Paul Crutzen, Bruce Beck, and Michael Thompson on Cities

PostedMay 17, 2007

The world is becoming ever more populous and urbanized. Cities are inherently unmitigated environmental "bads"; with no extenuating circumstances; like bulls in china shops. Man's burden on the environment --- woe, that is --- will continue to be piled upon woe. So runs the popular mind-set.

Yet things do not have to be this way, no matter how hard it may today be to conceive of cities as forces for good in the environment. Far from the burden of infrastructures having to compensate for the ills of cities, the two should "act" deliberately to contribute positively to enhancement of the environment about them. That is our grand challenge for Engineering; and this is how we might begin to think of responding to the challenge.

In introducing their concept of the "urban ecological footprint" --- massive, of course, for cities such as Paris, New York, and so on --- William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel invite us to conceive of the city as a "large animal grazing in its pasture". We imagine that animal as a bull. The "bull" of intense social and economic activity in the city is to be shod, we suggest, with the "padded athletic trainers" of re-engineered infrastructures and imbued with a technological deftness and intelligence sufficient for restoring the business of running the environmental "china shop" in which it charges about --- indeed, profitably expanding the shop's operations.

The city, continuing the large grazing animal analogy, takes in its daily grass and daily water, together with life-sustaining breath; and we, for readily understandable but increasingly unsustainable reasons, have engineered the return of the residuals of this metabolism to the air, water, and land environments surrounding the city. In the Global North, a good deal of the city's daily water is used to remove the residuals of its daily grass --- as wastewater --- so that citizens can lead healthy and productive lives. And much technological effort has been invested in treating that wastewater, not always to the good of the air, missing an opportunity to benefit the land, while not being a wholly unmitigated good for the water environment. In short, wastewater treatment in the Global North can end up shunting nitrogen into the atmosphere, to avoid fertilizing the aquatic environment, while we labor awfully energetically with the Haber-Bosch process to pull that nitrogen out of the atmosphere to produce industrial fertilizer.

How, then, can the built infrastructure be re-engineered to restore the natural capital and ecosystem services of the nature that occupied the land before the city arrived there; how can they be re-engineered to enable the city to act as a force for good, deliberately to compensate positively for the ills of the rest of Man's interventions in Nature?

And how can cities of the Global South avoid adopting the same technological trajectory? Can they, in other words, leapfrog the Global North by missing out the entire human-waste-into-the-water-cycle phase, thereby ending up one step ahead, as it were?

How, more profoundly, can the engineering of city infrastructure be deployed expressly so that those at the bottom of the pyramid of dignified human development may be brought to such a level where they care to engage in such a debate, over such a grand challenge for the next century --- of cities as forces for good --- beyond their desperate needs of survival for just today and tomorrow?

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  • Dileep V. Sathe
    Dileep V. Sathe

    Posted 14 years ago

    Dileep V. Sathe from Pune / MH / India comments on Paul Crutzen, Bruce Beck, and Michael Thompson on Cities
    According to the second law of thermodynamics, the entropy (unusable energy or disorder of the universe) is always increasing. This consequence seems to be evident in a recent research of some Americans - as described in a Sci / Tech story in DNA, India, dated: 20 March 2010. So, as a physics teacher, I do not see any valid reason to oppose the prediction of Paul Crutzen and his colleagues.
  • Benjamin Taheny
    Benjamin Taheny

    Posted 14 years and 8 months ago

    Benjamin Taheny from Australia comments on Paul Crutzen, Bruce Beck, and Michael Thompson on Cities
    Using sophisticated but simplified design, it is possible to greatly reduce the amount of water usage required to flush toilets. The Romans had a latrine toilet that had individual stalls. Since Male and female toilets are usually located side-by-side, they could share the same pit (back-to-back, with dividing wall). The technique used by the Lotus plant to stop dirt sticking could be used on the interior of the latrine pit - self-cleaning. The English sewer/stormwater? used pipes that had an egg shaped profile(narrow part facing downwards) - allowing low volumes of water to be swiftly removed. When I was in China, a service station had a trough to wash hands in, it was sloped to drain water away(to water plants) - this water that has been used to wash hands is of sufficient quality to flush the toilet. On the male side of the toilet stall, the water should be derived from rainfall to wash hands, then flush urinals, finally all liquid flushes the toilet pit. Biolytix is a septic system that uses invertebrates, including earthworms, to convert toilet waste into worm castings - a valuable organic fertiliser for community gardens growing food. The invertebrates can be fed to chickens, converting them into feathers, eggs, and meat.
  • Jon Almer
    Jon Almer

    Posted 15 years and 11 months ago

    Jon Almer from Chicago, IL comments on Paul Crutzen, Bruce Beck, and Michael Thompson on Cities
    To me, a key phrase used above is 'natural capital', as concepts of Natural Capitalism (NC) seem relevant here. Key NC concepts were put forward in the book so-named by A. Lovins et al, published a few years back, which calls for a paradigm shift towards viewing the real ('natural') cost and value of goods and services (published even before 'carbon-credit' became a popular term). When viewed in this manner, the socio-economic driving force for reinventing cities: to better use wastewater, make energy-efficient housing, etc. becomes that much stronger. I have no doubt that we can better engineer solutions, the weak link in my opinion is socio-political will. That said, I acknowledge that there ARE engineering challenges which we can and should address, and appreciate this aspect of the grand challenges. To give a personal example, I am taking part in the process of constructing a new school in downtown Chicago. My volunteer efforts center on implementing LEED-based features and attempting find funding for them. This activity has made clear to me that there are many extant and attractive (from both performance and long-term economic) 'green' building technologies (including wastewater reduction), but the major hurdles are (1) unfamiliarity and (2) higher up-front costs associated with them. I think continued efforts from engineers will make these features even more attractive performance-wise, but equally important will be to reduce the above hurdles through improved education and employing NC concepts. Finally, I do hope the 'Global South' (esp. if this list includes China/India) can leapfrog the cited issues of the 'Global North'; perhaps through employing NC and related concepts.
  • Rodolfo Zosel
    Rodolfo Zosel

    Posted 16 years and 6 months ago

    Rodolfo Zosel from Central America comments on Paul Crutzen, Bruce Beck, and Michael Thompson on Cities
    I believe that the cities in the Global South are already "bulled", such is the case with Guatemala City. The need for the 180 degree turn to implement new ways of development is now. Perhaps it's even worse than the Global North because of the unregulated advance of the urban areas. The re-engineering would be almost exclusively to the private construction companies. The challenge is to make it clear to the governments of the developing countries: the call for ecologicaly freindly infrastructure. If we take it as "our world", then it is possible to change the metropolitan areas of our planet.
  • William Johnson
    William Johnson

    Posted 16 years and 9 months ago

    William Johnson from 27614 comments on Paul Crutzen, Bruce Beck, and Michael Thompson on Cities
    Please help me understand the feedback loop. How are the results in clean-sheet urban design fed back into new efforts. More critically, how may those successes attract the laity? ... given the very powerful efforts of existing models to perpetuate themselves? How are we manging the tension between incremental in-situ improvement and more bio-imitative overlapping life-death cycles? My US vision is cloudy. Are others having success with the "Federal Cities" paradigm we balked at? What is the "right" relationship between cities, cultures, and juridical partitioning?