Truth be told, anyone with their eyes open is overwhelmed by the wealth of interesting, insightful, and high quality material out there — in soft (blogosphere) and hard (books, etc) copy. This drives us, all too often, into stovepiping our focus, gaining ever more knowledge about an ever narrower focus area.
Our challenges — as individuals, communities, nation — are, however, multifaceted, systems-of-systems issues that demand a more holistic look, with a willingness to explore linkages and to gain some insight as to (un)intended consequences.
Some institutions and organizations strive to provide the basis for taking that step, to provide a window on complex interactions and opportunities for confronting (and surmounting) the challenges we face.
Worldwatch Institute, in my experience, is one such institution. Their annual State of the World series tackles major issue areas, from multipe (and quite high-quality) perspectives to inform about challenges, options for dealing with them, and insights from real experience (“lessons identified”) about alternative paths. And, this year’s effort is most definitely a valued addition to this series.
From Lagos to Los Angeles; Malmo to Mumbai; Acra to Washington, DC; State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future examines the “fantastic array of challenges and possibilities” for sustainable urbanism across the globe for the coming century.
The Worldwatch Institute offers a unique blend of interdisciplinary research, global focus, and accessible writing that has made it a leading source of information on the interactions among key environmental, social, and economic trends.
In other words, that interdisciplinary that is so critical to steering a positive course forward through the sea of challenges we face.
Returning to State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future, the book has nine chapters (short chapter summary via links), each written by experts in the field:
- An Urbanizing World
- Providing Clean Water and Sanitation
- Farming the Cities
- Greening Urban Transportation
- Energizing Cities
- Reducing Natural Disaster Risk in Cities
- Charting a New Course for Urban Public Health
- Strengthening Local Economies
- Fighting Poverty and Injustice in Cities
And, sprinkled through the book are “CityScape” mini-case studies of the realities of problems and solution paths from cities around the globe including Timbuktu, Lagos, Jakarta, and Melbourne.
Energy and Cities
When it comes to energy, cities are critical — with the majority of the world’s population urbanized and that percentage growing, literally, every day. Cities represented huge embodied energy (infrastructure) sunk investment, required energy to operate, and the cities/residents can have hugely varying energy footprints dependent on how their goods are provided. Energizing Cities speaks to how “cities have an unprecedented opportunity to change the way they supply and use energy.”
As with the other chapters, there is tremendously interesting material within the discussion.
For example, when it comes to a systems-of-systems challenge/impact, let’s consider air conditioning for a moment. For China’s cities, “air conditioning accounts for 40 percent of the public’s summer energy demand and is the primary cause of power shortages … in Tokyo, waste heat emissions from air conditioning are responsible for 1 degree Celcius of warming during the summer, exacerbating the heat-island effect …” [pp 94-95] The section then goes on to talk about alternatives to forced-air air conditioning and paths for reducing the heat island impact so as to reduce air conditioning requirements.
Or, well, how about the potential to turn pet waste into power. There is the case of San Francisco, where “almost 4 percent of all the garbage picked up [was] from animal waste destined for the city’s landfill”. Dog poop power, anyone?  Trash to energy is a hot concept, not just for pet poop. Consider, again, system of system implications. “New York City produces 12,000 tons of garbage per day. The waste must be shipped … and disposal costs the city more than $1 billion annually.”  That hints at the sort of system benefits of figuring out more productive uses for the trash other than trucking to Ohio and Virginia landfills.
Some CityScaping … Green Power …
Rizhao City‘s [108-109] central districts have 99 percent of households using solar hot water with many uses of solar electricity. There are 60,000 solar panel heated greenhouses. As opposed to the $4000-$8000 for a solar hot water system in the US (perhaps 10 times the cost of installing a gas/electric water heater), “the cost of solar water heater was brought down to the same level as an electric one: about $190 … Solar heating, hot water, and electric panels are all heavily favored by local code, tax policy, and subsidies. “The city mandates all new building incorporate solar panels”, works to promote public awareness, and led by example (wtih government buildings and city leaders’ homes among the first to go solar). In addition, and perhaps most importantly, through investment in the industry itself to drive down costs. In any event, a truly holistic approach that has made Rizhao a “Solar-Powered City”. Should we be surprised that “Rizhao has consistently been listed in the top 10 cities for air quality in China”?
Malmo, Sweden, [110-111] is “Building a Green Future” with the Turning Torso the towering symbol of this move from industrial shipyard town to a ‘sustainable’ future. The area is getting 100 percent of its energy “from local renewable sources: wind, sun, water, and gas from garbage and sewage.” As with Rizhao, the approach is holistic — with educatiocating citizens a critical element. As well, “Malmo seeks to learn from setbacks” as “the first homes that were built did not achieve the targets set for energy efficiency.” Learning and improving is critical.
This collection is holistic, with innovative and quality looks at a myriad of issues for sustainable urbanism. The horrific is mixed with the hopeful in this open-eyed look at quite serious issues and opportunities to transcend them — whether in the “Developed” or “Developing” worlds.
As a sign of the value of State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future, some of its pages are among the most marked-up and commented on of 1000s of books on my shelves … and, well, there are easily a hundred references that I hope to track down and explore further amid all my spare time …
Anyone interested in urbanism … in global warming … in considering moving theory to practice … in developing a path toward a sustainable future should carve out the time to explore Our Urban Future.