Indigo Development
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Sustainable Communities
Communities as Living Systems | Benefits | Community Metabolism  | Eco-Industrial Parks
Industrial Ecosystems  | Municipal Infrastructure | Business Opportunities
| Communities and Sustainable Agriculture
Integrative Regional Action Planning

The Unsustainability of Cities

Patterns of urban development are a particular focus of concern in the search for a path to a sustainable world. The majority of world cities are vortices of unsustainability, concentrating environmental threats and social and economic distress.

  • As magnets of hope cities have drawn rural populations who, in most developing countries, live in sprawling urban slums, shanty towns, colonias, favelas, or townships.
  • Their economies reflect the growing global inequality of wealth and income distribution.
  • Cities concentrate industrial development and its pollution.
  • Urban production and consumption extracts resources from around the planet and deposits massive volumes of waste, creating a bloated "urban footprint" (Rees & Wackernagel 1994).
  • Motor vehicles dominate urban transportation systems, producing gridlock, excessive use of valuable land, local air pollution, and greenhouse gases.
  • Cities' massive and inefficient energy consumption wastes resources and generates greenhouse gases.
  • Economic globalization lacks an effective model for sustainable local development.
  • Urban planning usually stops at the city's border, failing to integrate with planning for the larger region that it impacts so deeply.

A squatter settlement in a township near Johannesburg. Photo by George Marnewick

By 2000 50% of the world's population was in cities and megacities (cities with ten million or more residents).  So urban planners, architects, environmentalists, social activists, and many others have focused their quest for sustainability on the transformation of cities and towns. Existing communities have enlisted in a sustainable community movement, forming visions, action strategies, and urban sustainability indicators.

Planners and designers have created major new town development projects that feature more advanced ecological design and land-use, including Coffee Creek in Indiana, Haymount in Virginia, and Abacoa in Southern Florida. While their town plans are more compact than suburban tracts, they still use more land than is available for new town developments in most countries. While excellent in terms of ecological design, such projects do not begin to address the economic development and social issues of sustainable development, particularly in developing countries.

Sustainable community initiatives in established cities have achieved some successes in waste reduction, pollution prevention, forming of environmental industry economic development strategies, development of eco-industrial parks, and ecological restoration. However such initiatives, after forming bold visions, often suffer from "creeping incrementalism", moving forward in a fragmented, unsystemic fashion. Greatest energy often goes to increasing efficiency of resource use, only one of the many requirements for sustainability.

Researchers such as Richard Levine and Ernest Yanarella at University of Kentucky's Center for Sustainable Cities argue that an incremental path alone is unlikely to achieve true sustainability. They fear that some incremental solutions may lock in major errors and generate unforeseen outcomes that further damage social, economic, and environmental systems. (For instance, changing present automobile designs to decrease pollution and increase fuel efficiency ignores the enormous land surface consumed by road transportation. Incremental improvements in autos may actually delay the transition to really sustainable public transportation systems and urban plans.) Levine and Yanarella call for sustainable community designers to shift from piecemeal approaches to whole systems solutions.

The issues of urban sustainability are profound for developed and developing countries alike. We believe that a particularly high priority is developing and testing of systems solutions applicable to meeting the massive needs of urban populations in developing countries.

Communities as Living Systems

Communities seeking to become more sustainable must begin to view their towns and cities — including municipal infrastructures — as living systems with solid economic foundations. Sustainable community planning often does no more than add up the separate interests of stakeholders without ever achieving an integrated view of the community systems embedded in the local and regional environment.

An industrial ecology perspective provides tools for understanding the environmental impacts of a community's industry, commerce, infrastructure, and household behavior as a whole system. IE builds common ground for addressing industry's needs in the transition to sustainable communities.

The goal is to support business competitiveness and job creation through strategies that also improve environmental protection and quality of life in all dimensions.

An industrial ecology perspective brings valuable insights and methods to the process of making our communities more sustainable. A sustainable community is one in which improvement in the quality of human life is achieved in harmony with improving and maintaining the health of ecological systems; and where a healthy economy's industrial base supports the quality of both human and ecological systems.

IE offers to sustainable community planning an awareness of the community as a living system embedded in its natural systems. It provides tools for understanding the environmental impacts of a community's industry, commerce, infrastructure, and household behavior as a whole system. IE builds common ground for addressing industry's needs in the transition to sustainable communities.

The benefits to communities of this holistic foundation for change include:

  • Creation of common ground for all community stakeholders to plan effective change;
  • Increased efficiency of energy and material resource use;
  • Increased competitiveness for businesses;
  • Ability to target highest risks and opportunities for greatest improvement;
  • Decreased pollution and damage to the health of citizens and the environment;
  • Opening of new local business and job development opportunities;
  • Revitalization of existing industries;
  • Improvements in the efficiency and extension of the life of municipal infrastructure systems; and
  • Restoration of the viability of local ecosystems.
These benefits of industrial ecology could contribute to revitalization of local economies in developed countries and to more a sustainable process of industrialization in developing countries.

Industrial Metabolism of Communities

new grassLike any living system, a community consumes material and energy inputs, processes them into usable forms, and eliminates the wastes from the process. This can be seen as "metabolism" of industry, commerce, municipal operations, and households. Understanding the pattern of these energy and material flows through a community's economy provides a systemic reading of the present situation for goal and objective setting and development of indicators for sustainability.

Planners and citizens can gain a foundation for prioritizing decisions from this sort of analysis early in a sustainable community planning process. It enables identification of major points of waste and pollution. It indicates possible public and private cost-savings and opportunities for new business development. The study establishes a baseline for assessing the community's movement toward sustainability along this vital dimension of efficient use of resources.

Industrial metabolism analysis suggests several useful metrics for assessing the sustainability of system:

  • The ratio of virgin to recycled materials: This ratio could be used in assessing a product, production system, company, industry or economy. The lower the relative draw upon virgin materials (to replace materials lost from dissipation) the closer the system would be to sustainable.
  • Ratio of actual/potential recycled materials: This ratio between volume of materials that could be recycled to the fraction actually recycled would also be useful at levels ranging from a production line to an economy. Ayres suggests a proxy measure could be the ratio of secondary supply to total supply of final materials.
  • Ratio of renewable/fossil fuel sources: This ratio would tend to remain fairly stable for older plants but would be useful in designing new facilities, in reconstruction of plants, and at a corporate level.
  • Materials productivity: The economic output per unit of material input is a useful measure of industrial metabolic efficiency.
  • Energy productivity: The economic output per unit of energy input.
  • Resource input per unit of end-user service: This ratio assesses resource use against the useful function gained and maintained for the end-user. It is suggested by Walter Stahel's work envisioning highly durable products delivering function to the customers of service oriented companies.
A powerful tool for analysis of and communication about the metabolism of a community or region is the Urban Footprint. Through this concept one can view the total area on the planet that a given city utilizes for its resources and its environmental impacts.

The industrial ecology based concepts of eco-industrial parks and industrial ecosystems offer communities and industries two approaches to improving the efficiency of materials and energy flows and reducing other environmental impacts.

Eco-Industrial Parks

Eco-industrial park projects in North America, Asia, and Europe offer powerful models for sustainable economic development in communities. Indigo's comprehensive eco-industrial park concept can be found here.

Industrial Ecosystems

Industrial ecologists have proposed that businesses learn to function as industrial ecosystems. This concept is very useful to communities seeking to make their industrial sectors sustainable. Indigo associate, Nick Gertler, has offered this definition:

"An industrial ecosystem is a community or network of companies and other organizations in a region who chose to interact by exchanging and making use of byproducts and/or energy in a way that provides one or more of the following benefits over traditional, non-linked operations:
  • Reduction in the use of virgin materials as resource inputs;
  • Reduction in pollution;
  • Increased energy efficiency leading to reduced energy use in the system as a whole;
  • Reduction in the volume of waste products requiring disposal (with the added benefit of preventing disposal-related pollution); and
  • Increase in the amount and types of process outputs that have market value."
The town and industrial region of Kalundborg in Denmark is the most celebrated example of an industrial ecosystem. Researchers are discovering other examples, as in the Austrian province of Styria.

Municipal Infrastructure

Local energy, water, solid and liquid waste, and transportation systems are responsible for managing a large share of a community's energy and materials flows. Even with present growing levels of recycling, municipal infrastructure remains highly wasteful in most cities. An industrial ecology approach would seek strategies for using "soft infrastructure" (finance, education, training, tax incentives, and other public programs) to achieve much higher efficiencies in the operation of the physical infrastructure.

For instance, the operation and continuing maintenance of landfills are a major community investment. With the best of recycling programs, a heavy waste stream still flows into most fills. An integrated strategy for extending the life of fills would include:

  • Analysis of the major elements in the waste stream by source, type of materials, and environmental impact;
  • Education and training in waste reduction for businesses, agencies, and households;
  • A business development strategy targeting companies that could remanufacture, disassemble, refine, recycle, and otherwise process waste stream components into usable materials and products.
  • Selection among options to get highest value out of reused materials and products;
  • Development of information systems and businesses supporting the exchange of waste materials and energy.
Our paper on eco-parks anchored by resource recovery functions adds strategies for integration of community by-products from all sectors.

Business Development Opportunities

Entering new markets for existing goods and services:

By-product trading among companies opens a number of new business niches for reprocessing and information technologies and for service providers. Producers of a wide range of materials processing equipment (for grinding, sifting, sorting, purifying, and packaging), for instance, will find new markets. Intermediary companies altering wastes mechanically or chemically to meet customer specifications will need this equipment as the concept of waste is eliminated. Another business finding new markets will be manufacturers of equipment to channel flows of materials, water, or heat among plants.

Marketing emerging technologies, materials, and processes:

Full application of industrial ecology will also require new technologies, materials, and processes. Firms in the market niches described in the previous section would also be drawing upon new products. Reprocessing of by-products may require new chemical or mechanical processes. Product disassembly may require advanced robotics. Commercialization of biopolymers will supplant non-renewable sources in many materials applications.

Consulting and information system opportunities

Supporting the organizational change, technical, and information needs of an IE-based economy: IE will create new demand for the services of management and environmental consulting companies, training firms, print and electronic publishers, information system providers, and educational institutions.

Integrating technologies and methods into innovative new systems.

A foundation in industrial ecology could enable established larger corporations, entrepreneurs, or joint ventures of smaller companies to seize competitive advantage. The key would be assembling diverse elements into innovative new systems that meet customer needs while dramatically reducing environmental impacts.

  • An integrated home heating/cooling/cooking/lighting system combining the functions of various appliances and technologies would be an example of this. Use of high energy-efficiency components and re-use of wasted heat for secondary functions would reduce the total cost of operating a home.
Communities and Sustainable Agricutlure

Supply and distribution services to sustainable farming

The transition to sustainable agriculture will benefit rural communities and open many new business niches quite distinct from the traditional petrochemical farming support companies. Ecologically-based farmers are already showing a much lighter demand for material inputs but much greater need for education, training, consulting, telecommunications, and electronic equipment such as that used for sensing water and nutrients.
Sustainable Agriculture and Agro-Eco-Industrial Park

Communities in their region

Ultimately sustainable communities must be embedded in sustainable regions. Urban planners must link cities and towns to their surrounding suburbs, rural land, and wild land. Integrative regional action planning is an approach Indigo is applying, in team with the Mantaray Team.

 Eco-Industrial Parks |  Indigo Services 

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