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.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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