Thursday, March 3, 2011

Balancing And Increasing Earth's Resources

A DISCUSSION OF URBANIZATION and environment focuses almost exclusively on resource consumption and pollution, with energy consumption by the built environment and transportation being the primary environmental locus for intervention.  Rather than an expression of nature, the city is envisioned to be like a vehicle that takes in energy and exhausts it.  Environmental actions are primarily technological—energy-reducing actions.  Thomas Berry encourages an expansion of our technological focus to a macro-scale or “the integral functioning of the entire complex of biosystems of the planet” instead of our emphasis upon the micro-scale or local scale.[i]  Designing for a micro-scale, we may incorporate green technology into larger structures that can deceptively negate a positive gain.  However, designing for the macro-scale, we need to examine our essential nature and revision our lives to be natural or ecological rather than just environmentally sensitive.

We need to continue to explore a conversion to green (“slurping-only”) architecture and vehicles and alternative transportation as a start, and to aspire to become energy-neutral and even energy producing as the cost of alternative technology drops [e.g., solar paint and hydrogen fuel and nuclear].   The city offers a technological opportunity because of its specialized technical skills.  Even without increasing innovation, we could incorporate existing technology to dramatically reduce our ecological footprint and even complement our use with the production of energy and recycling “pollution/waste” as a resource.

Increasing the efficacy of our technology primarily requires a non-technical vision.  Innovation that drives technology is essentially driven by an innovative vision of human nature.  We rely on technological solutions, but the heart of the solution is an avant-garde way of looking at the dilemma.  The key innovative non-technical design element will involve an overall orientation toward integration rather than toward exploitative extraction.  And this drive to integrate is driven by the experience of ecological inclusion.  We find that we are not simply “like” nonhuman creatures, but rather, we are creatural.  And that which we need to do does not need to be invented—it is already occurring automatically, and needs to be optimized.

The “automatic” functions of urbanization that impact positively on material resources that are not explicit technological actions first need to be recognized to then be capable of being enhanced. We can begin from a posture of strength and function.  For example, Richard Register notes that New York covers less land, uses about one-third of the energy than the Western average despite more extreme weather, has very few cars and much smaller square foot per person in streets/freeways/interchanges/parking structures/vehicles.[ii]  And globally, the popular sense of consumption as being nearly synonymous with comfort has begun to shift to environmental quality as “comfort.”  We begin to experience consumptive-based comfort as degrading environmental quality as well as making life seem frenetic and feeling like a half-life of going through the motions rather than being vital.

Green technology is not enough in itself.  Material technology alone does not challenge the vision of human nature to provoke a broad scale change.  With a sense of the living city guiding our actions, we begin to base our material technology on an emotional technology.  Material technology responds to a new sense of the city as ecological, and to increase our integrative actions and reduce our functional yet deconstructive actions.  And it expands our activities beyond the built infrastructure.  Myriad eco-friendly choices exist that involve a change in actions rather than a new technology.  Changes such as water reuse and recycled products, lawn care—rain gardens utilizing native flora, bike and car sharing and public transportation, no-idling policies and free bus passes and priority parking for hybrids, sales tax exemptions for energy efficient products, four day work weeks and tele-working, as well as extremes that explore possibilities that may even become the norm such as vegetated architecture [“vegitecture”] or solar paint or even illuminated umbrellas powered by rain.  Myriad “micro-changes,” such as favoring mugs over paper cups or bottled water or even using pizza boxes for seed gardens, represent the capability of positively modifying nearly every human action. 

Rather than technology, envisioning the city as an ongoing ecological adaptation prioritizes both affection for biota and landscape inclusion.  If we are separable, we will prioritize actions based on a strategy of separation.  Material technology is driven best by natural sensate experiences such as environment being walkable [e.g., “pedestrianism”] and by clean air and water and open space.  As evidenced in eco-vills, consideration of technologies such as wind turbines are, first, driven by an aspiration to be “ecological.” 

There are myriad “micro-eco-technologies” awaiting a vision of the “living city” that are evident in any Internet word search.  Solar plastics, smart cars, wildlife highways, bio-retention, urban farms, energy rebates, landfill mining, biodegradable materials and de-manufacturing represent a few of many micro-eco-approaches that are only just beginning to be described.  There is a natural evolution of building materials that is described as taking forty years for new materials to spontaneously appear as the norm. With a transformational view of the nature of the city as organic rather than artificial, new infrastructural materials might be expedited. 

Urban design can emphasize adaptive reuse.  It is not just new green technology that will “green” the city-form.  It is primarily how we use the materials that we have.  Adaptive reuse is typically applied to product design but it can be applied to everything built, including that which is popularly defined as the city—its architecture.  It is important to consider in building construction, for example, where new construction is estimated to consume forty percent of a contemporary landfill.  And new buildings replacing old buildings rather than restoring old buildings can also take decades to recover the energy lost in using new material.  It has been suggested that European design for new buildings tends to anticipate decades of use while American design tends to anticipate far less time before replacement.  And while they exist, buildings may produce 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, 65% of landfill waste, and consume 70% of electricity produced.  In Germany, buildings may use one-half of energy of American-designed buildings.  And an orientation toward “urban modernization” can threaten local networks and their participation in design.  Finally, building design aspects such as “landscaping” for buildings can become “green skirts” or “building parsley” rather than landscaping that produces resources such as “vertical gardens.”

“Adaptive reuse” can and is emerging to some extent without a sense of the city as a natural ecosystem, but it remains secondary.  A sense of the city as natural and even wild rather than artificial and maturing out of nature can prioritize adaptive reuse and drive an even deeper vision of the possibilities of the city.  Like a wilderness ecosystem, the city can aspire to completely recycle and find ways to increase energy rather than consume energy.  But rather than simply inventing a new technology, the city as a producer of energy and material will require an underlying vision of the city as an ecosystem more than as an artificial machine that only consumes external resources and that can “run out of gas.”  Total recycling will involve initial product design for recovery, increasing the value of “waste” to the point of payment for waste resources to value it, as well as efforts to produce resources such as energy and food within and near the city.

Along with an emphasis on adaptive reuse design, we can also look at developing habitat that can be altered by inhabitants.  The living city will also be optimized when urban activity and technology can be increasingly participatory.  Participation is essentially driven by an “emotional” process such as the wonder of immersion and inclusion rather than isolation that come from an expanded sense of identity.  The street grid and the lawn and food and personal use of water and energy are immediate points of interface that can incorporate a personal change that is not simply material but also emotional.

Importantly, the living city explores and borrows technology from all of the potential approaches to wildness, from the feral through sustainability.  But each “technology” needs to be “mined” for aspects that are functional in an urban setting.  For example, the functional efficiency of an eco-vill of single-family dwellings will not match the functional efficiency of a large apartment building.  But the values and the technologies of the eco-vill can be adapted to the denser urban built environment. 

Traditional areas within urban environments, especially built environments that have been traditionally consumptive such as suburbs and industrial areas and city centers, can be explored as potential eco-producers.  Elements within suburbs such as “dead malls” can be explored for retrofitting.  Rather than approach buildings in a piecemeal fashion, whole landscapes such as suburbs can incorporate elements of eco-vills and the livable qualities of New Urbanism as well as elements of sustainable society models and even denser urban habitation (e.g., that produce perhaps 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases in New York City as compared to a per person American average of 24.5 metric tons) to not only reduce consumption but also produce energy and food and material resources.  These efforts can be expedited regionally through “green” loans and lines of credit and public emission goals.  Green neighborhood coops that mimic the eco vill, participation in “cool cities” programs, more dwellings per acre, location of routine services that form a “walkable village,” bike paths, food production, lawn modifications comprise a growing list of thousands of existing green modifications that increase daily as these priorities grow.  

Again, from the perspective of the city as “living,” the overall directive for future urban technology is an integrative emphasis for the species-specific purpose of enhancing health.  The needed breakthroughs to optimize public health are not technological as much as they are psychological and cultural.  It is not the technology itself, but rather why we use the technology.  Rather than continue to try to integrate by solving a problem, we can aspire to enhance health to optimize human life.  Enhancing health is always a process of enhancing connectivity, and human health is just beginning to be understood to be, inescapably, as Thomas Berry states,a subsystem of the Earth’s health.”[iii] 

Essentially, as residents in a peopled Earth, we are increasingly aware that urbanization is ecology and not just technology.  We have feared nature because to be natural meant to be primitive and to become natural meant to take a step backward.  We changed forever upon viewing Earthrise over moonscape.  The static globes and maps dissolved upon seeing the biosphere and we found ourselves in an animate living Earth.  And now in the contemporary moment where we people the Earth, we are directly experiencing our immersion in nature, and that the way forward is affiliation rather than isolation. 
Urban sustainability comes down to this: It is not primarily a technological response that drives sustainability.  The city can promote technological improvements to the degree that it can articulate an expanded eco-literacy that acknowledges an eloquence in all landscapes, affection or “topofilia” and “biofilia,” an inherent or “automatic” deep and complex functioning urban dynamic, usufruct, a sense of homeland and indigenousness, quality as comfort, self-as-landscape, subtlety, and affiliation with the Earth as human life as optimal human development.

[i] Thomas Berry, “The ecozoic era,”, 1991, p. 2.
[ii] Richard Register, “EcoCities: Making cities sustainable is a crucial challenge,” p. 5.
[iii] Thomas Berry, “The mystique of the earth,” Caduceus,Issue 59 [

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