City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and Governance of Infrastructure Transitions

City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and Governance of Infrastructure Transitions

Written by Mark Swilling on 2013-04-12 07:08:47
New Report for International Resource Panel



City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and the Governance of Infrastructure Transitions. United Nations Environment Programme, Paris, 2013. Co-lead authors: Mark Swilling (Stellenbosch University), Blake Robinson (Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch), Simon Marvin (University of Durham) and Mike Hodgson (University of Salford).

The Report will be launched on 17 April in Nairobi, Kenya, by the Directors of UNEP and UN Habitat.

For a copy click HERE

Summary of the argument by Prof. Mark Swilling

It is generally accepted that the defining social character of our age is that the majority of people on the planet now live in cities. The 2.5 billion people that will take the global population from the current 7 billion to the projected 9.5 billion by 2050 will end up living in African and Asian cities. The end result will be the urbanization of nearly 4 billion people between 1950 and 2030, mainly in the cities of the global South. At the same time, it is also generally accepted that we also face an unprecedented global ecological crisis due to global warming, resource depletion and the gradual destruction of life-supporting ecosystem services. Indeed, we face this ecological crisis from the vantage point of the urban age. But both are unprecedented: never before has the majority of humanity lived in cities, and never before has humanity been a geo-physical force of nature. We are, in short, in an urbanized anthropocene.


The Report on City-Level Decoupling tackles this challenge head on. Instead of just lamenting the fact that cities are responsible for the bulk of CO2 emissions and resource consumption, the Report argues that it may well be a distinct advantage that the majority now live in cities just when we want to become more sustainable. The reason for this optimism is that cities are centres of innovation and this is precisely what is needed to face the challenge of the urbanized anthropocene. At the same time, thanks to agglomerations of scale fewer resources and lower emissions per capita are required to deliver the same quality of life in the city compared to the rural areas. 

Cities are vast pulsating organisms. Vast quantities of materials and people are pumped through cities to make them work including water, sewage, electricity, waste, food, building materials, goods, passengers and data. The natural resources are referred to by the Report as the ‘metabolic flows’ through the cities, measured in tons per capital. However, to conduct these metabolic flows through cities it is necessary to build up over time massive capital intensive urban infrastructure networks that are often managed by or at city-level. One just needs to think of the vast highway systems above the ground or the equally complex mostly underground water and sanitation infrastructures to realise what this entails.

As a rule of thumb, 10% of city-region’s Gross Geographical Product is spent on water, sanitation and energy infrastructures alone. The problem is that these infrastructures have been imagined, designed, built and operated over the years as if there is an unlimited supply of the key strategic resources required by the city. It has also been assumed that these resources are so plentiful that the cost of operating them would not increase very much each year, if not even decline over time.

All these assumptions are now changing. It is not only climate change that threatens the resilience of cities due to more frequent annual flooding, worsening storm events and unpredictable rainfall patterns. Resource depletion and the related rising costs of resources are new threats to cities. As a result, it has become necessary to imagine new more sustainable metabolic flows. This will mean doing less with less mainly in cities plagued by overconsumption, more with less mainly in cities facing the challenges of urban poverty, and much more with renewable resources and wastes across all cities that are not currently making maximum use of these potential resource inputs.

However, the main argument of the Report is that to shift from unsustainable to sustainable metabolic flows, it will be necessary to reconfigure the urban infrastructure networks of the world’s cities. It will no longer be possible to assume that resources are unlimited, that prices will not rise and that the purpose of urban infrastructures is to maximise the consumption of resources. To be practical, every building in future will need to generate more energy than it consumes (which is now technically feasible); every drop of water, all the nutrients and the methane gas in the sewage outflows will need to be captured for re-use; factor five improvements in resource efficiency will need to realised in the way factories operate (by, for example, replacing all inefficient electric pumps), how heating and cooling systems work (through clever design/more efficient HVAC systems) and how water resources are used by every water user in the city. Mobility via the private car will need to come to an end as densities go up, as must urban sprawl as the peri-urban peripheries re-emerge is the city’s foodbaskets.

These and many other innovations are captured in the 30 case studies that informed the thinking and logic of the report, and which are appended to the report for those interested in following them up (see list at end of this article).

Unlike many other Reports, this report does not just provide a critique and policy-relevant prescription. Instead, it also highlights the significance of change agents. All the case studies included references to what are called ‘intermediaries’. Intermediaries are organised urban change agents that play key roles in facilitating urban infrastructure transitions. They can be University research units, or NGOs, or an active policy unit within a government structure (working with or without political support), or a coalition of key city stakeholders, or even an influential consulting company. No matter the specific configuration that emerges in a city, what really matters is whether new capacities and knowledge inputs are generated and mobilised.

This is important because the management of most urban infrastructure networks has over time evolved into large hierarchically structured bureaucracies with a tried and tested modus operandi underpinned by a fixed body of expertise (mostly provided by the engineering faculties of Universities) that knows how to operate the system, but not what the alternatives may be. It therefore follows that change from within these ‘urban regimes’ will be unlikely. Instead, what is needed is interactive engagements facilitated by intermediaries that result in visions of alternative configurations that eventually get translated into niche innovations at first, but which can over time can be absorbed by the dominant infrastructure regimes after the new technologies have been proven. If this absorption does not happen, these regimes can collapse under pressures that were not foreseen and the niche innovations can then coalesce into new alternative regimes. This is how transitions work.

The Report concludes by arguing that as investments in urban infrastructures continue to mount up in both developed and developing countries, it is necessary to ask what kinds of cities these new urban infrastructure investments are bringing into being. Are they going to replicate what is unsustainable and thus prepare these cities for a future collapse? Or will they contribute to making sure that cities become the building blocks for a new ecologically sustainable and fairer global civilization? In short, are we making the urban anthropocene more or less sustainable?

Case studies:

Community-based: Auroville (India), Vauban (Germany), Accra (Ghana) – urban agriculture, Lilongwe (Malawi)-clay housing, Karachi (sanitation), Totnes & Transition Towns (UK)

Green enclaves: gated communities in Bangalore, Masdar (Abu Dhabi), Songdo (S. Korea), Treasure Island (San Francisco) 

Infrastructure alternatives: Bangkok (transit), Durban (waste), Kampala (waste), Lagos (BRT), Medellin (Colombia) – cable car, Cape Town (energy efficient buildings), Linkoping (Sweden)-biogas, Seoul (highway replacement with the river)

Municipal initiatives: Finnish municipalities, Kitakyushu Eco-Town (Japan), Melbourne, Portland (USA), San Jose (USA), Singapore (water), Vaxo (Sweden), Buenos Aires (food security), Chennai (India), Curitiba (waste), Beijing (China), Ho Chi Minh City (waste)