Monday, February 28, 2005

Idea for the future: Ruralization

The UNplanning Journal is going to try and balance the subject matter between a discussion of our problems and an introduction of some potential solutions. Spending too much time dwelling on our problems without offering solutions can lead to a feeling of despair. One such positive idea worthy of discussion is ruralization.
This idea, discussed by Folke Günther from the Dept. of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University suggests the slow dismantling of larger settlements over time in favor of numerous individual settlements of around two hundred individuals in population. These settlements, called Eco-units, would be pretty close to self sufficient in food supply in order to keep the nutrient flow and energy consumption as localized as possible.
Navigate to image Eco-Unit:

This settlement type would result in nutrient flow localization and reduced energy consumption since the vast majority of the agricultural production would be consumed where it was produced, resulting in no transportation energy expenditures and little need for industrial scale agriculture, since the local fields are sustaining around two hundred, not a global market place. Community Solution put forward a similar idea called Agraria. Though their description does not identify a target population, it appears to be similar in scale to what Gunther proposes.

These ideas are not only sound, they may represent the only way to maintain some semblance of civilization as available energy decreases. As discussed here in the “Our Agriculture Future” posting and in full detail elsewhere on the Internet, Industrialized Agriculture is not a sustainable enterprise. It is heavily dependent on vast quantities of energy to turn crops into food and results in a linear flow in nutrients from the fields to the cities. The further away those cities are from their food supplies, the worse the energy and nutrient equations will be. By depopulating the large urban areas and increasing the number of self-sufficient rural settlements, we can significantly reduce the amount of energy required to sustain our existence. With intelligent planning, these rural settlements could be arranged on existing or newly constructed transportation links, permitting easy travel between the individual communities and the remainder of the urban area. The urban area itself would be made over, incorporating areas within the former city for agricultural production for its own needs.

The cities would not need to be completely depopulated. They could retain some of their administrative, manufacturing, and cultural applications. Furthermore, with cutting of the global supply lines, the urban area can provide two additional valuable functions: become a point of production for a renewed manufacturing base and a source of raw materials. New (and revitalized) manufacturing operations can located in any number of these remnant urban areas in shells of abandoned big box chains, malls or warehouses. The manufacturing processes utilized would not resemble anything like what we are familiar with today; they would be small-scale, labor-intensive and local market responsive (producing ONLY what is locally needed). Trade between the urban area and the surrounding settlements could occur, with the settlements supplying extra food, fiber and biomass crops (for ethanol, biodiesel or methane production) for use in manufacturing in exchange while the urban area would supply finished goods. Of course, those houses, roads, dumps and commercial establishments that were abandoned or rendered economically useless by declining energy could be scavenged for metals, glass and plastics for eventual reuse. In the grand scheme of things, this is not an entirely bad position to be in. Significant energy had long been expended to form that glass window, create that aluminum can or build that store. Recycling requires less energy than fashioning the same product out of virgin materials.

Gunther envisions change slowly over the period of about fifty years, whereby residences and business are slowly abandoned and converted to parkland or put directly into agricultural production. Fifty years is a long time to transition to a low energy lifestyle, perhaps too long. With all of the financial, energy and agricultural crisis looming just five to ten years out we may not have a half a century to transition. Consequently if we are to maintain some urban (small-town) elements of civilization, we need to proceed to building these agrarian settlements as soon as possible. This would require a whole ideological change of mind on part of local governments and the local populace, to allow this to happen. Ideally, ruralization would be implemented at the county, borough, or parish level to better create the proper ratios and relationship between the soon to be depopulated city and the newly formed agrarian settlements.

It is unlikely most county governments would go for this plan prior to any sign of trouble, so provisions need to be made to implement this and other civilization-survival techniques as soon as the first wave of crisis occur. Educate. Prepare. Implement. Survive. Follow that and we may still have a chance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"By depopulating the large urban areas and increasing the number of self-sufficient rural settlements, we can significantly reduce the amount of energy required to sustain our existence."

This claim is false. This is nothing more than advocacy for increasing suburban sprall. For the amount of energy "saved" by this "solution" more is wasted delivering other products and services thanks to the now dispersed population. The ecotopians need to pay mind to the unintended consequenses of their visions.

3/01/2005 4:07 AM  
Anonymous Kevin Cannon said...

Indeed. I agree with that.

This is an interesting vision, but more from a lifestyle point of view, that from a logistical one.

There's reasons that people trade, there's reasons for global agriculture. If every settlement was self-sufficient we'd have to say goodbye to spices, large swathes of fruit, and out diet would be increasingly restricted.

Similarly the energy question seems taken as fact. Nuclear Fusion reactors are being built now, and commercial grade ones are expected in the next 20 years. That will provide a safe and clean alternative to current energy sources.

So, it's good to see alternative situations, but please try be a bit more critical in your reasoning. I think urban planning tends to all to often fall into utopianism, which only does itself a disservice.

3/01/2005 5:23 AM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

Unfortunately for the commenters’ sake, we are facing an increasingly dire future. Ruralization is all about self sufficiency. It is not about a lifestyle choice. Rural self-sufficiency is not an unknown concept. Throughout history, most settlements were self sufficient and individuals who resided within one seldom traveled. The trade that did occur usually did not extend too far afield from the settlement. The only way to achieve this self-sufficiency was to spread out. If settlements were too large or too close, competition for limited resources would inevitably occur.

Large scale urbanization, like industrialization or modern agricultural practices are inherently unsustainable due to their energetic demands. Their growth is directly related to the growth in available energy. Their sustenance is directly dependent on the consumption of finite resources. Once those resources have been used up—or simply get scarcer and more expensive—then what? To declare ruralization essentially akin to suburban sprawl simply misses this point altogether. In our low energy future there simply won’t be deliveries of goods and services. The community will most likely have to produce what they need for themselves, trade with nearby settlements or towns or simply do without. It is just that simple. The post-petroleum future will not feature regular delivery of vegetables from California, shirts from Bangledesh, or technology products from Asia. It will feature local craftsman fashioning products for local use, farmers (a lot higher percentage than today) growing food for settlement consumption or weavers / seamstressess producing clothing for local wardrobes. There will be fewer specialists and more generalists.

Yes, there will likely be less variety in foods, goods and sevice available to us. Some foods will become seasonal. Some may no longer be available at all. Certain goods may cease to exist due to their production demands. Without an energy subsidy however, extensive trade networks just do not make any sense. Ninety percent of transportation consumes oil. Despite all of the hype over alternatively fueld vehicles, little to no fundemental changes have occurred to our fleet of cars, trucks and airplanes. These problems do not need to be perceived as all bad though. With some advanced planning, some diversity could be designed into our future food supply. Use of localized environment modification techniques (greenhouses, sheltering, shading) and more intensive agricultural practices, crops could be grown later or completely out of season. Warm weather crops from the tropics could be grown in colder climates. Obviously they could not be grown in large quantities, but then again that’s the point. You are not trying to supply for a national or world consumption; you are growing for your community’s consumption. Growing oranges in a greenhouse in Wisconsin for consumption today makes no sense. It will when oranges from Florida or California cannot be shipped to Wisconsin due to cost or unavailability of fuel.

Ruralization and other similar strategies are a lot of things but suburban sprawl isn’t one of these. Sprawl is wasteful. Sprawl is consuming. Suburbs do not produce anything. They are not suited for growing crops or much of anything else. They are not well set up for non-vehicular transportation. Everything has to be imported. Contrast that to a localized, self-sufficient community. They are by design, self sufficient and productive.

In a low-energy future ruralization makes sense. But is a low-energy future a given? Signs certainly point in that direction. Continued dependence on fossil fuels definitely cannot continue; most people can agree with that. So then what? Many arguments have been made that these looming shortages will spur development of next generation energy sources. But where are they? Time is running short. We do not have twenty years to get fusion going, which always seems to be twenty years away from implementation. New energy sources are needed now. If anyone is sitting on a free energy device, please speak up soon.

Until I see evidence of an energy source that can plausibly replace oil and natural gas, I am going to assume a low energy existence is in the cards for us.

3/02/2005 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is indeed sprawl if you define sprawl as dispersing the population. I understand the Permanent Crash scenario yet I don't agree that having a field of crops in one's backyard will be the most energy efficient means to plan the built infrastructure. While biofueled transportation might not be as "eficient" as today's petroleum orgy, it will still be efficient enough to make not merely economic but energetic sense. Even with zero inputs from petroleum stores it will take no more than 1:100 ratio of farmer-to-consumer to feed the population. By breaking up compact urban settlement, or worse, turning public open space into private farms, into ecotopian hamlets just does to neighborhoods what suburbs do to individual homes: spreads them out and isolates them. Sure, you don't need those evil transportation devices to deliver your milk and eggs anymore but what about everything else? Gonna try and be self-sufficient in technology? Where are you going to get the plastic and polycarbonate for your greenhouses? Try and put a factory in each hamlet and you're just going to create massive inefficiency by consuming resources redundantly. At a certain scale it's cheaper to build and power a transportation system than build highly redundant local industries. Even then you'd have to transport the raw materials not found locally anyway. Keep the people and industry in the city where transportation costs are held down for the 99% of the population that doesn't need to farm and keep the farms outside in the periurban space where they can do their job unmolested by cityfolk. Turn those isolated suburban houses into ecotopia hamlets if you wish. Tie them and the urban centers together with a biofueled transportation system that makes the use of limited resources, including land, more efficient.

I don't see the urban center depopulating, perhaps only transforming into urban archipelagos. What we can certainly count on is an exodus from biglot suburbs transforming villages into towns and smaller towns into microcities, with those remaining behind putting that old farmland back into use.

Lion Kuntz had plenty to say on this subject from the point of view of critiquing so-called Urban Agriculture:

3/02/2005 3:41 PM  
Blogger barrie said...

The idea of Eco-units that are basically self-sufficient in food production is a sound one. But we have to go much farther with the idea than to have a bunch of houses scattered around some farmland.

If we look at the pattern of settlements in the past we can obtain some clues as to what works socially for people. These rural settlements were made up of hamlets (6 to 10 families) surrounding a commercial center making up a village of about 160 adults (about the maximum number that can personally know one another and therefore operate without a burocracy). About 10 of these villages would surround a larger commercial center making up a community of about 5,000 individuals. These communities would be basically self-sufficient but would still need good transportation between them for the movement of people and speciallized goods. The key to this later requirement is to make the communities sufficiently compact.

The other problem that needs to be addressed with rural communites is the perservation of the local eco-systems. This could be achieved by surrounding each of the communities with at least an equal area of wilderness around it. Transportation between neighbouring communities would be with small electric cars in one-way tunnels. While in the tunnels, the cars would obtain power from a DC conductor. like subways.

Power for these communities would come from solar towers with pairs of reflectors that can close in non-sunny conditions or high winds. The concentrated solar energy is used to melt "glass" for infrastructure and building components. The heat from the cooling "glass" would be utilized to generate power for the core of the community.

The key to this system of settlement is the hamlets. These hamlets have to be compact, self-sufficient and yet provide a good social environment. These conditions can be met by placing eight housing units around a glass covered courtyard. Arrays of rotating planters intercept the solar energy entering through the roof. The plants intercept most of the sunlight producing plant material (food and energy plants), water vapour and heat. This solar energy is utilized with two, simple close-cycle systems.

The first system uses the energy plants and all organic wastes in an anaerobic digester to produce methane gas and nutrients. The nutrients are recycled to the plants and the methane is burnt in an engine-generator/motor to produce electricity, hot water and mechanical power. The carbon dioxide from the engine exhaust is also recycled to the plants.

The second system removes the heat and water vapour produced by the plants to produce potable water and low temperature heat for space heating. The air is pulled down to the space between the bottom floor and a large water reservoir under the structure. Here it is sprayed with the reservoir water, heating the water and saturating the air. The saturated air is pulled into a direct-contact condenser where it is sprayed with cold potable water to dry and cool the air. The warmed potable water is exchanged with cold water from an underground tank and the cooler, drier air is re-heated as required and returned to the houses and back to the plants.

It can be shown, that the year-around output from these rotating planters combined with some seasonal output from an outdoor garden area can provide all the food and energy for these hamlet. I call these moderized hamlets "Villets" (small parts of a village). It can also be shown, that the amortized costs of these Villets are about equal to the after-tax savings produced by the production of food, electricity, hot water, potable water, conditioned air, and organic waste recycling.

So Villets achieve a cooperative social environment with the social courtyards in the interior and private family areas on the outside and self-sufficiency in a compact structure (40 meters in diameter). They are the primary building blocks for the compact villages and communities. With this type of organization, we could achieve the low energy and environmentally responsible communities we will need in the future and still maintain the dynamic synergies of large cities with global trading and information systems that have brought us to our present evolutionary level of development.

5/23/2005 9:08 PM  

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