Sustainable is not enough: a call for regenerative cities
Urban resource consumption and waste disposal is widely seen as the root cause of many of the world’s environmental problems. Because so much damage has already been done to the world’s ecosystems, and solutions need to be found to reverse it, we need to start thinking of regenerative rather than just sustainable urban development.
Since the industrial revolution the process of urbanisation has become ever more resource-intensive, significantly contributing to climate change and to the loss of soil carbon, the natural fertility of farmland, and the world's biodiversity. Our ravenous appetite for resources from the world's ecosystems has severe consequences for all life on Earth, including human life. Cities have developed resource consumption and waste disposal habits that show little concern for the environmental consequences.
Fortunately in some places this seems to be changing. In the past decade concepts that capture the idea of how to future-proof our cities have arisen worldwide: smart cities, liveable cities, sustainable cities, intelligent cities, resilient cities.
Each concept implies different solutions. Sustainable cities is often the umbrella term as it includes environmental, economic and social dimensions and is in line with the wider discourse of sustainable development. However it is often criticised for being too nebulous and vague.
Smart or intelligent cities focus on technology solutions. By implementing highly efficient technological systems that use fewer resources for the same service it tries to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. A major concern here is the danger of a rebound effect, where efficiency gains in resources are counteracted by a behavioural response to thus use much more of them again.
Resilient cities is a rather passive terminology that looks at how cities can build resistance against future shocks and stresses, such as from climate change and peak oil. It is about lasting and making it through a crisis rather than trying to stop the development that causes the crisis.
Finally liveable cities primarily aims at replacing sprawl with compact, human scale urbanisation. It recognises and tries to combat the negative impact of our built environment on physical, social and mental health. The focus is very much on the quality of human life that has to be secured against the challenges ahead.
The regenerative city
However because so much damage has already been done to the world's ecosystems, and solutions need to be found to reverse it, the challenge today is no longer just to create sustainable cities but truly regenerative cities: to assure that they do not just become resource-efficient and low-carbon-emitting, but that they positively enhance rather than undermine the ecosystem services they receive from beyond their boundaries. A wide range of technical and management solutions towards this end are already available, but so far implementation has been slow and slight.
This concept seeks to redress the relationship between cities and their hinterland, and beyond that with the more distant territories that supply them with water, food, timber and other vital resources. We need to re-enrich the landscapes on which cities depend, including measures to increase their capacity to absorb carbon.
Creating a restorative relationship between cities, their hinterlands and the world beyond means harnessing new opportunities in financial, technological, policy and business practices. The transformative changes required call for far-reaching strategic choices and long-term planning rather than short-term compromises and patchwork solutions that characterise most of our political decision-making systems.
From urban regeneration to eco-regeneration
In recent years there has been a proliferation of urban regeneration initiatives focused on the health and wellbeing of urban citizens and the urban fabric, particularly in wealthy countries like Germany, where they are also known as Socially Integrative City programmes. They address problems such as deindustrialisation, depopulation, aging infrastructure and run-down estates. This kind of regeneration is close to the concept of liveable cities as both look at the social and economic revitalisation of urban spaces.
Whereas in this understanding urban regeneration means improving the physical, economic and social well-being of today's towns and cities, the regenerative cities approach presented here focuses on the ecological regeneration of urban settings. The established horizon of urban ecology should be expanded to include all the territories involved in sustaining urban systems. Urban regeneration thus takes on the meaning of eco-regeneration.
To illustrate the difference, consider the two diagrams above. Petropolis exemplifies much of city design today, especially cities like Dubai defined by a dependence on fossil-fuel-based logistics. The vision that we need to push for is ecopolis — the ecologically as well as economically restorative city. We must face up to the fact that cities are dependent systems whose reliance on external inputs is likely to become ever more precarious.