The Urbal Fix: creating truly sustainable cities

Excerpt from Tom Bliss

With the fast approaching collapse of modern civilization in the face of climate change and resource depletion, cities are both at the root of the problem and offer the seed of change: as sites of size and relative autonomy, where citizens can mobilize without politicians who remain gridlocked at national and global levels… The Urbal Fix is about how we can transform our cities now – when it is more urgent than ever.

Tom Bliss, 'The Urbal Fix' 2010

Tom Bliss, 'The Urbal Fix' 2010

“The environmental, economic and social challenges faced by cities in the 21st century have thrown up a plethora of potential ‘green’ solutions—Sustainable Urbanism, Green Infrastructure, Ecological Urbanism—the list goes on, while definitions dance on the head of a pin—and nothing much happens. So why ever would we need yet another concept?

“Well, those ideas, like most meretricious neo-liberal planning theories from the 20th century, are the private fiefdoms of ‘experts’, and thus impenetrable and irrelevant to those who actually make and run our cities; we citizens.  Yet today, as the dangling trident of resource depletion, economic collapse and climate crisis lurches ever lower, it’s becoming plain that major mitigatory and adaptive change is urgently necessary—and that this will demand proactive engagement by everyone, from the Lord Mayor to the Man Who Sweeps the Street.  So what’s needed is not yet more academic theory, but a simple, robust, effective and above all holistic strategy, which can be instantly understood, believed in and prioritised—by everyone.”

The Urbal Fix

The Urbal Fix, title screen; Tom Bliss, 2010

The Urbal Fix, title screen; Tom Bliss, 2010

“The Urbal Fix (www.urbal.tv) is a film that aims to provide a starting point for such a movement (Figure 2). It targets cities (with Leeds as case study) as being both the root of the problem and, potentially, the seed of the solution—because their size and relative autonomy allows movement at a time when governments are stalled by global deadlock and a confused electorate, while community initiatives struggle to make progress in isolation. The title expresses that strategy in the simplest possible way, by coining a new baggage-free name.

“It may be true that few citizens will be familiar with the technical portmanteau ‘Rurban’ (the bleeding of unsustainable urban consumerism into a formerly healthy rural resource)—but the very briefest of explanations soon fixes that. And Rurban’s polar opposite, Urbal, must surely describe the essence of the only sensible alternative: a reversal of the condition through the injection of countryside, and many of its traditional values and activities, into the heart of our cities.

“Ergo; The Urbal Fix. It is germane that the word Urbal first emerged at a Leeds University seminar by CITY‘s Editor-in-chief, Bob Catterall, on “Cities for People not for Profit”. It was Bob’s incisive exploration of rurbanism (about which he has written extensively; Catterall 2008, 1) in a context of ‘urbanisation’, climate change, cities after oil (see the Adrian Atkinson’s article on this topic) and other pressing imperatives which suggested the reversal, and I am also hugely grateful for his support throughout the development of the Urbal concept.”

Tom Bliss’ documentary film, which should be watched in its entirety to achieve its full effect, addresses its aim through the following sub-sections: Problems; Options; Theory; Solutions; and Action. Under Problems, he deals with Climate Change, Peak Resources (both peak oil, and exhaustion of rare earth and other minerals), Overshoot (how unfettered consumption is about to fatally damage the earth’s carrying capacity), Economic Growth and Work.

The problem with Economic Growth

Overshoot Theory

Overshoot Theory: how unfettered consumption will fatally damage the earth’s carrying capacity

“The root of the problems of climate change, resource depletion and unsustainability is, as Paul Chatterton explains, growth: ‘The problem with a growth-based economic system is that it’s based on the ceaseless demand for new goods which creates more and more production which creates more and more consumption. And that consumption is base[d] on our constant desire for novelty and newness. So we’ve had debt bubbles emerge, easy credit has led to more consumption. More consumption has led to more production, more production leads to more consumption. The banks lend more money because people are buying more. So we see this virtuous cycle of growth between debt, credit, production and consumption. All that leads to is more CO2 and more global warming…”

“…Essentially, the way a steady-state economy differs from a high-growth economy is that there is much less throughput of natural materials. So what we have is a zero-waste economy where all the waste produced from different parts of the economic system are put back into that economic system, which reduces the environmental impact on various ecosystems, but it also reduces basic things like landfill and pollution.

“One of the things we’re up against is the whole idea of work. We’re all obsessed with the world of work, we all produce more things, but one of the things we have to realise is if we’re going to create a genuinely humane economy, then we actually have to do less. One of the big things that people are trying to push at the moment is the idea of a 21 hour week. If we work 3 days a week, essentially 21 hours, we’d be all much happier, there would be less unemployment because we could share the work, and we’d have a more humane work/life balance… Less time doing paid work will mean more time for barter-based earning, food growing, sustainable travel, exercise and community activity. If we add to that a tax system which turns unsustainable products into sought-after luxuries (rather than trying to ban them altogether), plus a new focus on home working and local employment to reduce commuting, we could see major changes happening quite quickly.”

Sustainable Cities

What are the key ingredients of a truly sustainable city?  Contributors to The Urbal Fix suggest the following:

City farming

City farming

The localisation of food production (specially a reduction in lorry miles), resilience of food supply, education (specially re home-grown food), the regaining of soil health and the localisation of water supplies, de-restricting access to land, the maximisation of productivity (including in roofs, walls, etc.) through the accumulation of passive and renewable energy (ergo food, solar, wind, biosequestration, etc.), the prioritisation of health and well-being via active travel and green space promotion, the establishment of a comprehensive low-impact transport network, the retrofit of existing housing with insulation and other carbon-reduction features, and the establishment of new democratic processes based around social justice and equity. And all of this within a cyclical, steady-state, low-impact economic system.

It goes without saying that those priorities are not going to be easy to achieve in a city—but they might just be viable in a small market town. So perhaps one approach might be to view cities as if they were a group of market towns. It sounds fanciful, but there’s one theoretical model which does exactly that, and it can accommodate most of our priorities because it dates from a time before cars, when even large cities fed themselves from the local countryside.

Ebenezer Howard’s 19th century vision of social garden cities

Ebenezer Howard

Ebenezer Howard

The story then shifts to Letchworth, the first town to be built, partially at least, to principles invented by the Victorian visionary Ebenezer Howard (1989, 2).

Sir Peter Hall (President, Town and Country Planning Association) explains: “I think the time has come for a fundamental re-examination of Howard’s ideas and those of his contemporaries.” Howard’s plan was to internalise the Victorian externalities of slum, smoke and disease by attracting people to what he called the town-country—(an Urbal concept if ever there was one), so that the old cities would die and could then be reborn. His green field Utopia had three main elements (see Figure 1.).

Hall explains: “one was a physical concept; building a self-contained garden city which would contain homes and jobs together, surrounded by generous green open space. It was to be built at reasonably high densities, but interspersed with very large amounts of public open space, particularly around the town centre, and a broad midway park. He even included a circular shopping mall within easy walking distance for everyone.”

Ebenezer Howard's vision of a garden city, 1898

Ebenezer Howard's vision of a garden city, 1898

“Also; playing and recreation areas, especially for children. Everyone could get to work, shops, school and all kinds of recreation within a few minutes walk. And finally, the town was to own the green belt around it, which was to be managed not merely for agriculture, but for a wide variety of social purposes.’

But the Garden City was only one part of Howard’s invention. Hall continues, “he envisaged that if the Garden City was successful and there was a need for extension, then another garden city would be started and then another and another, and they’d be linked into what he called the Social City (see Figure 2).

“There was one very important social element to all this; each city was to be a self-governing commonwealth. Over time, the rents would pay back the investors, and thereafter would fund a local welfare state.

Ebenezer Howard's vision of social cities, 1898

Ebenezer Howard's vision of social cities, 1898

“In the famous diagram of the three magnets, there are a couple of words at the bottom, which people probably think is sort of decorative rhetoric; “Freedom, Co-operation”. But they weren’t decorative or rhetoric, they really meant something important: That the citizens would have total freedom to control their own city, not merely democratically, but economically—through a co-operative system. However, Howard essentially failed in his central mission. Although Letchworth and Welwyn are glorious monuments, they failed in their central purpose of creating this co-operative commonwealth. And the reason was; the industrialists who were bankrolling him struck a very hard bargain.”

In other words, the economic model was defeated by demand for capital growth. But that couldn’t happen in a steady-state economy, so the economic model may still be valid. But how relevant is the spatial model today?

Well, if we compare the Social City with, say, Leeds, we note that they’re about the same size. But Howard was catering for just 250,000, while Leeds has a population of nearly 780,000—so presumably there’s no way we can feed everybody from within the city limits, as Howard hoped to do. Not so, say architects Viljoen and Bohn (2008, 3).

Continuous productive urban landscapes

CPULs stands for Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. It’s a green landscape that you can walk without interruption from one end of the city to the other, and it’s productive in terms of environmental, social and economic productivity.Katrin Bohn (Architect, Author CPULs)

Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes, Source: Bohn & Viljoen Architects.

Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes, Source: Bohn & Viljoen Architects.

The linking of green spaces is key. First, the CPULs change the city from one urban zone, punctured by pockets of green, into a number of separate urbal ecosystems, each with the best possible access, for both wildlife and humans, to green corridors. Thus each sector starts to function not unlike one of Howard’s Garden Cities. But just as importantly, CPULs connect right through to the countryside. This not only allows both wildlife and humans to migrate into, through and out of the city (essential for ecological services, biodiversity and public recreation), but it also provides an essential psychological fix: even in the most built-up area you’re only ever a step away from the countryside.

Professor Robert Tregay (Landscape Architect, LDA Design and University of Wales) explains: “historically the open space agenda in cities was to do with amenity and recreation, and to some extent, access. This is now broadening. Energy will be significant and water will be significant. I think we have to add to this, food. Open spaces in cities have to be owned by their communities. Not necessarily literally, but certainly mentally. To do that they have to be productive—and food’s going to be a key part of that.”

Edible towns

Leeds, with its spokes of multifunctional green space already running into the centre, is a soft candidate for road-testing this productive theory. The challenge will be to introduce low-impact food production without compromising other priorities. But there are more places to do that than you might think: windowsills, back yards, front yards, gardens, unused public open space, development sites, school grounds, the grounds of other buildings, community gardens, allotment sites, rooftops, walls, railway embankments, leftover spaces, traffic roundabouts, brownfield sites, parts of public parks—but of course this is not only about home-grown veg. There will be commercial market gardens and new types of horticulture and agriculture too. So bearing that in mind, how much of a city can we realistically hope to feed with CPULs?

Todmorden public garden, UK

Todmorden public garden, UK; Photo: www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk

“We confirmed our calculations several times. If you use just the existing open space in a contemporary British city, then you can feed about 30% of the population their fruit and vegetable requirements” says Bohn.

Tregay adds “we all know how much food contributes to global warming, it’s substantial, so a city that produces its own food not only has the benefits in terms of its carbon profile, it benefits the way people contribute to the management of their own spaces. So instead of food-related jobs happening somewhere else, they’re on your doorstep. The internalising of city economies is very very important, and food’s definitely part of that.”

There is, of course, a precedent for all this. When the collapse of the Soviet Union cut the supply lines to Cuba’s huge oil-dependent farms, the country faced starvation. But within a few years, new small organic farms, and pocket-sized urban market gardens, were feeding the population—and providing healthy, local, co-operative employment (Alagiah, 2010, 4). So, it can be done.

Given that urbal production needs to be low impact, the documentary moves on to look at Permaculture (Mollinson, 1991, 5), biodiversity corridors, the concepts of walking zones/active travel, and transport (cycling, semi-powered and fully electric vehicles), point-of-use renewable power including local sustainable biofuels, vertical wind turbines and local river schemes such as Settle Hydro; and also sustainable Urban Drainage, which, says Bliss “being about localised water control and supply—is effectively the lifeblood of Urbalism.” In the sub-section Action – Bliss covers the steps and political processes that will need to be engaged in, in order to bring the Urbal Fix into reality. While trying to inspire change with his film, Bliss adds in his article on a realistic note, about Utopia that “this time, for the first time ever, it’s not about altruism or ideals. It’s about survival—in a very grim reality.”

See full article here.

Tom Bliss, MA, is a landscape architect, musician and filmmaker. He lives in Leeds. His film The Urbal Fix is available at www.urbal.tv.

Links

Pennine town of Todmorden aka “Incredible Edible Todmorden”, West Yorks, UK – where a pioneering team are successfully growing help-yourself vegetables in the high street—with no major security, pollution or vandalism problems. The organiser confirms that the project could work at city scale.

Meanwood Valley Urban Farm – where they teach urban veg production, and Harehills, where one lady feeds her family from a tiny front yard. We hear about the health benefits of gardening, and the importance of temporary allotment schemes for both productivity and connectivity reasons.

Notes

  1. Catterall, B. (2008) Is it all coming together? Thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis: ‘No Country for Old Men’ — or Women? 12: (2) , pp. 275-276
  2. Howard, E. (1898) Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform/Garden Cities of Tomorrow Faber and Faber , London
  3. Viljoen, A. and Bohn, K. (2008) CPULs Continuous Production Urban Landscapes Architectural Press/Elsevier , Oxford
  4. Alagiah, G. (2010) Future of Food — BBC2 Documentary
  5. Mollinson, B. (1991) Introduction to Permaculture Tagari , Tyalguml, Australia

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