16 February 2011

The Orgacity of Hope

One of the questions I encounter most frequently is how the vision for a sustainable society we are developing in the market town of Stroud might be applied to the cities where most of the world's population now live. This is a troublesome question for me, because I have never enjoyed the city, with its concrete and anonymity, but from an ecological perspective no question is more important.

Part of the answer is that the transition to a sustainable future will mean different patterns of habitation. The growth of cities mirrors the process of industrialisation and, in particular, the exploitation of fossil fuels on which they depend. There are no two ways about it: cities are grossly unsustainable. Herbert Girardet, who first discussed this issue in the Schumacher Briefing Creating Sustainable Cities, presents some disturbing statistics, including that 'Cities, on 3-4% of the world’s land surface use 80% of its resources'.

Herbie has gone beyond alarming statistics to exciting plans, which he calls 'regenerative cities'. So far the signs of hope have come from urban food growing in cities such as Havana and Portland, but the regenerative city is a whole shift in urban planning and a holistic solution to the unsustainability of the urban environment.

These cities of future - the orgacities of my outrageous title - will, of course, provide for their own energy needs from renewable sources, but in addition they will develop a 'circular metabolism', in contrast to the petropolis which sucks in resources and spits back wastes. They will be diverse rather than monocultural; rather than contributing to CO2 emissions they will be responsible for carbon sequestration; they will be embedded in farmland and provide their own food.

The report is a visionary document, but also contains numerous examples of the best that is already being done in urban planning. The example of Seville, a pioneer in solar generation, and Freiburg, Germany, whose Solarsiedlung development produces more energy than it requires, offer models for the future. However, changing our expectations and, perhaps most importantly, our sense of identity, is at least as important as these technological and design changes.

In the age of the iPad it is difficult to convince the laptop-bound of the simple beauty of the natural world, which they are most likely to encounter through Google Earth. Downsizing and de-energising our cities will offer one priceless gift: the stars. Ecological economist Richard Norgaard recently posted about 'economism and the night sky': he argues that, while technology and urbanism have provided much, what we have lost - and may regain - has deeper value.


  1. I think I disagree with the "ecopolis" diagram -- or any others that show concentric circles as "a good thing." (Unless I'm missing something, and the circles are meant to be schematic, rather than physical.)

    I'm thinking of Christopher Alexander's pattern: "Interlocking city-country fingers," in which the visionary architect has food producing areas and food consuming areas in close contact, over a long, crenulated edge.

    The circle is a geometric form that maximizes the area-to-edge ratio. This has been the pattern of civilization. It is the pattern of control and coalescence, and is optimized for minimal diversity.

    Our settlement pattern needs to change from a circle to a dendritic pattern that MINIMIZES the area-edge ratio, so that food production has intimate contact with city-dwelling, so that diversity is encouraged.

  2. There is a reason why so many choose to live in cities. It's where all the facilities are grouped. Medical, social and cultural and tertiary/adult educational facilities are nearly all city centred. I only realised that after moving the the rural town of Ledbury. I've been to parish meetings about improving our town but most of the folk are retired and only interested in spending their remaining years making sure nothing changes and we can all gaze out of our windows at someone else's fields.

    So far I have not witnessed a single step in the direction of this rural area becoming more ecologically viable. Sadly I'm now looking to move back to 'civilisation' myself. As I grow older I need to be nearer to shops, doctor, hospital, travel links, not stranded out in the sticks dreaming of Arcadia.

  3. Charis, I agree that there are good reasons to live in cities.

    But that which enables city life cannot continue. Before the widespread use of fossil fuel, it took fifteen people living on the land to support one person in a city. Today, there are hundreds of people living in cities for every one person who produces their food.

    As fossil fuel goes into permanent, terminal decline, civilization will no longer be able to afford so many people in cities, and the trend will reverse, because people will not be able to feed themselves in cities.