Scott Ludlam explores the current nature of our cities and provides a hopeful outlook for their future in “The oldest game in town”, an essay from Green Agenda.
Take a short walk from our main railway station and you’ll pass into the Perth Cultural Centre, a space that for a fair while existed as an angular brick quadrangle linking the state library, museum and contemporary arts institute with the cheerful jumble of the Northbridge entertainment district. A few years ago the City commissioned an unusual transformation off to one side of this place: the sharp geometry of a bleak modernist pond was broken up and planted in with native reeds and paperbarks growing out between worn granite boulders. On a warm night after the rain, you’ll see members of the local frog community checking each other out on the margins of this re-imagined wetland. Even as the bustle of evening commuters flows past in a blur of conversation and studied attention to mobile devices, this place has a meditative quality to it. Pause here, briefly, and the city’s forgotten geography of seasonal lakes can be brought back into memory, even if you can’t recall their ancient names just yet.
Hold that thought for a moment. At the southern margins of Sydney’s central business district, facing off the unapologetic brutalist cube of the UTS tower block, stands a structure that seems quite casually at odds with its surrounds. At first glance it might be the cantilevered platform held wildly out of balance from the top floor that catches your eye, but close inspection will reveal that this glass and steel monolith is up to something altogether more interesting. A vertical alpine forest appears to have begun the process of consuming the whole building; irrigated planter beds set into the structure from street to skyline that have loosed a riot of carefully chosen species to do as they will with the architecture. What you can’t see – the trigeneration plant, water recycling and solar energy systems – are almost as radical as the designer ecosystems colonising the façade.
A thousand kilometres to the south-west, you can catch the number 96 tram and wander into something quite different: an open-air laboratory dedicated to folding Melbourne’s one-way consumption torrent back into deeply embedded cultural and ecological cycles on the quiet banks of Merri Creek. If that sounds complicated, in real life Ceres mostly looks like chook tractors, compost piles, bike workshops, rammed earth meeting spaces, water tanks and a bustling café powered by the same sunlight that energises rows of raised permaculture beds.
Each of these three widely separated instances shares a common thread: the deliberate invitation of natural systems back into the fabric of the city. Isolated, yes. Flamboyant, sure; if you’re in an uncharitable mood, gimmicky, maybe even pointless. But in the context of the accelerating mass extinction of the planet’s cultural and ecological inheritance, these three places are heraldic each in their own way, bearing hopeful significance way beyond their limited scale; prefiguring revolution.
Cities are where our species will probably stand or fall this century. Half the global population, and growing; 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and growing. Command centres of political and cultural power; hubs of commerce and innovation, improvised sprawl assemblages of disease and poverty. Cities are simultaneously intergenerational colonial structures of tarmac and steel ramifying across the landscape as the decades turn, and places of grace and creativity where time spent with our extended human family teaches us the meaning of community. They are places where economic and social inequality are given concrete, seemingly immovable expression in housing typologies, service delivery and quality of life. Cities can lift our eyes towards the stars, bring us together or crush us with loneliness; we shape our cities, the saying goes, and then they shape us.
Cities can lift our eyes towards the stars, bring us together or crush us with loneliness; we shape our cities, the saying goes, and then they shape us.
One consequence of living our lives encased in engineered structures has been the slow but profound distancing of urban humans from the realities of life on an ecological planet. Fresh water tumbles from the tap without announcing how it made its way from groundwater formations dating back to the last ice age. An absurd abundance of food lines the shelves of a local supermarket, stripped of all signifiers of assembly-line slaughter or millennia of careful selective breeding by farmers whose names we’ll never know. Cultural landscapes on the margins of our great cities are erased, native ecosystems and old names pulverised under bulldozer blades and replaced with sandlots on quiet empty streets named, without apparent irony, after the very species so recently liquidated.
Woven into a seamless cultural and technological exoskeleton, urban dwellers can be separated from primary sources of food and water by hundreds or thousands of kilometers, dependent for basic tasks on mechanised transport, relationships mediated by digital networks, cut off even from the seasons. We’ve subtly become aliens on our own planet, a helplessness most viscerally understood when the power suddenly goes out and the food in the refrigerator begins to rot. This alienation helps sustain an economic ideology that treats the planet and its kindred species as resource units to be fed into production cycles, burned up and discarded at geometric rates of growth.
The most dangerous critique of this headlong rush towards violent collapse is to imagine that humankind is therefore some strain of planetary disease, that human population is the problem, and on the whole things would be better if there were a lot less of us. Explain that theory to a child if you will, or a Pacific Islander, or residents of the booming cities of the Global South getting by on one twentieth of the material throughput of the average Australian.
We’re not aliens in this landscape at all; we belong here. Our ancestors belonged here, and our children belong here. Our species is woven from exactly the same fabric as the rest of the natural world; our cells read and write the same biochemical script as the first cells to make their way in warm Achaean seas three and a half billion years ago.
We just need to set aside the myth that the rules don’t apply to us, that having opposable thumbs, air conditioning and the internet grants us special immunity from the lethal scythe of natural selection. Human beings are no more immune to extinction than any of the other species we’re blindly dispatching to the silence of geology. The only difference is that paleontologists have struggled to identify many other species that made their way into the fossil record by their own hand.
We might as well get used to it: we’re descended from monkeys, which evolved from fish; great-grandchildren of cellular pioneers who may have worked their way up from autocatalytic chemical reaction sequences on a heavily volcanic planet.1 In turn, our technology – from the first chipped stone to the hydrogen bomb – probably didn’t arrive from some alien dimension either. The tools we build, drive around in and make war with are wholly home-made and are subject to the same forces of physics and evolution as we are.
[Cities are] remarkably similar to how our bodies are organised at a tissue level.
If you’ve ever looked over the railing into a primary crusher at a minesite, you’ll see what looks suspiciously like a set of giant, worn iron teeth pulverising truckloads of broken stone; conveyors speeding the gravel through secondary crushers and then into chemical treatment and beneficiation plants resembling nothing so much as externalised digestive systems where target minerals are concentrated into useful forms.
On the outskirts of our cities, industrial parks take in these precursor materials and simple componentry and assemble them into ever more complex and specialised artifacts, which is more-or-less exactly what goes on inside the sub-microscopic ribosomes fabricating complex proteins in each one of our cells.
Within our cities and regional communities, these processed goods are aggregated at temporary storage sites and then distributed through densely interconnected networks that resemble nothing so much as the cellular architecture of organisms vastly smaller.
If you live in a wealthy industrialised city, your dwelling is probably connected to fresh water and electricity via an unseen matrix of densely reticulated networks. Transport systems including road, rail and pedestrian paths provide passage of all manner of materials and services. Communications services are stitched into each dwelling with a fibrous mesh of copper, plastic and drawn glass.
This is remarkably similar to how our bodies are organised at a tissue level. Cells exchange a wide array of materials through the bloodstream, which functions as a carrier network for the cardiovascular, lymphatic and endocrine systems and reaches out to every single cell. From the air, some cities reveal the same kind of cell specialisation as our bodies, with residential, commercial and industrial districts clearly demarcated by differences in colour and composition.
All of it is woven through with an arterial road system that manages to look appreciably arterial, right down to narrow capillaries reaching to individual cells.The neural architecture is only hinted at after sunset from high above, when traceries of brilliant illumination give away the layout of the electrical grid.
All successful organisms have evolved efficient channels for removing waste products so that toxins never build up to levels where they threaten the community’s existence. A well-planned city is no different. The forgotten sewerage and wastewater networks which drain unwanted detritus out of our immediate environs were genuine breakthroughs when they were devised following Parliamentary inquiries into hideous epidemics of cholera and typhoid that ravaged the pestilential slums of 19th century industrial cities. They are prefigured in the dusty ruins of Mohenjo-Daro: the eroded bones of one of the world’s oldest cities features water, transport and waste removal networks that would be roughly familiar to 21stcentury civil engineers.
Seen in this way, our thriving cities and towns are organised to perform the same functions of ingestion, transport, processing and waste disposal that shape every other living creature. They are the tarmac and steel expressions of our collective human metabolism, doing the same job at scales thousands of times larger than the biological distributive networks they connect with and preconsciously mirror. Imagine, in the half hour between drinking a glass of clean, fresh tapwater and your subsequent visit to the bathroom, that you’ve closed a circuit many hundreds of kilometres in extent, your city having gradually interposed itself within the planet’s hydrological cycle on your behalf.
In a wealthy city, the urban infrastructure, like our own internal infrastructure of flesh and bones, is so mundane and efficient that we forget it’s there until something goes wrong. It’s the urban equivalent of failing to notice the absence of a toothache: the vast and distributed systems represented by power lines and storm water drains are so ubiquitous as to have become practically invisible, noticed only when they fail and the server goes down or raw sewage boils up through the pavement. Just as in our bodies and within the microscopic environs of individual cells, specialised processes of maintenance and repair keep the system functional and resilient against the millionfold insults of entropy and misadventure.
No-one sat down and consciously decided to design the city according to organic principles, and a city can hardly be considered ‘alive’ in any meaningful sense. The distinction misses the point – cities solve the same problems of form and flow, and have been swept up in the same evolutionary tide as everything else on the planet, at a scale that can be hard to apprehend if you’ve lived your whole life inside one.
There’s something hopeful in this appreciation of urban metabolism, no matter how approximate the metaphor: if bacteria can figure out by slow trial and error how to organise collectively into complex colonial organisms without consuming or polluting themselves out of existence, then surely we can too.
Our ancestors crafted simple technologies which faded away after use, or tossed away harmless materials which posed no threat in buildup. As the Neanderthal, the Mammoth and the Moa discovered, our great-grandparents certainly made their presence felt, but pre-industrial human society lacked the scale to modify the thermal balance of the world ocean or throw the planet into a new geological age.
As the pace of innovation quickened and settled agriculture tumbled population growth into a tight feedback loop, these inconceivable scales have been brought into play.
We’ve brought materials into circulation which have no known disposal path – an ocean of plastics, incomprehensible new chemicals and murderously long-lived radioactive isotopes. While cellular wastes are promptly removed to become feedstock for other organisms, our cities are creating vast landfill areas, thermal pollution and concentrations of toxic waste which pile up in mute abundance, awaiting a closed loop or the cessation of production.2 Urban dwellers rarely see these dumps, leaching silently into regional aquifers, or vented invisibly into the sky from power plants miles over the horizon.
Our task then, as a sentient species that can draw these macro-metabolic loops on the back of beer coasters over a few drinks, is to design the transition away from the explosive growth of a once-through consumer economy in which no loops are closed, toward a closed-loop regenerative economy which is literate to the dynamics of the local ecosystems it is embedded in. Not because that sounds kind of cool, but because the survival of billions of people now depends on it.
This seems easy when you say it quickly like that, but it probably means applying a couple of simple, ancient rules, the rules of the oldest game in town. Don’t deplete non-renewable resources. Don’t consume renewable resources at such a rate that the renewal processes themselves are compromised. Don’t let wastes pile up to the point where you drown in your own shit. If it’s too stinky to deal with, stop producing it. If it’s just the right amount of stinky, use it as fertiliser for something useful.
Inviting natural systems back into large-scale urban environments and teaching the economy basic ecological literacy is emerging as a crucial collective survival strategy.
There’s not yet settled terminology for applying biological principles to the study of the economy; terms such as closed-loop, conserver, regenerative and steady state economics are contested and sometimes used interchangeably, while overlapping studies of biomimicry, industrial ecology, urban metabolism and ecofinance engage with specific domains. These disciplines tend to share common analytical tools borrowed from general systems theory and ecology, providing a richer framework of inquiry than the brittle machinery of neoclassical economics.
As avant-garde as this sounds, Aboriginal societies in intimate dialogue with natural systems over tens of thousands of years hold a vastly more sophisticated understanding of the landscape and its inhabitants at local and regional scales. While colonial occupiers found no evidence of settled industrial cities, we were unwittingly laying waste to a network of closed-loop trading societies that undertook large-scale cultivation and species stewardship, with ecological literacy coded in language and taught from the earliest age. Here too are stories of drowned landscapes and offshore islands that were once ridge-lines on the mainland: memories of climate change handed down with stunning fidelity from the close of the last ice age seven or eight thousand years ago. Some of the tools and practices we need to weave this new economy may be cutting edge, but some of them are immensely old.
Some of the tools and practices we need to weave this new economy may be cutting edge, but some of them are immensely old.
Every piece of it already exists, in ancestral form, prototype stage or in fully realised product life cycles: this is a process of rediscovery as much as invention.
Plantic makes bioplastic products made of high amylose starch, designed to biodegrade at the end of their useful lives. Tesla motors repurposed an obsolete Toyota plant in Fremont CA to make electric vehicles that run on sunlight. Finnish manufacturer Stora Ensa uses plantation timber milled into cross-laminate panels for use in modular construction of homes so well-made they require no active heating or cooling. In North London, municipal waste treatment plants sell organic compost to local market gardeners. Set-piece urban redevelopments around the world are internalising their subsystems of energy, water and waste recirculation rather than depending on municipal or state networks. Perhaps most significantly, downshifting and the re-emergence of the sharing economy – bikes, cars, appliances – holds out hope that some economic loops can be closed not through ‘greening up’ the throwaway consumer society, but by ceasing altogether.
Fine-grained regional or neighbourhood economies unconsciously exhibit the same features of reciprocity and multiple redundancies as healthy trophic webs studied by ecologists. When not crushed under the monocultural footprint of big-box chain stores surrounded by hectares of sun-bleached tarmac, local economies can exhibit qualities of resilience that have been systematically leached out of perilously extended global supply chains through cost pressures and stringent application of short term ‘efficiencies’.
Buckminster Fuller wryly noted, “…you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” While the new model is woven together, communities on the front-line will still need systematic support in the fight against the existing reality: the Bentley blockaders, treesits and tripods in the Tarkine and East Gippsland, Abbott Point campaigners up against the suicidal stupidity of big coal; the Walkatjurra Walkabout mob in the uranium fields of Western Australia. Hard-fought success in these asymmetrical contests buys time for rapidly growing sunrise industries to showcase exactly what Fuller was on about.
Solar and wind energy technologies globally are undergoing runaway growth rates between 20-30 per cent annually, doubling in capacity and investment every three years. One in five Australian households now operate small-scale solar power stations, with density of installation highest in low-income suburbs.
At the other end of the capacity spectrum, at the time of writing Solar Reserve is commissioning a utility-scale solar thermal plant in the high desert of Nevada. This installation deploys a two-mile-wide glass mandala of 10,000 giant tracking heliostats to store the daytime heat in a molten salt ‘battery’ that can dispatch electricity day and night. It is the forerunner of hybrid installations ten times larger in Chile and the Middle East, generating electricity from cheap photovoltaics during the day while storing up the unyielding Andean sunlight for night-time generation.
Full-scale energy system succession is now under way in some states, despite desperate coal and gas incumbents buying whole Governments in an attempt to hold back the tide (yes Australia, I’m looking at you). This is as significant as the distinction between the life choices of plants and animals: instead of consuming fuel to stay alive, industrial society is learning how to photosynthesise.
It is hard to overstate how profound this transition becomes when adopted at scale. For an individual community, it may look like well-insulated homes powered by photovoltaics backed up by recyclable batteries and solar water heaters – homes in which power, heating and water bills are a thing of the past. Applied in a suburban neighborhood it may mean being a short walk away from a frequent electric light rail or shuttle bus service backed up by nearby bike- and car-share franchises. Adopted at the scale of the world’s largest cities, it calls into question the need for the US Navy’s 5th fleet to remain on station protecting bulk oil carriers that ply the Persian Gulf.
This hopeful vision is by no means guaranteed: at present, the threads of the closed-loop economy are too dispersed, isolated and politically vulnerable to have any chance of prevailing against the dominant inertia of the global once-through economy. The viral spread of corporate globalisation, backed by implied or actual use of massive state violence, has forcefully dismantled locally appropriate economies over the last several centuries.
It won’t be enough to just apply biophilic principles to islands of elite privilege and hope for the best.
It won’t be enough to just apply biophilic principles to islands of elite privilege and hope for the best. It is entirely plausible to imagine gated enclaves of weaponised sustainability lit up by solar photovoltaics and cheerfully recycling water and waste into local organic food production, while armed response teams patrol the razor wire outside the green zones. As Jared Diamond points out in the forbidding conclusion to his study of collapsed civilisations, “such people do not secure their own interests and those of their children if they rule over a collapsing society, and merely buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve…”3
Eighty people control the combined wealth of the poorest three and a half billion.4 Having achieved this extraordinary dominance, the incumbent one per cent appear unwilling to relinquish their hold on the economic pinch-points allocating food, water, energy and mobility to billions of people. Investors’ rights agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its free-trade forerunners are designed to entrench this choke-hold of inequality all the way into the twilight of collapse.
Free trade agreements; deregulatory instruments; financial market rules; bodies of trade practices law: each of these written agreements codes for a particular kind of economy. Evolved through custom and practice over many centuries, they too have a peculiar resonance with underlying natural systems.
In every creature that ever lived on planet earth, our physical form is prefigured in a coded set of symbolic instructions guiding generation and perpetuation. In living cells this information is recorded in DNA and RNA, written in a writhing, self-authoring molecular alphabet that can spell viruses, ladybirds and elephants depending on circumstance. Change the DNA, through recombination or random mutation, and you change the forms expressed, for better or worse.
The assembly and operating instructions of whole cities are distributed within the minds of each of us. The core genetic material is held in legal statutes, filing cabinets and databases within parliaments, planning departments, construction firms, utilities and property developers. Change the DNA, through changing cultural practices or formal amendments to legislation, and you change the architecture.
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,” Edward Abbey has pointed out, by way of proposing alternative ideologies that are less likely to lead to large-scale collapse. Organisms have no alternative but to run the genetic scripts they inherit. Microprocessors don’t get to reach in and experiment with their own operating systems (at least not quite yet). Human societies are different: laws and social conventions can be reinterpreted and ignored by the powerful, but they can also be apprehended and amended for the collective good. This has to be the generation that sets about embedding ecological and cultural literacy in the symbolic instruction sets that code for the next generation of mobile phones, houses, urban redevelopments and international trade agreements.
This has to be the generation that sets about embedding ecological and cultural literacy in the symbolic instruction sets that code for the next generation of mobile phones, houses, urban redevelopments and international trade agreements.
This work is under way everywhere from local councils to international treaty negotiations, but the urgency of agreeing to play collectively by the rules of the oldest game in town can barely be overstated.
There’s a rare and peculiar joy to be had in considering how the place could look if we swing the post-fossil transition beautifully. Looking back not on a terrible crash or some cobbled together emergency landing laced with barbed wire, but having actually made it, with grace and determination, rewriting the DNA of the growth machine and arriving home safely.
Some of what needs to happen now is new; unprecedented, genuinely revolutionary. But some of these things are old – as old as photosynthesis, as old as settled civilisation, as old as democracy. It’s not as though we don’t know what to do: people all over the world are doing it.
Imagine for a second, a city – a big one – running on sunlight, sipping just as much water as it returns to the landscape, growing a fair fraction of its own food, woven seamlessly into a mosaic of wetlands and native bushland. It is a city of urban village centres with names thousands of years old, rising higher than you might remember out of the tuart forest. Each of these centres nurtures its own subtle culture and flavour; some kicking on late into the evening, and each has regained the fine-grained mixed-use fabric of the genuinely walkable city.
The market square has overthrown the supermarket; industrial pharming out-competed by fresh produce grown locally on rooftop gardens and peri-urban farming co-ops. Each of these town centres has a comfortable degree of self-containment; you can work, eat, play within a kilometre of home if you wish, but you’d be missing out.
Bustling transit corridors link the compact urban villages; up to four or five stories high in most places, anchored by the electric light rail network that was rebuilt after five decades of forgetfulness. The major lines carry thousands of people down the corridors at five minute intervals; the ease of access to major stops along the way has created fascinating urban microclimates, galleries and small bars patched into repurposed warehouses and showrooms. This transit system operates around the clock, reverting late in the evening to a precisely coordinated ballet of pulse timetabling from anywhere to anywhere.
Quiet suburban greenbelts lie between these thriving transit corridors, served by frequent short-haul electric busses, distributed car-share services and a shady network of cycleways. Here the city breathes under the canopy of an urban forest, away from the illuminated hustle of the town cores, alongside streams freed from brief memories of concrete culverts.
The old port still hums with activity; this is a trading city as it ever was, but as we rediscovered the importance of knowing how to make some things for ourselves, the whole tenor of trade has reverted to high-value specialised commodities.
This is a city that has deliberately and collectively awoken from the long, incendiary fever of fossil fuel addiction. The electrical grid crackles now with the swell of the ocean, the roaring sea breeze and fields of mirrors kilometres across, far over the escarpment toward the sunbelt.
It is a place that no longer calculates Gross Domestic Product: it tracks genuine progress indicators, aggregated social equality indices, energy and water productivity. If the place feels familiar, it’s because every part of it already exists, somewhere on planet earth, today. Even the frogs perched on the edge of the cultural centre will tell you that.
- Setting aside the theory that earthly biology may have been seeded from space aeons ago – fascinating, but a bit out of scope of an article like this.
- This has precedent in nature too – in the far distant past, the world’s first generations of plant cells dumped unregulated amounts of waste oxygen into their warm seawater habitat. Widespread oxygen pollution in the water and atmosphere led to a slow-burn oxidation crisis which wasn’t solved until new cell lines developed the ability to metabolise oxygen. Most of the early polluters were cut down by the engine of extinction, and the crisis may have been globally terminal if innovative loops hadn’t opened up to fold this volatile new waste product back into production as the fuel source burned by every native cell in our bodies.
- Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, 1995