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Intro: Hello, and welcome to The Good Council, the podcast of the World Future Council. In each episode, we’ll highlight current challenges and policy solutions. And we’ll also take you on a journey of inspiring stories. Listen in to another of our intergenerational dialogues from around the globe.
Annika: My name is Annika, I’m a consultant at the World Future Council. And in this episode, I’m speaking with Herbert Girardet, who’s one of the co-founders and former director of programs of the World Future Council. Herbert is a cultural ecologist, author and former filmmaker. He’s worked as a consultant to UN Habitat and UNEP and is a recipient of a UN Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievements.
In a previous episode, Herbie and I spoke about his upbringings, and how that shaped his later work securing our planet for future generations. In this bonus episode, Herbie and I are discussing his work on regenerative cities.
Annika: You’re described as one of the world’s most foremost authors in the field of cultural and urban ecology, and, as you mentioned, you wrote several books on them. Why exactly do you focus on cities in your work?
Herbie: Well, I mean, when you look at the history of humanity, it’s basically been a history of camps, if you like, hunter gatherer camps, and villages and small towns, and until the Industrial Revolution, the largest city in history had about a million people, which was Shahjahan, which is a predecessor to Delhi or ancient Beijing, and one or two other places. They kind of managed to get up to about a billion people, and that was about the sort of cutoff point. And only when London started growing from the 18th century onwards into a city of about 8 million people by the mid, just before the Second World War, there had never be the city of this scale before:
Annika: Herbie moved to London as a young adult, and eventually started working with the BBC, for which he, among other projects, produced a series called Far From Paradise.
Herbert: When I finished studying at the LSE—studying social anthropology—I thought it would be good to get a better understanding of where we’ve come from, you know, in terms of human evolution that people didn’t really know very much about. So I initiated a TV series for the BBC, called Far From Paradise. And after a couple of years, it took quite a while to raise the money for this. But eventually we had got co-producers in Germany and in Austria. So we managed to put together a project, a seven-hour television series, which basically tried to trace human evolution from the earliest towns and cities in Mesopotamia, in Iraq, Ur and Uruk, and try to understand what happened with these places because they are no longer there; they basically have vanished into heaps of rubble. And so we traced the, first. environmental impacts of an urban civilization that was beginning to develop in the Middle East, and then we looked at the impact of Athens on its environment in Attica. There was a famous quote from Plato describing how the landscape around Athens was deforested and turned into eroded landscape with very little food growing any longer. Then we looked at the impact of Rome on North Africa, because Rome relied on huge quantities of grain from North Africa to feed the people in the city. And then we kind of galloped, if you like, through history to the present day, and looking at the environmental impacts of a modern civilization, industrial and urban civilization, in Europe, and America and elsewhere. So it was an amazing three year project, as I said, seven hours of it. And I also co-authored the book to go with that, which was my first significant book, which was also then translated into various other languages. So it was a really fascinating project. And I still draw on that again today as well.
Annika: Far From Paradise traces human evolution from the earliest towns and cities in Mesopotamia and Iraq, and tries to understand what happened with these places, since they are no longer there today. And so I asked him whether this laid the foundation for his work on cities.
Herbie: To some degree, I mean that was largely came out of working in London, and trying to understand, London as Europe’s largest city, with some 8 million people at that time—it’s still, you know, growing today to even larger numbers. But in global terms it’s become a relatively small city compared to Shanghai or Sao Paolo or other cities or Indian cities Mumbai, but London certainly was the pioneering mega city in Europe coming out of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th century. And so I was fascinated obviously to live there, but also to try and understand what his impact was on the rest of the world.
So certainly, it kind of got me to stimulate a bit to think about what you might call the “metabolism of cities”, the metabolism of an urbanising world. Because cities are not independent entities, they require resources from elsewhere on the planet, in ever larger quantities. So, that certainly was a very stimulating thing to try and get stuck into. So I did a study on London’s metabolism—just at the time when London was creating a new administration—and found that London’s ecological footprint the area required to feed London, the supply it with timber and to absorb its carbon dioxide emissions, was about 125 times its surface area. So it’s a huge area elsewhere in the world that is needed in order to keep a large city like London going! And of course, there are now 20 mega cities of more than 10 million people across the world, all of which have huge appetites for resources from elsewhere on the planet and so, certainly, the question of how cities and an urban planet is, you know, it affecting the biosphere is something that I became very focused on in my years after this documentary series.
So I started to look at the impact of an urbanizing world on the environment and I started to differentiate between what I call Agropolis, which basically a city embedded in its own hinterland is getting all the resources from nearby. And that comes from the work of 19th century German geographer called [Johann] Heinrich von Thünen, who showed that the city in the absence of major transport systems will tend to supply its resources from nearby: from farmland from forests, within the vicinity of this settlement.
But today we don’t live in Acropolis, we live in what I call “Petropropolis”. Basically, the city, utterly dependent on daily injections of fossil fuel energy. In the case of London, for instance, about supertankers of oil per week require to keep London’s supplies going and that of course includes food supplies, typically don’t come from local sources, but much of the food supplied it to cities such as London comes from further afield: from farmland in Australia or New Zealand or in tea gardens in Kenya or coffee plantations in India or in South America and so on. So the reliance on resources from elsewhere is all facilitated by enormous impacts of fossil fuel energy. So that makes an urbanizing world possible and the most extreme examples of that you find in China today, because China’s economy has grown about 80 times in the last 40 years, urbanization has grown about 30-40 times. So incredible, huge cities have suddenly sprung up in Asia, in China in particular, which was primarily rural civilization until recently. So for instance, the bulk of the food supplies, a large proportion of the food supplies to Chinese cities, come from, from the Amazon from Mato Grasso, the … from the Amazon which, well, used to be a Savannah region which has been turned into huge agroforestry agricultural systems for the production of soybeans. So, the 10-fold increase in meat supply to China that has taken place over the last 40 years is facilitated from farmland somewhere else in the world, often resulting in massive destruction of forest ecosystems. So this is the global challenge today, where cities are springing up all over the place, not relying on local resources but relying on resources from other places, and often long distance places that require long distance transport systems particularly freighters, but also increasingly aeroplanes.
Annika: So, what’s the alternative? How can we preserve our food supply without also destroying our ecosystems, and are there any examples of how this looks like in practice?
Herbie: So I’m arguing for an alternative model of the city which I called “Ecopolis” which basically says it’s time to get serious about finding new ways of embedding our towns and cities, particularly regarding food supply, but also in terms of energy supply, from more local sources. And that’s certainly beginning to be done in various parts of the world.
So I had a good opportunity to work in South Australia, some years ago in 2003, I was asked to be a thinker in residence. My job was to look at an urban system of about 1.7 million people and say okay, can the way we supply resources to this place be changed, particularly by speeding up renewable energy? So we introduced Feed-in-tariffs like we’d done in Britain. And that resulted in a true phenomenal uptake and renewable energy, solar and when particular. So about 70% of electricity supply comes from roofs and wind farms in the vicinity.
Then we have introduced the policy to return the entire sewage mode the bulk of the sewage output of the city to be used on farmland again, returning organic wastes from the city in terms of the compost, coming out of the city region of Adelaide and South Australia, returning that to local farmland.
And then also reforestation on a significant scale to absorb CO2 emissions. So put all that together, it’s really become a model of how a substantial large city of a million and a half people could become much more self-sustaining from its hinterland. That’s what I call regenerative urban development where the city region doesn’t just sustain itself in terms of already depleted environments, but instead contributes actively towards regenerating local ecosystems, and regenerating supply energy from regenerative solar and wind powered energy systems. And then also battery storage on a very large scale: they have the largest battery in the world, recently installed in Adelaide, in order to even out fluctuations of energy supply.
So this is an example of what could happen elsewhere in other cities. And it’s certainly beginning to happen also in countries like Germany and elsewhere where reconsideration of the importance of local supplies, food and energy and timber supplies, is all being factored into urban planning processes. So, in order to deal with the fact that we live in an urbanizing world when enormous impacts results from urban consumption patterns so, certainly the need for taking urban futures, as a theme for campaigning is becoming important I think, for the future.
Annika: Great, so Adeline is now a fully regenerative city?
Herbie: Well I mean fully is probably an exaggeration because I mean there’s still reliance on petrol and diesel on for the daily commuting of people there. But I mean the level of introduction of solar of electric cars is much higher there than anywhere else that I’ve come across—with the possible exception of Norway, the Norwegians have done very considerable job in this area as well. So certainly, there’s still fossil fuel energy involved in commuting, but not really in the energy, the electricity supply to the city.
Annika: I’m just wondering now if you—what do you think, looking very much into the long term—how would cities look like in 100 years?
Herbie: Well, obviously, much more green space within the city limits, not only about regenerative development but also livability of course as well. So I mean, often, you know, the in urban planning, the needs of particularly young people in their daily lives in the city have been largely ignored in high rise development, particularly. So certainly creating green spaces within cities, creating urban farmers within city regions, supplying more of the food supplies for cities from LED-based food production systems like you’re beginning to see London and also the American cities. So tunnels are being turned into food production systems, or the rooftops of supermarkets are beginning to be turned into places where food can be grown using LED lights, powered by solar electricity and wind electricity. So all of that is beginning to happen, all that is accelerating, I mean obviously the more the merrier, and I’ve been involved a lot in urban agriculture initiatives in various places.
I mean, a wonderful example of that, the stimulation of urban agriculture is actually in Havana, Cuba. When the Cuban government was faced with a major problem is food supply after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of tractor and supplies and pesticide supplies from Russia, they decided it was really critically important to get in far more of the food is grown in the city from within the city region. There was kind of spare wasteland within the city environment so that was turned into urban agriculture on a very, very large scale. So certainly the populations of Havana but other cities in Cuba, able to escape food from a food crisis by growing far more of the food, locally, than before.
But that is certainly a special circumstance because, basically, a centralized government such as you haven’t in Cuba was able to determine that land within the city region could be used for food production. You couldn’t do that in cities like London easily because land values, and our private property ownership are much too high for that. But certainly for countries that have, you know, a public land ownership system, you know, urban agriculture is a significant part of their food supplies could come from in the future. But that’s
vegetable supplies and food supplies. Once you enter grains, you’re looking into much larger territories, outside the city region, and that’s very difficult to be self-sufficient on from within the urban environment.
Thank you for listening to this week’s episode. We hope you enjoyed this inspiring conversation, and will tune in again for more next time. This podcast is brought to you by the World Future Council, a foundation that identifies develops, highlights, and disseminates future-just solutions for the current challenges that humanity is facing. To support our work, Find us at www.worldfuturecouncil.org as well as on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and, of course, in our next episode.