What can deserts teach us about the ecology of wealth and designing great cities?
Do you live in a desert?
Most of us think we don't (more about that in a moment).
There's a stark beauty to deserts. When I was a young astronomer driving from Hilo, Hawaii, to the telescopes on Mauna Kea, I remember my boss breathing a sigh of relief when we hit the tree line and the rainforest abruptly ended. "Ah," he said, "We're finally free of that incessant vegetation!"
But deserts are beautiful in their valor, not their wealth. The land is large and bare. Plants and animals are adapted to make the most of what little water they can find. In a desert, life is in retreat. The end state is pure minerals, like one of the prettiest places I ever saw: the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Beautiful, but dead.
To determine if you live in an ecological or economic desert, here’s a quiz you can take. Just count how many of your answers are “No”.
If you had more than three 'no's, you live in the desert. Even if it looks like a suburb or a town or a city, even if you live in the country or a forest for now. If three of your answers were no, your lifestyle is turning that greenery into desert because the roads you depend on are fragmenting habitats and speeding the mass extinction.
Now, look, I'm not here to guilt trip anybody. A lot of these things are well outside of our control. We have to make a living. We have to get by somehow. It's part of the process that we're embedded in, and the question is, how can we reverse this process, especially in cities?
Cities, designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity. Welcome to Episode 10: Greening the Urban Desert.
Desert vs. rainforest
Let's talk about the difference between a desert and a rainforest, and that difference is mainly a thing called cycling ratios.
So cycling ratio answers the question: "What fraction of the resources that go into an ecosystem go through living organisms?"
Now in a desert, this number is very low. Most of the sunlight and rain that falls on the surface is never used by any living thing at all, so the cycling ratio would be very close to zero.
But a rain forest makes several hundred times more use of the sunlight that falls on it, and every drop of rain goes through many plants and animals before it leaves the system. So for water, the cycling ratio could be a lot bigger than one.
All right, so now we know the difference between a rainforest and desert is mainly about cycling ratio. The next question is: how do you green a desert?
How to green a desert (5 ways)
Simple. You increase the cycling ratios. How? Well the ecological answer is that you add Pioneer species that prepare the soils and provide habitat for later species.
1. Columbia: Gaviotas
And this is exactly the strategy that the Gaviotas settlement in Colombia used back in the 1990s. This is from the book Gaviotas: A Village To Reinvent the World, by Alan Weisman (Chelsea Green, 1998). And basically, it tells the story of a group of very educated idealists moving to the parched savannas of Columbia, about 300 kilometers east of Bogota, and seeking to create an engineering utopia.
So a couple of decades into that experiment, they decided to see if they could get the rainforest to re establish itself on the Savannah by planting Caribbean pine trees. Now these are trees that hold moisture and provide homes for birds, which in turn seed an understory forest, which prepares the way for the rainforest to reestablish. And the interesting thing about Caribbean pine trees is that although they are an introduced species, they don't reproduce in that climate, and so they will eventually be overrun by the later species imported by the birds. And the other thing that was interesting is that the pine trees produced a sap, which was very useful in resins and paints and varnishes, and so it more than paid for itself economically. I mean, we're talking millions of dollars. It was a pioneer species. Both ecologically end economically.
So the takeaway here for city design is to not only not neglect the living elements, but to use them as part of both an ecological and economic plan. From day one, if you can.
2. China: Loess Plateau
Another way to green the desert was pioneered by China up in the Loess Plateau region, and this is a huge area about the size of Belgium. This was the seat of the Han people and was once one of the most fertile and productive areas in China. It was overgrazed over millennia, and about 1000 years ago, the wealthiest people started leaving the region. So by the 20th century, it pretty much looked like a desert. There were hardly any trees left intact. There was hardly any greenery, and every time it rained, it flooded out and washed out soils, which actually were the source of the Yellow River being yellow. So in a program that I will detail in a later episode, China decided to see if it could restore the region to its former greatness as an agricultural region.
On the face of this, this wouldn't seem to make sense, except when you looked at the soils, which were up to 300 meters thick and very rich agricultural soils just basically going to waste due to mismanagement. So the elements of recovery were really simple. All that China did after an initial cultural assessment was to forest the slopes and the hilltops, terrace the Midlands and crop the flats. And, uh oh yeah, pen the animals.
Throughout the process and this work, this basically reduced the land that had been in production to 40% of what it used to be, but tripled the overall productivity.
3. W. P. A. Swales
Another strategy for greening the desert is to reshape the land. An experiment was done during the Depression in the United States near Tucson, Arizona. This was the work Projects administration under President Roosevelt, where they basically sent teams of workers out into the desert to dig humongous trenches along contours. What I mean by contour is if you trace a path on a hillside so that you're neither going uphill or downhill with every step, then you are on contour. You are at a fixed contour, and the thing that's interesting is, if you put a trench along that line of contour, then when it rains, the water will not tend to leave the trench. It'll tend to stay as long as possible in the bottom of that trench, where it will start to dissolve minerals and make them available to microbes and to seeds, and the soil will basically wake up.
Now the engineering term for these structures is contour irrigation trenches. The permaculture name for it is swale (S W A L E). And so this is a system for concentrating water near the bottom of that trench and building healthy soils, and they basically left it at that when they were done. They dug a few of these. Then, finally, that project was closed.
Well, 80 years later, if you go back, you can actually find this near Tucson. In Google Earth, you'll see that there's the's arcs that are green in the desert. I've actually been to them, and it's kind of amazing. You're just out in this very dry, barren desert, and then when you walk into these swales, they're green and lush. They have this multi storied canopy of trees and underbrush, and if you dig in the soil near the bottom of these swales, you'll find deep, rich black soil.
The lesson here is that if the W. P. A. had dug more swales closer to where more people lived, and seeded them with perennial crops (so this would be tree crops), it would be just a wonderful Eden-like oasis that people could enjoy today (well, of course, they would have probably had to put in pioneer species and manage it for a great number of years before you could establish that oasis).
4. Geoff Lawton: Greening The Desert
Swales have been used all over the world by Permaculturists, probably the most famous of whom is Geoff Lawton, in his greening the Desert Experiment in the Jordan Valley. Now this is one of the driest places on the earth, and it's also one of the saltiest soils you'll ever find. The experts in the region at the time said he was completely crazy to be trying to rehabilitate the land using swales like they had done in Tucson, Arizona. But that's what he did, and it worked, And what they found was that the bacteria that became established in the soils sequestered the salt and made it not available to the rest of the plantings and so made the soils viable. And that was really unexpected.
So the lesson there is that the living elements of pioneer ecologies can work together to make a region livable that you might not even think can be livable.
5. Allan Savory (herd management)
There is one other approach to greening desserts that I'm familiar with, and that's the method of Allan Savory, where you close pack your herd animals much like predators used to do, and let them graze and manure and fertilize grasslands. But then you keep them moving so that they don't overgraze it. And this actually has very much the same effect that the swales had in terms of conditioning this soil. And it has some of the effects of the Caribbean Pines in Gaviotas.
The important point is that there are at least five methods and probably many more to green desserts. Each method has its own area of greatest applicability, so Allan Savory's methods, for example, work better in drier savannas than Gaviotas, for example, and may have worked, though probably not as well, in the Loess Plateau. But that's okay, because Savory's method does apply to some of the largest areas of desert and savanna on the planet.
Okay, so much for greening natural desserts. What about urban deserts? Well, if you look at Google maps, first of all, you'll notice that most cities are somewhere between 50 and 70% paved and lifeless. That's just basically roads and parking lots and the bear roofs of buildings and houses. But beyond that, there are subtler forms of desertification that occur in urban areas. The chief among these is lawns and gardens, which have soils that are 99% sterile compared to healthy forests soils, as you may recall from that Science News article I mentioned in Episode 2. Now lawns are thirsty, and they are the biggest crop in the United States. Grass takes up about 2% of the land area of the continental United States, according to an article in Business Insider, February 19th 2016. So these are like savanna grasslands that change the soil balance from fungal to bacterial dominance, making it a bit harder for trees to grow without close packed herd animals to mow and fertilize it. These lawns are dependent on us to use chemical fertilizers. And because the soils are so depleted in biodiversity, they don't hold on to moisture or nutrients very well at all.
In addition to that, complicating this, is that we tends to treat water as a waste disposal problem in cities, and so storm water is channeled away before it can do the natural ecosystem any good.
Now I'm happy to say that in future episodes, I will be reporting on areas where they have designed cities and neighborhoods to use storm water effectively. And it's a wonderful resource, and it could make an enormous difference. It can literally create an oasis in the middle of parched, near -desert climate.
How to Green a City
So let's talk about how you green a city. One of the best thinkers in this area is Jane Jacobs, the author of The Nature of Economies. She's the one, you may recall, who wrote about economics as a subset of ecology.
Now, in classical economics, we don't really think much about ecology. So, classically speaking, the sources of wealth are specialization, scale and trade. These create wealth by multiplying the volume of exports. So classical economics prefers free trade and global markets.
Jacobs wasn't so sure about that. Her view was driven by ecology. So ecological economics looks at how local sharing creates wealth by multiplying the reuse of imports, and hence their value.
So in this case, you would measure monetary cycling ratios. That is to say, how many times does money change hands before it leaves your neighborhood, your town or your city?
Now I've gotten to wondering: can we have the best of both perspectives? And I think the answer is yes.
For one thing, we can use density to make cycles tighter in the city, meaning that you don't have to take a lot of time or use a lot of energy and materials to meet your needs. This applies ecology to make us richer and, in fact, more efficient. Transportation systems like we talked about in Episode 8 can give you a 9,000 to 2500% better use of resource is, and these make it much less costly to build local economies and to share more.
Finally, I think there's several technological trends that are going to work to merge classical and ecological economics at the scale of cities, and these are: additive manufacturing (that is, 3D printers), miniaturization and automating the zero waste cycle of feedstocks. What I mean by that is that products would be designed to be disassembled and all of their component parts fully recycled. That already exists in some industries. For example, Apple Computer now uses robots to disassemble older generation iPhones. And then finally, there's the possibility, when you have these technologies locally available to share recipes and procedures online, and so you have a much stronger information economy as these technologies mature. And so you have the benefits of distant trade of information and local reuse of resources.
Efficiency as a design tool?
Now, Jacobs is not a big fan of efficiency as a measure of progress, as she wrote in her book, Dark Age Ahead, and I can see why, when it's used as an excuse to destroy cultural treasures or unique habitats such as old growth forests.
We are so used to economic decisions divorced from ecology that push us toward extinction. So, for example, San Jose, home of Silicon Valley, once had orchards and some of the best agricultural land on the planet. My aunt Dora Crouch, who studied the geology of ancient and modern water systems, pointed out that in some areas the soils were 40 feet thick. Now Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County has more Superfund sites, meaning toxic waste sites, than any other county in the nation. This is a gross misuse of resources, and it completely ignored ecology as a basis of wealth.
But although Jacobs didn't really like efficiency as a measure of progress, I think it does make a great design tool in the context of Edenicity, which, as you may recall, is defined as economic plus ecological abundance. When we design to make higher cycling ratios, we strive for tighter resource loops. This doesn't mean designing for faster highways: If you Google induced demand, you'll find that the speed gains that faster highways give you don't last. Instead, we should design for higher density. Then you don't have to take a lot of time or use a lot of energy and materials to meet your needs. This is how applied ecology makes us richer.
Expanding the Commons
We should also expand the Commons, which I take to mean shared spaces, amenities and resources.
Now, many Economics students have heard of a phenomenon called the Tragedy of the Commons. In classical economics, it's what happens when there's a good that people use but which nobody owns. So this is a free good. For example, the grasslands in the Loess Plateau could easily be overgrazed if everybody feels that they have an unlimited right to graze an unlimited number of cattle on it. But as we saw with the incredibly miraculous reforestation and greening of the Loess plateau, the tragedy of the Commons lies mainly in a lack of management. Otherwise, the commons are a great thing, just like a drop of water or any nutrient is more valuable when it passes from one organism to the next rather than just evaporating.
A car is hundreds of times more valuable as part of a public transportation system, especially if that system outperforms any form of private ownership. We shouldn't fear efficiency in its full ecological context, and we shouldn't fear expanding the Commons. These are the ecological basis of wealth.
How can you expand the Commons? One catchphrase that I've encountered is it's a matter of access versus ownership. So, for example, in the area of transportation, we have even very humble efforts that have yielded amazing results. Bike sharing has proven to be a huge hit in cities all over the world with bike sharing. Apartment dwellers don't have to store a bike, clean it, maintain it, haul it up and down the stairs. And so this massively increases the number of people riding bikes. And as that happens, drivers get used to dealing with bikes and, as we saw on episode 4, bicycling gets a whole lot more safe.
Another example of expanding the Commons in transportation is car sharing. Outfits like ZIP cars let you have the car or truck you need when you need it. The rest of the time, you don't have to worry about parking, maintenance, insurance or theft.
The New York City subway has 6000 cars that carry six million passengers a day. That's about 1000 passengers per car. Loop Transit, which I discussed in Episode 8, could also carry 1000 passengers per day per car with non stop point to point on demand service. But in this case, the cars are built for 16 passengers instead of 200.
The Commons has benefited people even on the highest end of transportation. NetJets and other fractional ownership airlines provide a service very similar to biker car sharing for wealthy business travelers. When you own a fraction of a NetJet airplane, you get door to door limo service on your own schedule with no security lines. And again, this is with none of the hassles of private ownership, which, in the case of an airplane, would be staffing, maintenance, storage and disposal.
What about expanding the Commons in residential markets? Well, we've seen a huge disruption in the hospitality industry due to Airbnb and couch surfing, and for transitional housing in places like Los Angeles, there's also PodShare, which is proving to be a very popular co-working space, combined with a place where you can live during transitional times when you're moving into or out of a city.
And, of course, there are the familiar Commons that we all grew up with: libraries, public parks, public venues of every description. We're also starting to see the growth of tool libraries and maker spaces.
Now, in the case of Edenicity, there's a lot more opportunities for public/private spaces. So, for example, in that reference design that you can download from edenicity.com, there are those rooftop gardens that are maintained by cafes belonging to some of the apartment owners. So basically everybody has got a rooftop garden, and they're maintained by the owners of cafes that are at the ground level of some of the apartments.
New Urbanism and WalkScore
Some of this is not a new story at all. New Urbanism has been around for decades, and this is the idea of having neighborhoods that are walkable, where you can meet many of your needs within walking distance. And this really gets at our quiz at the beginning of this program.
Now, if you're wondering where you can live, that is less of a desert, one thing you can do is go to WalkScore.com and punch in the address that you're considering, and it'll tell you how walkable that neighborhood is. They'll give you a standard measure of it.
This actually brings to mind a conversation that I had back when I was a permaculture novice. So I had just gotten my first permaculture design certificate and I was active in the Bloomington, Indiana, Permaculture Guild and Rhonda Baird, who herself was a newly minted permaculturist and is now quite accomplished in the field, and I were talking about zoning and how it basically limited some of the things we wanted to do. And the idea she had was that maybe there could be permaculture zoning in permaculture building codes. And at the time I was still in the mentality, um, which is taught in permaculture to this day, that smaller and slower solutions are preferred and that you prefer local to large scale design because so often large scale design is imposed on localities without any feedback. And so it's done wrong (and by the way, I'll point out that this was not the case in the Loess Plateau in China. They had a process that did take into account local knowledge and put it into the design. But I didn't know anything about that at the time). And so I said, Oh, no, you know, Permaculture zoning and permaculture building codes would lead us into error.
Well, in the years since then, I've come around and I think no, actually, a lot of what makes permaculture work is matching the design solutions to the climate or to the microclimate that's available, and as long as part of the design process and part of the zoning and building process involves a climate and cultural assessment. I think you're good to go, and it's actually a very good way to get the job done.
Now I'll have a lot more about how to expand the Commons in your community without even having to build edenicity in a later episode. But just as one example from my experience working in Bloomington, I'll point out that creating public-private spaces is a wonderful first step and it could be a simple is putting a bench on the outer edge of your own lawn. And then when people come and rest, they're going out to talk to them about some of your ideas for the neighborhood. And that's exactly what Ann Kreilkamp, who was the main person behind the Green Acres ecovillage in Bloomington, did. She managed to just lunch a complete transformation of this neighborhood with a simple park bench on the corner of her property.
How good can it get?
How good can City design get? Well I've lived in towns where you could meet friends for meals in three different places, sampling three different great cuisines. Go for a hike, visit a museum, go for a swim, taking a concert. All that at a relaxed pace with plenty of downtime all in a single day. How is that possible? The key to it was high density.
If you add to that good transit planning and a well managed Commons, it's even better.
We could have cities that are 10 times better than any city in the world today if we make strong design choices, meaning no noisy, dangerous cars, and if we attend to ecology and roll it out in a big way.
If you enjoyed Episode 10 please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. You can download a copy of the reference design and eat in the city dot com and please join me next time when I'll examine the unique garden to table cafe culture. That reference design makes possible. I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.