Ecocity Insights

Reconciling the Climate Emergency to the Reality of Cities as Dissipative Structures

Written by Jennie Moore

Last April, Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary. Since its inception, the world has experienced massive change with more than half the global population moving into cities. The urban way of life is now the dominant experience for most of humanity.

While cities can provide efficient ways for people to live, they have not yet achieved their full potential. For example, instead of integrating land use with a pedestrian-oriented design that favors walking, cycling, and transit, most cities assume automobile dependence with dedicated car lanes and parking minimum standards to ensure cars always have a place to rest. Instead of orienting buildings to take advantage of natural light, and related heating or cooling effects, buildings are generally constructed assuming an external power supply is provided, be it near or far away. Instead of designing to catch and hold rainwater for onsite use, or collection in community cisterns or lakes, the assumption is that it will be conveyed from aquifers, reservoirs, or other water bodies sometimes hundreds of kilometers away. An ecocity approach that engages Ecocity Standards for urban design solutions for “access by proximity,” “environmentally friendly transport,” “green buildings,” and nature-based solutions to support “clean and safe water” can go a long way to achieve urban resilience while simultaneously reducing a city’s demand for nature’s services.

However, the truth is that no matter how intelligent we design our cities to maximize their energy and resource productivity – and we have a long way to go – cities, like the people who live in them, are and always will be “dissipative structures.”

A dissipative structure uses high-grade energy and concentrated materials appropriated from its surroundings to maintain its internal order and function. For cities, this means appropriating nature’s resources to support and maintain the built environment and to provide its residents with sufficient water, food, and other resources needed to survive and thrive.

Over the last 50 years, since Earth Day was first celebrated, humans have not only become the dominant species, they have become the dominant force shaping terrestrial ecosystems (IPBES 2019). Today, half of Earth’s habitable land surface has been converted to agriculture production, two-thirds of which supports livestock (Ritchie and Roser 2019). Timber harvests have increased 45% (IPBES 2019), and freshwater withdrawals have tripled (Worldometers 2021). What used to be a vast wilderness stretching across continents has dwindled to less than 30% of Earth’s terrestrial land area. Although the built area of cities only accounts for 1.5% of Earth’s land surface, cities indirectly account for 70% to 80% of all terrestrial land resource appropriations (IPPC 2019). Moving all this material from the global commons into cities takes a tremendous about of energy, usually in the form of fossil fuels.

Many cities have declared a climate emergency and are taking actions to reduce energy use in buildings and intra-urban transportation. But the majority of energy a city uses is embodied in the production and transportation of resources from the global commons in the form of food, construction materials, and manufactured goods. Addressing the climate emergency requires reconciling with the reality of cities as dissipative structures and engaging in a full suite of ecocity solutions to maximize ecological productivity within cities while simultaneously fostering regenerative provisioning of nature’s services across Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Examples include agroforestry, permaculture, stream restoration, and reforestation.

The urban ecosystem extends beyond the proverbial walls of the city. Thinking and acting in holistic ways to support humanity’s coexistence with nature requires an appreciation for the fact that cities are dissipative structures. As we look to the next 50 years, it will be increasingly important for people who care about Earth to understand these important and complex connections. Happy Earth Day! May it be filled with ecocity insights.



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About the author

Jennie Moore

Dr. Jennie Moore is Director, Institute Sustainability at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Dr. Moore has extensive experience in the realm of ecological sustainability and urban systems including climate change and energy management, green buildings and eco-industrial networking. Prior to joining BCIT she worked for over a decade at Metro Vancouver as Manager of Strategic Initiatives. Her research explores the potential for Vancouver to achieve one-planet living. Jennie is a senior associate of the One Earth Initiative and a core advisor to the International Ecocity Framework and Standards.