The Cities of Tomorrow

The world changed in 2008 – for the first time in human history, more people were living in cities than in the countryside. With around 1.4 million people a week moving from the country to the city, it’s estimated by 2030 two thirds of the world’s population will be urban. What will these huge mega-cities be like ?

The evocative title: Cities of the Future, might conjure up images of Star Trek like, gleaming high technology environments – but for most of their inhabitants, these cities of the future will be very different.

The three books below all give fascinating insights to how this urban future is likely to look.

Shadow Cities: A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth

Robert Neuwirth takes us into four of the world’s largest and densest squatter cities, in Mumbai, Nairobi, Rio and Istanbul. Far from being the stereotypical cauldrons of destitution, crime and violence, these complex environments are instead full of energy, creativity and vitality, with a surprisingly high degree of self-governance.

But these rapidly growing cities also face tremendous challenges; including lack of water supplies, drainage, lack of affordable transport and other infrastructure, as well as vulnerability to flooding and other environmental problems, lack of health care and effective policing. In addition two problems faced by dwellers of squatter communities worldwide are the absence of land rights and security of tenure, and lack of political access and representation.

But bit by bit, these communities and neighborhoods are developing, with businesses, schools, medical facilities, transport systems and all kinds of supporting infrastructure being created by their hard working and hope filled inhabitants.

Rob writes regularly on the issues facing squatters and the development of squatter cities on his blog: Squattercity. [AMAZON]

Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

As well as publishing influential studies on social inequality, the renowned economist Edward Glaeser is a strong advocate of cities – both for their reducing effect on individual environmental footprints, and also for their ability to bring people and communities together, enhancing communication and generating prosperity and ideas.

He argues that cities are particularly advantageous for the richest and poorest in society, as they provide more opportunities for both the rich to spend their wealth, and for the poor to become richer. In many cities, he argues, the presence of large numbers of urban poor does not necessarily indicate urban failure, but rather that poorer people are attracted to a vibrant city, with the prospect of a more prosperous life.

Although cities offer the best long term prospects for the future, there are many problems and challenges to be overcome – “the problems of the urban slums won’t be solved by mindlessly relying on the free market” he writes, strong and capable governments are needed to provide essential systems and infrastructure, like policing and water. [AMAZON]

Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand

The sub title of Stewart Brand’s book is: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, Radical Science and Geoengineering are Necessary – which he accepts enthuses and enrages sections of the environmental movement in roughly equal measure. One of his best known quotes is “technology can be good for the environment”.

A champion of progressive urbanism (and tug-boat dweller), Stewart writes about how cities tend to be far ‘greener’ than the countryside, across multiple indicators – energy use per capita, water use per capita, land take per capita, recycling rates per capita etc.

He argues in his book that the squatter inhabitants of rapidly growing cities have informal economies that are largely untaxed, unregulated and unlicensed – and over time these economies have to be amalgamated into the wider ‘legal’ economies, or they risk becoming amalgamated into a culture of crime. He also champions the advantages of density and proximity – amazingly shown in the third video below (at 6:00 minutes). [AMAZON]

Similar articles – Living on a Landfill, Life in Mathare

Photo by Godwin B, via Flickr

The Long Now

The Long Now Foundation, founded by the writer and thinker Stewart Brand and others, aims to challenge the short-term thinking all too often embedded in aspects of our modern life, such as business reporting cycles, electoral terms and even the concept of the financial year !

They argue focusing too much on the short term can be costly – making true sustainability more difficult to achieve.

Many of the world’s larger problems: climate change, poverty, population pressure, habitat loss, environmental pollution etc can often seem huge and potentially unsolvable in the here and now – but if we change our perception of what ‘now’ is, and try to work towards longer term solutions over many decades, or even lifetimes, then addressing even the most difficult problems could be within our grasp.

Overcoming our innate barriers to long term thinking will be an important part of building a better future.

To try and highlight this shift in mindset, the Foundation are undertaking a number of key projects, the most well known being construction of a Clock of the Long Now: a huge mechanical clock embedded within a mountain, designed to last ten thousand years, and that will tick just once per year.


Image from zemlinki, via Flickr

10 Ideas for the New Week

Ten ideas to consider and discuss during the new week.

I’d be interested to hear any views anyone might have.

1 – Citizen’s Income

The idea is that all adult citizens of a country receive an automatic monthly income – regardless of whether they work, how wealthy they are, or anything else. Receipt of this income would be a basic right. It would be enough to live on, but low enough to encourage people to work in order to create extra income for themselves.

The supposed advantages are that it’s fair (in the sense it’s received by all), it’s simple and cheap to implement, it means working is always financially beneficial (as wages don’t replace benefits), it lifts the very poorest out of poverty, it encourages people to take part-time jobs to ‘top-up’ their income, economic activity would be distributed over a broader section of society, and not concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.

It would be funded by increased income taxes, in the UK it has been estimated that to provide a £360 Citizen’s Income for everyone would require a 7% increase in the rate of income tax – but everyone earning around £30,000 or less a year would be better off overall.

The idea first emerged in the 1930s, and is currently being considered by the South African Government.

2 – Gross National Happiness

Why do we measure our progress using gross domestic product ? GDP simply tells us how much money is being spent in an economy, not on what it’s being spent, or whether anyone is happier as a result. GDP includes consumer debt, money spent of weapons or harmful addictions etc, but omits things without a direct financial value, such as time spent playing with children, nature or healthy social communities.

As an alternative the concept of Gross National Happiness, a sort of wellbeing index, has emerged – the idea being that societies should focus on improving the gross happiness of citizens, rather than just GDP. GDP’s critics argue that it is simply the wrong target to aim for, and we should instead aim to improve our quality of life. Perhaps we should seek growth in GNH, not GDP.

The idea was first coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972, with many countries now producing some form of wellbeing index.

3 – Contraction and Convergence

If the world is to achieve a level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that allows a safe and sustainable global climate, a figure for global emissions will have to be set. Contraction and convergence provides a framework by which current emissions may fairly be reduced to this safe level, and divided equitably between everyone on the planet.

The idea is ultimately that emissions quotas are allocated to countries on the basis of population, thus allowing equal emissions per person. Obviously this is a very different situation from that which currently exists, so various transitional arrangements will be required.

The idea was first put forward by the Global Commons Institute, prior to the climate conference in Kyoto in 1997.

4 – Pay it Forward

The basic idea behind pay it forward, is that rather than having someone pay you back for a good deed or favour, they do a similar good deed or favour to someone else instead. Instead of ‘paying it back’, it’s ‘paid forwards’.

Various forms of the concept exist, one, a sort of virtuous pyramid scheme, by doing good deeds for two people and asking them to repay the good deed each to two others, an ever expanding cascade of good deeds takes place.

The earliest recorded usage of the idea was in an ancient play written in 317BC, but various other proponents have postulated similar ideas since, including Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It also formed the basis of a recent book and film.

5 – Collaborative Society

Collaborative consumption is the idea that rather than everyone needing to own one of everything, we collaborate as small communities or groups in order to share – ladders, bread making machines, hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, electric drills, vans, tents etc are all frequently given as examples of things we often own, but sit around unused most of the time.

As well as collaborative consumption, the idea of collaborative design or production is also now gathering ground, with open source software, crowd funded projects or crowd sourced digital content becoming more widespread – Wikipedia being a good example. Why not extend this concept to actual production or provision of services, perhaps of locally produced food, childcare or similar.

The rise of collaborative systems really exploded with the arrival of the internet, making it easy to commute with like-minded individuals locally and around the world.

6 – Industrial Ecology

In natural ecological systems materials are constantly recycled in circular processes – the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle etc. Human industrial systems and processes, by contrast, are typically linear, with raw materials entering the system at one end and a combination of useful products and waste emerging at the other.

Industrial ecology is a term used for encouraging the adoption of ‘joined-up’ thinking and processes, to achieve a more circular economy, producing less waste and requiring fewer resources as a result by reusing and remanufacturing wastes from one industrial process in another.

Although industries have always sought to improve efficiency, the real origins of what is now called industrial ecology were in the 60s and 70s, with the term first being popularised in a paper in Nature in 1989.

7 – Local Currencies

There has been a rise of interest in local currencies, used to promote trade and services within a local area. Part of the idea is that local currency circulates much more rapidly (velocity of money) than national currency, as they are not seen as investment or financial instruments, and this promotes local economic activity.

Local currencies are promoted by the Transition Towns movement as a way of stimulating underutilised local resources, support local business and provide local jobs. The so called Totness Pound, being perhaps the best known UK example.

Historically one of the best known examples of a local currency was the example of Worgl in Austria in 1932, where an impoverished town council put in place their own currency in the hope of revitilising the local economy. It is recorded as having been very successful until it’s banning by the Austrian Government in 1933, in fact now often being referred to as ‘the miracle of Worgl‘.

8 – Random Acts of Kindness

The idea behind the idea of ‘random acts of kindness’ is as old as history – performing selfless acts of kindness for strangers out of love, comradeship or compassion, with no expectation of reciprocity – making the world a nicer place in the process.

The phrase has now caught on globally, being referenced in a number of films and books, including Danny Wallace’s Join Me movement, and his book Random Acts of Kindness: 365 Ways to Make the World a Nicer Place.

The phrase is believed to have been coined by the American writer Anne Herbert, who supposedly wrote it on a napkin in a restaurant outside San Francisco in 1982.

9 – Slow Movement

The slow movement considers that the pace of life has become too fast and frantic, and characterised by more anger, more consumption, more greed and less connection, less community and less enjoyment. Their objective is to promote and support a return to a slower pace of life.

Slow food, in particular, is promoted as a more nutritious, sustainable, satisfying and ultimately enjoyable alternative to the rise of fast food. Similar ideas exist for slow parenting, slow gardening, slow investment, slow fashion and slow media.

The movement stems from Italy, from the protests featuring Carlo Petrini, against the opening of the first McDonalds restaurant in Rome.

10 – Debt Cancellation

At it’s most fundamental, wealthy people lending their spare money to poor people who need it, for which they charge them more money (interest) can be viewed as a means of keeping the rich rich and the poor poor, and for that reason was banned by many of the world’s religions as usury. The Old Testament also required that outstanding debts be regularly forgiven and slaves freed for the same reason, the so called time of Jubilee.

Many developing world countries are indebted to the rich world’s banks, often as a result of corruption by dictators or financing conflicts, and to such an extent that there is little prospect of them ever repaying the amount they owe. Several organisations consider this effective financing of the rich world by the poorest countries in the world immoral, and continue to campaign for a cancellation of the remaining debt.

The debt cancellation movement came to prominence after the Live Aid events of the mid 80s, leading to the international Jubilee 2000 campaign and the 2005 G8 Summit at Glen Eagles – unfortunately much of the debt still currently remains.

Photo by James Bowe, via Flickr

31 Reasons to be Cheerful

Sometimes the scale of the problems and injustice in the world can blind us to the fact that not only are many wonderful and amazing things taking place, but also that many things across the world have improved considerably over recent decades. From time to time we should pat ourselves on the back as a species and take encouragement from some of our successes.

1  The percentage of the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day is falling

2   Energy efficient LED light bulbs are getting cheaper

3  More and more companies are embracing corporate social responsibility, like M&S’s Plan A

4  Global life expectancy has increased from 53 to 69 years since 1960

5  The volume of Fairtrade sales continues to increase despite the downturn

6  The world is producing more food every year

7  More women are involved in running the world

8  25,000 items are swapped daily on Freecycle - keeping 500 tons a day out of landfills

9  The UK opened the world’s biggest offshore wind farm in 2012, and plans to build more

10  The American Bison has been restored to a population of over 350,00 from only a few thousand

11  79% of people in the developing world now have access to a mobile phone, vital for communication in the absence of landlines

12  Though it might seem hard to believe, the long term trend is of fewer people dying in armed conflict year on year

13  2.2 billion people are now connected to the internet, with relatively free access to news, information and education

14  The world’s illiteracy rate halved between 1970 and 2005

15  Though the world’s population is still increasing, the rate of growth has been falling for 40 years

16  Thousands of efficient and less polluting cooking stoves are being provided across the developing world

17  The percentage of world population with access to clean water and sanitation increases every year

18  More and more people in the UK are growing some of their own food in their gardens or on allotments

19  1.8 million laptops have been provided to school children in the developing world

20  While still tragic, the percentage of children suffering from malnutrition in the world is falling

21  Despite set-backs, a record area of land was cleared of landmines in 2011

22  Despite the Feed-in-Tariff debacle, the UK Government still has ambitious plans for solar power - 22GW by 2020

23  The Southern White Rhino has been rescued from the edge of extinction to over 15,000 animals in the wild

24  Malaria eradication seems increasingly possible within a few decades

25  Rising numbers of people taking part in sharing and collaborative consumption groups like Getaround

26  The number of new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS has peaked and are now falling

27  Global GDP per capita is still increasing, despite the economic downturn

28  Europe’s fishermen no longer throw 80% of their catch back into the sea, dead

29  Solar panels are getting cheaper every year

30  Less children across the world are dying before their 5th birthday

31  The number of countries with endemic polio has reduced from 125 to 4 since 1988 – Something else Ian would be happy about . . .


Photo by Cheerful Givers, via Flickr

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This Good Earth

Take a quick look at your shoes . . . not the top, the bottom.

Dirty ?

You might think that there’s no shortage of ‘dirt’ in the world, but you’d be wrong.

I don’t really mean ‘dirt’ of course, but soil – that complex mixture of minerals, organic materials and organisms, that is necessary for the growth of all land plants.

Now that we’re no longer hunter-gatherers, and rely on the cultivation of soil based crops for our survival, the health of the world’s soil is a critical concern, but something we all too often take for granted.

It might seem like soil is an endless and replenishing substance, but it’s not. It takes hundreds of years to build-up a few centimeters of fertile, humus rich soil, essentially making soil a non-renewable resource in any meaningful time frame.

This is a problem because many modern farming methods have resulted in rates of soil erosion and degradation well in excess of rates of replacement, as Professor David Montgomery points out in his book Dirt, if we spent our money up to ten times faster than we earned it, we’d go broke pretty quickly – so it is with soil.

Overgrazing or slash and burn agriculture leaves soil bare and exposed to erosion. Sustained compaction by heavy machinery causes increased rainfall run-off, removing sediments, and leaving soil dryer. Removing hedges and trees, whether to aid mechanised monoculture or to gather firewood, increases erosion by wind. All removes fertile topsoil, making land less productive and requiring greater fertilizer inputs in order to maintain yields.

Ultimately the soil can become too thin to sustain large plants, and without their supporting root structures, may simply be washed or blown away, resulting in duststorms and desertification - a significant and growing problem in many parts of the world.

History gives us several traumatic examples of agricultural collapse and societal disruption following the loss of fertile soils – from the American dustbowl of the 1930s, to the collapse of mechanised collective farmland in soviet Kazakhstan in the 1950s and 60s. Those of us living in cooler climes shouldn’t think we’re immune either, as Iceland’s catastrophic soil loss of the 1800s shows. Even as you read this blog Chinese engineers are battling against the continued growth of the Gobi desert, which is threatening water resources and food production for millions of Chinese.

Maintaining our soils is a complex problem, and the solutions will need to be equally complex – but better land management techniques will be key, with greater emphasis on sustaining the quality of the soil over a period of time.

Land reform is also going to be a critical issue across much of the developing word, where unsustainable farming practices are often the consequence of poor subsistence farmers having no long term security on the land.

Granting them longer-term rights to farm the land, and providing access to affordable initial capital, would allow them to remain in place, develop more sustainable farming methods, enhancing their ability to feed themselves and their family, without constantly destroying more natural habitat and giving rise to soil erosion in the process.

Sustainable fertile soils are the basis of human civilization. If we don’t respond successfully to the challenges of Peak Soil, we’re going to struggle to continue to produce enough food for the 7 billion of us now living on the planet – not to mention the additional 219,000 new mouths the world has to feed every day !

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

- President Roosevelt (in 1937 – after the Mid-West dust bowl)


Photo by Wikimedia Commons