The interconnected city: Reconnecting to resources brought our operations within planetary boundaries

Tamara Streefland

08/12/2021

In the year 2050, cities reduced their footprints by re-imagining how we use our resources. We shortened supply chains, adopted transparency, and improved access to information — all of which helped cities to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. This article is the last in a series of three where we depict what our future cities and regions look like, and how we relate to them.

Your home is quiet this afternoon. It is “excursion day” at school, so the kids are collecting data on soil quality in the neighborhood garden. You take the chance to prune some of the leafy greens growing on your balcony and then relax on the couch while perusing a cookbook. Tonight might be a good night for seaweed stew if it is available at the resource center. Great news, a quick check of the Resource Tracker shows that there was just a new delivery. The recent cold spell has created ideal growing conditions. As you switch over to the energy tab on the dashboard, you see that the building’s solar panels have produced even more than last week, so our large-scale battery system, which also helps stabilize the grid, is currently at full charge. Armed with a full compost bucket to drop off and a reusable shopping container, you set out for a short walk to the local resource center, where you will also check out the sign-ups for repair classes available this month. A perfectly ripe, crisp apple beckons you from a tree along the way, so you reach out to pick one for yourself, and share another with a passer-by. Delicious.

It is hard to believe that just three decades ago, cities were massive resource drains, fueled by extensive supply chains and virgin resources. Massive infrastructures made the footprints of cities extend far beyond their physical presence, with pipes, wires, and roads winding through the land to bring resources in and take waste out. Perhaps most shocking to us now, in 2050, is that cities once produced vast amounts of waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

We desperately needed a change. Cities and companies started to examine their supply chains, and they envisioned a future where resources are not something to waste. From food and water to building materials and energy, our resources were placed front and center as we worked towards re-building our cities for a more sustainable future. At Metabolic, we believe that sharing a tangible vision of a future, one where we care for our planet, our communities and our resources, opens up possibilities for how we can collectively act to make these cities a reality.

Today, our ways of connecting with our resources and supply chains have dramatically changed. The majority of the world’s biggest cities won the race to zero and reduced their footprint massively by adopting transparency as a core value in urban governance.

Globally, we have seen a massive shift in diet thanks to the accessibility of more diverse crops, the wide availability of meat replacements, and our ability to live closer to nature. The inner city has a lush foodscape made of local food gardens, rooftops, alternative spaces for food production, and neighborhood aquaponic greenhouses. Diverse crops are grown with a regenerative philosophy. Crucial nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen cycle endlessly. Automation, like smart sensors to optimize watering, maximizes the efficiency of our resource use. We stopped using ancient water sources from deep-lying aquifers that would take centuries to restore, recognizing that not all water is a renewable resource. We capture rainwater on roofs, squares, and every other suitable place. Did we really use drinking water to flush our toilets? It seems unthinkable today.

Circular economy in the built environment

The built environment used to put enormous pressure on the planet, with estimates that it was responsible for around 40-60% of all resource use. We have moved away from the traditional linear process of development (initiate, design, build, use, and demolish). In the race to zero, existing buildings were all retrofitted to become more energy efficient, which dramatically cut the energy demand of our built environment.

Today, circular economy principles and design-for-carbon-neutrality are incorporated in all new buildings and neighborhoods. Construction materials are reclaimed through urban mining, and digital twin models predict and optimize resource use. No matter its function, every building produces renewable energy depending on its structure and local conditions. Local smart grids and batteries allow electricity to flow where it is needed. We now get our heating from multiple sources based on local context including residual heat from datacenters, surface water, and geothermal heat.

Our buildings are now designed to exist for centuries instead of decades. Designed with a human focus and built of sustainable, biobased materials, buildings also help maintain a healthy climate. They rarely exceed eight stories, and appearances vary in size and color. Many buildings also house plants and animals: experiments from the late 20th and early 21st century have been scaled up so that nature is present everywhere. Wastewater treatment plants and other infrastructure that used to be tucked away are now visible, and visitable, as parks or makerspaces.

Collaborations in governance

To sustain our thriving economies, our innovation landscape is fueled by cross-sectoral collaboration where universities, local governments, civic organizations, and entrepreneurs create and implement innovative technologies. Governments and municipalities take an entrepreneurial stand to provide the enabling conditions for innovation to thrive, and they play an active role in convening the right parties. The return of high-risk investment made by governments benefits the public infrastructures at the foundation of our cities (schools and public utilities) as put forward by Mariana Mazzucato in 2018.

Value today is found in more than just material and financial models. We still measure our performance to inform our decision-making; we just use widely different indicators than GDP, which used to be the only metric that seemed to matter. We find value in many more things: our immediate surroundings, having ownership and agency over our resources, the number of disease-free days, our family health and well-being, access to diverse communities, learning, and what we can learn from each other, and finally, having the time available to enjoy these things.

From global to local economies

The neighborhood plays a central role, with each one having a different function based on its unique characteristics. Some neighborhoods produce more resources due to their post-industrial nature, design, accessibility, or proximity to natural resources. Others, such as the center of Amsterdam, use more due to their higher densities and older building stock. Residents have options for resource and ownership models, so everyone can contribute to closing resource loops. Community infrastructures, such as libraries, community centers, and community farms, form a network of resource centers throughout the city, which are then linked to the larger facilities. This network plays a crucial role in transporting resources from peri-urban areas into communities.

Shorter supply chains, smart agricultural production, and a network of resource centers were at the heart of our vision of Amsterdam’s transformation towards a circular urban food model in 2050.

Our long, intransparent, wasteful supply chains are no more. We now build and maintain our cities based on the resources available to us, and we value the ecosystems that provide them. Our cities are regenerative by design. Overall, we have eliminated the very concept of waste, and in our circular economy, materials continuously cycle at their highest value.

Our very relationship with materials has also changed. Of course, we still have stuff in our lives; we have just changed the definition of what is “new.” Products and consumer goods are now considered mere reconfigurations of materials that can be used almost endlessly, if we take good care of them.

The driving force behind these changes is access to information. Our cities are no longer black boxes — we have clear insights into how resources flow through the city, the urban metabolism of the city. Via a dashboard, each household accesses information to better connect with available resources and their impacts. Whether we are city officials, entrepreneurs, or family members, we know what’s available for today’s dinner, how much water we used last week, and the impacts of our consumption, including emissions, and land use.

Cities used to be massive resource drains, fueled by extensive supply chains and virgin resources. What came out were vast amounts of direct and indirect GHG emissions and waste, sometimes processed thousands of kilometers away into a phantom of the material it once was or, worst case, just laying around in a landfill. But no longer. We managed to reduce our footprints massively over the last decades by adopting transparency as a core value in urban governance.

Explore more of our vision for the cities of 2050:
Tamara Streefland
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