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By Adrian McGregor

FAVOURITES: 18 October 2009 – All the evidence points inexorably to the unsustainability of contemporary cities, especially in a fossil-fuel constrained future, coupled with predicted – and unpredictable – impacts of climate change. Our urban future may lie with a new kind of city – the biocity. Landscape architect and urban designer Adrian McGregor explains how reconceptualising cities as interconnected ecosystems is the surest way forward.

“The so-called global economy was not a permanent institution, but a set of transient circumstances peculiar to a time, the Indian Summer of the fossil fuel era”.

James Kunstler, The Long Emergency: surviving the converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century.(2005).

Stone, bronze, and iron have defined the key technological ages of our civilisations and as a technocentric race we like to think that we are now living in the age of silicon. Truth is, the defining material of the last 150 years is undoubtedly oil. We are in the midst of the great oil age and cheap crude is the remarkable energy source that has driven the hyper-growth of our modern economies and cities.

The problem with this incredible period of urban population growth is that it will leave an unprecedented legacy of social and environmental crises for coming generations. With the imminent decline of oil reserves coupled to rising demand and an ever-increasing risk of the onset of a global anoxic oceanic event (when the world’s oceans become oxygen-depleted) driven by climate change, we need to make a major shift in city planning to enable pathways for positive adaptation.

The biocity is a theoretical urban design and planning model that proposes that cities be conceptualised as complex constructed ecosystems. By moving away from entrenched anthropocentric attitudes that divorce humans from their environment, the biocity concept unlocks impediments in achieving a whole-of-system regenerative design approach for cities.

Converging crises: peak oil and greenhouse gases

Depleted Azeri oilfield.

The wonder of oil is that it delivers 100 times more energy than it takes to extract it from the ground. No other energy source comes close to this and oil is cheaper than bottled water. The average Australian uses about 7.5 litres per day4 while an American uses about 10 litres of oil per day on food, travel and goods.5 The world is currently using about 31 billion barrels of oil a year, leaving about 75 years of endowment remaining.6

Many researchers postulate it is unlikely the reserves will last this long as the remaining oil will be difficult to access, while the energy required for extraction will eventually surpass the stored energy of the fuel. At this time oil will become obsolete. As the renowned economic and environmental theorist James Kunstler warns in his book The Long Emergency, there is a grave danger of catastrophic geopolitical and economic systems failure as nations fight for the remaining cheap oil.

Oil distillation has made industrial society possible.

Only in the past 20 years have we really understood how oil formed. Oil is essentially a mix of hydrocarbons, molecules that contain only hydrogen and carbon, the stuff of life. Oil is refined to make fuels, bitumen and the chemicals that make up many of the products that we use daily.

All our carbon was created when the planet was created and the atoms are now recycled in systems akin to the water and nitrogen cycles.

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