Urban Metabolism

Before going to New York in 2012, I read a book I'd bought several years earlier: "The anatomy of a city" by Kate Ascher. I think the reason I bought the book in the first place was not that it is about New York, but for the various infographics it contains. My fascination for that kind of representation begun when I was introduced to the works of Edward Tufte, when studying computational linguistics in the middle of the 1980s.
From New England 2012
Maybe the reading primed me into becoming extra interested when I met a researcher from Chalmers at MIT, after I and my colleague continued our trip going from New York to Boston via Connecticut and Cape Cod. The researcher was visiting the Urban Metabolism group and had also discovered the SENSable Living Lab at MIT.

According to Wikipedia, the "urban metabolism" metaphor has been used by scientists for quite some time now, although it has been become more popular with the increasing interest in sustainable development especially when it comes to sustainability reporting, urban greenhouse gas accounting, mathematical modelling for policy analysis and urban design.

The importance of considering urban metabolism was clearly demonstrated when the hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the US in October later that year. According to Wikipedia, the damages were severe: the East River overflowed its banks, flooding large sections of Lower Manhattan. Battery Park had a water surge of 13.88 ft, seven subway tunnels under the East River were flooded and over 10 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage were released by the storm, 94% of which went into waters in and around New York and New Jersey. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that the destruction caused by the storm was the worst disaster in the 108-year history of the New York City subway system.

One of the persons working hard on improving the metabolism of New York is Michael Sorkin, a professor of Urbanism. I saw an interview with him in the TV programme "From Metropolis to Naturopolis" where he talks about new roles for landscape architects. Parks can no longer only be recreational spots, but need to have more functions, for example, helping the city to become waterproof.
From New England 2012
One example of this is the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is a functional park and a high performing landscape. It's part of a big project called PlaNY 2030 aiming at becoming a sustainability and resiliency blueprint for New York City. Together with a vast number of collaborators they have made significant progress in just a few years such as the cleanest air in 50 years, 865,000 trees and five million square feet of reflective rooftop, building codes upgraded to prepare for floods, wind, and extreme weather, and 19% reduction in carbon emissions since 2005.

Another example is the Fresh Kills, a former landfill (once the largest landfill, as well as human-made structure, in the world) now slowly being turned into a public park through a public-private partnership. The new park is designed by James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm also responsible for the design of the High Line in Manhattan.

However, these grand scale projects have also been criticized. In contrast to these expensive projects, local community gardens add to the metabolism often without any monetary support at all and sometimes even as illegal acts of guerrilla gardering.

Sorkin has also written numerous books and articles, for example one about to what extent New York could be come self-reliant, or subject to autarky. He's been looking into food production, and concluded that self-sufficiency is probably not reasonable because of the amount of energy that would imply, even if more people became vegetarians. I like that, because in my opinion the sustainable city is dependent on a good relation to the sustainable countryside.

The urban metabolism concept has been criticised as misleading, for example by Dr. Nancy Golubiewsk:

"The UM analogy needs to be relinquished to make progress in urban sustainability research: the nineteenth century device should give way to twenty-first century science. Using the analogy limits the potential to link socio-economic and ecologic models and reinforces the linear input–output approach of resource flow through the city. It fails to capture the more complex and sophisticated understanding of the urban ecosystem emerging in urban ecological theory.

... Clinging to the analogy has resulted in holding on to outdated ideas such as the superorganism and climax succession, which results in missing opportunities to explore the complexity of interconnection and thus manipulates the possibilities for transdisciplinary research.

As a result, it does matter whether “urban metabolism” is used—and abused—because researchers try to connect ecology and economics within this organismal framework rather than an ecosystem one. Ceasing to use the analogy would clarify research priorities, such as homeorhesis, resilience, and feedbacks (rather than homeostasis, stability, and input–output). Ecosystem ecology can thus be merged with established methodologies of material and energy flow analysis in order to transcend disciplines. ... The issue is not just a matter of semantics, but rather an important conceptual platform upon which to base interdisciplinary, ultimately transdisciplinary, urban research."

Instead of only focusing on the metabolism, maybe Plato's concept of the Tripartite soul in the treatise The Republic can be of use where the heart, mind and gut work together to form a just body/city?

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