By Julian Wong Feb.27.2009
In: agriculture, rural development, urban planning

Eco-Infrastructure: Letting Nature Do the Work

There are perhaps 40 different eco-city projects across China at the moment.  If you had to design your own city, what would its infrastructure look like?  Are cities, per se, even the right form of settlement for eco-planners to design?  Here, The Green Leap Forward takes a look at several ideas in eco-community design, inspired by visits to several proposed eco-city sites in China last year, several presentations at a recent conference at the National University of Singapore, and the writings of Brian Milani.

Unified Infrastructure: Using Systems Thinking to Build Communities

If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others.  The problem is that these seemingly disparate functions are always designed, created and managed in silos.  Occasionally, a masterplan will envisage interactions between the various functions, but once such plan leaves the planner’s office and gets in the hands of the developers, operators and administrators, the sectoral boxes firmly take over.  The result?  A lot of waste, and policies and procedures working at cross-purposes with each other.  A simple case in point is the food-water-energy trilemma–a lack of coordinated policies addressing these fundamental needs has led to narrow policies addressing each individually, but ignoring the resulting trade-offs.

The Promised Land in community design is to create systems that are not just sustainable, but indeed regenerative.  In other words, not something that is tolerable or acceptable, but blooms and flourishes.  In such a paradigm, we need to think of closed-loop systems where waste from one stream becomes food for another.  In other words, we’ll need to change the way we look at all our activities.  We think of all human activities, be it agricultural, industrial or otherwise, as part of an interrelated web, or ecosystem.  So, for instance, can we take the heat generated from power generation, and pipe it to communities for heating homes, or maybe to water treatment plants for their thermal needs?  Of course we can, says China Green Buildings.

At a conference over the past weekend in Singapore, Dr. Michael Quah of Concurrent Technologies Corporation introduced a group of companies seeking to address this problem.  Global Smart Infrastructures (GSI), a consortium of seven design and technology companies that will design, build, own, operate and maintain (DBOOM) “communications, electric, IT, security, transportation waste and water [systems] under a common command and control.”  The result is what GSI has trademarked as “Sustainable Smart Communities.”  In essence, GSI takes a system-of-systems approach to realize synergies in design, construction and operating all the systems as a unified whole.  Once can also surmise that because GSI is involved in the whole life-cycle of the project. from design to maintenance, that it designs the system-of-systems with its long term sustainability in mind.

GSI focuses on 13 components in community design:

  1. Culture, Heritage, and History
  2. Land (geology, topography, natural capital, carrying capacity)
  3. Energy Resources
  4. Water Resources
  5. Air Quality
  6. Solid Waste Management
  7. Transportation
  8. Telecommunications, Information Systems, and Information Technology
  9. Building Systems
  10. Materials
  11. Biodiversity
  12. Human Communities and Social Justice
  13. Security

The benefits (full list here) of such a unified approach are thus predictably triple-bottom line in nature–economic (e.g. lower capital costs and construction lead times), environmental (e.g. lower ecological footprint, biodiversity protection) and social (e.g. energy, food and water security, jobs, education and empowerment). Two stated benefits are worth looking at more closely:

  • Turns the utility and its infrastructure into an asset that is part of the community (instead of services perceived as being an annoyance owned by strangers outside the community.)
  • Enhances control, both at the individual level (smart homes that let customers control their energy costs, for instance) and at the community level (more say over energy, water, transportation.)

A fascinating Reuters story on the emergence of “smart cities” in Europe, suggests that community self sufficiency will threaten the turf of incumbent big utility companies, creating a new friction between traditional power companies and these new smart construction companies. The traditional utility company that survives this new onslaught are the one that embraces this “very new way of doing things” and is able to “get closer to [its] customers, so [it] can keep up with their changing expectations.”

But allow me to focus, for the rest of this post, on #2 (Land) and #11 (Biodiversity) of GSI’s 13 design components.

Putting the “Eco” Back into Eco-cities

Last December, I (left in picture) took a trip with Geoff at China Green Buildings (center in picture) to the district of Mentougou (门头沟), a suburbs of Beijing.  We met with Zhang Wenbo (right in picture),  director of science and technology commission of Mentougou district, who led us on a tour of the area and described the district’s plans to rehabilitate the natural landscape, once ravaged by coal mining, into an ecological oasis.  The Mentougou eco-city project is a joint effort of the district government and Finland’s VTT Technical Research Center.  (Recently, China Daily ran a story on Mentougou’s eco efforts.)  The contrast of the hilly, dry and degraded physical landscape in Mentougou to the salt-marshes of the proposed Tianjin eco-city, and to highly urbanized Xiamen, for which an eco-city retorofit is being proposed, was stark.  It led me to wonder how much urban planners ever take into account the exisitng natural landscape.  For instance, this slide presentation prepared by VTT seems so generic that it doesn’t seem to appreciate the unique features of Mentougou’s physical environment, and seemed so devoid of the local knowledge that Zhang articulated in his vision for the eco-city.

In his brilliant book, Designing the Green Economy: The Postindustrial Alternative to Corporate Organization (a must-read), Brian Milani writes (p. 102-3):

A green economy involves “doing more with less” not only by going with natural flows but also by helping to regenerate those natural systems.  For this reason, the landscape myst play an especially strategic role in the economy,  The landscape is so important that people like John Tilman Lyle use it to differentiate the industrial form from the postindustrial economy,  According to Lyle, “The industrial age replaces the natural processes of the landscape with the global machine…while regenerative design seeks now to replace the machine with landscape.”  These are not just idealistic yearnings, but practical possibilities made viable by growing ecological knowledge, “economies of appropriate scale,” and advances towards decentralized technology.

This fundamental understanding makes clear that we need to rethink the way we build infrastructure; it cannot be divorced from understanding the natural environment:

For this reason, the term “infrastructure” takes on a new meaning and plays a strategic role.  Green infrastructure forms the lifeblood of economic life.  It is one reason ecological restoration is one of the most important economic activities in a green economy.  Soil, vegetation, and natural drainage, wind, and precipitation patterns become extremely important in determining the kind and quality of human economic activity.  Ecological engineering of this infrastructure consists in augmenting the self-design of natural flow, or perhaps mimicking these flows with engineered designs that nevertheless allow natural flows much scope for taking their own course.

Thus, masterplanners like GSI and others need to redefine the relationship between human infrastructure with the underlying “ecostructure,” i.e. natural ecosystems–human infrastructure should not be designed merely for narrow human-centric utilitarian purposes that often clash with ecostructures, but must coexist, and even complement or support it.  Milani calls such regenerative human infrastructure “eco-infrastructure“:

All infrastructures are control systems, bu the difference between conventional infrastructures and eco-infrastructures is like the difference between a World Wrestling Federation “rassler” and an aikido master who employs no offensive actions.  Not only do eco-infrastructures avoid damage to the environment, but they can also be designed to include ecostructures in their functioning, letting nature do the work.  The incredible potential for green infrastructure is one reason why the radical green emphasis is not to “proctect the environment” by sealing off cities from wilderness, but to bring nature into the city in various ways.  While industrial infrastructures are desgiend to be as invisible as possible, eco-infrastructures are meant to be visible to everyone.  This visibility gioves people a sense of place, showing them how their sustenance comes to them and where it goes after they use it.

Thus, to go back to the question posed at the beginning, it is clear that any truly eco development must take into account the natural landscape.  Fantastic, you say, but how do we do this in practice?

Eco-Infrastructure in Practice

Professor Chou Loke Ming of the National University of Singapore gave an interesting presentation on the topic of making better use of biodiversity in urban sustainability solutions.  For Singapore, water scarcity is a focal point of environmental technology development.  The use of gardens to filter water (see schematic, right) not only serves as stormwater protection, but partially purifies the rain water so that less intensive water treatment processes are required to purify it for human use when it is eventually collected.  Such gardens also capture nutrients, addressing a major problem of nutrient depletion that are so common in urban environments subject to heavy rains and stormwater runoff.  Think of all organic wastes such as leaf litter, bird droppings and garden fertilizer that gets swept into drainage systems.    Such rain gardens need not compete with other economic uses for land as they don’t have to be large in area; they can be situated as ecological infills to “dead space” between urban forms (think of void decks, alleyways and rooftops that are severely underutilized).

Watershed restoration is also another eco-infrastructure strategy.  Rivers and creeks can, again, serve as natural purifiers of water as well as serve as the backbone of a park for recreational activities with the laying down of non-obtrusive jogging and cycling paths.  Dr. Geh Min, former president of Singapore Nature Society, highlighted the unique role of tropical mangrove ecosystems in providing wildlife habitat, curbing coastal erosion caused by intense wave actions or surface runoff, acting as a natural purifier of water, while serving as sitea for human recreation.

Food has a central place in eco-infrastructure.  Milani suggests that the governing metaphor for a postindustrial community should be the garden, as oposed to that of the “machine” as it is currently.  An urban gardening revolution would represent a major decentralization of food production, disentangling society from the snares of the global food supply chain that is driven on a high volume low cost (and hence low quality) model.  It would reverse the trend of industrial agriculture and again make the city the center for food growing as it had been before the industrial-energy-agriculture complex reshaped messed up our spatial relationships.  It would empower citizens to strive towards self-sufficiency and grow safe, quality produce since food production would no longer be the case of “out of sight, out of mind.”  Like rain gardens, the “edible landscape” will be distributed throughout the urban form as eco-infill, and fulfil multiple functions such as providing microclimate, shade, windbreaks, habitat for wildlife, purify air and water and soil, recreational parks and even carbon sinks as we discussed in the last post.  A garden revolution will also create the impetus for devising closed-loop systems for the flow or organic material and nutrients.

A great way to do it is to employ the waste-equals-food principle by converting organic byproduct into feedstock for the industrial and built environment sectors, creating in essence a “Carbohydrate Economy,” as Milani dubs it.  Eventually, this looping of bio/agro/food byproduct to the industrial systems can create a vibrant agro-sectors and revitalize surrounding rural areas.  Thus, building materials will contain more organic and locally sourced material such as bamboo, straw, hemp and compact mud.  Similarly petrochemical-based lubricants and solvents will be replaced by vegetable oils.  Industrial infrastructure will be reoriented towards more biological inputs, but would also be accepting of what William McDonough and Michael Braungart dub “technical nutrients,” so that non-bio based “waste” of one industrial process becomes “food” for another.

Reconnecting the Urban to Rural

What the discussion to this point suggests is that building a regenerative community that seeks to, among other things, harness the value and services of natural ecosystems effectively calls for a reconsideration of the basic way cities are arranged, i.e. completely walled off from their rural surroundings.  A garden revolution and carbohydrate economy, which are necessary strategies for urban food security and closed-loop low carbon industrial ecology, respectively, require close connections between the city and countryside.  Yet, development policies worldwide have always been biased towards cities, as Professor Tay Kheng Soon, an architect who also spoke at the NUS conference, explains in this article in Global Asia.

Urbanization is one of the “big ideas” the West has exported. Since the time of Greek city-states, the West has embraced the notion that cities are the crucible of ideas and embody the concept of progress. Cities are symbols of economic power, the arts, military prowess, politics, civic culture, intellectual ferment, creativity and so on…Through the power the West accumulated over this period [the past 500 years], the “non-West” became subjugated, and intellectually cowed. So the obvious definition of progress for much of the non-West now, including Asia, is to catch up with the West…The relative unimportance of the countryside to the industrialized urban economy of the West is because their countrysides have either been turned into industrialized farms or picturesque subsidized landscapes. Also, given the fact that the countryside in the non-West already largely supplies the global demand for organic raw materials such as timber, natural rubber, palm oil, cocoa and the like, the West does not “think rural” at all. …The countryside, meanwhile, is subsumed totally. Even the arch critics of capitalism, Karl Marx and later Vladimir Lenin, were urbanists at heart when they declared the urban proletariat to be the revolutionary class. It took Mao Zedong to prove the contrary.

Yet, in this post-Mao era, even China has been seduced to the path of cityfication.  The current unprecedented wave of rural-to-urban migration that will add a mind boggling 350 million more people to Chinese urban centers by 2030 is not organic or spontaneous, but a product of a deliberate relaxation of former restrictions to rural to urban migration predicated on economic reform and  the whole notion that urban centers are engines of economic growth.  While it is true that Chinese cities are home to about 45% of the population and historically responsible for 75% of national GDP, 20 million migrant workers are now being sent back to the countryside unable to find jobs in the city at a time when 7.5 million new university graduates are also looking for city jobs.  As the financial and climate crisis converges, the assumed virtues of our high-carbon urban capitalistic trajectory are all being called into question.

Professor Tay urges a reexamination of unabated urbanization and for planners to start thinking of “the rural and the urban as a single space — not two spaces, as is now the case.”  Indeed, as our last post on the importance of soils in the carbon cycle persuasively informs us, regenerative argicultural practices can offer win-win-win benefits of revitalizing rural economies, reducing atmospheric carbon, and of course enhancing food security.

With than background, Professor Tay introduced his concept of “rubanization” (derived from rural-urbanization) and “Ruban Clusters,” which consist in their basic form of an urban core that is just one kilometer in diameter (to promote pedestrianization over auto-based transportation) with two main arterial roads running through the urban center at 90 degrees for long-distance transport to and fro the cluster.  The circumference of the urban core is surrounded by a belt of rural agricultural space, the area of which is dependent of population demographics.  This model is based on Ebenezer Howard’s vision of Garden Cities, but in Howard’s model (pictured below), the urban core is 1.5 miles in diameter, a mistake in Professor Tay’s opinion (presumably because it is creates longer distances between points which then discourages walking).  For more detailed information on the make-up of a Ruban Cluster, visit Professor Tay’s blog. [An internet search of a similar term, "rurbanization," yielded this paper that reveals very similar lines of community design conceived in India.]

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, above (source), served as the inspiration for Tay Kheng Soon’s Ruban Clusters, below (source: Tay Kheng Soon).

Professor Tay is careful to articulate what kinds of activities should be centered in the urban core and what should not:

In my view, major urban aggregations primarily serve four key functions. The first is the concentration of the highest level of medical research and treatment; the second is the concentration of the highest levels of academic research and teaching; the third is the concentration of the highest level of media, arts, content development and entertainment; the fourth is the concentration of material culture and shopping. The other functions of a society and economy can be dispersed to the countryside. Light industry and manufacturing can go to nearby regions or the countryside. Only heavy industry requires special locations close to raw materials and ports.

I would agree with this configuration but would add that even in the urban core, there lies a central place for biodiversity and ecological infills, as discussed earlier in this post.  Thus, natural are human landscapes effectively interlock with each other.  Rubanization, however, doesn’t end with rethinking the physical configurations.  Professor Tay writes:

The urban/rural dichotomy can be resolved spatially but it also needs a paradigm shift of values.

As we’ve discussed in our posts on the Tianjin eco-city, the hardware of an eco-community (eco-infrastructure) must be operated by software (or heartware, in the form of a regenerative, low consumption ethic).

A Few Words on Cycles

Put simply, eco-infrastructure is built with cycles in mind–the water cycle, food cycle, energy cycle, materials cycle, nutrient cycle, and even information and money cycle.  The last two is beyond the scope of this post, but one comment is worth making.  A community that strives towards self-sufficiency will inevitably keep more money within the community and thereby create more wealth for its people.  Rather than money flowing out of the community to global food companies, for instance, local farmers would directly benefit.  And because these goods are produced so much closer to their customers, the supply chains are much shorter, cutting out intermediary agents so as to create higher returns for the producer.

Yet, a community that favors local goods and raw materials may be charged by external communities as being protectionist.  Indeed, this is exactly the debate that is preoccupying the international policy arena as more and more countries contemplate enacting domestic policies that favor home-made goods in their stimulus packages.   Such a dogmatic adherence to “free trade” principles fails to distinguish good free trade from the bad, and fails to appreciate that the globalization of supply chains has been heavily subsidized by cheap energy prices (yes, even cheaper than today’s US$40/barrel) of yesteryear.  Thus, as we have argued before in a Stuff vs. Knowledge discussion, a regenerative community that adopts a self-sufficiency strategy will seek to maximize free exchange of ideas, information and know-how, but minimize unnecessary flow of materials (and hence embedded energy, carbon and water).  The reality, of course, is that given varying natural endowments, it would be impossible for any community to be completely self-sufficient in terms of material goods, but the point is that a regenerative community will aim to use as much local or regional resources as possible before resorting to imports from distant markets.

Conclusion: Crafting a Framework for Eco-City Design

Tying together the various concepts discussed above, GLF would offer its own guiding principles for creating regenerative eco-communities:

1. Design is based foremost on the centrality of the natural landscape and the environment’s natural endowment.
2. Eco-infrastructures are designed to that map human infrastructure onto underlying eco-structures, eco-structures on underlying human infrastructure, in a ways that is comeplementary and mutually reinforcing.
3.  Such eco-infrastructures are deployed with a unified system-of-systems approach.
4.  Eco-infrastructure design is guided by the appreciation of stock-and-flow systems.  Thus, it will embrace an energy system that focuses on harnessing the flow of solar flow, not the limited stock of fossil fuels.  It will also recognize the need to address stock GHGs be sequestering carbon naturally through soils, in addition to reducing flows of additional GHGs by using renewable energy sources.
5. An eco-infrastructure strategy breaks down the dichotomy between rural and urban, and embraces an intermingling of the two.
6. Such ecostructures will be guided by the interactions of various closed-loop cycles (in water, food, energy, materials, nutrients, information and money).
7. Self-sufficiency and localization is emphasized not only because it strengthens security but also because is disentangles the community from the snares of global supply chains and keeps wealth within the community.  Yet, such a community promotes free exchange of information.
8. The social aspects of community are fundamental, hence the focus on social metrics such as job and wealth creation and recreational facilities.  Education and fostering eco-values in the residents are also key–regenerative living is a lifestyle (heartware), not just green power plants and gardens (hardware).
9.  Resilience and security of the community relies on diversity in every respect–energy sources, biodiversity, food diversity, land use diversity, mixed-used housing, cultural and ethnic diversity.  A corollary of diversity is localization, distribution and decentralization because these concepts require the recognition and embrace of diversity at the ground (grassroots/local) level.   Hence, distributed energy resources and the use of local indigenous resources, among other things.

This is by no means an exhaustive set of principles, but an initial framework that is upon for discussion amongst you readers.

Comments (10)

  1. Jonathan Wong Feb.28.2009@12:52 am Reply

    Congrats on the WSJ mention. You made it big time!

  2. Huang Bai-en Mar.5.2009@2:51 pm Reply

    For a regenerative eco-community to be sustainable over the long run, it must be hospitable to attract and keep human capital of the world outside of itself.
    Huang Bai-en

  3. Scott Mar.12.2009@3:23 pm Reply

    Julian, this is a great post. Thanks for the comprehensive report! I’ve long thought that urban planning and design is far more important than almost anyone gives it credit for, and you provided a great illustration of why that’s so. Here’s to hoping that someday soon decision-makers wake up to the benefits of creating livable, regenerative communities.

  4. David Dobereiner Aug.27.2009@2:59 pm Reply

    I have the answer to the correct method of developing eco-cities
    and have published it in the above web site and the book:
    ‘The End of the Street: Sustainable growth within Natural Limits’

    All comments welcome.

    David Dobereiner

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