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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Whole Ecosystem Design

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Agro-ecology is a methodology of producing food, fibers, fuels, or pharmacopeia (agro-) in a symbiotic manner, supporting both the local environment and its interdependent organisms, as it mimics a natural ecosystem (-ecology).  Rather than combating natural phenomenon such as topography, annual rainfall, climate, and the propensity for nature to fill spaces with plant matter (i.e. “weeds”), agro-ecology recognizes these natural patterns as assets to the local environment and seeks to nurture and produce an abundance of resources in a whole-system design that maximizes the utility of a unique growing environment.  Just as a virgin forest contains a myriad of levels of productivity (large canopies protecting smaller shade-loving trees below, shrubs and bushes tucked beneath the smaller trees, low-growing grasses or groundcovers, ephiphytes and orquids tucked into branches, vines  connecting the overstory to the understory, mycelium running between tree roots, etc.), an agro-ecological system designs its’ production to maximize vertical growing niches, with every season bringing a perennial abundance to harvest.  Each element of a successful agro-ecological system supports and interacts with every other element in symbiosis and requires very little external inputs to the system, demonstrating true sustainability.

According to Professor Stephen R. Gleissman, of the University of California-Santa Cruz,  the ecological practices that sustain traditional agriculture are benefits to both the natural ecosystem and the producer.  Traditional agro-ecology has been utilized by our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors all over the world, and the wisdom of its ways has nearly been lost in recent years to industrial agriculture’s maxim, “Bigger is better”.   The benefits of traditional agro-ecosystems are that they:

  • “Do not depend on purchased inputs.
  • Make use of locally available and renewable resources.
  • Emphasize nutrient recycling.
  • Are beneficial for both on- and off-farm environments.
  • Are adapted to local conditions.
  • Take full advantage of micro-environments.
  • Maximize yield while sustaining productive capacity.
  • Maintain spatial and temporal diversity and continuity use production to meet local needs first.
  • Rely on and conserve local genetic diversity.
  • Rely on and conserve indigenous knowledge and culture” (Gleissman).

In an article highlighted by the Sierra Club, “Agroecology: How to Feed the World Without Destroying It” (Spinks, 2011), agro-ecology systems design is quickly gaining recognition for its ability to address a multitude of diverse problems.  In addition to “shifting the view of agriculture’s and natural systems’ roles in our lives — from one of dominance to coexistence, ” agroecological food systems also offer a solution for the dependence our industrial model of agricultural production has on carbon-based fossil fuels (Spinks 2011).  In a world where imminent depletion of fossil fuels plays a huge role on global economics dependent upon the fossil fuels, this solution is a welcome sign of hope the world over.

In fact, according to a United Nations’ Human Rights Council report submitted on “The Right to Food,” by Olivier De Schutter (2010), which was drawn upon extensive review of five years worth of published scientific literature:

 “[The U.N.] identifies agroecology as a mode of agricultural development which not only shows strong conceptual connections with the right to food, but has proven results for fast progress in the concretization of this human right for many vulnerable groups in various countries and environments. Moreover, agroecology delivers advantages that are complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties, [a]nd it strongly contributes to the broader economic development” (De Schutter, 2010).

Agroecology not only raises productivity at the field level but also has a far-reaching effect on local economies by increasing accessibility to a diversity of food and production across socio-economic levels, thereby reducing rural poverty.  Not only does it improve local nutrition through diverse food production, addressing food insecurity at the local level, but agroecological design also generously contributes to the sequestration of carbon, crucial in our increasingly important adaption to climate change.  The transformation of our industrial-modeled agricultural systems to whole ecosystem design for food, fuel, fiber, and pharmacopeia production has far-reaching beneficial local solutions to our global problems.

Works Cited

De Schutter, Olivier.  “The Right to Food,” The United Nations Human Rights Council:  2010. http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20110308_a-hrc-16-49_agroecology_en.pdf.

Gleissman, Stephen R.  “Sustainability in Traditional Agroecosystems:
Ecologically sound practices that sustain traditional agriculture.” University of California- Santa Cruz. http://www.agroecology.org/Principles_Trad.html

Spinks, Rosie.  “Agroecology: How to Feed the World Without Destroying It.”  Sierra Club,  2011. http://sierraclub.typepad.com/greenlife/2011/03/real-food-can-feed-the-world.html.

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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.