Self-Sustaining Urbanization and Self-Sufficient Cities in the Era of Climate Change

Negin Minaei


Urbanization is a complex subject that cannot be discussed in all its dimensions and aspects in a chapter or even a book. In this chapter, the focus is on self-sustaining urbanization. It is possible to mention only a few aspects with higher priorities that require immediate attention and long-term investments by cities. Figure 9.1 illustrates how cities can progress from resilient to sustainable, smart and eventually self-sufficient cities using a system thinking approach.

United Nations (UN) projected by 2050 at least 70% of the global population will live in urban areas, or, two-thirds of humanity, which equals 6.5 billion people. This will cause more strains on cities and their urban infrastructure as well as the services for which they were planned, designed, and built. Although population growth was identified as one of the contributing factors to climate change (UNHABITAT,

Self-Sufficient City. (Minaei, N.. Drawn with Google Drawings.)

FIGURE 9.1 Self-Sufficient City. (Minaei, N.. Drawn with Google Drawings.)

2016b, p. 2), it seems reversing the migration pattern, from rural areas to urban areas is more complicated than finding solutions for climate change because cities are still the ones that generate wealth, employment, and human progress. These solutions are to lead and equip cities with the type of infrastructure that enables them to become resilient, resource-efficient, sustainable, well-managed, and ultimately self- sufficient. Surely, significant redistribution of wealth and political arrangements to suit them are part of the required reforms. Urbanization has a direct impact on global environments and that is the reason that “Sustainable Urbanization” was identified as a priority (GEF, 2018). Many international organizations have concentrated on the urbanization process in recent years; organizations such as United Nations (UN) and its associated agencies including UNDP, UNHABITAT, UNEP, UNIDO. World Economic Forum, World Bank, European Bank, and newly established organizations such as C40 CITIES, 100 Resilient Cities, Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC), Smart Cities Council, and the list goes on.

This chapter introduces the concept of self-sufficient cities and self-sustaining urbanization. Because these concepts are somewhat new and this book is written for engineers, I limit the terminology and philosophy of these new planning concepts to the everyday language and start with simple dictionary definitions. We explore the similar terms that have been used in this context and explain the fundamental matters such as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and resilience in cities to better define the self-sufficiency. In the second section, possible fast-track solutions that have been proven to be efficient in achieving sustainability by successful cities across the globe will be briefly reviewed to provide a simple understanding of the most important factors for non-planning professionals.

  • 9.1.1 Terminology and Definitions
  • Self-Sufficient, Self-Reliance, or Self-Sustained

Oxford Dictionary defines self-sufficient as “Needing no outside help in satisfying one’s basic needs, especially with regard to the production of food.” (2019), while Cambridge Dictionary says “the ability to provide what is necessary without an outside help,” which can include economy or a person; The second definition is a more comprehensive definition (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019). In this chapter, “Self-Sufficient Urbanization” exceeds urban food production and looks at a city as a complex and comprehensive system with a main scope, self-sufficiency. A system that needs to be self-reliance, self-sufficient, and self-sustained with the ability to survive in harsh conditions such as extreme weathers and to respond to its inhabitants’ needs without receiving immediate help from external sources; it is self- dependent in all aspects from skill sets and human resources to natural resources and food production. This brings us to the concept of “Resilience.” UNHABITAT (2016a) has defined resilience an ability of human settlements to “withstand and recover quickly from any plausible hazards.” Recovering to predisaster standards is often costly and time-consuming; sometimes it takes decades. In urban context, a system comprised of communities, individuals, businesses, institutions, and other systems within a city. A self-sufficient system needs to foresee possible future events-both technological advancements, and the transformation they cause-to the consequences of climate change; This system has been planned and prepared to face any possible crisis, shock, stress, or hazards; in other words, it needs to be resilient first. 100 Resilient Cities (2019a) defines urban resilience the ability “to survive, adapt, grow regardless of acute shocks and chronic stress.” Therefore, being resilient is a prerequisite for becoming sustainable or eventually self-sufficient.

Technology alone cannot change the way cities work because it is expected in Smart Cities to overcome most of the problems cities currently have and achieve high levels of liveability and sustainability for urban inhabitants as argued comprehensively by Minaei (2017 in Huston, 2019; Hamnett in Moore, 2014). A self-sufficient system needs a shared vision, well-thought plans with clear strategies, achievable targets, and feasible scenarios that are clearly communicated to citizens in advance or in the best-case scenarios are the results of public participatory planning (PPP) or community planning as conscious citizens are the pillar of a Smart City and society. It is the social and community communication and capacities for cooperation among governments, stakeholders, and citizens that can strengthen the civic engagement, the core of a Smart City.

There is little literature about self-sufficient urbanization. Barcelona’s chief architect, Vicente Guallart was perhaps the first person who used the term and envisioned Barcelona as a self-sufficient city in the context of Smart City with environmental urban solutions (March and Ribera-Fumaz, 2016). In a lecture series offered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the MIT (“Sustaining Cities” as part of the “MIT World Series of Changing Cities”), Judith Layzer addressed decreasing demands in cities could be the key factor to achieve strong sustainability; Corburn identified having an environmental justice framework to look at cities from a health point of view (social side) was more important than ecological sustainability; and Zegras explained why the access to opportunities by providing equitable public transport was the key to achieve sustainable development (Layzer et al., 2013). These contributions are only small parts of what is required for a truly sustainable city. Self-Sustaining Urbanization and Self-Sufficient Cities

Different city concepts and multitude initiatives have looked at the sustainability of urban developments during the past decades. Most of them aim to compete and increase their status in the global cities’ hierarchy by achieving sustainability and advancing and upgrading economic, environmental, and social conditions although their principles and frameworks slightly differ (Minaei, 2017a; De Jong et ah, 2015). Among them, “Resilient Cities,” “Digital Cities,” “Smart Cities,” and “Sustainable Cities” are the chief concepts. Other concepts view cities with a particular lens such as environment for “Eco Cities,” “Low-Carbon Cities,” and “Green Cities”; technology for “Information Cities,” “Digitized Cities,” (Landry, 2016) or “Intelligent Cities”; education for “Learning Cities” (Kearns, 2012), “Knowledge Cities,” “Creative Cities,” (Landry, 2012) or “Innovation Cities” (2ThinkNow, 2018); health and wellbeing for "Healthy Cities” (WHO, 2009) and “Liveable Cities” or a recent concept of “Data Cities” (Lund Humphries in Jackson, 2019). By far, the “Sustainable City” concept is the oldest concept being used (since 1996) as the most common category

  • (546 published articles as opposed to the “Smart City” with 222 articles), which stands at the top of all other concepts (De Jong et al., 2015). At the core, all aim to achieve sustainable development, but the degree to which they concentrate on social and environmental aspects differs. For example, principles and values of a healthy city are: equity, participation and empowerment, working in partnership, solidarity and friendship, and sustainable development (WHO, 2009). The definition of a Healthy City can be similar to the “Learning City” because both concepts are shaped around community resources, ensuring economic development through partnership, and providing access to opportunities and skill development and overall continuously improving the physical and social environment relying on community and the existing resources (Kearns, 2012, p. 376). Cities do not need trendy concepts and super advanced technologies to gain sustainability; they need to invest on the natural systems, people, and societies to enable them to move toward self-sustaining urbanization. That collaboration, empowering citizen engagement, conserving the existing resources, and expanding them to the maximum potential within a resilient infrastructure seem to count good examples of self-sufficiency in cities.
  • Sustainable Urban Development

The increasing population growth in urban areas and unequal distribution of population and density in cities resulted to some areas with higher density and lower quality of housing, which make those areas vulnerable to natural hazards and climate change. This is particularly the case in mega-cities with the population overload (Malalgoda et al., 2013). Much degradation of the natural ecosystem is caused by human activities, and it is the sustainable urban development that works with all three necessary dimensions of economy, environment, and society (Yigitcanlar et al., 2019). Now, most citizens are aware of climate change and the possible consequences it can bring to cities. Devastating and unpredictable natural hazards are happening more frequently and more severely. Although scientists can predict such extreme events may happen, the truth is no one can foretell the location of the next disaster. In some cases, city officials were aware of the catastrophic events in advance, but they could not warn and prepare residents because of the lack of efficient mechanisms and connectedness to communities (Lejano, 2019). The importance of “emergency preparedness” for communities and equipping a city’s resilient infrastructures to prepare for future hazard (e.g., earthquakes, floods, droughts, forest fires, water scarcity, air pollution, etc.) is undeniable. Having resilient urban environments is in fact the first and most important step to be taken toward achieving a sustainable city. During the past decades, urbanites have been dependent on the import of goods and services with high carbon footprints, particularly fruits and vegetables transportation that account for 50% of the total carbon emissions (Weber and Matthews, 2008 in Wakeland et al., 2012, p. 212). Most of the food that is available in cities either comes from rural areas or is imported from other countries. Cities no longer produce the food they need, which could be the result of insufficient agricultural lands (Churkina, 2016). Sustainable food production in cities (urban agriculture or urban farming) has been one of the important actions cities started to take in recent years, and there is a growing body of literature on methods of reducing food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions such as changes in consumptions patterns, dietary choices, distribution systems, and food production (Galli et al., 2017, p. 384). Repurposing derelict lands in urban areas has benefitted many environmentalists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In some cities, municipalities have assigned parts of urban parks or neighborhoods’ lots to urban farming or permitted towers and high-rise buildings to use rooftops and balconies to grow food. Scarcity of water and energy are also among the main challenges of all cities, finding the optimum solution depends on many factors, including geography, climate, environmental characteristics, and within the financial parameters of a city (Gardner, 2016 in Alkhalidi et al., 2018). In designing new residential complexes, architects and landscape architects look at low-tech solutions to decrease energy dependence. For example, in the on-site farms of a recent Dubai sustainable city project, simple fans were employed without any air-conditioning systems (Fullychargedshow, 2017). Sustainable Development and Its Complex Assessments The first step to move toward resilience is to learn about the current state of a city by benchmarking and proper assessments. Assessing sustainability in cities has been conducted by applying different tools or comprehensive models in different scales: from building (super-micro), parcel (micro), neighborhood/suburb (mezzo), city/region (macro), (supra)nation, and a (super-macro) scale (Fredrick, 2014 in Yigitcanlar et al., 2015). This means although UN has provided targets and indicators, these inconsistencies between measures used by different cities makes the annual reports submitted to UN difficult to compare. Unsuccessful attempts to achieve the eight voluntary millennium goals by different countries by 2015 led the UN to introduce the seventeen SDGs, which are obligatory. Countries that signed the Paris Agreement must achieve these goals by 2030 or present evidence to prove they had solid plans for; they must annually submit some progress reports to the UN. The UN’s SDGs cover the three dimensions of sustainability including economic, environmental, and social; Goal 11 is assigned to “Sustainable Cities and Communities” but the fact is the built environment is the context for the all other sixteen goals, too. In other words, “No Poverty,” “Zero Hunger,” “Quality Education,” “Climate Action,” “Affordable and Clean Energy,” and other goals cannot be separated from cities as cities are their context and albeit SDGs are all intertwined too.

Most cities are not able to measure their sustainability level, and they rely on private companies to provide those measures and produce reports for them, which questions the credibility of those reports. The most common reasons for not being able to measure sustainability index in a city is first, lack of required and credible data (most cities have not developed mechanisms to collect city’s data, sort, and analyze them and do not have Smart City’s infrastructure) and second, lack of skill sets to identify the proper assessment model by city’s staff members to conduct the assessment.

The fact that various assessment models with different indicators are available does not decrease the complexity of selecting the right one. For example, Gervasio and da Silva (2012) proposed a probabilistic decision-making approach using preference ranking organization method of enrichment evaluation (PROMETHEE) and analytical hierarchy process (AHP) to help governments assess their infrastructure on a more reliable basis. Carli et al. (2018) used AHP to identify a multicriteria decision-making assessment that best fits for metropolitan cities based on the thirty- five indicators of the Sustainable Development of Energy, Water and Environment System Index (SDEWES) framework. Kilki§ (2016) provided exact measures and formulas to calculate each index of the SDEWES for a city.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that cities in different countries are moving toward a sustainable future! GPSC started working with twenty-eight cities across eleven countries to support them improve their sustainability focusing on the sustainability indicators and tools, integrated urban planning and management, and municipal finance (GPSC, 2018). Many noncapital cities in the Global South are not even aware of what their obligations are and have not started taking any actions.

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