(Image from Here)
This is my last post in the Deepening Resilience Project organized by Syren Nagakyrie, at least for the time being.
Today I want to jump right into it, and explore the question posed for this week’s (okay, I’m several weeks behind) prompt;
How do we engage with the built and cultivated environments (e.g., urban areas, domesticated plants, gardens) as we address climate change and build resilience?
Like so many of the questions in this project, this one is a big one that requires a great deal of nuance to tease out. As an individual, I won’t be able to cover everything, as there have been volumes written about this very topic. Even the briefest summary of the body of work would be well outside of this one blog post.
At the core of this question is the question of civilization. Ten thousand years ago humans started to build the first cities, as agriculture allow the creation of permanent settlements. This was a big change from the hunter-gatherer existence that preceded it. Agriculture and civilization brought about changes in diet, in culture, and even in the human physique. Some of those cities succeeded, such as Athens and Damascus, which have been continually occupied for thousands of years, even to the current day. Others failed, overtaxing their environments and eventually turning to dust.
This gets to the heart of the fact that our built environments, our cities, are complex creations. The ability of people to congregate into urban environments brought with it an increase in complexity, for good and for ill. Complexity allowed for more human energy to be channeled into the creation of great monumental works, and also allowed for specialization. As not every person had to be directly involved in food production, it opened up tasks like priest work, astronomy, and the invention of writing. It also allowed for a class of crafters and artisans as well as merchants. People that could focus full time on creating art, as long as they were able to trade their own goods for food from farmers.
But this specialization came with a dark side, in the form of stratification. Some specializations were considered to be ‘better’ that others, and so the creation of civilization also brought with it hierarchy, stratification, and inequality. In many ways, civilization brought with it the creation of a cultural elite, an entire class of people that set themselves apart from the rest and considered themselves ‘better’ than the average folk. Sedentary existence, in a way that hadn’t existed before, also allowed these elites to hoard huge surpluses of food and wealth. Inequality was almost a feature of civilization, not a side effect.
More than this, even in modern times, cities are huge pits for resources and energy. Almost half of the world population now lives in cities, and this requires importations of material as well as energy. Urban centers often are far away from required minerals and ores, and often don’t have the land space to create their own food, which urban areas then have to rely on rural areas for.
This has lead some thinkers to suggest that civilization is by it’s nature inherently unsustainable. If a city has to rely on the import of outside materials, it cannot be sustained, at least that is how the argument goes. But I don’t think that is true. If cities like Athens and Damascus have been around for thousands of years, through wars, famines, the rise and fall of empires, then I have to question what such arguments mean by ‘sustainable’. If thousands of years worth of continuous existence through the worst calamities nature and humanity has to offer isn’t sustainable, then I want to know what the hell is?
But this is not to deny the fact that urban living has a large environmental impact and ecological footprint. As much as we have examples such as Athens and Damascus, we also have examples such as Sumer and Easter Island. Civilizations that exceeding the carrying capacity of their environments.
What makes the difference? Why does one civilization manage to survive thousands of years, while another collapses into dust? That is another big question, which probably doesn’t have an easy answer. Still, it goes without saying that I think some measure of resilience is at the heart of it. Cities that have the ability to weather and adapt to rapidly changing conditions, such as war, drought, or famine, are probably off to a good start.
In many ways, I think cities are at the heart for the mitigating the climate crisis. Unlike Nations, which can frequently get paralyzed on climate issues (looking at you, United States), cities can respond on the ground with ideas and projects that directly affect the resilience of the communities around them.
(Image from Here)
For example, cities can pursue renewable energy and community microgrids. This can eliminate to constant need to import coal, natural gas, or uranium for power plants. Cities can also create policies that encourage energy conservation and efficiency. Also, cities can pursue methods for self reliance, such as building with renewable materials such as wood, bamboo, or even hemp. Cities by their nature can effect everything from transportation to energy.
In addition, with the introduction of urban agriculture, and massive green spaces cities can start to produce more of what they need locally. Add in things like walkable cities, public transportation, and many other things cities can directly effect; and it is clear cities can be at the heart of the creation of an ecological and sustainable existence for our species.
I just recently joined my local city’s environmental commission, which is tasked with making policy recommendations to the city council. We have already started to work on reviewing other townships and cities environmental plans, in order to find models that could possibly work for our own city and community. There are countless examples of what sustainability and resilience could look like in cities, and all of this creates feedbacks. In the ‘social laboratory’, if one community has a good idea that works well, other communities can copy it and make it their own. One sustainable city can snowball into thousands. Individually, one city can’t mitigate the worst of the climate crises. But as one part in a network of thousands, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.
There is no shortage of thing we can do in our built environments to improve resilience and sustainability. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, the ideas well exceed this one single post. There are ideas at the global level, national ideas, and especially local/municipal ideas. Just look at some examples such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Singapore.
Everything we do, from living to building cities has an impact on the environment. There is no such thing as a free lunch. That said, we can select for policies in our cities and communities that have the lowest impact we can come up with. We can select for materials that are less carbon-intensive, and the same is true for energy, resource, and even food systems. We can start to bring nature and the ‘rural’ back into our cities. Our cities should look at act more like natural ecosystems, powered by the sun, wind, and water, and producing and consuming materials in a circle with as little waste as possible. In other words, we need to realize that human cities are ecosystems in their own right, and are not removed from the greater biosphere of the planet. We, as humans and as a civilization building species, are part of the planet, not separate from it.
This is not a pie-in-the-sky dream or a flight of fantasy, but something that is happening right now. Another world is possible, and I think we have the means and ability to make that ecological and sustainable world a reality. A built environment that is almost indistinguishable from its natural environment, and a world created to last the next thousand years.
As always, thanks for reading.