Musings of a former Rocket Scientist

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Regenerating Our Cities

There are many different visions for regeneratively designed communities of various sizes & densities.

Soleri sketch of Arcology
Valetta Springs Arcology by Paolo Soleri

Arcologies, a fusion of Architecture and Ecology, were envisioned by Paolo Soleri in the 1960s and 70s as completely integrated megastructures, small cities in a single building of mammoth proportions.  Living, working, shopping, agriculture, power generation, water purification, waste management and transportation were all woven together in a fully three-dimensional marvel of engineering and architecture.   Everything was recycled, nothing went to waste.  Passive solar heating and natural cooling strategies were often intrinsic to the overall form of the arcologies (apses to capture the warmth of the sun & ventilation cores hundreds of feet high).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the other end of the spectrum, at the dawn of the 20th Century Ebenezer Howard envisioned the Garden City, a low-rise, low-density, low-tech workers’ utopia.  Row houses and single family homes set in a pastoral landscape.  Urban agriculture was part of this equation, with waste (including sewage) being used locally for fertilizer.  Howard saw electric power as pollution-free;  presumably, the coal fired power plant would be in someone else’s town.  In many ways, this was the blueprint for the suburbs of the 20th Century, but of course we screwed it up with  modern conveniences like cars, fast food and rampant consumerism.  Land values pushed agriculture further and further away.  It became cheaper to bury or ship our waste than to recycle it.

garden-city-1910

garden-city-2013

Cities in the 21st Century are not generally the paragons of integration proposed by Soleri, nor are they bounded closely by agricultural lands as Howard proposed.  Cities have become isolated from the sources of their energy and food, subject to crippling disruptions caused by severe weather and economic forces.  Centralized power, water and waste infrastructures are energy intensive and have become overloaded as cities continue to grow.

Most cities have maintained at least some public greenspace as an amenity, but these areas rarely represent a vibrant and diverse ecosystem.  Nature is no longer seen as essential to life; many city-dwellers have little real experience with farm or wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

golf-vs-pasture
copyright M.Binder 2014

 

Regenerative design is a holistic systems oriented approach to creating buildings and communities.  One of its goals is the elimination of waste, not necessarily through reductions in use, but by creating closed cycles: the waste products from each process are used as raw material to another.  Ideally, in order to avoid the cost of transportation and infrastructure, the cycles should be closed as locally as possible.  In a rural homestead designed according to permaculture principles, the kitchen, composter and garden would be placed adjacent to each other to facilitate the process of recycling organic waste.  The question is ‘what is the appropriate scale for closing cycles within a city?’

The recent interest in vertical farming might make it possible to use the waste from a tall downtown office building to grow food on the facade and roof, but does that make sense (environmentally, functionally or economically)?  Achieving a net zero balance of energy, water and waste within a single building would be difficult to guarantee.  But if don’t balance things at the building level, how DO we achieve that balance overall?

Speculative design for a self-sufficient apartment buildign in a dense urban context.  Can it be done?  Is it worth it? copyright M.Binder 2013
Speculative design for a self-sufficient apartment buildign in a dense urban context. Can it be done? Is it worth it?
copyright M.Binder 2013

The answer is, of course, that each site, neighborhood, district and city is different.  There is no single solution, but we can at least look at the factors that might drive our decisions and what the outcomes might be.  Our most general goals should be:

1.  To eliminate the use of non-renewable energy sources.  So wind and solar, sure, but also biomass.  Oil and gas are not renewable unless we use them slowly enough to give nature time to regenerate them – millions of years… so no.

grave-robbers
copyright M.Binder 2014

2.  To eliminate pollution of air, ground and water.  This should include not only pollution created in the  operation of the city, but also the manufacturing processes to create the construction materials and systems.

Pollution might be defined here as substances in a quantities that do not contribute to the short term health and long-term stability of the synthetic and natural environments (which includes people).  We don’t have to reduce waste to zero if it is useful as a nutrient (and does not create an excessive level of nutrients that throw the system out of balance).

Unhealthy growth - boy swims in algae bloom fed by fertilizer run-off from farms Photo from China/Rueters
Unhealthy growth – boy swims in algae bloom fed by fertilizer run-off from farms
Photo from China/Rueters

BearMeetsDevelopment_AP-photo3.  To prevent the destruction of natural habitat, including disruption of wildlife migration.  We should, in fact, be working to restore habitat previous destroyed in order to promote the long-term sustainability of the larger eco-system.  A lot of research will be needed to determine what restoration is needed, but in the meantime, we can avoid doing MORE damage, and start reversing the process.  This includes not only buildings but roads, pipelines, transmission towers, wind-turbines, etc.

Human development of any kind displaces nature; humans simply cannot coexist peacefully in close proximity with certain species of animal (bears, wolves, etc.).  Our best option is to intensify existing development (greater density); it’s a start.

 

4.  To accomplish the other goals stated above without destroying the economic prosperity of society OR ANY SEGMENT OF IT – we cannot create a sustainable future by grinding down those people at the bottom of the economic ladder.  This should be possible and can even create greater economic prosperity, though admittedly it may require that we reduce the chasm of income disparities that some of us currently enjoy (the rest of us not so much).

avghseholdincome_MotherJones

Of course, these are not even the most general goals we can define; there are doctrines like the Awanahee Principles and the Hannover Principles that are much broader.  Believe it or not, I was trying to be more specific here.

These goals are clearly not going to be met overnight.  We have to starting planning and implementing steps toward these goals now; if we wait much longer, we may not have the resources to complete the task and reach a healthy balance.

Finding the Proper Scale

The goals stated above can be accomplished with a variety of different scaled solutions.  We could, for instance, provide all our renewable energy by creating giant solar arrays and wind turbines far outside of town, but doing so makes it harder to avoid large scale disruption of the natural habitat.  Transportation costs and embodied energy rise, as do energy losses for distribution.  Likewise, producing all our food on farms outside the city becomes unsustainable at some distance because of the transportation energy required (remembering our commitment to only using renewable energy sources).  I am not suggesting that I will never eat another pineapple, though they will not as cheap as they are now.  It is a trade-off, not an absolute.

Cross sections of the City.  When each building needs to be net-zero, shadows from surrounding buildings are critical.  A district level solution including power, waste treatment and urban agriculture may make more sense.
Cross sections of the City. When each building needs to be net-zero, shadows from surrounding buildings are critical. A district level solution including power, waste treatment and urban agriculture may make more sense.

My hypothesis here is that our goals will be much easier to achieve (and in some cases may only be possible) if we close loops of energy, food, water and waste at the smallest scale possible.  Decentralization can help us create a cleaner, healthier, more efficient, diverse and beautiful urban environment.  In my next post, I will discuss some illustrative examples.