I've spoken to a number of people about this topic, but I've never seen any definitive answers. So I'm going to try and find some of my own. For a student or architecture, permaculture, and ecology, it's important to understand just how much of an impact it's possible to sustain on this planet. Currently, I'm looking at the issue from an anthropocentric view point, though if anyone else can suggest another wider way of looking at it, go right ahead.
There are two main questions, I guess:
- How many people can the planet support?
- How many people can a City of a given size support?
- How much hinterland does it need?
- What is the relationship between increased density and food/goods transport, and the sustainability of the system?
These questions both hinge on another, more basic one: What resources does a human need to survive well?
Resources being food, water, air, clothing, shelter etc.
Human being of any gender/weight/metabolism (average).
"Survive well" being completely healthy, minimal stress, and having a decent amount of free time (and what a "decent" amount of free time is).
So that's my question set. My base requirements for data will soon follow. I don't think I need a hypothesis.
NOW would be a good time to point out any problems with these questions.
Note that I don not intend to apply these findings to any real life situation. That would be stupid. Real life situations deal with real people, not averages.
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Ned, First of all, thanks
First of all, thanks for this great comment you left on my blog yesterday, and which led me to your blog! I just joined a startup that is all about blogs and wikis, and more, so I was excited to see you are part of the wiki crowd. I will add your blog to my blogroll also.
To expand the anthropocentric
To expand the anthropocentric view out to a broader one we could look at the heirarchies that are implicit within anthropocentrism and ask are they just, while also asking is it possible to be sustainable while still being anthropocentric.
It's implied that non-humans are to be utilised only to support humans, which is a heirarchical view that probably helped get us in this mess to begin with.
Perhaps to take this into account we could ask "How many people can the planet support without creating heirarchies between species?"
We could also flip it over the other way, by asking "How many non-humans can a City of a given size support?" This recognises that humans are as much a part of an ecosystem as any other species.
Some observations not necessarily problems:
The questions make the assumption that as a species we should have as many humans living as is possible. Why is this necessarily a good thing? Perhaps it could be politically and organisationally better to have a smaller population, even if this is well below exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth.
The answers to those questions are important, and can give us some sort of indication as to what social/cultural/ethical systems are able to support, for an indefinate time, a human presence. From there we can determine what systems are more desireable.
MR Z: Couldn't it be said
Couldn't it be said that sustainability is all about humans? Especially if we're talking about the density of a city, since the city is a for-human-by-human construction. The point of a city in the context is to concentrate the human population to a level where capacity is maximised, and the impact on the surrounding ecosystem is minimised. The system is never only the city itself, but the city and it's entire supporting regions.
I guess the assumption I'm making here is that cities aren't beneficial to non-human species. Obviously now that I think about it, that's crap, as there are numerous species that thrive in cities. However, in cities like Newcastle, these species seem to be mostly introduced. That's not to say that they have no value - they have plenty, even from a human perspective. But there is definitely value in containing those introduced species, in order to maintain some degree of wilderness in the hinterland. Wilderness having obvious benefits to non-human species, as well as humans, in the form of education and resources.
The question doesn't make the assumption that we should have as many people as possible - it makes the assumption that we're going to have 9 billion people by 2050 at the current rate of expansion, and that it's in our interest to optimise efficiency (and also in the interests of non-human species that we minimise our impact). I definitely agree that a lower human population would be optimal, but I doubt that it's going to happen that way. Not intentionally, at least.
The problem that I can see with the question is that it <em>doesn't</em> ask what social/cultural/ethical systems would best support the city. That would make it much more interesting and informative, but also fuckloads harder. We'll see.
Really interesting questions
Really interesting questions which I too think should be answered, I've heard it said that using permacultural techniques a city can supply almost all its foood requirments from its landbase - I dont think this is true of all locations but its an interesting starting point. John jeavons is probably a good starting point to getting info on how productive land can be
This is an interesting article on the potential for organic food production http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=5936
Another question which I would keep in mind is the link between food importation and hierachy, the thinking going that if a city cant produce its food and if it requires food from other places then it will do whatever is nessacary to get that food, including violence.
These two posts explore this
Thanks for the interesting writings :)