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Food, energy and water – integrated systems for sustainable design of urban neighbourhoods

The weekly groceries, our energy bill and the water meter indicate how much we are depleting our natural resources – day after day, week after week, and year after year. The way these resources are produced, harvested and generated determines our environmental impact, and eventually how our environment, including the climate, will change. Sometimes for the better, more often for the worse.


Our food is often grown in large-scale farms, far away from where we live. The way crops and animals are produced impacts our environment, pollutes the water system and uses large amounts of energy for transportation. We are eating too much fat and sugar, and these ingredients are hidden in the products we buy from the supermarket. And we throw away large amounts of quality food.


The current energy system is based on coal-fired power plants. From these centralised energy generators, the electricity is transported via the grid to our individual homes. Our homes are badly insulated and hence use excessive amounts of energy for cooling and heating. This system depletes natural resources and accelerates climate change through carbon emissions. The impacts include increased flooding, more storms, sea-level rise, prolonged droughts, urban heat islands and bushfires – all events in the Sydney region.


The majority of our drinking water is collected in large dams, such as Warragamba Dam. From there it is pumped throughout Sydney to each individual household. After we use it the water is transported to sewage treatment plants, or in some cases directly to the ocean. Again, this system uses a lot of energy and pollutes our natural environment.


Not a great picture, and many people experience it as something they cannot change themselves.


What to do?

If we all changed our diets, habits and behaviour, we would eventually solve this problem. We’d only buy locally produced food, we’d use renewable energy, reuse and clean our drinking water close to our homes. However, this sounds like an unlikely utopia.


Therefore, instead of relying on individual actions to drive change we need to transform each of the food, energy and water systems so they produce consumables in a more sustainable way. Moreover, these systems need to be integrated.


The food system should be fully localised. In the case of Sydney this means that all food needs to be grown within the Sydney basin. In practice this is dependent on our diets, as diets heavy in animal products require much more space than vegetables and fish. However, there are many opportunities to grow food in the vicinity of your home: on the roof, the façade, intensive ways of producing inside buildings, or in public parks such as community gardens.


The energy system should be transformed to use renewable resources only. The sun is always shining and for the remainder of our needs we can use wind, hydro or biofuels. Furthermore, the development of smart grids in local neighbourhoods can regulate demand and supply in a very efficient way, and the problem of storage capacity for surpluses of solar during the day can be solved by charging the batteries of electric cars.


The cycle of the water system needs to be closed locally. Through water-sensitive urban design (WSUD), surpluses of rainwater can be stored and grey water cleaned in the public green space. The cleaned water is reused for several functions in the household, such as toilet flushing. This way we use smaller volumes of high-quality water and impact the environment much less.


Besides the need to “sustainify” the food, energy and water systems on their own, there is also much to gain if we integrate them. In wastewater we can often find the nutrients that could fertilise local food production. Waste products from food production can be used to generate energy through bio-fermentation and through-flow of water can generate energy. There are many links between these three systems (see image), which can make the entire system more efficient.



Three more improvements

In order to improve the sustainability of urban environments we need to take three more elements into account.


We need to work at different scales at the same time. Household-level initiatives impact the systems in the neighbourhood and at the city and region scales. Similarly, the type of bioregion – its climate and the natural systems in the landscape, such as water and ecosystems, soil quality and energy potentials – determines the type of local systems needed to be successful.


We need to “parallelise” the planning process. Normally the government proposes a plan for a certain area. After community consultation the plan may be implemented, and only then are the changes appraised, or not. In order to optimally integrate sustainability in the design of urban environments, the steps in this planning process need to be gone through in parallel. From the start of the planning process, residents propose changes and give feedback on proposals. Simultaneously, the sustainability of these proposals is assessed. This parallel process of design, engagement and assessment should be iterative and cyclic. Proposals and feedback will be discussed several times before an optimal proposal can be accepted.


Finally, improving sustainability in urban environments is not a technical exercise only. When we turn it into a design-led process, and show the proposed changes visually, residents are better placed to understand what these changes mean, discuss them and support the ones they prefer. This way the overall sustainability of neighbourhoods will increase.


Knowledge for the future

Changes to food, energy and water in urban environments could contribute significantly to creating a better planet. Sydney is part of an international research collaboration, which will build and share knowledge from various projects about how to design urban environments at different scales, with residents involved and using immediate feedback on food, energy and water proposals for each bioregion. The learnings will help to improve Sydney’s food, energy and water systems in several locations.


In future articles we will look at the FoodRoof in Rio de Janeiro, the Biospheric project in Manchester, local farming in Detroit, the economic food cycle in a Tokyo neighbourhood and the way urban agriculture is implemented on the campus of Qatar University.

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