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).

References

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

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Toxicology and Remediation in Agroecology Systems

“In the 21st Century, every garden is a bioremediation project”

Ben Falk, Whole Systems Design, LLC

The Problem points to the Solution.

As human populations increase and spread outwards from urban areas, trails of industrial toxicity follow our every move.  Urban and suburban areas are constantly exposed to toxins from industrial manufacturing that seep into our soils, leach into our water sources, and hover in the air we breathe.  Our farmland is treated like an industrial production site, soaked with chemicals in the form of agro-fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that stick to the food we eat and wash into the water we consume daily.  These toxins include carcinogens (cancer-forming chemicals), endocrine disrupters (chemicals that disrupt hormone functioning), neurotoxins (attack nerve cells), mutagens (chemicals that change DNA in cells) and teratogens (that  cause abnormalities during embryonic development) that take on familiar forms throughout our homes and communities.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring served as the voice of the canary in the mine shaft, exposing the toxic biomagnification of pesticides like DDT on the food chain.  Today, the siren is still ringing and has reached popular media.  In 2008, Dr. Joseph Mercola, founder of http://www.mercola.com, the second most popular wellness site after WebMD, published a listing of the most common household items that pose serious environmental and human health concerns over continued exposure.   In 2010, TIME magazine published a full listing of 10 most common toxins found in U.S. households, warning parents of the risks for exposure.  The following is a summary comprised by Professors William P. and Mary Ann Cunningham (2012):

Atrazine most widely used herbicide in America.  More than 60 million pounds are applied per year, mainly on corn and cereal grains, but also on golf courses, sugarcane, and Christmas trees.  Disrupt endocrine hormone functions in mammals, resulting in spontaneous abortions, low birth weights, and neurological disorders.  In 2003 the European Union withdrew regulatory approval for this herbicide, and several countries banned its use altogether. 

Phthalates are found in cosmetics, deodorants, and many plastics (such as polyvinyl chloride and PVC) used for food packaging, children’s toys, and medical devices.  Known to be toxic to laboratory animals, causing kidney and liver damage and possibly some cancers.  Endocrine disruptors have been linked to reproductive abnormalities and decreased fertility in humans.

BPA (BIsphenol A) a key ingredient of both polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, is one of the world’s most widely used chemical compounds.  Used in items ranging from baby bottles, automobile headlights, eyeglass lenses, CDs, DVDs, water pipes, the lings of cans and bottles, and tooth-protecting sealants.  Traces of BPA are found in humans nearly everywhere…In one study of several thousand adult Americans, 95% had measureable amounts of this chemical in their bodies.  Unbound molecules can leach out, especially when plastic is heated, washed with harsh detergents, scratched, or exposed to acidic compounds, such as tomato juice, vinegar, or soft drinks.  BPA is linked to a myriad health effects, including mamary and prostate cancer, reproductive organ defects, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, liver-enzyme abnormalities.

Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) used to make nonstick, waterproof, and heat stable, stain-resitant products such as Teflon, Gortex, Scotchguard, and Stainmaster, in airplanes and computers to cosmetics and household cleaners.  Shown to cause liver damage as well as various cancers and reproductive and developmental damage.  In 2005, EPA announced the start of a study of human health effects of these chemicals.

Polybrominated diphenyl etheres (PBDEs) is a flame retardant used in textiles, foam in upholstery and plastic in appliances and computers.  150 million metric tons (330 million lbs) of PBDEs are used every year worldwide. European Union has already banned PBDEs.

Perchlorate is a waterborne contaminant left over from propellants and rocket fules.  Tests of cow’s milk and human breast milk detected perchlorate in nearly every sample from throughout the U.S.  Can intefere with iodine uptake in the thyroid gland, disrupting adult metabolism and childhood development.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are found in pesticides and are extremely widespread: found from Tropics to the Arctic.  POPs bioaccumulate in food webs and reach toxic concentrations in long-living top predators such as humans, sharks, raptors, swordfish, and bears.

One year after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power reactors were severely damaged by climactic earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis that ravaged the island nation, they are still emitting high quantities of radioactive cesium, radioactive strontium, and other isotopes that cause cancer and birth deformities.  Arnold Gunderson, Energy Advisor from Fairewinds Associates in Vermont, found that areas from 30-60 km from the site are so contaminated with radioactivity that “people should not ever return.” In Tokyo, 250 km away, five samples were taken from soils and all were found to contain radioactivity strong enough to be considered nuclear waste by U.S. standards.  Despite the warnings provided by Fukushima, over 60 nuclear energy plants continue to be built today with no means for mitigating nuclear disasters.

“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”
― Rachel Carson

One would think that such a glaring problem that affects so many areas of our lives would bring instant reform of industrial and agricultural practices. Despite widespread scientific research, analysis and stark evidence of the environmental and human health impact of these industrial chemicals,  these toxins are still being used daily.

What is the Solution to this toxic mess?

Fortunately for humans, Nature has been practicing sound ecological remediation and restoration for ions and can provide a model for dealing with our self-imposed mess.  In a 2007 workshop intensive with microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham of the Soil Food Web, Ingham introduced the concept of restoring deadened soils by following natural succession models of landscape regeneration.  For example, when a natural disaster hits (such as a volcanic explosion), the first pioneer species to inhabit the deadened areas are bacteria, soon followed by cyanobacteria, protozoa, nematodes, microarthopods and fungi, who break down toxicities left in the soil and make it suitable for plant growth (Ingham 2007).  Catering to these early successional microorganisms and/or innoculating soils with key pioneer microorganisms can accelerate the process of restoration in damaged landscapes.

When it comes to toxic landscapes, Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running, and other mycologists have come to understand that fungi in particular “are adept as molecular disassemblers, breaking down many recalcitrant, long-chained toxins into simpler, less toxic chemicals…Since many of the bonds that hold plant material together are similar to the bonds found in petroleum products, including diesel, oil, and many herbicides and pesticides, mycelial enzymes are well suited for decomposing a wide spectrum of durable toxic chemicals” (Stamets 2005).  Harnessing this unique ability and innoculating poisoned landscapes with mushroom species is the work involved in mycoremediation, using fungi to degrade or remove toxins from the environment.     

Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) breaking down bunker C oil (PAH) in soil test, Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, 1999 (Stamets 2005)

In 1998, Stamets and a small research group from Batelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Sequim, Washington set aside 4 piles of diesel-contaminated soils from a maintenance yard operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in Bellingham, WA.  The group placed the piles onto 4 large sheets of 6 mm black plastic polyethylene tarps at the Bellingham site.  Each pile was 3-4 ft tall by 20 ft long and 8 ft wide, and in one of the piles they included a layer of oyster mushroom sawdust spawn that was roughly 30% of the pile (Stamets 2005).  Two other piles received bacterial treatments and the last pile was an untreated control.  Four weeks later, only the fourth pile infused with mycelium showed any signs of life.  Not only were there large oyster mushrooms growing out of the pile (some as large as 12 inches in diameter), but the soil was sprouting seeds and showing clear signs of recovery.  Batelle Laboratory reported that total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPHs) had plummeted from 20,000 ppm to less than 200 ppm in 8 weeks, making the once heavily contaminated soil acceptable for highway landscaping (Stamets 2005).  Even more interesting, upon further testing of the oyster mushrooms sprouting from the pile determined that no petroleum residues were detected n the oyster mushroom itself.

This trial, one of but hundreds conducted by Stamets and his associated mycologist research team, demonstrates the potential in utilizing mycoremediation techniques in urban, suburban, and even rural settings where chemical toxins have contaminated soils.  Many mushrooms naturally absorb radioactivity and some species are even hyperaccumulators, with an ability to absorb and concentrate radioactive elements at thousands of times above levels in the surrounding areas.  In Mycelium Running (2005), Paul Stamets provides an introductory list of no less than 18 species and the common chemical toxins that they break down (96).  He then goes on to cite 36 species that bioaccumulate six heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, radioactive cesium, lead, mercury and copper (106).  Many of these potent mycoremediators are familiar to most households.  For example, the North American masutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) accumulate arsenic, and shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) accumulate both arsenic and lead.  Button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus), found in grocery stores around the country, hyperaccumulate cadmium.  Wild turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) and oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus pulmonarius) remove mercury from soils and aquatic systems (Stamets 2005).  Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster can look to these fungi friends for answers to the grave radioactive contamination still facing their nation, one year later.  For further information regarding specific species, refer to www.fungi.com.

In areas where water is contaminated due to runoff or leaching of chemical toxins, mycofiltration systems can be inexpensively built.  Stamet’s use of mycorrhizal-infused filters has been shown to filter:

  • pathogens including protozoa, bacteria, and viruses
  • silt
  • chemical toxins

and has been shown favorable results in reducing contamination when installed around:

  • farms and suburban/urban areas
  • watersheds
  • factories
  • roads (Stamets 2005).

References.

Cunningham, William P. and Mary Ann.  Environmental Science:  A Global Concern, Twelfth Edition.  New York:  McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2012.  76-93. PRINT.

Gunderson, Arnold.  Gundersen: One Year Anniversary of Fukushima Daiichi.  RT, March 2012.  (VIDEO)

Ingham, Dr. Elaine.  Soil Food Web Course.  Davis, California.  2007.

Mercola, Dr. Joseph.  http://www.mercola.com

Stamets, Paul.  Mycorrhizal Running.  Berkeley:  Ten Speed Press, 2005.  PRINT.

Walsh, Bryan.  “Environmental Toxins:  The Perils of Plastic”  TIME magazine. 2010.  http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1976909_1976908_1976938,00.html

Introduction

‎”The future of humanity will depend on how we steward the resources of land, of soil, of water and seeds, and pass them on to future generations.”

-Vandana Shiva

We live on a stunning planet, unique in its abundance of water and the rich biodiversity of its’ creatures.  Our Earth is a perfect symbiotic biome, providing for and protecting the vulnerable plants, animals, and micro-organisms from a harsh inhospitable environment outside our fragile ozone-layer.  Protected, we rely upon the perfect balance of the seasonal cycles to regulate our water, temperature, length of daylight, and nutrient build-up in our soils.  Without such symbiosis, where each part relies up and mutually benefits from every other part in the biome whole, our precious Earth is thrown out of balance and the elements we rely upon become scarce.

We are now in a time of great survival, as we witness our climate changing in extreme ways, our waters receding, our soils eroding, and the rich diversity of our animal and plant kingdom going extinct, all due to increasing pressure placed upon them by human activity.  Without these other beings in our lives, humans’ cannot survive for long.  But there is good news:  the Earth and her systems are resilient.  In but one generation, with careful management of the remaining resources and insightful planning for human development accompanied with regenerative landscape design, humans can play an active role in nurturing our ailing planet back to health.

This blog will examine the most pressing of environmental and social problems facing us today:  massive deforestation, climate change, food insecurity, and water shortages, and will identify how a single change in the systems of food production can reverse these negative trends back into symbiosis.  Simply by using agro-ecology to apply natural ecological principles to the sustainable, and in fact regenerative, production of food, fibers, fuel, and pharmacopeia, humans can reverse the consumptive destruction of the very planet we rely upon.   As we will see, by identifying the problems of human management and where human activities stray from Earth’s natural patterns of abundance, the problem will inevitably indicate the symbiotic solution being called for.