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C200: Resilience and Self-Sufficiency

2011 March 15
by Denis Hayes

< Rendering of the Bullitt Foundation's Cascadia Center that has been designed to meet the Living Building Challenge - click image to enlarge >

First made possible 5,000 years ago by rural agricultural surpluses, cities ballooned in the 19th century with the harnessing of fossil energy. Expansion, of course, brought problems. The world’s largest cities greatly exceed nature’s ability to absorb their pollutants, and they appear to be approaching, if not exceeding, the limits of what can be successfully governed.  Today, cities concentrate both the fruits and the detritus of human activity: commercial products, trash, art, sewage, political power, knowledge. . . .  We love their power and excitement, but we drown in their garbage.

Still cities keep growing larger—a trend that most specialists project to continue for the next century, as more and more youngsters desert the countryside for the better jobs and services of the city.  For better and worse, cities have become the ecosystems of choice for human beings.

But cities are different from other ecosystems.  Other ecosystems capture sunlight to produce essentially all of the usable energy (food) that keeps them working.  Cities, on the other hand, rely on the countryside for food, and they depend on vast fragile networks of pipelines, power lines, and shipping lanes for their energy.

In a world that is vulnerable to acts of god, wars, terrorism, revolutions — not to mention the blundering ineptitude of fools who are foolish enough to thwart even the most “foolproof” safety systems — there is a case to be made for cities to strive for some level of self-sufficiency.

Most cities will never be able to produce all the food, energy, and water they desire within their own city limits.  Yet they can put solar-electric panels on rooftops, create community gardens, and collect rain water in cisterns before it flushes away in storm sewers.  They can recycle all their trash and compost all their organic matter to fertilize those urban gardens.

By engaging in such efforts, cities will spend their purchasing power close to home instead of in faraway places.  And when big disruptions inevitably occur, the somewhat-self-sufficient city will be prepared to handle them with resilience and fortitude.

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Denis Hayes promotes healthy human ecosystems as President of the Bullitt Foundation.

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