Eliminating waste and creating sustainable urban agglomerations

| April 22, 2014

Mimicking natural ecosystems can turn unsustainable towns into sustainable bioregions. Mark Liebman suggests a planning system that is beneficial for both the land users and the ecosystem inhabitants.

Evolution is an amazing phenomenon. It has been occurring from the day life appeared on Earth producing an array of ecosystems as a result of continuous improvement. Ecosystems should then provide a fantastic model on which to base the systems we use to organise our lives.

Indeed there is a growing awareness of the benefits of biomimicry. Among them is the understanding that we can model a multitude of systems on nature. Natural systems are dynamic, adaptive, highly productive and sustainable. They don’t require fossil fuel input and use only solar input (in one form or another) as the main energy driver. Natural systems are also supremely efficient in that they waste almost nothing.

The question then arises: Can we design and plan our urban agglomerations so that they mimic natural ecosystems and accrue the same benefits, and what do we need to do to allow this to happen?

I suggest that urban agglomerations could replicate ecosystems if we allow and do not actively prevent the establishment of beneficial relationships between land users. What exactly is a beneficial relationship?

In this context, it is a relationship which would mimic a biological process whereby one species is adapted to benefit from using the “waste” output of another, thereby indirectly benefiting all land users and the ecosystem inhabitants. Imagine then a planning system that had at its core the establishment of beneficial relationships – where beneficial is defined simply as “the ability to metabolise the waste of another”.

For example an urban farm might be located downstream of a dense impervious urban residential development so that the farm can metabolise the nutrient rich human waste from the urban area, as well as use its stormwater runoff to irrigate its crops. The farm then converts the nutrient rich waste water and stormwater producing food, which it returns back to the upstream urban development in a near closed loop cycle. In this hypothesis “metabolisation” would happen through small, low energy, decentralised “metabolic” systems – for example small low energy stormwater harvesting and wastewater schemes which allow reclamation of both the water and nutrients and which rely on gravity as much as possible.  Some of these systems such as anaerobic digestion even allow energy to be liberated and used beneficially.

Our current land use planning systems (the same approach is adopted in many OECD countries) apply outdated reductionist thinking to designate areas of land and by extrapolation entire cities, nations and trading blocks, into land use zones. For example, a “Residential 1A” land use permits detached dwellings to be built on a parcel of land with the said zoning. Permitting one type of development to occur on a parcel of land does nothing to actively create beneficial relationships. On the contrary it actually prevents beneficial relationships from developing, because land use zones are normally large release areas resulting in large zone boundaries with the same land use occurring in a large defined area – often called an estate or suburb. In fact land use zones give rise to food and water miles (they result in farms being located outside of cities) and they make people travel outside of their home zone for work or pleasure.

Spontaneity is another critical characteristic of natural ecosystems that allows beneficial relationships to occur which eliminate waste and reduce ecosystem stress. Zoning land mostly eliminates spontaneous opportunity and prevents the formation of local beneficial relationships.

Spontaneous architecture has often captured the imagination of our more aware architects and planners – people like Kevin McCloud. Their experience of spontaneous developments, which we often call slums, such as in Soweto and the Mumbai, is overwhelmingly one of amazement at the relative happiness of the inhabitants, but also of the way little is wasted in those communities and the ingenuity evident in the architecture. I would be a fool to suggest that we develop slums, however there is a lesson in it and it is a lesson in “free” market planning.

While our current town planning system is not without merit – for example I would hate to live right next to an oil refinery – the fate of our planet rests in its rethinking and redesign. Try as we may to patch and persevere, it is largely our current prohibitive planning system that prevents us from genuinely getting on with the job of sustainability.

We need to develop a planning system that both protects public health safety and wellbeing but which is flexible enough to allow for spontaneous beneficial relationships to occur. Instead of zoning land, which creates untold wealth when land is rezoned (this is a loss borne by future generations), we need to assess development on its merits and its ability to contribute to a beneficial metabolic relationship rather against its ability to comply with its restrictive land use.

We need to be asking – “what waste product is this development using and what metabolic role does it play – can it be better sited elsewhere where it could play a better role?” The current system of planning creates some degree of certainty for developers – they know what they can develop in what areas. Developers are however extremely opportunistic, and I have no doubt they will more than rise to the challenge and grasp additional opportunities created. The “free market planning” system proposed doesn’t mean that “free” would be unregulated.

Indeed it would test our planners, engineers and scientists on a daily basis and demand that they work together with developers in a cross disciplinary manner. It has the potential to see our planners transition from planning unsustainable towns to planning sustainable bioregions.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    March 17, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    Eliminating Entropy is a Waste of Effort

    Kevin McCloud is easy to admire, Mark. He's a bit like Jamie Oliver; prepared to stick his neck out for things his experience and observations have lead him to think might be useful in a much broader context than entertainment. There is a tendency for people to believe that if something is claimed to be good for the environment, then it must be so. The 'reed-bed' system for treating and re-using household waste water is an example that appears on 'Grand Designs' regularly and seems to be accepted without question. But much is overlooked, including: > what land capability criteria should apply? > the reed bed substrate has a finite capacity to retain nutrients > biomass has to be harvested > reeds only grow in the warmer months > low treatment rates and unreliable disinfection, especially in cold or freezing conditions > rainfall causes overflows > salts accumulate if treatment systems are 'closed' A good deal of 'faith' is required to believe that desirable health and environmental outcomes would result from such methods, even in a low density semi-urban or setting. Collecting urban runoff for subsequent use downslope in a virtually closed loop would require very large storage dams. 'Pick-up' of nutrients, salts and pathogens would render the water unsuitable for unrestricted use without costly treatment. Releases of low quality water to the environment would be necessary in periods of low water demand. I understand what Kevin McCloud said about the inhabitants in the poor areas of Mumbai he visited. But as I would have done, Kevin abandoned his sleeping quarters to murine invaders. Visiting parts of Soweto where housing consists of crowded but 'ingenious' shacks, I was amazed at how families maintain their dignity and sense of community. With no sewerage and only one water tap per thousand people, they work miracles to provide for their children. The same could be said of the residents I also visited in Havana where there is a celebrated medical system that neglects basic sanitation and children suffer from easily preventable water-borne disease. Cubans could teach us a lot about innovation, born of necessity, in many fields. Based on principles I was able to provide, with great skill, a small water treatment plant soon appeared from recycled materials, sand and sunlight. They apply the same inventiveness to motor vehicles and they produce a lot of food close to densely populated urban areas. Leaving aside the severe impact of the US embargo, my impression is that most of this innovation occurs despite official planning and not because of it. Cubans appear to have adapted well to their circumstances, owing perhaps to the remarkable adaptability of humans and the indomitable will to survive. However, I'm willing to wager that their "relative happiness" would be increased greatly if the wonderful Spanish colonial architecture were less prone to collapsing on their beds.