Lessons from slums show why our cities need to go on a resource diet

The Mumbai slum Dharavi in 2007. Image: Getty.

Cities are the epicentres of human activity. They cover less than 2 per cent of the earth’s land surface but generate about 70 per cent of GDP and house more than half the human population. The importance of cities is only going to increase in coming decades as another 2.5bn people move to urban centres.

This intense production and consumption requires huge quantities of natural resources. Cities account for more than 60 per cent of global energy use, 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and 70 per cent of global waste. Current practices are depleting the Earth’s finite resources, changing its climate and damaging its natural ecosystems. With our planetary life support system in the red, we need to put cities on a serious resource diet.

Resources efficiency in the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda adopted at the Habitat III conference outlines a vision for sustainable urban development. These global guidelines, along with the related UN Sustainable Development Goals, recognise the need to use resources more efficiently.

Habitat III included a number of sessions on resource efficiency and associated tools and initiatives. Organisations such as UNEP, UN-Habitat and the European Commission and its research centres typically led these events. The New Urban Agenda includes many references to efficiency and reduced consumption in cities.

We must now act urgently to translate words into actions. This will ease pressure on ecosystems and produce a range of co-benefits, including health, wellbeing and resilience.

How do we create more resource-efficient cities?

Cities use resources directly, such as burning fossil fuels for electricity and transport. However, indirect uses, such as water for growing food crops, are much wider-reaching.

It can be overwhelming to consider the resources used for all goods, processes and infrastructure in cities. Yet it is possible to measure this using a systems approach. Instead of considering components in isolation, the entire city is considered as an open system, connected to others.

This perspective ensures a much broader understanding of complex relationships between scales, resource flows, the built environment, socio-economic factors and ecological outcomes.

There are tools that embrace a systems perspective. For example, the urban metabolism approach considers cities as ecosystems, across which flows of resources (such as energy or water) are measured. Life cycle assessment measures resource use through the entire production, consumption and degradation process of a good or service.

These approaches have been successfully applied at various scales such as cities, neighbourhoods and buildings. This reveals that we are using more resources than shown by traditional assessment techniques (see this example on building energy efficiency regulations).

But measurement without action has no impact on the ground. How can these tools be used to transform our cities?

Recent research enables us to map the quantities of materials in buildings and predict when and where we can reuse or recycle these. Here a map of estimated steel quantities in each building of Melbourne, Australia. Source: authors' own; left: Google and TerraMetrics; right: Stephan, A. and Athanassiadis, A. (In Press) Quantifying and mapping embodied environmental requirements of urban building stocks, Building and Environment.

Many initiatives are targeting urban resource efficiency. The circular economy paradigm is a good example, where materials are reused, upcycled and recycled. It demonstrates that waste is a human concept and not an inherent property of cities. Waste does not exist in natural systems.

A range of projects by UNEP, the European Commission and other organisations support local resource efficiency initiatives and encourage local governments to implement related regulations. Blogging, data visualisation and disseminating research all help promote the adoption of resource efficiency concepts. In addition to the pioneering work of groups such as metabolism of cities, the uptake of open data is helping with this.

Learning from those who already live on less

Informal settlements provide interesting lessons in resource efficiency. Construction materials in these settlements are typically not very durable. However, because they are in short supply, they are constantly reused or repurposed, almost never discarded.

Other residents often reuse replaced materials, such as metal sheets, or store them for later use. This practice avoids additional resource use to produce new materials.

Although informal slum areas are often the focus of “upgrading” and improvement, lessons learnt in these settings can enhance material flow management and reduce waste elsewhere in cities.

Informal settlements like Karail next to Banani Lake in Dhaka, Bangladesh, can offer lessons in resource efficiency, waste reduction and material flow management to most cities. Image: Alexei Trundle.

Co-benefits of resource efficiency

More resource-efficient cities tend to result in better health outcomes. For instance, encouraging walking, cycling and public transport instead of car use can reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and improve population health through increased physical activity.

Food systems that promote consumption of fresh, local produce can benefit both the environment and nutrition. Energy-efficient housing reduces energy and water use and can improve occupants’ health at the same time.

Resource efficiency can also contribute to urban resilience. Nature-based solutions use relatively few non-renewable materials to increase resilience to environmental change and natural disasters. For example, a park can be designed to be flooded during storms or a tsunami, reduce the urban heat island effect, support urban ecosystems and provide areas for community activities, recreation and urban agriculture.

Efficiency can also ensure that redundancy – a core principle of resilience – is built into urban systems. This means resources can be repurposed in the event of an unanticipated shock or stress. For example, during the recent blackout in South Australia, a household with solar battery storage was able to maintain power for 12 hours “off grid”.


Working together for better solutions

Although these steps move cities in the right direction, more action from governments, the private sector and civil society is needed to transform our growing urban footprints.

Focusing solely on resource efficiency may neglect opportunities to generate co-benefits across sectors and will not provide robust solutions. We need to look at the entire city as a system and work together, across all disciplines, with effective and strong governance structures that support integrated policy definition and long-term implementation. If we don’t, we might simply shift a problem from one area to another, increase resource demand elsewhere, or create social divisions and tensions.The Conversation

Strong leadership, political stability, effective institutions and awareness-raising among citizens are vital factors for success. Urban resource efficiency is critical, but it should be considered along all other pressing issues highlighted in the New Urban Agenda.

This article was written by a team of researchers at the University of Melbourne. André Stephan is a postdoctoral research fellow; Alexei Trundle a PhD candidate in the Australian-German Climate & Energy College; Dave Kendal a researcher with the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (ARCUE); Hayley Henderson a PhD candidate in urban planning; Hesam Kamalipour a PhD candidate and research assistant in urban design, and Melanie Lowe a research fellow at the McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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