Rebuilding our cities

Picture of sky scrapers and cranes

If there is one number you should remember when talking about global warming, it is 350. According to the latest climate science research, we have to lower and stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to no higher than 350 parts per million.

Today we have passed the safety zone and arrived at 390 parts per million. Unless we rapidly return to 350 parts per million in this century, we risk reaching irreversible tipping points with consequences such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from melting permafrost, which in turn will reinforce global warming.

In other words, there are at least two factors compelling us to pursue far reaching societal changes. The atmospheric pool of CO2 is overloaded, and the growing oil scarcity within the present global economy will hit our societies hard if we do not manage to radically lower our fossil fuel dependence soon. The scope of these changes will have to be worldwide. Still, high income urban areas will have a special role to play in this transformation: First of all, they are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions, and secondly, they exhaust natural resources in every area of this planet. Furthermore, the actual economic and technological changes must be pursued at a city and regional level. The reason for this is simple: It is in the city where most of us live and where processed natural resources are both used and wasted.

Reinvigorating City Life

One of the most important things we will have to do to break with the present unsustainable development in developed capitalist societies is to rehabilitate city life itself. Although capitalist urbanization now places an enormous toll on the environment, this does not mean that cities are necessarily anti-ecological.

Quite to the contrary, cities have a range of potentialities of scale which might not only reduce our need for transport, but which also may enable a more environmentally efficient use of water, nutrients, materials and energy. Examples of this include the integration of industrial processes with regional resources and local use of co-products, decentralized energy systems, environmentally benign water and waste management, and reduced needs for transportation due to the city’s potential walkability.

These potentially ecological features of city-life, however, are suppressed by capitalist urbanization. In today’s urban conglomerations, huge amounts of energy are being wasted on unnecessary transportation of people and things, and waste is produced in huge quantities because of poorly integrated productive processes which are scaled to match an exaggerated demand for consumer goods.
A reinvigoration of city life is thus premised on a wholehearted transformation of the present economic and physical outlook of our cities. New energy generation technologies must be applied, and cities must do away with fossil energy dependence, while they economize their energy and resource use in the built environment, transport and industry.


When drawing our map for this reinvigoration, it can be useful to think in terms of self-reliance. Self-reliant cities have a capacity to mitigate climate change because they turn radically towards renewable and more regional resources. In high income countries, they alleviate the dependency on natural resources – often transported from the other side of the globe – which could be better utilized in lower income countries.

More self-reliant cities can also depend more on resources that are controllable by the cities themselves, in collaboration with their supportive regions as well as other cities and regions moving in the same direction. This involves a certain degree of regionalization, and allows cities to become more balanced economically and ecologically. Moving in the direction of self-reliant cities should not be confused with rural dreams of self-sufficient life-styles. Indeed, attempts to maximize household self-sufficiency can to a certain extent be counterproductive in relation to the project of building ecological cities: It can enforce social divisions and exclude people who cannot afford the technologies necessary for such an endeavor.

Building self-reliant cities is neither an attempt to go back to earlier times nor a less technologically advanced society. In fact, quite the opposite. A host of technological innovations is actually favoring self-reliant cities. Automation in manufacturing, miniaturization, efficient electrical motors, innovations in information and communications, as well as ecological methods for building, sanitation and production have drastically increased the opportunities for a highly efficient and more decentralized economy. Today, we know how we could potentially do more with less. This is of course greatly enhancing the prospect of building self-reliant cities. The main problem is indeed the way today’s economic system propels many new innovations to amplify over-consumption instead of making room for more freedom in our cities.

Of special importance for the prospect of building self-reliant cities, is the development of technologies for utilizing renewable energy resources. This technology has advanced enormously in the last decades. Compare today’s opportunities to turn to renewable energy, with that of the 1970s. When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided to increase the oil price through an oil embargo in 1973, an energy crisis hit many high income countries without renewable energy and energy conservation measures being readily available. Today, even some conventional industries are working on renewable energy. Thus, technologies like wind power generators, photovoltaic solar cells, geothermal heat pumps, wave power installations and biofuel generation plants are to a large extent ready for mass production and application.

Decentralizing Power

While applying renewable energy-technologies at a regional and city level, we can also decentralize power. Not only do we get electricity, heat or cooling from these efforts, but we also strengthen the self-reliance of cities. In many countries, energy generation and distribution was historically a municipal affair. The creation of energy generation capacity on the local level can therefore, to a certain extent, be seen as a return to basics. This time, however, we can do it with a different level of environmental performance as we have much cleaner technologies to apply.

Standing in the way of a decentralized energy system has not only been a lack of efficient technologies, but also the fact that most industrial countries during the 20th century established profit-driven energy monopolies. As a result, most urban areas in the world today, including high income areas, are dependent on very large, centralized power plants and long distance transmission of electricity.

The cities of the world are, in other words, dependent on a highly wasteful energy system. In many places as much as two thirds of the energy originally produced is wasted (as heat into the air) when transported over long distances. To a large extent, the problem is that energy generation generally takes place too far away from where by-products, such as heat, can be utilized. Moreover, the centralized energy systems we are presently dependent on, also make cities vulnerable for major blackouts with potentially devastating effects on human well-being and safety. Decentralized energy generation, in contrast, makes it possible to utilize the heat that today is being wasted. It also minimizes energy losses from distribution and transmission by locating generation close to where the energy is used. Decentralized energy not only increases efficiency, it also reduces the need for backup power: A system of many small generators does not suffer a major blackout if one generator fails.

The reason why renewable energy lends itself to decentralization is that it exists more or less everywhere, and it comes in many different forms which may complement each other. Cogeneration plants – that is power plants where electricity and heat are generated at the same time, and sometimes cooling as well – can, for example, be powered by biomass, but also fed with heat from geothermal and hydrothermal resources or by solar thermal systems. Solar and also wind power can be erected in regions surrounding the city, but also in the city itself on rooftops and walls. As harnessing renewable energy close to where it is used increases the gain from those energy sources, it also more or less compensates for the lower capacity of smaller power plants.

Going in for decentralized energy allows many smaller production facilities and neighborhoods to generate their own power. One of the major strengths of this is that it allows for generation technologies to be easily mass-produced and tailored to the ever-changing energy needs of cities. Decentralized energy generation is a central step towards realizing the city’s ecological potentiality. Everywhere cities of a reasonable density have the opportunity of putting the use of different forms of energy close to where the energy is generated, which makes possible the most efficient use of our natural resources. Cities also have the advantage of being concentrators of by-products – “waste” – that might be recycled or used as energy sources. Furthermore, cities are spatial communities that can be intentionally designed and re-designed to maximize the use of the energy provided by the sun and wind.

A More Regional Economy

Getting energy services in the form of heat, cooling or electricity from renewable energy sources is only one of the economical challenges implicit in building self-reliant cities. Changing how we get our food and all the other stuff we need to live rounded and productive lives is another one. As already stressed, the shift towards self-reliance does not imply that we should get self-sufficient. Still it is important to grasp that it really implies that we get a much more substantial share of our food and our materials from more regional and renewable resources than today. To a large extent we must turn towards a more plant-matter based economy. What this means is that different forms of biomass in self-reliant cities will be not only a major source for energy, food and clothes, but also for chemicals, inks, paints, plastics, building materials etcetera.

This also implies that we must radically reduce our consumption by maximizing the efficiency of materials and energy use in industry, and implementing new ways of sharing and pooling resources in our cities. Otherwise, we will not be able to make our local and renewable resources sufficient. The major challenge is to design systems which make it possible to use our natural resources to the fullest possible extent. In industry, by-products today considered as waste must be recycled whenever possible. In society in general, the assets now underused – such as space, tools or buildings – must in similar ways be used more intensively and cooperatively.

A central step will be to create a functional cooperation between cities and their hinterlands. That is, cities must relate more carefully to their supportive regions, and work more closely with their people. New forms of cooperation will indeed have to be established when farmers and countryside municipalities are to provide cities with a growing share of their energy and material sustenance.

A Functional City Network

A crucial step towards more self-reliance and resource efficiency in cities is getting away from most of today’s dependence on cars. Cities must reduce the need for travel by becoming pedestrian and more complete communities, where people can work and participate in a cultural, social life close to where they have their home. Planners say today that 100 jobs and people per hectare is required for walking and cycling to be the dominant modes of transportation.6 Somewhat less dense cities may very well be potential pedestrian cities in the future. Even so, it is quite obvious that if we attempt to build more self-reliant cities without today’s car dependence, they have to be significantly denser then many communities are today in order to be pleasant places for people of varying walking capacities.

On the other hand it is of no less importance to design an efficient transport network for both people and goods, enabling cities and regions to cooperate without depending on fossil fuels for transport. Even if this in some circumstances can mean maintaining some roads for lorry and car transport, it more often probably involves a good rail based communications network connecting cities as well as the city districts making up metropolitan areas. In the latter, transit options should probably, at least in the short run, be made faster than the freeways, as well as convenient and seamlessly connected in order to gain public support.

The challenge is of course to also find ways to lower city-countryside transportation needs so that they can be meet without fossil fuels. It seems unlikely that the present volume of cars in the countryside can run on biofuels or electricity, even though some will of course do so. Perhaps we must consider making traveling from countryside to city more of a seasonal event, staying, for example, in the countryside for many months when the weather provides and when the need for land work is more pressing. And staying in the city during other parts of the year when the countryside is a less hospitable place to be. In any case, transport issues are crucial to address in order to keep our society together as we are turning away from fossil energy.

Making the Necessary Changes

What has been outlined above are attainable changes in the way our cities are organized, powered, built and managed. It is worth re-emphasizing that it is imperative, from a global perspective, to make these changes now, as we have to mitigate global warming and because people in the poorer parts of the world have the same right to development as anyone living in high income countries.

The steps outlined can be seen as parts of a minimum program to rebuild our cities along ecological lines. Still we should be cautious that many of the possible changes described also can be made part of a capitalist development that will not be able mitigate climate change. In fact, in a worst case scenario some of the steps described, taken out of the context of a wholehearted transition, can be used as decorative measures in our current anti-ecological capitalist society. The energy policy of the European Union for example is to support both renewable energy and further investments in coal and nuclear power. It aims furthermore at increasing efficiency of energy use and at the same time to increase energy use in order to increase the competitiveness of the European economy. In other words, the European Union wants to implement renewable energy and efficiency measures to enable an even more aggressive production and consumption of commodities.

The European Union is just one case in point. Governments all over the world, use more or less the same rationale for not even considering the necessary measure to lower and stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million or less.

Thus, the struggle for self-reliant cities must be a struggle for strengthening the power of the people to make sharp priorities concerning societal, technological and economic development. Indeed building self-reliant cities should be understood as an endeavor not only in sharp conflict with the dominant capitalist urban model but with capitalist society at large.

Radically expanding the popular capacity of democratic decision-making in economic matters will therefore be crucial for all progress towards this goal. Here are a few more examples of why:

A transition to a more plant or biomass based economy may very well lead to deadly conflicts, where the luxury of the privileged is posed in direct opposition to the basic needs of others. In 2007-8 this was exactly what happened when demand for biofuel was one of the factors driving up food prices, with devastating effects for the world’s poor. This shows that if citizens are not informed and empowered to make the necessary choices, such conflicts are likely to arise.

Building pedestrian-friendly cities also involves essential choices. That is because it is not necessary to have 50 per cent of urban land devoted to motorized traffic if there are many fewer cars. The transition will open up these areas to something else: Sports, parks, energy generation, small scale industry or perhaps new housing. But how do we make the best choices for how to use these areas? For this, we would need an informed citizenry with the capacity to cooperate democratically based on the needs of their neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

Going in for decentralized and renewable energy is yet another example. This would in many places involve big investments, but how big those investments should be depends on the needs. Will efficiency measures in the city be taken before building a new energy system? Again the level and quality of our transition depend on our collective capacity to make informed choices.

Scaling up the Ambitions

Rebuilding our cities implies something of a municipal revolution. This is not only because the far reaching application of renewable and decentralized energy, the transition to a new more regional economy, the building of mixed and pedestrian cities and, the development of efficient transportation are challenges that need to be meet at the municipal level. It is also because making so many changes in everyday life and the ways cities are managed demands a radically expanded participatory democracy in order to succeed.

Climate change is thus very much an issue of building, planning and managing the economic life of cities in a new way, something which involves a new kind of popular politics. To open the space for this politics, municipalities must overturn the logic of the market economy. Then they must attempt to build the institutions that make democratic and ecological choices possible. This involves breaking with the culture of administration in our municipalities that developed its rationality and hierarchical forms during an era of increasing energy use and centralization.

Building self-reliant cities also necessitates a decisive break with the paradigm of incrementalism; the idea that change only can come through very small steps. Self-reliant cities must spring up like mushrooms in the years ahead. We must scale up our ambitions and collective efforts to meet the immense challenge of mitigating climate change. The battle for the future will be in our cities. Against the wasteful urban model and capitalistic society on the one side, stands the potentiality of self-reliant, radically democratic and free cities.

Editorial Comment

Published in Communalism #1 (December 2009)