 50 years ago, and this must be factored into developing concepts for creating human settlements fit for the twenty first century. Worldwide, most buildings have yet to be constructed. Can we ensure that their design complies with the thought of regenerative cities?

Cities grow and shrink. We’ve got many examples from history, most recently Detroit. When its economic base was eroded, with the lack of automobile manufacturing, a whole bunch of 1000’s of individuals needed to go and live and work someplace else.


In some places gardens around parks and next to abandoned houses have been was urban farms. Is that what degrowth means for cities?

At the start, moving to Ecopolis means creating urban systems that don’t depend on fossil fuels. The excellent news is that renewable energy may be increasingly supplied from buildings themselves, in addition to from peri-urban landscapes.

And cities near seashores can supply electricity from offshore wind farms, as we will now see in countries reminiscent of the UK. The newest wind turbines, with a capability of as much as 18 MW, can supply energy for as much as 100,000 homes, and 100 turbines, along side appropriate energy storage systems, could power a megacity of 10 million people.

But we have to be cautious about getting carried away with technical fixes. Getting closer to coping with energy alternatives for our cities is now on the cards, but there continues to be an extended method to go to cope with the linear, polluting metabolism of contemporary cities. It will seem that cities the scale of Adelaide, with not far more than one million people, are probably best fitted to green urban renewal.

Internationally, cities must work closely together to develop and implement policies for regenerative cities, which contribute to regenerating regions internationally which have been damaged and depleted by urban consumption patterns. Our global connectedness has reached unprecedented levels, but trying to search out shared solutions to the various environmental problems linked to global urbanisation has barely begun.

This Writer

Professor Herbert Girardet is an writer, consultant and former film-maker. He’s a member of the Club of Rome, a cofounder of the World Future Council, and a recipient of a UN Global 500 award for outstanding environmental achievements. He can also be a trustee of The Resurgence Trust, owner and publisher of The Ecologist online. His most up-to-date book, Creating Regenerative Cities, was published by Routledge in 2014.

Professor Girardet is a keynote speaker on the SMALL IS THE FUTURE event hosted by The Ecologist with the Schumacher Institute in Bristol on Saturday, 17 June 2023. Tickets are selling fast – a 3rd have already gone – so do BOOK NOW to avoid disappointment. 


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