New Internationalist

Talking about a (concrete) revolution

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City gardeners and construction developers may be strange bed-fellows – but it’s a promising union, writes Wayne Roberts.

quapan under a CC Licence
quapan under a CC Licence

I started my research by typing ‘crumbling’ into Google, and as soon as I hit the first letter in the second word, up popped ‘crumbling infrastructure’.

I think that shows a lot of people are tracking what is often called a silent crisis of ageing sewage and water pipes, bridges, filtration plants and the like. Yet the issue isn’t on many governments’ to-do lists. Maybe that’s because the cost of fixing old infrastructure quickly adds up to hundreds of billions without any promise of new benefits – be they new kinds of business opportunities, or new improvements to health and wellbeing.

But a late-summer conference that brought city gardeners and construction developers from around the world to Toronto has just issued a declaration calling for a new generation of living infrastructure that’s built in partnership with what’s conventionally thought of as urban agriculture.

Talk about an odd couple! But this call for convergence between two groups usually thought of as being on opposite sides of the political fence and in two entirely separate spheres of action (one, a money-making construction industry that digs trenches, and one a form of recreation for those love digging in gardens) is what today’s enduring business revolutions are all about.
Though this seems to be a time in history when more relationships among people are coming apart, it is also a time when new relationships are bringing people together, and business convergence is one of these.

What is now treated as a ho-hum revolution – the 1990s convergence of communication, information and entertainment technologies – brought at least three industries together that had long been thought of as separate and unconnected. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, electronic news services, movie rentals, music downloads – all are a product of that convergence.

A web of life

The same kind of revolutionary convergence may now be working its way through the construction and planting fields. Twenty years from now, the landscape and building equivalents of Facebook and music downloads will become the beautiful norm in our unused and often unsightly urban spaces. This transformation won’t be based on digitalization or the internet, but it will be based on the web – the web of life that weaves economic, environmental, community and health threads together.

Arlington County under a CC Licence

When that convergence happens, it will roll out four sets of new benefits from one set of initiatives that cost far less than if each service were delivered separately. New ways of repairing, restoring and replacing crumbling infrastructure – or, in the slums of the Global South, creating such infrastructure for the first time – will yield four benefits of crucial significance for cities.

First, a new convergence-based strategy around the built environment will supply safe and economical ways of ensuring delivery of everyday needs performed by water, garbage, sewage and energy utilities.

Second, that infrastructure will be more environmentally friendly than present-day methods; more resilient in the face of unexpected events likely in an era of global climate change; and more responsible in its management of increasingly scarce resources.

A revolutionary convergence may now be working its way through the construction and planting fields

Third, producing food in the city will become economically viable because new spaces will be devoted to it, and because some of its revenues will come as a result of ‘fees for environmental services’ that orchardists and gardeners provide to save public expenditures on infrastructure.

Fourth, millions of fulfilling, creative and knowledge-based construction and maintenance jobs will be created, not just the one-off jobs created by ‘public works’ programmes designed to stimulate immediate job creation for relatively unskilled labour.

Here’s the insight that led the steering committee responsible for Toronto’s Urban Agriculture Summit to issue its declaration.

Farming benefits

In Europe, the many social, health, environmental and economic benefits of regular countryside agriculture are identified as ‘multifunctional’ which qualifies farmers for fees either from the European Union or their own country, without fear of having this fee defined as a subsidy that contradicts free trade or the World Trade Organization.

If better farming practices lead to improved services – safer passage for migrating birds, better life chances for at-risk species, cleaner water for healthy fisheries or urban drinking water, increased storage of carbon in the soils offsetting carbon from fossil-fuel use, job training for hard-to-employ youth, or easier access to rural walks for tourists – then, Europeans argue, the farmers’ extra labour providing such extra services is deemed worthy of some economic compensation.

It’s cheaper to pay landlords a fee to green their roofs than it is to expand sewage pipes or sewage plants

A careful look at urban agriculture indicates that urban food production produces many health, social and environmental benefits and that this multi-functionality deserves a fee from regional governments. Far from costing local governments money, these fees compensate urban food producers for improvements that would be much more expensive to get from traditional infrastructure or conventional services.

This is the business case for treating urban agriculture as infrastructure. Take the example of green roofs. Green roofs store and absorb rainfall on flat roofs, thereby keeping rain from becoming storm water that floods sewers below. It’s cheaper for a city, especially a city that’s growing in size and looking at expensive expansion of sewage infrastructure, to pay landlords a fee to green their roofs than it is to expand sewage pipes or sewage plants. The moisture released as evaporation by green roof plants a few days after the rainfall cools the city, thereby cutting down air-conditioning bills. The plants provide green space that’s welcome to birds and butterflies as well as residents looking for a beautiful view of the roof and the city – all amenities that are quite expensive to deliver if they’re dedicated services that serve one purpose only.

To add more icing to the cake, Steven Peck of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities points out that green roofs reduce the damage from direct exposure of the roof to ultraviolet sun rays during the summer and rapid freeze-thaw cycles during the winter, thereby extending the life of a roof almost indefinitely. ‘This is a case where the benefits increase each year, instead of depreciating, as is the case with non-living infrastructure,’ says Peck.

Community benefits

For an example of social benefits from green technologies, take community gardens. FoodShare started supporting community gardens about 20 years ago as a food source for individuals on low income. But projects mushroomed as people discovered the multiple benefits of gardens – education for school kids, job training and job-readiness training for the unemployed, youth engagement and community building for people in social housing projects, and so on. Almost by definition, the gardens also provide community benefits in terms of improved health, public safety, neighbourhood beautification and pride.

If FoodShare and its food producers were paid a little extra for these extra services, it would be far more cost-effective for local government than funding separate programmes for anti-hunger, school curriculum enhancement, job training and additional policing in stressed neighbourhoods. That’s the value proposition behind this Toronto declaration, which holds that ‘good food, green buildings, great cities grow together’.

This seemingly unusual partnership can bring an entirely new paradigm for the built environment in cities.

Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

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