According to the United Nations, it has been estimated that approximately 66% of the world’s global population will be living in cities by the year 2050. The implications of that statistic for humanity and for our environment are great. Since cities are typically very resource-intensive, requiring vast amounts of energy, water, food, and other natural resources, they place a very large burden on our planet to run them. However, it need not be that way.
Urban areas provide a perfect laboratory for the transformation of our world into a sustainable one. Instead of being a tremendous drain on our environment and natural resources, cities can become self-sustaining and provide for the needs of every person. By implementing permaculture design and other sustainable living principles, cities can produce their own energy, recycle resources continually, produce their own food, and capture and conserve water.
By integrating permaculture design into how we design and build our cities, and within the ways that we live in them, we can produce and recycle much of what we need, and we no longer have to place an undue burden on the resources that we source from our rural areas. This would allow for many ecosystems such as forests to recover, and we could then more easily work to restore degraded landscapes around the world, which would help to restore the soil, the land, our global ecosystems, and sustain the basic needs of humanity.
Although human beings have indeed caused a lot of damage to our world, we are inherently part of nature, and therefore we can play a major role in our planet’s healing.
Although transitioning toward this sustainable future will require a vast shift in how we as a species live in relation to our home here on Planet Earth to living in a way that many are not yet ready for, there are many ways that we can begin thinking about and transitioning toward these possibilities today.
It is worth considering that none of the wonderful human advancements that we have today, such as the very electricity that you are using to read this article, came about by chance. They were developed because people worked hard to make them happen, and those same people probably even failed a few, or even many, times along the way before success happened.
The following are just a few of the many ways that permaculture has the potential to help us tackle some of the most pressing challenges that we are facing in urban areas around the world.
1. Energy use
Today, urban areas around the world use and import large amounts of energy resources (often fossil fuel-based) to run electricity, run building heating and cooling systems, as well as run many other infrastructure elements such as water pumping and sewage treatment.
Permaculture offers practical solutions to this problem such as by incorporating passive solar design, natural sewage treatment, implementing energy efficiency, supporting renewable energy resources like solar and wind, and the construction of buildings and homes that not only require no outside energy to heat and cool them, but also produce their own energy and feed the excess energy produced to the city’s energy grid.
2. The urban heat island effect
Vast swaths of concrete, along with an overall lack of trees and other vegetation in urban areas lead to the retaining of solar heat and an overall increase in temperature that is higher than in surrounding rural areas. This can lead to an increased risk of overheating for vulnerable individuals, and also leads to an increased demand for the use of electricity that is required to keep buildings cool during hot days.
Permaculture design can help this problem tremendously by increasing the overall vegetative cover in urban areas through the planting of vegetation such as through the establishment of gardens and food forests, the planting of shrubs and trees, re-vegetating abandoned urban lots, and the restoration of natural landscapes.
By increasing the vegetation present in an urban area, solar energy is captured for use by plants instead of heating up concrete as well as the surrounding urban environment. Green roofs planted on top of city buildings can also be implemented to reduce both the energy use of buildings and homes and to reduce the urban heat island effect.
3. Natural resource demand and waste
It is absolutely true that, with few exceptions, cities import vast amounts of resources, while exporting large amounts of waste. In no one’s imagination is this sustainable. No ecosystem in nature works like that, or it would simply cease to function in short order. Our cities must begin to function much more like ecosystems, and recycle and source resources from within much more efficiently.
While recycling materials like bottles, cans, and paper is absolutely necessary, there are still many resources that are not recyclable and still end up in landfills. We must design and make things that will be used over and over again and do not pollute our land, water, air, and our own bodies. Our food scraps can be used again as compost to create healthy soil. Even our own human waste can be reused for landscapes and fuel, if we design efficient and safe systems to utilize it properly.
Cities are ideal locations for recycling and reuse systems because there are the infrastructure and transportation systems to support it.
4. Food and Hunger
Permaculture excels at demonstrating how to efficiently grow food virtually anywhere, from community gardens, to hugelkultur beds and herb spiral gardens in back yards, to rooftop gardens, to sustainable urban farms, to growing a garden on windowsills and on apartment decks, producing both fish and edible plants through aquaponics, and even growing food indoors.
With so many options, there is very little reason why every family can’t be growing something. What we need is those folks who are knowledgeable in permaculture and sustainable agriculture to show others how to grow things, to encourage them, and to empower them with the tools do so.
As water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource around the world today, water is a natural resource that we absolutely must focus on in urban areas and find sustainable solutions to. We simply cannot live without clean water. In our cities, we are either wasting it, don’t have nearly enough of it due to drought, are dealing with natural disasters related to it such as flooding, or in many communities are dealing with contaminated drinking water and unsanitary water supplies.
Permaculture offers many solutions to water resource challenges in urban areas. Runoff from impervious surfaces can be mitigated and captured by incorporating rain gardens, wetlands, and pervious surfaces within our urban landscapes. Flooding can be mitigated through the planting of perennial vegetation with deep roots and swales in landscapes, which will not only slow the flow of water down as it travels across the ground, but will also help to recharge aquifers that can provide water when other water resources are scarce.
We can also implement the capture and storage of rainwater in urban areas, eliminate the wasteful practice of watering grassy lawns by designing climate appropriate landscapes such as xeriscaping in drier regions, mulching our gardens and plants instead of watering unnecessarily, implementing natural and effective sewage treatment and sanitation, and eliminating the use of toxic chemicals on our lawns and gardens that pollute water resources.
6. Poverty and unemployment
In this case, the problem really is the solution! While the current extractive economic system considers the abundance of unemployed and underemployed workers as an “externality” we really do have an ideal opportunity presented to us to create a sustainable living for humanity by restoring our Earth’s environment, producing food, and by healing ourselves and our planet.
The problem has been that the extractive economy has assumed that natural resources are inexhaustible, and that people are expendable.
What if we designed a new sustainable economy where people are actually viewed as resources for their skills, talents, and values as human beings to find real solutions to some of the biggest challenges that we are now facing as a species? What if our environment was fully recognized in our economy and treated as the priceless resource that it truly is and cannot be replaced? We might actually end up with a sustainable economy that leads to health and abundance for all.
7. Pollinator Rescue
Because permaculture encourages natural ecosystems and sustainable food production, natural pest control, encourages native plants that support pollinators, and does not use toxic chemicals that kill them, we have a very real opportunity in urban areas to support healthy pollinator populations.
In fact, with such widespread use of pollinator-killing agricultural chemicals in rural areas, the pollinators in our urban areas may actually help to save their own species. Every effort helps.
People living in urban areas have a very real opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint of the transportation that they use. In urban areas, we can bike, walk, and use public transportation to get from place to place, and we typically don’t have to go very far to get the resources that we need, such as food and clothes.
If we do have to drive somewhere, there are now increasing resources available for car sharing programs, electric car charging stations, and park and ride opportunities in many urban areas.
9. Loss of natural habitat through urban sprawl
Through the increased development of natural habitat into our cities and suburbs, the world is experiencing a great deal of habitat fragmentation, the endangerment of many wildlife species, and a loss of functioning ecosystems.
However, if we started to design and redesign our urban areas using permaculture and other sustainable landscape systems, perhaps we can reduce this increasing tide of habitat destruction, reverse much of the damage, and finally transform our human settlements into something that mimics and works with nature much more.
The ultimate goal of permaculture is to live in harmony with our natural environment. The cityscape is the perfect environment where humanity can learn how to turn that dream into a reality.