Urban Metabolism Can Inform Cities’ Climate Change Actions: Lessons from the Transatlantic Cities Lab Dialogues
An ever-growing number of cities are turning their growth and climate challenges into an opportunity to rethink their urban metabolism and patterns of development. Urban systems today are responsible for high environmental impacts, accounting for more than 70 percent of CO2 energy-related emissions globally. This can be attributed to the complex system of cities, where materials flow in a linear way. This raises serious problems such as material depletion, enormous waste generation, and climate change.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) launched the Transatlantic Climate Cities Lab in with the city of Torino, Italy, supported by the Compagnia di San Paolo of Torino, with the aim of supporting Mayor Chiara Appendino and her administration in the policy deployment of the city's climate agenda. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for the Environment is involved in the preparation of a Climate Change Action Agenda for Torino and identified several priority action points to support the process, including planning and sustainability, mobility, waste reduction, and clean energy systems. Over a year GMF worked with the city to explore urban metabolism in the context of its emerging climate change agenda. Activities prioritized practical exchange with U.S. city leaders from Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California, as well as dialogue with experts from The Netherlands.
Here is what we learned about urban metabolism that can inform how cities look at their climate change approaches.
The urban metabolism of a city matters a great deal for its climate action agenda
As highlighted by Gerard Roemers, from Metabolic, a consulting and venture building company that uses systems thinking to tackle global sustainability challenges, “we need to fundamentally re-think the design of the cities’ system. We can do this by changing the way we plan and develop cities and re-conduct them towards a sustainable urban metabolism”.
The analysis of the territory’s metabolism offers an opportunity to respond to the big challenge of urban sustainability by tracing the flows of energy resources into and out of the urban system, and incorporating changes accordingly to close the loops through the reuse, re-adaptation, and regeneration of materials, as well as to optimize energy use and to encourage an urban development that reduces the environmental impact and increases the resilience of the city.
Sustainable Urban Metabolism is “The sum total of the technical and socioeconomic processes that occur in cities, resulting in growth, and the production of energy, materials, and waste” (Kennedy, C., Cuddihy, J., & Engel-Yan, J., “The Changing Metabolism of Cities,” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 11:2)
Best practice: Buiksloterham, Amsterdam
The concept of sustainable urban metabolism is embodied by Buiksloterham, a former industrial area within Amsterdam that serves as a living lab for sustainable urban metabolism.
Once the site of Amsterdam’s most polluting industries, constructed from deposited dredge materials, Buiksloterham is being transformed into a sustainable area to live and work in, with 6,500 future inhabitants and 8,000 future workers expected, which will be:
- Energy self-sufficient with a fully renewable energy supply, and
- A zero-waste area with near 100 percent circular material, as well as rainproof and with near 100 percent resource recovery from wastewater.
In 2015, more than 20 different organizations and companies in the Netherlands signed the Circular Buiksloterham Manifest. Together they are working to transform the area into a sustainable and circular district, with new models for production, consumption, and distribution—for example, by supporting individuals to build their houses with sustainable circular elements, by installing LED lighting in public space and sustainable heating and cooling.
Sustainable urban metabolism is not only about urban infrastructure and design—equity and social cohesion are key
The sustainable urban metabolism approach to urban design, building, and development is not only about the way a city operates in terms of energy, waste, water, and materials. In the words of Gerard Roemers, “It is also a new way of thinking about planning processes and collaborations, a new way of thinking about public space and the city, new goals, new functionalities.”
Above all, beyond the physical and technological layers, it is necessary to include the equity and social cohesion layers to ensure local authorities have the right mechanisms to lead these efforts and that the strategies devised engage and empower a wide range of local stakeholders (from companies to communities and citizens), to look at who has been impacted and how.
As Claire Roumet, director of Energy Cities, puts it, “we need to make change positive, and not wait for fear”. For this, it is important to look at three components that will bring the change.
- Devolution: looking at what powers need to be devolved to local authorities, as the new urban system implies an organization is no longer fit for top-down decision-making (that is, through the promotion of local renewable sources or sustainable transportation efforts);
- Democratization: it is necessary to think of who “owns” the transition and opening it up to engage and empower local stakeholders (local authorities, businesses, communities, citizens, academia, etc.)
- Divestment: favoring and aligning sound investment choices with the transition agenda toward a more sustainable urban metabolism. It is important to look at the different elements or layers of the urban system to see how a city can reduce its energy consumption and better adapt to climate change.
The transition towards a more sustainable metabolism to adapt to climate change is going to happen, the question is how.
Best practice: Oakland, California
The city of Oakland has set the goal of 83 percent fewer emissions by 2050, and it has adopted a strategy of focusing on the actions that not only contribute to climate change but also help address the equity and social cohesion of the community.
Ethan Guy, the city’s former deputy chief resilience officer, says: “Oakland is one of the most diverse, creative, and progressive coastal cities in the United States. We also sit in one of the most prosperous economic growth engines in the world. The benefits of this growth, as acutely felt in Oakland, however, are not equitably distributed. Aging housing stock and public infrastructure challenged by seismic and climate risk further threaten Oakland residents, particularly our most vulnerable communities.”
Resilient Oakland aims to tackle the environmental and social stresses that residents face and better prepare them for tomorrow’s challenges, like earthquakes and climate-change impacts. This includes equitable access to quality education and jobs, housing security, community safety, and vibrant infrastructure, as well as a set of different actions across five main themes:
- Building energy use;
- Transportation and land use;
- Materials use and waste;
- Community engagement; and
- Adaptation and resilience to climate change.
Through these actions, Oakland is changing the way it “does” government. The city attaches great importance to building a trustworthy and responsive government, with equitable and measurable community engagement, and with more opportunities for collaborative government.
For instance, the city is developing new principles for community engagement through a collaborative process with city staff and community leaders in a series of workshops that examine the range of engagement strategies used and their impact, and that incorporate relevant metrics and benchmarks to measure the outcomes of community outreach and engagement tools.
The way Oakland looks at its investments is also changing. A good example of this is the Capital Improvement Program, the city prioritizes investment that reflects the overall priorities of its climate and resilience strategy.
Rethinking the urban metabolism should be rooted in a city’s own DNA
For better or for worse, cities are not a tabula rasa. The solutions need to be rooted in context. A good starting point to catalyze action toward a more sustainable urban metabolism is to consider the DNA of the place.
For instance, Oakland is rethinking how its DNA of diversity can also become a source of economic vitality for many businesses alongside their climate and resilience efforts.
For Torino, this would not be an alien concept. Home to the FIAT automobile factory inaugurated in 1923, it became the industrial capital of Italy. This led to dramatic urbanization and population growth at an uncontrollable pace, as well as to labor tension and social unrest. In 1969 FIAT reached a peak of 158,000 employees. The end of automobile manufacturing in Torino in 1982 marked the end of an era with more than 100,000 jobs related to the automotive industry lost between 1980 and 1996. A post-industrial cityscape emerged, with approximately 2,500 acres of vacant industrial sites by 1989 and roughly a quarter of its population moving away.
The challenges generated by these social and economic transformations were enormous. Yet, through a collective and sustained remaking process, Torino managed to reinvent itself. Today manufacturing represents less than 25 percent of employment and beyond this field, the city is recognized for its scientific, engineering and military vocations, as well as for its legacy of social activism, its artistic and cultural heritage, and its progressive political and intellectual tradition. These assets, including the FIAT legacy, can be leveraged and transformed to serve the city’s climate goals.
Collaboration and stakeholder engagement form a fertile ground for new solutions striving toward sustainable urban metabolism
Cities cannot act alone in their plans to advance climate actions and reshape their urban metabolism. Often, they control only a small portion of local greenhouse gas emissions, a fraction that rarely exceeds 25 percent. Leveraging the key role of stakeholders in supporting cities’ actions is essential. Further, it is a fertile ground for the emergence of new solutions, with an enormous potential to stimulate local economies, create social cohesion, and increase overall resilience.
Best practice: Nantes, France
The city of Nantes invited all residents of the metropolitan area and 24 municipalities to take part in a series of in-depth “great debates” around the city’s energy transition. These were structured around four questions: What lifestyles? What scenarios? What access to energy? What innovations?
An independent commission of four randomly selected citizens prepared a final report at the end of the six-month process. The commission consulted experts through open conferences. The final 15 proposals were presented in February 2018 for analysis and implementation by the city. “This gives a new angle to the conversation, with citizens’ ownership in the debate and action”, according to Claire Roumet.
In an unprecedented mobilization, there “great debates” involved53,000 participants, 11,000 contributors, 270 organizations, and nearly 80 events in all the municipalities of the territory.
Best practice: Kalundborg, Denmark
The city of Kalundborg, in Denmark, organized roundtables with industries on heating to devise strategies to change the energy source from gas to biomass in the heating system. Moreover, it established the world’s first working industrial symbiosis where public and private enterprises buy and sell residual products, resulting in mutual economic and environmental benefits
Pilot projects can provide inspiration and help get to the big picture of sustainable urban metabolism
A long-term planning strategy that reflects how a city envisions its climate action plan is important to shift the conversation and detail how the different components of sustainable urban metabolism (energy, waste, transportation, land use) will be integrated. A good starting point is recognizing the need to experiment through pilots as a way to break some rules, make changes, provide inspiration, and help get to the big picture. Pilots and wins produce a ripple effect that leads to structural change.
Best practice: Ceuvel, Amsterdam
Ceuvel is a creative and sustainable office park in Amsterdam, located on a polluted plot of land that previously served as a shipyard. The project was launched following a special tender process by municipality (10-year land lease—temporary development). The plan has high ambitions of sustainable urban metabolism, with:
- 100 percent renewable energy,
- 70 percent local nutrient recovery,
- 100 percent water self-sufficiency,
- 10 percent food production,
- monitoring and feedback systems, and
- a community program.
As a first step, the abandoned and polluted area will be put to use. Second, the purifying park will be constructed on polluted soil. The park will be cleaning the soil for the next ten years. A surplus of houseboats from Amsterdam are being refurbished to be put in the park. Next, a raised boardwalk will connect the houseboats, events will be organized, and pollution will be reduced. And after 10 years the houseboats will move to a new location and the area will be given back to the city of Amsterdam in a cleaner and livelier stage.
Practical implications for Torino
After learning from the above policy and practice examples, the city of Torino identified several areas for further exploration in the context of its climate agenda planning and implementation: cross-sector and cross-departmental coordination for planning and implementation, multi-stakeholder engagement, linking and leveraging citizens actions to move forward the city’s agenda, and moving from political decisions and plans to actions.
These areas were then further developed through peer and expert inputs, as well as on-site visits organized in Portland, Oregon, in October 2017. The key takeaways, recommendations for cities across the Atlantic, and concrete application in the case of Torino are summarized in the GMF policy brief
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.