A Bright Future for Smart Cities

“We talk about civilization as though it’s a static state. There are no civilized people yet, it’s a process that’s constantly going on…”

– Jacque Fresco, The Venus Project

(Image Courtesy of zeitgeist-ny.com)

With human populations surpassing 7 billion in 2012, and nearly 3 billion now living in urban areas, it is being estimated that by 2025 approximately 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities (PRB 2010).  Such staggering numbers of people living closely in urban areas currently requires consumer goods such as food and material possessions to be produced in high volume from natural resources found all around the world, then transported into cities using vast quantities of fossil fuels.  Take the recent decline in ahi tuna markets experienced in restaurants across the U.S.:  what is really happening?

Massive fishing fleets spread extensive nets into the oceans at night, catching everything in their path.  Such mass-harvesting depletes sensitive fisheries and disrupts the food chain for other species relying upon the same nutrient source.  As fish populations decrease, local mangrove ecosystems are cut down to create man-made fish farms to support the demand for fresh fish.  When disease strikes the mono-aquaculture, the farms pump hormones and antibiotics into the fish.  Once harvested, the fish are placed on the backs of diesel trucks that drive to capital cities and then on to port towns where they are shipped as cargo on massive barges (fueled by coal or diesel), then  transported again on diesel trucks or trains where it is distributed to restaurants throughout urban areas.  Urbanites have become accustomed to consuming on an infinite scale, without thought to seasonal availability.  Indeed, the appetite for ahi tuna around the Great Lakes region is a result of the depletion of fresh fish along the shores of the Great Lakes.  The regional traditional diet of Lake Perch has been thwarted for many years by heavy industrial and waste water contamination, which remains to be adequately addressed.  This lack of local fish resulted in outsourcing to international waters for delicious fish such as ahi tuna, and the unconscious cycle of depletion and destruction continues.

By many estimates, the carbon footprint of the average American in the United States would require the equivalent of 6-8 Earths if all 7 billion humans on Earth were to consume like Americans.  As urban dwellers relate to the human made environments around them and are shielded from the realities and consequences of their choices, the disconnect between what urban dwellers consume and the resources they deplete is increasingly evident.  Indeed, many people who live in the city rarely make it out to spend time in rural areas to see the damage their craving whims create.  Is this really the peak of our human potential?

 One solution to this blinded urban design, is to design our urban spaces to become more productive.  Aquaponics, a method of growing both vegetables hydroponically and market fish by circulating the fish waste through grow beds, stacks the needs and functions of food production with fish production and is based upon the natural patterns and tendencies of riparian zones (areas along streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans).  The herbs and vegetables growing in aquaponics beds utilize the nutrients in the waste from the fish, and at the same time aerate and filter the water for the fish.  In urban areas found along riparian zones, aquaponics could provide the necessary first step towards addressing increasing food demands while remediating ecological degradation, and at the same time reduce the amount of water needed to produce valuable edible resources.  When pumps are powered by renewable energies such as solar and wind, aquaponics is an ideal solution to a multifaceted problem. Organizations such as Growing Power (www.growingpower.org) and Sweet Water Organics (www.sweetwater-organic.com) in Milwaukee, WI, have brought this technology to the common table.  Together with UWM’s Institute for Fresh Water Studies, Growing Power is working to analyze the needs of fresh water Perch as a way of incorporating the reincorporation of the depleted perch populations into aquaponics food production systems as they reach out to disadvantaged individuals and communities in the heart of the urban jungle.

Other cities have turned urban problems such as high energy consumption and air pollution into local political solutions.  Green roofs, aka living roofs, use hardy plants to create a barrier between the sun’s rays and the tiles or shingles of the building’s roof.  In 2000, led by Mayor Daley, the City of Chicago put a “38,300 square foot green roof on a 12 story skyscraper…Twelve years later, that building now saves $5000 annually on utility bills” (Buczinsky 2012).  New York City has also seen a boom in green roofs installed on their buildings:  In Queens, a green roof installed on the Con Edison Learning Centre has seen a 34% reduction of heat loss in the winter months, and summer temperatures inside the building have been reduced by 84%, saving on air-conditioning costs and fuel.  Inspired, the City of Toronto has become the first north american city to mandate “all residential, commercial and institutional buildings over 2,000 square meters to have between 20 and 60 percent living roofs”, beginning April 30, 2012.

Canada Green Roof

Schools are getting on board as well, as they see educational opportunity that addresses budget crunches.  In Denver, CO, a public school converted their one-acre athletic field by turning it into an organic garden, and in just eight months it has been so successful that they have “harvested over 3,000 pounds of produce….salad greens and root vegetables, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers” for their school cafeteria (Huff 2012).  Other schools throughout California enjoy the efforts of Common Vision (www.commonvision.org), an organization that has planted thousands of fruit and nut trees at schools, traveling via biodiesel school buses converted into theatrical caravans that teach urban students through african drumming, dance, and theatrical presentations the importance and beauty of stewarding a future of fruit trees.

Still more community organizations, such as The Victory Garden Initiative (“Move Grass, Plant Food”) and the Fruity Nutty Group in Milwaukee, WI, are also turning to urban agroecology for edible solutions (www.victorygardeninitiative.org).  Planting “fruit tree guilds” in urban areas allows urban and suburban dwellers to plant edible perennials such as fruit and nut trees that are vertically stacked together like pieces in an ecological puzzle, in ways that mutually benefit the soils shared between species and attract beneficial insects and pollinators, and are also aesthetically pleasing and lead to the redevelopment of urban food forests.  Imagine walking down the street, and every plant you see is edible, medicinal, used for fuel or fibers or animal fodder!  How nice it would be to stop along an urban street, chatting with others as you stop to pick an apple or peach or plum.  All the nicer, say, if those cars we use sputtered out water vapor instead of carbon dioxides.

The Future of Design is a documentary highlighting structural and industrial engineer, Jacque Fresco’s work with The Venus Project, a project whose aim is to improve society through the worldwide utilization of a theoretical design that it calls a “resource-based economy”. The model aims to incorporate sustainable cities and valuesenergy efficiencycollective farmsnatural resource management and advanced automationinto a global socio-economic system based on social cooperation and scientific methodology (The Venus Project, 2012).  Though Fresco’s work was considered “futuristic” in earlier eras, today we are seeing many of his ideas sprout into action.  Urban CSAs (community supported agriculture) work collectively with local farmer cooperatives to provide fresh local organic produce to urban and suburban homes in the form of market baskets that the consumer can take home each week.  Even RSAs (restaurant supported agriculture) have developed, as restaurants saavy to the need for balance between consumption and ecological production seek to support local organic farmers and highlight their flavors in seasonal dishes (http://www.braiselocalfood.com).

With so many daunting issues caused by unconscious decision in urban and rural areas alike, it is inspiring to see so many conscious urban dwellers make positive changes that have multifaceted benefits to their urban communities.  Many are seeing the future that renowned architect, designer, and futurist Jacque Fresco has been seeing over his 96 years, and share his sage perspective:

“I have no notions of a perfect society, I don’t know what that means. I know we can do much better than what we’ve got.   I’m no utopian, I’m not a humanist that would like to see everybody living in warmth and harmony: I know that if we don’t live that way, we’ll kill each other and destroy the Earth.” (Jacque Fresco, The Venus Project).


Buczynski, Beth.  “Toronto Becomes First City to Mandate Green Roofs,” 2012.   http://crispgreen.com/2012/03/toronto-becomes-first-city-to-mandate-green-roofs/

Common Vision.  Oakland, CA.  www.commonvision.org

Fresco, Jacque.  The Venus Project.  Venus, FL.  www.thevenusproject.com

Growing Power.  Milwaukee, WI.  www.growingpower.org

Huff, Ethan A.  “School turns abandoned athletic field into organic garden that grows thousands of pounds of produce to serve in cafeteria,” 2011.  Natural News.  http://www.naturalnews.com/034319_school_food_fresh_produce_garden.html

Population Reference Bureau. 2010.  http://www.prb.org/educators/teachersguides/humanpopulation/urbanization.aspx

Sweet Water Organics.  Bay View, WI.  www.sweetwater-organic.ocom

The Victory Garden Initiative/Fruitty Nutty Group. Milwaukee, WI.  www.victorygardeninitiative.org


Plant a Tree, Harvest the Rain

Water.  That delicious ubiquitous substance that sets our emerald green and aquamarine planet apart from the every other planet in the known universe.  Earth’s oceans hold 97% of all the water found on our planet, but only 2.4% of all water found on Earth is freshwater, of that small margin over 87.2% is tied up in frozen glaciers, ice and snow.  The presence or absence of water is the only difference that distinguishes a lush tropical rainforest from a dry desert, an oasis from certain death.  Our own bodies are made up of 60% water, our brains 70%.  Without, where would we be?

According to UNICEF/WHO, 2 billion people lack access to safe water supplies (2012).  Globally, that’s approximately one in eight people, or three times the population of the entire United States.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year a population the size of Los Angeles, 3.575 million people, die from water-related disease (2008).  Traditional forms of water collection from rivers, streams, and ponds are no longer safe for the 2 billion people who rely upon available surface water sources for their daily drinking, washing, and bathing needs.  As human populations increase, agricultural production increases, which leads to an increase in both use and contamination of water sources.  This especially affects surface water, where agri-chemicals such as fertilizers and herbicides wash into rivers, streams, and ponds, and percolate down into groundwater sources, the largest source of available fresh water on the planet (12%).

While rainwater catchment on personal homes is the first step to increasing accessibility to fresh water for personal use, less than 0.001% of the total world water supply is actually found in the rain clouds.  Of the largest source of fresh water, groundwater is tapped increasingly by large agriculture, which extracts the precious resource as readily as oil is pumped from resevoirs.  Indeed, water is the new oil, and Big Ag is the largest consumer, irresponsibly irrigating crops:  flooding swaled beds or utilizing sprinklers that spray water into the air, losing much of the precious resource to evaporation by wind or sun.

To increase water supplies, agroecology can provide solutions proven by nature.  Planting native perennial species, such as fruit or nut trees, not only reduces water dependency from thirsty non-native species, but can also encourage the stabilization of weather patterns as plants absorb groundwater and pump it back into the atmosphere to form clouds (and eventually rain) through the hydrologic cycle.  So plant a tree today, harvest the rain tomorrow, and rest assured your children’s children will have an abundant Earth of plentiful water and food.


UNICEF/WHO. 2012. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation.

World Health Organization. 2008. Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits, and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health.

Anthropogenic Climate Change calls for Anthropogenic Solutions

“I am speaking from an area of water that has never been water before. It has always been frozen solid. It is uncharted. There are no depth readings on the map because no ship has ever been able to measure them. No one has ever been anywhere near where we are now. We have sailed for the last 100 miles through open seas in an area that in the past would have only been accessible to the biggest ice-breakers.

Now it is clear water.”

–  Sir Peter Blake, Independent, 2001

Talking about climate change with western society is like talking to an alcoholic who just refuses to admit he has a problem, though his breath stinks and there are a pile of empty bottles surrounding him.  There is undeniable evidence all around us, in every corner of the Earth, that the climate is changing.  From the unseasonably warm March in Wisconsin (Monday, March 19th, Milwaukee, WI was shockingly enjoying weather warmer than Honolulu, Hawai’i and its early spring has seen temperatures remain at nearly 80° F over the previous two weeks), to the relentless rains throughout the tropics that has extended the rainy season far into the dry season (ruining corn, bean, and squash crops in subsistence farming cultures such as those in Guatemala), a changing climate is a phenomenon increasingly difficult to deny.  Speak to any farmer, gardener, or beekeeper, or wildlife ecologist with their feet firmly planted upon the earth, and you will hear strange tales of early blossoms, early bee activity, early mosquito activity, or depending on where you are:  late rains, late dry season, late cultivation, late harvests.

In fact, I was just in the highlands of Guatemala at the end of February, and the villagers of a small remote pueblo called La Pila, southeast of Patzún, pointed to their powdery mildewed corn stalks and snow pea plants and explained to me that their crops had failed because of climate change.  They can no longer plant their crops at the end of the rainy season as they used to because the rainy season has not stopped to give them an opportunity.  This means that annual plants that are susceptible to molds and mildews when exposed to excessive moisture are in danger of dying from too much rain.  For a culture who lives directly off the harvests of their annual crops, this means their families have no food and as a result, the men of the village have to leave their villages to find work to buy food that has been shipped in from afar.  For those considered “lucky”, some men are able to find enough work to earn as much as Q25.00 ($3.20 USD) a day, but this is not nearly enough to feed a hungry family.  What struck me the most was the tone of this dignified Kaq’chi’kel Mayan man, as he spoke intelligently of climate change as both an obvious phenomenon and the greatest challenge facing his people.  In this moment, I was newly astounded and ashamed at the arrogance of western culture, those privileged few who refuse to acknowledge the changing climate or the impact that human industry and their own consumption has had in accelerating the changes.

 “Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

-John Muir

Geologists and climatologists and even anthropologists have long understood that the Earth’s climates shift throughout the centuries.  Arctic and Antarctic glaciers have provided scientists with a clear idea of our global climate history:  by drilling deep into an ice sheet, scientists can analyze the air bubbles that have been long trapped between the layers of ice and begin to put together a time line that includes CO² variance, volcanic eruptions, and temperature changes as indicated by oxygen isotopes.  The UN Environment Programme has provided a record reaching back over 800,000 years through the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), and has seen that extreme climate changes have indeed occurred over the course of history.  There is good reason to believe that our Earth is currently experiencing, in part, a natural cycle of climate change.  Changes such as the amount of energy received from the sun, changes in the Earth’s orbit and changes in the way the ocean and atmosphere interact with each other occur regularly throughout the history of the Earth.  However, these natural changes are being compounded by anthropogenic changes in land use, deforestation, a growing world population, and an increase in greenhouse emissions.  In 2005, for example, burning fossil fuels released approximately 27 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere.   EPICA’s analyses of ice coring in the Antarctic indicates that the climate is warmer now than it has been since the beginning development of civilization, agriculture, and urbanization (J. Bouzel et al., 2007), a trend that coincides precisely with the development of the industrial revolution.

Despite the controversy surrounding human-caused climate change, this idea is not new.  In the years preceding his Nobel Prize in 1903, Swedish chemist and physicist, Svante August Arrhenius, introduced the connection between CO² levels in a warming atmosphere and human activities that increase CO² levels, such as coal burning (Nobel Lectures, 1966).  Arrhenius’ hypothesis wouldn’t be demonstrated scientifically until David Keeling, from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i, produced annual measurements of CO² concentrations that indicated a substantial rise from 315 ppm in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011 (NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011).  In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed to review scientific evidence on the causes and effects of human-caused climate change, and is comprised of scientists and government representatives from over 130 countries worldwide.  In 2007, the IPCC published an extensive report representing over 6 years of research by over 2,500 scientists, stating that there is a 90% probability that recent rapid climate changes result from human activities (AR4, 2007).  Some changes, such as the increased size of the hole in our protective ozone layer, are referred to as having a 99% probability of being caused by humans and carbon emissions (2007).  The report indicates effects of these climate changes such as a global warming of the climate by conservative estimations of  3°-8° F (1°-6° C), resulting in rapid arctic glacial melting and flooding of global sea levels by 3-6 ft. (1-2 m), putting cities such as London, Mumbai, Boston, Miami, and New Orleans under water (2007).

In 2011, NASA’s Earth Observatory reported: “before the industrial age, the ocean vented carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in balance with the carbon the ocean received during rock weathering. However, since carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have increased, the ocean now takes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. Over millennia, the ocean will absorb up to 85 percent of the extra carbon people have put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but the process is slow because it is tied to the movement of water from the ocean’s surface to its depths” (NASA 2011). Draft diagram of the carbon cycle.(Image courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov)

Already we are seeing these changes faster than even the IPCC report estimated.  In 2009, government officials of Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific that is located between Hawai’i and Australia, spoke with the UK about the very real threat of rising ocean levels submerging their small island, and the prospects of “climate refugees” : people displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters.  The prospects of mass global migration in an already compressed world brings certainty to future conflicts along political borders.  According to a documentary entitled, Climate Refugees (2010), “for the first time, the Pentagon now considers climate change a national security risk and the term climate wars is being talked about in war-room like environments in Washington D.C.: (2010).   Indeed, for the first time in history, these natural disasters and projected political conflicts result from rapid ecological changes that are largely anthropogenic, changes such as   “increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, fires, mass flooding and tornadoes” (Climate Refugees, 2010).  

You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem

–  Albert Einstein

It is clear to me that we cannot begin to address solutions to climate change with the same degree of denial that has contributed to its anthropogenic acceleration.  Like an alcoholic struggling to come to terms with his addiction, before we can begin to undo all the harm we have done, we must first understand the depth of our involvement and admit our part in it all.  With this in mind, Cape Farewell, an innovative non-profit organization has begun to “instigate a cultural response to climate change.” Since 2003, the organization has worked in partnership with scientific and cultural institutions to deliver a climate program centered around engaging the public, “using the notion of expedition – Arctic, Island, Urban and Conceptual – to interrogate the scientific, social and economic realities that lead to climate disruption, and to inspire the creation of climate focused art which is disseminated across a range of platforms – exhibitions, festivals, publications, digital media and film” (2003).  All this is to begin the dialogue that challenges our communities to look at how they interact with each other and with the Earth and its resources in a new way.

My hope lies with the young creative minds, who see the ecological and social profit in planting trees that bare fruit while they cycle carbon emissions back into the soil, in areas where massive deforestation has led to desertification and food insecurity.  My hope lies with the solution-oriented minds who look to Nature’s pattern of resiliency for clues as to how science and engineering can reintegrate with cycles of renewable energy and waste cycling.  My hope lies with those social entrepreneurs who see that economic abundance is only possible when the Earth’s natural ecological abundance is intact.  Climate change has been accelerated in just a few generations by models of industry that are incompatible with the very Earth it stands upon.  The future of how humans live upon the Earth, how we design our homes, food systems, energy systems, waste cycling, and ecological restoration depends on creative, innovative minds that are unbound by traditional forms of thought that have led us down this path of ecological, economical, and cultural destruction.


Cape Farewell.  http://www.capefarewell.com/climate-science/the-science.html. 2003.

Climate Refugees. http://www.climaterefugees.com/, 2010.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Assessment Report 4 (AR4), 2007.  http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/

J. Bouzel et al.  EPICA Dome C Ice Core 800KYr, Deuterurm Data and Temperature Estunares.  UN Environment Programme, 2007.

NASA Earth Observatory.  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/printall.php, 2011.

NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011.

Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966.