Regenerative cities

There are a lot of ways in which people frame a reaction to the climate crisis: building a circular economy, becoming more resilient, more sustainable, greener, etc. Often, whether from the start or through influence by various vested interests, the discourse and action or even potential actions are pulled towards consumerism. For example the original idea of sustainability is a great one, but sustaining what? When the concept is pulled towards sustaining the same lifestyle, just slightly less damageable, it becomes a delaying tactic, not a way forward.

I’m sure ‘regenerative’ will get deformed in the same way but one thing I like about it is that it’s focused on the planet that sustains us, not our habits. If you try to regenerate the life systems in and around a city, perhaps it puts the focus in the right direction. That’s what this article by Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies looks at.

For cities to become truly resource-efficient and low carbon emitting while positively enhancing – rather than undermining – the ecosystems they depend on.

We hear a lot about carbon and deforestation elsewhere but most of us don’t realize how much just living somewhere degrades the environment, including the parts we need to live, like water.

The groundwater level below the Chinese capital has dropped 20 metres since 1980, and nearly 40% of Beijing’s surface water is too polluted for human use. Consequently, the city has 70% of its fresh water piped in from southern China, more than 1,000 km away – and water scarcity is still a major problem.

Since out very lifestyle extracts resources, a first step to some day being regenerative is to become much more resource-efficient.

[F]or cities to become truly resource-efficient and low carbon emitting while positively enhancing – rather than undermining – the ecosystems they depend on, we will need to look beyond ‘green’ initiatives and incremental improvements.

Of course, it’s a complex issue since cities use what they stand on but also import and export lots of goods, and local isn’t always better, sometimes it’s actually better to have something manufactured elsewhere, locally to the resource or because the weather is more appropriate. But then there’s also a question of supply chains that might break, so producing something closer at hand might help the population in being more resilient. Hard problems. One thing our civilization definitely doesn’t do well is in valuing things. Considering a global context of externalities would already help in making decisions about what gets made where, or at all.

Today, there are some obvious discrepancies in how we value and price consumer goods with the externalities, such as the hidden environmental costs that are a consequence of production not being factored in.

Agriculture is one of those areas that produces a lot of carbon emissions and degradation of ecosystems, yet it also means it’s a great place to change and have a large impact.

[M]aking agriculture regenerative means adopting a set of practices focusing on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration (improving the ecosystem’s ability to capture and store carbon), increasing resilience to climate change and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.

Construction is another huge slice of emissions and consumes so much resources that sand (sand!) can be hard to find for its production.

The use of modern concrete is responsible for 8-10% of global CO2 emissions, largely due to the use of Portland cement as a binder. Roman concrete instead uses a mix of 90% volcanic ash (pozzolan) and 10% lime, causing minimal environmental impact.

Using nature’s solutions more directly seems to often be a good way to go, developing a better understanding of what plants are already doing and leveraging that, instead of inventing our own processes and sticking with the same ways of doing things well after we’ve discovered their problems.

A hectare of hemp absorbs four times as much CO2 per year as a forest hectare, and hemp can be used for a variety of high-quality materials including rope, textiles, paper, “hempcrete”, a lightweight, fire-resistant, mould-resistant building material and ”hempwood”, an alternative to oak planks.

Lots of research and work to be done for sure and, as is often the case, Scandinavian countries are already trying out some innovative ways of organizing cities to preserve the environment and make it more accessible to citizens.

[Copenhagen] and its suburbs would only be allowed to grow in ‘fingers’ along railways and motorways, and between the fingers, farmland and forests were preserved or established. Nowhere in the city do you need to cycle more than 15 minutes to get to a beach, a forest, a farm or all of these. […]

Copenhagen and Randstad could be called ’cellular cities’ because the urban areas form ’cell walls’ around green ’plant cells’. They are still far from being truly regenerative, but great steps are taken, especially when it comes to energy.