The sustainable city of the twentyfirst century


(Journal of Urban Culture Research – Chulalongkorn University Bangkok Thailand )

The rapid urbanization of the world’s population over the twentieth century is described in the 2005 Revision of the UN World Urbanization Prospects report. The global proportion of urban population rose dramatically from 13% (220 million) in 1900, to 29% (732 million) in 1950, to 49% (3.2 billion) in 2005. The same report projected that the figure is likely to rise to 60% (4.9 billion) by 2030. [Wikipedia]

Urbanization, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin-America has created mega-cities out of small settlements in less than a century. The process has been, and is chaotic and the result as well. In earlier societies the city was a quite well defined entity. The city was often enclosed by a wall. The people inside the walls were the true citizens with their rights and their duties. Today a shanty town may spring up in weeks or months with thousands or even tens of thousands inhabitants and almost no formal structures. There is no certain definition of the city, and even lists of the most popolous cities of the world are very ambigous for that very reason. A city of fifteen million registered inhabitants may have twenty million during work hours because so many from surrounding areas commute into the city. These migrations very so much that any census is incertain.

The city sprawl has also made it hard to define the limits of the city, where does it end and where does the countryside take over? Is New York a city or is it just a part of a super Megalopolis of fifty million people stretching from Boston to Washington DC. Greater Mexico city is a huge conurbation of more than 40 municipalities in the Valle de México. Jakarta was once before colonialism a small trading port. When the Dutch took over they founded the European style town of Batavia in 1619. Today Greater Jakarta has swollowed the nabouring cities such as Bogor into a metropolitan area, called Jabotabek, of almost 30 million people. And then you have the enormous conurbation of Tokyo-Yokohama where you can travel for hours and still be inside the city area.

In China the biggest migration in human history is taking place. Over the next few decades some 300 million people, that is approximately one USA, are moving into cities. Hundreds of new cities will be bulit to accomodate them.

The megacities are a 20th century invention made possible by the car and cheap petrol. But cheap energy is no longer an option and the city of the 21st century is challenged in a large number of ways. Let’s have a look at the greater picture.

Peak oil

85 % of world energy consumption are fossil fuels, 37% oil, 25% coal and 23% gas. Fossil fuels have been the energy pushing and pulling the industrial revolution and so also the energy behind urbanization. Now it seems that oil has peaked. World oil production is not increasing any more, new oil fields are few and harder to exploit. In spite of a deep economic recession oil prices have been in the $ 100-120 per barrel bracket. With so high prices one would think that production would increase a lot, but instead it has levelled off. Lately prices have been falling, but that solves nothing, because it means that the marginal oil fields become even less attractive and that the push for alternatives to oil also becomes weaker.

Peak oil will have a profound and long lasting influence on world cities. Oil does not only go into commuting and transport. Electricity which is so crucial to the city is most places produced by burning oil, gas or coal. Concrete from which the cities are build in highly dependent on fossil fuels. The whole building industry is an oil guzzling industry never to be satisfied without it. And of course to feed and give water to the citizens oil is everywhere. Modern agriculture depends on oil in plowing, sowing, watering, reaping, producing, storing and distributing farm produce. The pesticides and chemical fertilizers that made the green revolution possible and by that the feeding of seven billion people, is based on fossil fuels. 17% av the world’s oil consumption is linked to food production. Fertilizers alone consume 5%. Modern man is a walking SUV. In fifty years agricultural oil consumption has trippled. Taking oil out of agriculture is like takin the central pole out of a tent.

Running a car takes oil. And if you prefer an electric car, consider how your city’s electricity is produced and how the car itself is produced. You will find oil og even coal behind the most environmental electric car. To produce one takes about 20 barrels of oil.

Heating and cooling of appartments and houses consume a lot of energy, and since most electricity id produced by burning fossil fules, it is another carbon agenda.

What about the computers that run your city, or the one on your desk or lap top? No oil in them, to be sure. But to produce one they use at least ten times its weight in fossil fuels. To produce one 32MB microchip they use 1,7 litres of oil. And when you get rid of it it turns into so much hazardous waste. China is the fastest growing economy in the world, but it is also the fastes growing land fill of hazarduos garbage.

And what about our wonderful global internet? It helps us find information from the other side of the globe without moving from our desk or café table. Sure that must be eco-friendly. May be, but running the web consumes about 10% of all energy that is used in the US and close to 6% globally. For most of the people in the world that means oil and coal, and now and then nuclear power.

Producing sement consumes oil in quantity, 1000 kilos equals 1,13 barrels of oil. China alone consumes 1,7 billion tons of cement and counting. India is following suit. Paving of roads with asphalt takes at lot of oil, of course.

The sururbs were unthinkable without cheap energy, read oil. With the increase in Chinese growth alone, the world will not have enough energy long before 2030. Our entire city model is heading directly for a fundamental crisis.

Syntetic fibres that are used in textile industries is nothing but oil. Plastics are oil. Toys, bottles, machine parts, sports’ equipment, building materials: oil, oil, oil.

95% of globale trade is based on oil. Globalization equals oil.

With peak oil we enter into very uncertain terrain and continued urbanization becomes very dubious indeed.

But the trouble doesn’t stop there.

Climate and global warming

The modern city is a CO2-producing unit. Forests can be carbon sinks, but cities not. But the atmosphere already has too much CO2 for future good. Soon we will pass the 400 ppm limit, and that is at least 50 ppm too much. Even if we could stop immediately to emit more CO2 an increase in global temperature by 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial level is a given. But with the present speed in emissions 450 ppm is more likely, and then we might blow the 4 degree level and that is the entry into a very unpleasant planet.

Weather will be warmer, wetter and wilder. There will be more violent storms, more flooding of low-laying areas so typical for most big cities in the world and more deluvial rainfalls.

The modern city is contributing strongly to global warming and the climatic disastres, and it is also a local hot spot itself. City temperatures typically differ from the surroundings by being five centigrades higher. The city is a deposit for store solar heat and the city activity produces a lot of heat by itself.

So it is to be expected that the cities are vulnerable to climate change, and particularly the megacities in Asia, Africa and Latin-America.

Food and fertile top soil

The modern city is highly dependent of food production that typically tales place outside of the city itself. The city is a parasite. Without the fertile land outside of the city the inhabitants would die. But in spite of that the city destroys arable land as it grows. The level fiends of agriculture is so much more convenient building land than the barren hills, and the market price for building ground is so much higher than farm land. The end result is that that precious fertile soil that has taken numerous generations to create is destroyed to make way for the city. There is no romanticism from me underlining this, it is a fact. The city destoys the land that it feeds upon. In the long run this is of course lethal.

Water and sewage

Hanoi has seen its population swell to almost 7 million over the past few years, yet there is not a single sewage treatment plant in the entire city. Wastewater from toilets and showers ultimately ends up in the region’s rivers, from where it makes its way, dirty as dirty can be, into the ground water.

Residents in Mexico city get most of their drinking water from aquifers under the city. But because of waste and poor water treatment that water is contaminated with cadmium, chome and other metaøs that are hazardous for humans. Over-exploitation of aquifers has contributed to the continued subsidence within the city (5-40cm per year), increasing the chance of catastrophic flooding.

In the port city of Karachi in southern Pakistan, around 30,000 people die due to the effects of contaminated drinking water, while in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), there are both traces of faeces in drinking water and high concentrations of arsenic in ground water.

In the rivers of Buenos Aires there are high levels of dumped toxins making the Argentine river Matanza-Riachuelo «one of the world’s most polluted waterways». And millions of people in the city lack safe access to drinking water and are not connected to sewer systems.

In Kenya, the capital city lacks capacity to manage the increasing demand for water. And 60 percent of Nairobi’s inhabitants live in informal settlements with inadequate access to quality water and are forced to buy their water at kiosks at a higher price.

The oceans

Most of the megacities lie on the estuaries of big rivers. Their sewage, their excessive nitrogen and phosphate over load go into the nearby sea and add to the dead zones in the worlds oceans. This in its turn destroy the feeding ground for fish and other sea organisms, and then of course threaten the food chain of the city dwellers.

Scientists have measured higher acidity in the oceans and a shocking level of planton death over the last few decades. Most of it may be linked with CO2 being dissolved in the ocean water creating carbonic acid which is highly detrimental to all life in the oceans.

In the mid Pacific there is a sludge of plastic particles creating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As it disintegrates, the plastic ultimately becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms that reside near the ocean’s surface. Thus, plastic waste enters the food chain. Estimates of the size of the Patch vary widely, but there is no doubt that i represents a huge problem.

Paradigm shift

These ecological problems and the problem with getting sufficient energy are some of the biggest challenges to the future of the cities. The Henry Ford paradigm, that is the car and petrol city, is outdated. But that was the paradigm that fed the city growth, and so far there is no other paradigm in sight that can turn the table and make way for the sustainable city of the future.

But there is a lot of research going on in this field, and this is obviously the way to go to turn the city from a parasite and a problem into a contribution to a sustainable society.

There is no energy source in the pipe line of the foreseeable future that can match the versatility and energy rihness of oil. The consumption and ultimate depletion of the oil resources is a once in a life time opportunity for a planet. Alternative energies like wind, tide and solar panels contribute but a tiny bit to world energy. And their production and maintenance takes a huge amount of oil. Nuclear doesn’t seem such a bright option after Fukushima and fusion energy remains a mirage very far from the practical world.

So the big picture is that we have to use less energy, per person and in sum total.

  • The walkable city. Before cheap oil cities were built for slow and local transport. Commuting over long distances was not an option. We will soon be back there again. Cities must be built or restructured so that people can reach most of their daily activities, including work and play using their own muscles, that is by walking or biking. That means that work places and services must be within a short walk from home.
  • City cells. To be walkable, all basic needs must be within walking distance. That means that the city must become a multi-node, multi-cellular city. A city of towns. Some needs that are not daily necessities could be found farther away, like an over-laying grid.
  • Quality of life. The city nodes must have a sufficiently rich cultural life to satisfy a wide range og needs. Cultural consumption is normally less energy an material demanding and also gives life and attrativeness to the city environment. Here I think not only of culture for the people, but also of culture by the people. The city must give ample room for the creative activities of the citizens.
  • Self sufficiency. The city must become self sufficient and self sustaining to a very large degree. Buildings must produce as much energy as they consume. A certain amount of food production must take place in the city. Sewage must be treated so that phosphates and nitrogen is contained and circulated back to farming.
  • Durability. The modern tendency of use-and-throw is creating waste mountains that threaten to strangle the big cities. Durability and reusability are the new modern. Energy, water and other material resources are stretched thin today. There is small room for growth. So economic use of resources will be crucial.
  • Urban qualities in the countryside. To contain a too great influx of new millions into the megacities, it is crucial to give the countryside some urban qualities. Those qualities that go for the city cells should also be developed in smaller rural centres, when it comes to jobs, housing, culture, recreation etc.

Start now!

The economic and ecological crises in the world today mean that there is no time to wait for change. The problems are only getting bigger and more difficult to solve as we wait. There will not be any one-size-fits-all solution. What we will be looking for is a complex and multifaceted web of solution, local, regional, national and global. A huge number of people all around the globe are thinking about and working for this. They need resources and sufficient leverage to make results. Also some governments have seen some of the drama in the present situation. China, which has some of the gravest environmental problems, not least in its everexpanding cities, has declared its new five year plan «The green leap forward». The chinese have also made plans to develop eco-cities. So far most of these plans remain on the drawing board and the real results are few. One of the problems is that so far these ideas have been top-down techocratic ideas. To succeed I believe such projects must belong to the people, to the grass-roots. People must be deeply involved and have a realistic feeling of ownership to the project. So empowerment, mobilization, real democracy are essential. That is not to say that planners, specialist and scientists do not belong. Their expertise is crucial, but it must be matched with a consientious popular movement for groundbraking change. From the Tahrir plaza to Madison Wisconsin, from the streets of London to Wall Street people demand power over their own future. The mismanaging of the earth by the rich elites have gone all too far.

Am I naive, is this an utopian vision? I don’t think so. The most unrealistic plan of all today is business as usual. It it business as usual that drives us to destruction. Be bold, be realistic, change the world!

Pål Steigan

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  1. As I’ve said before, you never get the masses to relinquich their standard of living freely, and no democratic government will be willing to force them, as that will prevent them from being reelected. So we need to find substitutes, not ways to survive on less energy.
    First we have to increase the production of easy, «non poluting» energy. That means massive expansion and new energy plants, using water and nuclear fuel. No matter the Tsjernobyls and Fukushimas of the world, nuclear power plants are reasonably safe, and the safety increases with these sorts of accidents. And noone likes that their precious waterfalls are diverted into power plants, but is the beauty of a waterfall more important than the reduction in fossil fuel dependency and reduction in CO2 production? Wind, wave, solar and what not, can take over if/when feasible.
    As to food production, we will have to accept gene modifications if we want to reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and still be able to feed 10 billion or more. This should be done by a global ban by the UN on all types of fertilizers and pesticides. In addition there will have to be regional treaties on use of water that spans larger areas, like rivers and lakes.
    If we can solve energy and food, the rest are basicaly local problems, like sewage, water polution and city planing, and of none, or small, concequence for the majority, and should be left to local authorities to solve.
    The solution to the problem by asking people to lower their standard of living for the greater good of all is, at best, a romaticised view and has absolutely no chance of happening unless we don’t do something up front and the earth plumages into the dark ages when we run out of fossil fuel, and thereby forces us to lower our standards of living.
    The environment firendly parties are to hung up in romantic solutions, like reduction in standards of living, and less interested in finding workable solutions acceptable to the masses, which is depressing, considering they seem to be the only ones taking this seriously.

  2. Vi bør slutta å klistra merkelappen «romantisk» på personar og parti som tek til orde for eit enklare levesett. Det finna fram til livsstil og levemåtar som tærer mindre på ressursane og fører med seg eit lågare energiforbruk, det er netopp noko av det som samsvarer med oppmodinga til Steigan om å «Start now!». Eg noterer meg at jamvel Steigan straks må forsikra at det er «no romanticism from me underlining this» når han snakkar om å ta vare på matjorda. Det viser kor til dei grader vi er komne på defensiven når det gjeld akkurat dette spørsmålet. I dag er det mest ingen som blunkar når nye store jordbruksareal vert raserte så snart det er snakk om å byggja ut «infrastruktur» som det heiter så vakkert, les: ta i bruk areal til nye motorvegar og bilbaserte kjøpesenter.

  3. Dette er spennende! La oss skape vår kultur nå!, sjekk ut dette prosjektet! I Portugal er de allerede godt i gang:) Og det eksisterer samfunn over hele verden som prøver å gjøre det nå! Til og med i Norge, økolandsby i Hurdal, Lofoten, og under planlegging i bergen:)

  4. En ting er sikkert. Vi trenger svar på de helt praktiske løsninger. Etter hva jeg har lest har Havanna by i en tid nå dyrket en del av sitt matbehov i selve byen. Hvordan det er nå vites ikke, men jeg er kjent med at Beijing brukte parker og annet disponibelt areal til å dyrke mat. Ja selv den avsatte keiseren og formann Mao hadde sine hager hvor de dyrket mat. Under siste verdenskrig ble ikke så rent lite grønsaker dyrket i folks små haver.
    Dette med oppvarming er et kanskje større problem. Men jordvarme er jo et godt alternativ. Etter hva jeg har forstått kan jordvarme erstatte ca. 60% av varmebehovet. Moderne vedovner som brenner rent og bruker mindre ved er allerede her i landet populære. Så noe skjer da. Selvforsynte hus med hensyn til energi er ikke noe fantasifoster, men noe som faktisk finnes allerede.
    Ellers syntes jeg Pål har kommet med mange gode tanker. Det som kanskje ikke er så lurt er å bruke et annet språk. Din engelsk er flott og ganske enkel å forstå, men selv om nordmenn flest snakker noe engelsk nå for tiden, så er det ikke gitt at de leser særlig mye på dette språket. Særlig da såpass lange artikler som den vi har her.

    • Takk for kommentar.
      Som du ser er denne artikkelen skrevet for et tidsskrift i Thailand, så da falt det naturlig å bruke engelsk. Den er beregna på et internasjonalt publikum, men jeg tenkte den ville ha interesse også i Norge. For et norsk publikum ville jeg ha skrevet mye mer konkret.

  5. Eg tykkjer du tek næringsstoffproblematikken vel lett:
    Før den industrielle revolusjonen budde svært få utanfor der dei fekk maten sin (burtsett frå det dei fekk frå havet). Soleis gjekk næringsstoffi i maten folk åt attende til markane maten vart dykra på.
    Dette endra seg med den industrielle revolusjonen: etter det eg har fenge med meg er denne folkevandringi mykje av grunnen til utarmingi av matjordi som førde til guano-krigane på 1800-talet. Dette problemet peikte i si tid Marx på, inspirert av far til jordvitskapen, von Liebzig (i fylgje Marx’ Ecology av J.B. Fosters). Det løystest fyrst med mineralgjødselet.
    Mineralgjødsel krev energi og førekomstar. Førekomstane er i sume tilfelle med å ganga tome – fosfortoppen er i syne, og kjem nok medan eg lever. Nitrogen krev berre heise med energi å taka ut or lukti.

    Ein lyt altso anten dyrka maten lokalt, nytta mineralgjødsel eller transportera næringsstoffi ut til opplandet att etterpå. Å transportera næringsstoffi ut at (kloakk eller kloakk-baserte produkt), trur eg berre undantaksvis kan vera vetig – det krev nok mykje energi og eg er redd det vil vera bokstavleg skitarbeid.

    So eg ser ikkje nokon utveg som let folk bu tettare enn matjordi gjev grunnlag for. Urbant landbruk, som ein millom anna finn i stor skala i sume u-land (jamfør boki deira Olav Randen og Aksel Nærstad), og kan nok få oss til å kunna bu tettare enn eg trur i dag. Men der finst grensor!

    Andre omsyn gjer dette vanskeleg. Ein lyt bu nære nok kvarandre til å få den kulturen og dei tenestene ein tarv, og fjerne nok kvarandre til å få den maten ein tarv. Stutt oppsumert kan me nok seia at du har gløymd eitt punkt i utfordringane for byplanleggjing, eller at punktet om «SELF SUFFICENCY» vart utvida: «RURAL QUALITIES IN THE CITIES: To prevent the depletion of nutrients from the countyside, it is neccessary to increase the agricultural production of urban areas. The increase must be sufficent for the efficent transport of nutrients for soil to mouth, and back to the soil.»

    I tillegg vil eg meina det er naudsynt med noko tilførsel av næringsstoff frå utanfrå dei menneskelege næringsstoffskringslaupi: desse vil naudsynleg leka. Eg trur at med aukande produktivitet vil det koma aukande tap av næringsstoff (men tapet kan gjerne verta relativt mindre), og dette lyt erstattast. Eit vis er med fiske, eit anna er med mineralgjødsel – noko slikt vil eg tru er naudsynt. Eg trur noko av grunnen til at den grøne halvmånen ikkje er grøn lenger (og andre tidlege høgkulturar heller ikkje er produktive), er av di ein mangla ei næringsstoffskjelde for å bøta på lekasjen. Dette har eg ikkje greide på enno, men ein ser at dei eldste, kjende, jordbruksområdi som er gode i dag òg (Nil-området, den Gule flod) ligg ved elver, og soleis har fenge påfyll av næringsstoff oppstraums frå.

    Til sist lyt eg seia at eg miste punktet «Self Sufficency» til det vert nemnt i teksten, og at dette kanskje er meir ei utdjuping enn ein kritikk. Eg meinar uansett at næringsstoff har for liten plass i ordskifte om miljø, utvikling og mest det meste, og difor lyt eg nemna det her òg.

    • Takk for verdifullt innspill. Min artikkel er skissemessig så den bare antyder en del svært viktige problemer og utfordringer. Dette med næringsstoffene har jeg tatt opp grundigere i boka mi Sammenbruddet og i likhet med deg mener jeg at dette er et svært alvorlig og svært vanskelig problem. Du er inne på hvordan sivilisasjonens vugger – elvedalskulturene – ikke lenger er i stand til å fornye næringsstoffene sine. Helt ekstremt er jo det i tilfellet Egypt. Landet er ikke i stand til å skaffe mat til sine 84 millioner mennesker. Dette er til nå løst ved å bruke oljeinntekter til å kjøpe hvete på verdensmarkedet. Nå har ikke Egypt lenger noe oljeoverskudd å ta av. Dette er grunnleggende for å forstå alvoret i den egyptiske krisa. Jakten på mineralsk fosfat vil bli verre. Jeg mener krigen i Mali og Sahel delvis handler om dette (pluss andre naturressurser).
      Overført til Norge mener jeg at tanken om å bygge ut Oslo som en by for 700.000 mennesker er helt vanvittig. Samtidig omdannes små- og mellomstore byer til små Oslo-kopier med samme snyltende økologi. Og det i et land som i hvert fall på noen områder er et matfat. (Vi kommer til å få store problemer med korn og fôr riktignok. Norsk kjøttproduksjon er totalt avhengig av en månedlig båt fra Brasil med brasiliansk soya. Hva når den blir omdirigert til Kina fordi de byr mer for den?)


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