The failure of mainstream economics to acknowledge our dependence on ecological systems is the central critique identified by ecological economics. As a result, ecological systems are not properly valued and the natural environment is regarded as a resource and a waste sink.
This is analogous to the failure in urban planning to acknowledge the dependence of cities on food production. The consequence of defining cities as urban areas—therefore excluding rural areas simply by definition—ensures that food systems are not recognised as part of the city ‘system’. This article explores how the ecological critique of mainstream economics might be addressed by examining how we build cities. Cities, after all, are the expression of our cumulative work in the economy and their design shapes, and is shaped by, our relationship to the land upon which we live.
The demand for organic produce, interest in urban agriculture and new platforms connecting farmers with consumers, all suggest that there is growing consumer demand for a change in our food system. For farmers, though, it is more of a necessity than a desire for change. The warming climate is causing an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and bushfires. Excessive extraction of water from creek and river systems, together with deforestation have resulted in soil depletion and increased salinity. Industrial farming practices have decreased biodiversity in landscapes and soils, resulting in falling productivity and posing significant risks to ongoing food production.
Agriculture is in desperate need of a revolution. A revolution in agriculture will reshape our cities just as it did through the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Numerous examples of the seeds of this revolution—referred to as regenerative agriculture—are described in Charles Massy’s ‘Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth’. He identifies the principles of regenerative agriculture as follows:
- Maximising the capture of solar energy by fixing as many plant sugars as possible via photosynthesis;
- Improving the water cycle, maximising water infiltration, storage and recycling in the soil;
- Improving the soil-mineral cycle by creating healthy soils that contain and recycle a rich lode of diverse minerals and chemicals;
- Maximising biodiversity and health of integrated, dynamic ecosystems at all levels.
Massy argues that a fifth principle is needed—a change in human attitudes. Only human agency can trigger landscape regeneration by working in harmony with natural systems. The necessary shift in attitude is from an extractive to a regenerative mindset. Instead of just taking from the land, we take and give back in equal measure. This concept of regeneration is equivalent to the ‘closing the loop’ narrative of the circular economy. Closing the loop implies thinking in systems and striving for zero waste because there is no waste in nature.
The principles of regenerative agriculture and of the circular economy provide the basis for a new human settlement theory. Firstly, think of the city as a community of citizens with a regenerative attitude that ensures their actions have a positive impact on the land. Then, capture as much solar energy as possible, manage the water cycle, improve soil health, maximise biodiversity and think in systems so that there is no waste. This approach not only guarantees food but also energy and water.
The revolution—or economic disruption—of the food system converges with disruptions in water and energy systems. For several decades water engineers have advocated for a shift from large centralised dams, channels and pipe infrastructure to decentralised, precinct-based, water sensitive urban design (WSUD) models in which water is harvested, stored and distributed locally within and around the built environment. Similarly, the energy transition is more than just a shift from fossil fuels to renewables, it is also a transition from a centralised to a distributed energy system.
These disruptions underpin a disruptive model for planning cities. A local energy micro-grid can power a local water micro-grid, which in turn can irrigate a local food system, offering a community the opportunity to harvest, store and distribute food, water and energy within their immediate catchment. Designing the built environment with smaller private spaces and a wide range of accessible shared spaces would also minimise energy demand while simultaneously providing opportunities for social interaction and connection. Interestingly, designing the built environment in this way aligns with new build-to-rent and co-living development models that have been emerging in recent years. Disruptions in food, water, energy and land development systems are therefore all converging to disrupt the approach to building cities.
Creating places where local residents can collaborate to provide their basic needs is a form of Place-Making as well as an achievable alternative to the Universal Basic Income (UBI). The direct delivery of basic needs—consumed by the producing community—rather than the provision of money to pay for the purchase of these same needs, addresses the issue of wealth distribution but also re-imagines how wealth is created. It requires communities to take responsibility for their local environment, supporting infrastructure and others in their community.
This approach to land development also allows us to build a steady state economy (SSE). An SSE aims “to sustain a constant, sufficient stock of real wealth and people for a long time” (Daly 2010). The goal of our land development process would therefore be to create places that sustain a discrete population in their environment for a long time. By planning for a specific number of residents, we can ensure that the population does not exceed the capacity of the land upon which they are situated. Matching the population to the supporting land and ecosystem of infrastructure ensures that we are striving towards One Planet Living. Planning for a discrete population also allows for the design of places for abundance of basic necessities by planning for supply to exceed demand.
The population should be big enough to benefit from economies of scale, while also small enough to ensure that residents have an effective voice in the organisation of their social relationships. A village scale of around 150 people corresponds with the Dunbar Number, which some anthropologists and sociologists argue is the maximum group size that can maintain stable social relationships.
By imagining a hypothetical village-scale development as a thermodynamic system that seeks to minimise energy losses and strive for zero waste, some economic and town planning principles are revealed. These include re-localisation—minimising the length of supply chains and commuting—for distributive efficiency, maximising the durability of all work outputs, preference of access over ownership and aligning with natural cycles to harness natural energies.
Of course, one village does not make a society. Yet creating a process that enables the replication of this development model, where each village is designed to align with the natural ecological cycles of its locality, would eventually create a distributed network. The network could connect through online platforms, open access information, peer-to-peer trading and shared electric vehicles, creating an Internet of Cities.
Creating such nodes in a network is obviously difficult for densely populated areas but represents a significant opportunity and point of difference for the nearly 50 percent of the world’s population that live in rural areas.
The way we think about cities and town planning is anchored in an increasingly irrelevant past; responding to the challenges of centralisation arising from the Industrial Revolution. Planning should address these issues by enabling a redistribution of populations, utilising distributed information and energy systems. We need a new way of thinking about cities—a new paradigm for town planning that attempts to extrapolate the future from the world as it is today, not from the world of the Industrial Revolution. In doing so, we can create a new economy that enhances and regenerates natural capital and communities.