The City as Ecosystem

Published by Chris Oestereich on

The question from the Masdar Sustainable Cities contest:

How can cities contribute to the advancement of sustainable development and address issues including water, energy and waste?”

Sustainable Cities of the Future
To borrow a phrase from the author William Gibson, linear society is dead – the news of its passing is just not widely distributed. That may sound hyperbolic, but it’s plain truth that always was and always will be. Cities can either drive the bus to the sustainable future, or they can take us off the cliff. There is no middle ground. There is no alternative.The “take, make, waste” model which my generation grew up with is woefully unsustainable. We’re running out of holes in the ground to store our waste in. We’re using up the earth’s bounty faster than it gets generated. Additionally,many still view the spewing of externalities into the wind as good business, but it’s time for a fresh perspective.

So what do we do? — We re-engage with ecological cycles.Today’s cities contend with nature. A city which opposes nature is like a cancer. Unthinkingly, it subverts the local ecological systems. In doing so, itcreates a rift in the tapestry of life. Delicately balanced systems are thrown out of whack in a self-reinforcing downward spiral. Unless this destructive loop is arrested, it can only end badly.

We have to reconnect our lives with the rest of those on the planet – human and otherwise.

Nature’s wisdom is hard earned, having developed through millions of years of experience. Now it’s time for us to become quick studies. We have to learn how to quickly mitigate the negative impacts of cities, while simultaneously learning to better integrate with our surroundings.

We have to look at our cities through a systems thinking lens. Stocks and flows need to become part of the common vernacular. Collective knowledge of inputs and outputs is a must. Transparency is paramount.

If we don’t understand what a city is creating, and wasting, how can it be sustainable?

A rebirth of sorts awaits humanity.  We currently think of nature (and the waste we produce) in terms of “away.”  We also tend to think of people our lives are not directly connected with in terms of “other.”  But there is no away and there is no other.  We need to quickly arrive at a place where school children learn not of “others” and “away”, but of “we” and “here,” where we is all of humanity (and all of life, for that matter) and here refers to theecospherein its entirety. What good is it to make one city sustainable if the rest do not? Their cancers will eventually encroach upon us all. We are all co-pilots in the same boat, thisSpaceship Earth, and it’s time we start acting accordingly.

I don’t know what it will look like, but I have a pretty good idea of how it will function. The city of the future will either cycle like an ecosystem, or it will eventually fail. History islittered with evidence of this.

It doesn’t matter how we get there. Measure every ounce of everything that enters and leaves the system, divine balance from some form of tacit or mystic knowledge, or something in between. What matters is that balance is achieved. Just get there.


The question isn’t how can we do it, but rather, how can we not?