We have a new blog site!

February 10, 2015

Dear readers,

We are excited to announce our new news site, ecocitiesemerging.org. The new blog is a comprehensive portal for news, calls to action, tools, and knowledge of Ecocities.


Thanks for being an Ecocitizen!

~Naomi Grunditz

Ecocity Builders Media


A Healthy and Equitable Economy in the International Context?

January 6, 2015

by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia Institute of Technology

A socio-cultural feature of ecocities is that they support a healthy and equitable economy. The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) identifies that the city’s economy “consistently favors economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options” (www.ecocitystandards.org).

Whereas many cities focus primarily on economic growth as a means to achieve prosperity, research shows that equity is more strongly correlated with health and social improvement (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). This is particularly true for developed economies where most of the population’s basic needs for food and shelter are already met. Yet, even among developing economies, those that achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth and invest in social services, including education, achieve higher levels of development while simultaneously keeping their demand on nature’s services low.

Countries such as Cuba and Ecuador obtain similar longevity and literacy levels as the USA, but at a fraction of energy and materials consumption (Moore and Rees 2013). Germany and Japan surpass the USA in terms of quality of life (e.g., human health and social wellbeing) while simultaneously consuming less (Moore 2013; Moore and Rees 2013; Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). Not only are these countries more efficient in their use of resources, they also have lower per capita ecological footprints. An ecological footprint refers to the amount of land and sea area required to support a specified population at their current levels of affluence and technology (Wackernagel and Rees 1996). Indeed, populations in Cuba and Ecuador live within global ecological carrying capacity as measured by their ecological footprint (WWF 2009).

The World Commission on Environment and Development acknowledges that “rapid growth combined with deteriorating income distribution may be worse than slower growth combined with redistribution in favour of the poor” (WCED 1987, 24). Unfortunately, rapid growth with deteriorating income distribution has been the dominant trend for over forty years, and today many societies are succeeding in terms of material growth and failing in terms of social health (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

Poverty in the midst of plenty.

Poverty in the midst of plenty.

Ecocities support economic activities that reduce harm and positively contribute to both environmental and human health. This includes efforts to reduce emissions to air and atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels, avoiding the use of toxic chemicals applied to soils or discharged to receiving waters where they can bio-accumulate in animals and plants, and supporting locally and organically produced foods and renewable energy sources. Ecocities also support local and equitable employment options that are integrated within the design of the city. For example, the layout of land uses as well as the city’s policy framework play an important role in: a) making jobs and housing accessible and b) ensuring that companies comply with environmental protection legislation. This approach sets the foundation for “green jobs” and “ecological-economic development” (www.ecocitystandards.org).

However, the city acting alone can only go so far. A supportive framework at senior government levels (e.g. provincial, state, national) is also important. In our globally integrated economy, the implications of national government policies and international trade agreements play a determining role in the policies local governments can enact. This is particularly true with regard to efforts by cities to advance sustainable modes of production and consumption. In North America, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (http://usdn.org/home) comprising local government staff working to advance sustainability in over 100 cities is addressing this important topic. A recent workshop hosted in Eugene Oregon (http://scorai.org/eugene-2014/) by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network in collaboration with the Sustainable Production and Consumption Action Research Initiative (http://scorai.org/ ) identified the schism between i) locally focused community economic development efforts that advance equitable and sustainable economies and ii) globally focused national economic strategies that perpetuate economic growth without careful attention to who benefits and pays as a result of their implementation. Stay tuned to their research to find out whether a healthy and equitable economy for cities is possible within this international context.

Invest in your country's human capital.

Invest in your country’s human capital.


Moore, Jennie. 2013. Getting Serious About Sustainability: Exploring the Potential for One-Planet Living in Vancouver. Dissertation in Partial Fulfillment of the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Vancouver BC: School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia.

Moore, Jennie and W.E. Rees. 2013. Getting to One-Planet Living in Linda Starke ed., State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington DC: Island Press, pp. 39-50.

Wackernagel, Mathis and William E. Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabrioloa BC: New Society Publishers.

Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. 2009. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Worldwide Fund for Nature. 2009. Living Planet Report. Gland, Switzerland: World Wide Fund for Nature.

British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative

Saving our desert cities

December 9, 2014

The 20th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) is taking place in Lima this week, with Ecocity Builders in attendance. Lima is an obvious choice to host this gathering focused on solutions to climate change. Lima is the 2nd largest desert city, right behind Cairo, and Peru is estimated to be the third-worst affected country by climate change, after Honduras and Bangladesh, according to the  Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Lima lies in the great rain shadow of Peru, sandwiched between the Andes and the sea. The area receives less than a third of an inch of rainfall per year. The bulk of Lima’s municipal water comes from rivers fed by Andean glacier melt. But over the past decade the glaciers have all but disappeared and mountain rainfall has declined as well. Lima is poised on a precipice of a frightening future. Over the edge is imminent water shortage. City officials are looking for alternatives with increasing urgency.

We’re no stranger to drought here in California. Despite the plentiful early winter rain, cities, agriculture and industry in the lower half of the state are still threatened with running dry. While bad luck and climate change can be blamed for the shortages, there’s another human villain behind the misfortune: bad planning. Problems arise when cities don’t take into account the resource flows of the ecosystems they exist in. Problems arise when humans put their plans and values above the basic facts of the environment that needs to support them.

City bridge over an almost-dry Río Rímac. Photo by AgainErick, Wikimedia Commons.

Lima city bridge over an almost-dry Río Rímac. Photo by AgainErick, Wikimedia Commons.

Peru, with its mountains and rainforest, is rich in hydrological resources. But 98% of the Andes’ liquid bounty, including the source of the Amazon river, flows east into the Amazon basin. Why, then, does two-thirds of Peru’s 30 million inhabitants live on the arid Pacific coast?

“This mismatch began 500 years ago with the arrival of the Spaniards,” said José Salazar, president of urban water regulator, Sunass, in The Independent (2011). The massive empires of Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations built their major cities near water sources in the Andes. But because they wanted to be closer to Spain the conquistadors founded their capital on the coast: “Today, we are picking up the bill for this colonial legacy,” Salazar concluded.

Unfortunately we are left with the legacy of decisions–both deliberate and unintentional–made be previous generations. Lima, a city of 9 million, shouldn’t have been built in the 2nd driest desert in the world. But we have to work with what we’ve got.

Many cities are flocking to “smart” solutions to resource management and the scope of innovation in this area is truly exciting. However, smart solutions aren’t always the best. They can be expensive, resource depleting (rare metals used in computing are a source of devastating pollution), and not culturally appropriate. “If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything,” wrote Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe, in the New York Times, “it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.”
The best solutions are often the simplest. In that spirit, here are a few basic principles and tools that can help water-strapped cities survive the next decades.

1. Reduce. It comes before reuse and recycle for a reason! Reducing our need is the cheapest and easiest option. In fact, it requires you to do LESS, in some cases. Other investments such as removing thirsty vegetation, fixing leaks, and replacing old fixtures are cost saving in the long run. Responsibility isn’t all on the average citizen: big water users like industry and agriculture need to pitch in updating their processes to reduce water consumption, too.

The poorest population of the city can teach the rest of us valuable lessons. Residents of the slums, shanty towns, and other informal peripheries of cities like Lima use dramatically less resources than the more affluent areas. Materials are more efficiently used and better recycled, and water is treated as the precious resource it is.

One of Lima’s informal settlements on the outskirts of town. Photo by Håkan Svensson, Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, the poorest of Lima (and elsewhere) don’t have a choice to conserve. One million of Lima’s 9 million residents don’t have access to treated water, instead paying for water delivered from privately owned trucks at enormous mark-up (watch this video to learn why the poor pay more for everything). The great challenge we face is elevating and equalizing the quality of life for all, while avoiding the adoption of upper-class waste and consumerism that often occurs with the process.

2. Decentralizing/diversifying water sources may have a great impact on conservation. Rain catchment and grey water systems at the parcel or neighborhood level reduce strain on city infrastructure and can take advantage of natural water (primarily rain and other atmospheric moisture).

David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley and author of “Water 4.0,” traces the expectation of controlled, centralized water distribution to the Roman era. The Roman’s aqueducts supplied their cities with abundant water carried from miles away. But the Roman model doesn’t make sense for large water-limited cities today (if it ever did, ecologically speaking). The millions of residents of today’s cities overburden single-source water systems, especially in times of drought.

Unlike Lima, Los Angeles (another desert city) does get a fair amount of rain in the winter. Elmer Avenue, in a working-class neighborhood of East Los Angeles called Sun Valley, is a prototype for noded smart water management. Rain catchment systems, drought tolerant landscaping, and permeable surfaces collect and redistribute precious water at a hyper-local level, preventing floods and providing water between rains.

3. Learn from the past. Indigenous architecture has often evolved over generations to respond precisely to local conditions. The flat roofed adobe of the Americas regulates ambient temperature (both inside and out) and can be adapted to collect rainwater. The pitched roofs of European-inspired houses don’t make sense here as they are designed for northern climates to shrug off snow. Rethinking native materials and processes often conserves materials and energy over a building’s lifetime.

4. Innovate “dumb”. Low-tech water solutions abound. Warka Water and other projects that use mesh to capture atmospheric moisture and could potentially generate 25 gallons of drinking water per day. Moisture farms are well suited to Lima which, while short on rainfall, is very humid. Improved techniques for passive desalinization greenhouses could reduce water need for this thirsty sector.

These ideas will likely be implemented in the places that need them most, like water-strapped Lima or California. But every settlement should take advantage of conserving technologies and approaches. It is too easy to compartmentalize climate change, to see it happening as “elsewhere”. That is, until your city feels the impact. The truth is we are all living in ecosystems of resource limitations. We’re all stuck on this resilient, yet delicate, closed system of Mother Earth.

Considering Impacts of Scale: Reflections on Guangzhou, China

December 9, 2014

Ecocity Insights

by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia Institute of Technology

The Chinese national government has embraced the ecocity as a model for urban development. China is the third largest country by area and one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a national population of 1.3 billion. China is also the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions due to the manufacture of consumable goods for export. China has instituted a one-child policy to keep its population growth in check. It has also adopted a circular economy policy that aims to reuse resources to reduce pollution and improve energy and materials efficiency. Nevertheless, many cities in China are plagued by pollution and traffic congestion problems.

For example, Guangzhou is a bustling and prosperous Chinese metropolis with a population over 14 million people. It is situated in Guangdon Province, an open economic development zone that is home to several manufacturing industries supplying global export markets. The area has seen annual increases of greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of 10% per year for the last decade (Liu et al. 2014). Buildings in Guangzhou reach 100 stories. Everyone lives in some form of multi-unit residential dwelling, ranging from four-story walk-ups to large high-rise towers. Despite achieving super-high density, complete with a rapid transportation subway system, the urban development pattern in Guangzhou is dominated by automobile traffic with six-lane streets and triple stacked roadways. This is an example of three dimensionality designed around automobile dependence. The city is often blanketed by smog, sourced from motor vehicle emissions.

Guangzhou road layering

Guangzhou road layering

Guangzhou pedestrian overpass

Guangzhou pedestrian overpass

I had the good fortune to visit Guangzhou last week. The purpose of my visit was to learn more about the environmental pollution challenges this and other cities in Guangdong province face. High density, walkable villages surrounded by green abound at the outskirts of the city. For example, just north of the Guangzhou airport are the villages of: Shiputang, Guagancun, Shangzhou, Caibian, Leping Village, Yumin New Village, Chigantu, Liantancun, Gangzai, Gangwei and many more. Yet, even in the heart of this bustling, prosperous Chinese city, hints of ecocities emerging can be found. I took a walk through part of the Guangzhou central city and found several examples of narrow pedestrian streets with shopping on the main floor and residences above, reaching an average height of six stories. Trees and greenery at corner pocket parks added to the charm of these interstitial spaces. Most people travelled by foot, bicycle or some combination thereof. Curiously, the newer high rise developments on the main thoroughfares also follow a pattern of commercial at grade (and subsequent three to four stories) with residential (up to 85 stories) above. The pattern is the same, but the scale is much bigger. Most people in the newer development areas travel by bus or private automobile; nevertheless, elevated pedestrian walkways also enable people to move around freely by foot.

Guangzhou intersection on pedestrian commercial street

Guangzhou intersection on pedestrian commercial street

Guangzhou pedestrian street

Guangzhou pedestrian street

Comparing these similar patterns of development at different scales provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection. In both the old and new development of Guangzhou, the same patterns of mixing commercial and residential uses within buildings exist. However, the streetscape in the new development is expansive. Ecocity development must work at a scale designed for mobility of the human body, not the car body. This is what enables access by proximity. I found one exciting example of this approach at the Guangzhou Pearl Market. Can high rise development be designed such that the street scape remains pedestrian-oriented, at a small and intimate scale? Could different approaches to massing of buildings enable a more pedestrian-oriented environment without sacrificing density? Much research exploring these questions is currently underway and warrants further reflection and experimentation.

Guangzhou Pearl Market

Guangzhou Pearl Market


Chunrong Liu, Yaoqiu Kuang, Ningsheng Huang, Xiuming Liu. 2014. An Empirical Research on Evaluation of Low-Carbon Economy in Guangdong Province, China: Based on “Production, Life and Environment” in Low Carbon Economy, 5: 139-52.


British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative


bcit logo

What simple fix can save 3,320 lives a year?

October 29, 2014

Road diets offer cheap solution to a deadly problem

It’s only too common. A car along a four-lane road slows near a corner. The car behind it or next to it doesn’t understand why the vehicle in front has slowed. Perhaps the rear driver feels irritated and speeds up, swerving into the adjacent lane and passing the stopped car. It’s too late to see that the first vehicle has halted for a pedestrian crossing the street. Maybe the speeding car breaks in time, or passes before the pedestrian is hit. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t.

This tragedy occurred just this week in St. Paul, prompting Bill Lindeke to write a thoughtful article about the danger of 4 lane roads. Lindeke takes issue with the general consensus that these incidents are unavoidable and rare accidents. Neither statement is true.

The DOT itself reports that, when properly implemented, road diets benefit pedestrians through “reduced crossing distance and midblock crossing locations, which account for more than 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities.” Road diets could save the lives of 3,320 pedestrians a year. So what are we waiting for?

Suggestions of road re-design invariably stir up controversy, especially concerns over increased traffic, writes Lindeke.

The problem with this reasoning is that there’s no such thing as a free street. Particularly in a walkable city, achieving a high traffic volume always come at a cost. In this case, the cost is increased accidents and far less safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people living in these urban neighborhoods.

Street design is always about tradeoffs. Slow speeds that are good for local business are bad for high-speed through traffic. Four-lane roads that improve “stacking” (i.e backups at an intersection) are dangerous for people on foot or on a bicycle. A turn lane that is good for throughput is bad for anyone trying to cross the street. A bike lane can sometimes come at the expense of an on-street parking spot, etc. etc. Everything is a matter of choices and tradeoffs.

Isn’t the trade-off of 3,320 human lives worth an extra five minutes on your commute? Visualizing the real cost behind this issue is the only way to break the complacency and false security with driving that powers the status-quo on American streets.

The People’s Climate March: From Sea to Rising Sea Level. NorCal rally photo diary

September 23, 2014

by Sven Eberlein

reblogged from the Daily Kos

Impressions from Northern California People’s Climate Rally

Lake Merritt Amphitheater, Oakland, CA, September 21, 2014Peoples-Climate-Rally-Oakland_20

Yes, there was the big climate march in New York, the one that everyone has been talking about, except the mainstream media.

It was a fantastic success, with 400,000 people flocking to a place that is both the pulsing heart of the world’s most wasteful nation as well as the nerve center of the world’s governing body, to shout it from the rooftops that a critical mass of earthlings are tired of seeing their home planet trashed right in front of their eyes.

But a good movement is like a human body or any other living organism: it can’t function with just a heart or a brain. If it is going to survive and thrive, there need to be a lot of other functioning organs or parts that can provide the kind of immunity and resilience required to make it long-term through a diverse and complex ecosystem.


So to me, going to a rally 3000 miles west of the main march was like putting my finger on the movement’s wrist and checking its pulse. Should there be signs of vitality in such remote regions of this body, I knew that this uprising was meant for the long run.

I knew right away that this would be a good day when — walking in along the lake’s shore with my sweetie and an old friend — my buddy Bill from 350 Bay Area came paddling up beside us, giving us his personal assessment of the rally’s health.


Meandering along the lake, we encountered beautiful hand-made banners and their designers. Getting these kinds of creative, sensitive, and intelligent statements was a clear sign that this organism was getting plenty of good oxygen.


As we walked towards the stage, we were greeted by all kinds of diverse groups of happy people. You always know that your rally’s blood pressure is in great shape when you see lots of smiling Buddhists.


Moving deeper into the crowd though, we spotted a disturbance.


Every functioning organism needs germs to help build up its immune system. Before we knew what was happening, our collective organism had built up the perfect antibodies to deal with this virus, in the form of these two gentlemen from National Nurses United who attached themselves to the denier bug for the duration of the rally.


We worked our way to the side of the stage, where Andrés Soto of Communities for a Better Environment was MC’ing the event. If Andrés, who has been one of the leading voices in the fight for climate justice and against the greedy polluters of Chevron, had decided to stay in California for the occasion, it meant that this was going to be a living breathing support system.


Not just living and breathing, but also pedaling, as the power for the stage was provided by the lungs of this organism, Rock the Bike.


As soon as a bike became available, my buddy Johnny got to pedaling, unsolicited, to keep the peoples’ mics from going silent. A functioning support system run by an interdependent web of participating denizens.


Bonus vision points of front row creativity for pedalers!


We walked around the back to get a view of the whole organism.


Great to see so many fresh cells.


It wouldn’t be human if there weren’t some bad habits. Then again, the revolution will definitely not be televised this time around.


It was a truly self-aware organism, calling playful attention to how unwholesome the entire foundation upon which modern life has been built really is.


It was an organism keeping its arteries unclogged and healthy…


and its creative veins stimulated…


In short, it was a well balanced weaving together of strands and connecting of dots. Small and local enough to be resilient and supportive of the whole, but large enough to make an impact and stand on its own.

And that’s important, because in the end, each other and our connection to this planetary organism we inhabit is all we’ve got.


Understanding your city by understanding its flow: towards Participatory Urban Metabolism Information Systems

August 27, 2014

by Sven Eberlein

Originally posted on the Ecocity World Map Project website

Exciting times for our EWM team! We are currently learning about, developing, and applying Urban Metabolism Information Systems (UMIS), a whole systems analysis that measures everything flowing into and out of a city over time and space. The UMIS methodology was developed by Dr. Sebastian Moffatt and proposes a standardized “source to sink” framework to better understand and analyze urban systems as they process through the built environment. For example, here’s a close-up of just one segment of the City of Vancouver, BC’s water flow, showing how water is used and where it goes after that.


In fact, with the help of intrepid citizen activists and students in our pilot cities of Cairo and Casablanca we are taking it even further: turning the tool from the inside out and from the bottom up, we are testing out Participatory Urban Metabolism Information Systems, a method designed to empower people on the ground to map out their own neighborhoods and become participants in transforming their communities into more resilient, equitable, and ecologically healthy settlements.

Community activists and students at Mundiapolis University in Casablanca getting ready to map out the neighborhood of Roches Noires.

Why is this important? Well, like a human body a city is a living, ever-evolving organism, and in order to have it operate at a healthy level and in sync with its environment you have to know exactly what flows into it, how those things are used, and where they go after the body no longer needs them. Another familiar analogy to think of is a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), the well established method to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life, from cradle to grave. But LCAs only work for products, and cities and neighborhoods aren’t products — they are situated in one place, they are complex, ever-changing physical and cultural ecosystems, and they have no lifetime. Cities are eternal.

Cities are also the largest things that humans build, and with the number of cities of 750,000+ inhabitants quadrupling over the last 50 years and 70 percent of the world’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, the quest to figure out how our urban environments could operate within the earth’s carrying capacity ranks as one of the most viable pursuits anyone concerned about climate change, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, and the human struggles associated with it could undertake. To put it simply, if we don’t understand our cities’ organisms, we will never be able to have them function in balance with the larger natural organisms within which they reside.


The Urban Metabolism

Urban metabolism as a concept is not entirely new. In fact, back in the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels recognized that human activity alters the biophysical processes by analyzing the dynamic internal relationships between humans and nature. Unfortunately, most of the intellectual heavyweights since then have been busy thinking about economy in terms of how quickly and efficiently we can extract, produce, consume, and trash the planet’s natural treasures without regard to the shortsightedness of such an approach.

It wasn’t until over a hundred years later that a more holistic assessment of a city’s anatomy was formally developed for the first time. In a 2007 paper entitled “The Changing Metabolism of Cities,” Christopher Kennedy and a team of civil engineers from the University of Toronto defined urban metabolism as “the sum total of the technical and socio-economic process that occur in cities, resulting in growth, production of energy and elimination of waste.”

However, up until very recently this was mostly a theoretical exercise, albeit an important one. It’s a big step for the western industrial mindset used to externalizing (i.e. ignoring) any costs outside of narrow short-term benefits within a limited area and for a very targeted group of recipients to come to a whole systems understanding of the world in which everything is interdependent and nothing ever goes “away.” To be sure, the reality of dwindling fossil fuels and melting ice caps is no longer affording us the luxury of one-dimensional thinking if we’re planning on sticking around for a while.

Whatever the motivation, the benefits of treating urban environments in such holistic fashion are similar in nature to being tuned in to the rhythm of our bodies — the more we know about the effects of different components like diet, exercise, sleep, or laughter on our physical and emotional well being, the more likely we are to live balanced and healthy lives. Figuring out the intricacies of our bodies is tricky enough, but how do we analyze something as complex as a modern industrial city, with all its physical and cultural microcosms, its ever-shifting flows of people, ideas, buildings, and materials?

Well, if we had a platform that could organize and visualize the data of the various in- and outputs of a city — food, water, energy, transportation, etc — and the conversions that happen between, you’d get an honest picture of where in the system most of the waste, pollution, and externalizations occur and which adjustments or loops might produce a more streamlined, efficient, and ecologically healthy process.

Urban Metabolism Information Systems (UMIS)


Sebastian has been thinking about how to create this kind of whole systems analysis that can draw a picture of where everything is coming from and where it’s going to for a while. The first planner in modern times to develop long-term sustainability plans for cities that integrate resiliency as a key theme, he has taken the urban metabolism field to a new level by creating the tools to estimate the flows of energy, water and materials through cities and illustrate them in a simple and standardized way.

The key to this tracking and visualization of the material flow that constitutes an urban metabolism are meta diagrams. Based on a Sankey diagram, a flow diagram named after an Irish Captain who came up with it in 1898, meta diagrams put visual emphasis on the major transfers or flows within a system, with the width of the arrows shown proportionally to the flow quantity. They are most commonly used to visualize the energy or material flow accounts on a regional or national level (the US Energy Information Agency uses them for their annual report), but they can be used any time you have a number of different sources, distributions, and outputs.

For example, here’s a simple and fun meta diagram that illustrates Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music’s recital distribution diagram from January to April 2014.

From Steve Wexler’s blog ‘Data Revelations’ on Sankey diagrams: Music Major, Data Miner.

The shades of brown describe the various types of recitals as the source (hover at this link to see weddings, church services, school recitals, funerals, etc), the composers as the outcome, and the thin and thick waves between them as the distribution. Turns out they played Bach at weddings, concerts and funerals, but not at church services and recitals.

Not surprisingly, it gets more complex than that. Sebastian delved into the development of what he calls MetaFlow diagrams for entire urban systems as part of the Eco2 Cities: Ecological Cities as Economic Cities project (published in 2010), an analytical and operational framework that offers strategic guidance to cities on sustainable and integrated urban development. Seeking to offer ground-level perspective, they conducted case-studies in cities across Asia that would help to showcase the cities’ current flow and offer insights on how these flows could be better looped in order to avoid so much waste and leakage.

A MetaFlow diagram of the energy system of Jinze, Shanghai, for example, shows the discrepancy between the current system (left) and a scenario for an advanced system (right).

Source: Author elaboration (Sebastian Moffatt) with approximate data provided by Professor Jinsheng Li, Tongii University, Shanghai.

In the current system, energy pretty much goes straight from source to consumption to sink, with very little capturing, reuse, or conservation happening in between. It’s a bit like heating your house with all the windows open — it may achieve the goal of keeping you warm, but the price in energy, pollution, and money to do so is huge. On the other hand, the MetaFlow diagram on the right with all the cascading lines provides a scenario for an advanced system that helps reduce emissions and costs and increases local jobs and energy security. In this example, a local electricity generation facility is powered by liquified natural gas and provides a majority of the electricity needs as well as hot and cool water for industry.

If you think of it like an onion, with things going in at the top and coming out at the bottom, then the fatter and more twirly the middle the more efficiently a city is using its resources and the closer to being resilient and ecologically balanced it is getting. To put it in “body language” terms, the more diversified, fresh, and nutritious your diet, the smaller the portions you need, the better you feel, the healthier your soils, and the less fossil fuels needed to produce your food.

Recently, one of Sebastian’s colleagues, Director Dr. Philip Mansfield of Graphical Memes did a number of MetaFlow diagrams for the City of Vancouver B.C., with data provided from Jennie Moore, the Director of Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship at BCIT. The energy diagram shows a very typical modern centralized system, with small amounts of locally sourced electricity, not much energy diversity, and minimal cascading (very little efficiency, recycling, or dual use). Basically, most of Vancouver’s energy comes from non-renewable sources (except hydro) and ends up in the air after being used for a single purpose at a single time.


Speaking of body language, here’s a MetaFlow diagram for food, which I think is worth zooming in a bit.


As you can see, there’s a lot more cascading at the top, which is partly because there are more diverse food-types than energy-types, with local farms supplying a visible share of different foods. Fruits and veggies are a substantial amount of the total organic material flow. On the other end though you can see how the sinks are much less textured, with most of Vancouver’s food waste (which typically represents about 50% of the entire waste stream) going to transfer stations and incinerators, from where it’s going to landfill or is released into the air. Many strategies could be considered for looping and cascading these flows, that is, to create a more connected food web within the city. For example, if food waste is composted as soil, the soil can be used locally for farming or landscaping and the city has less need for hauling material by truck and acquiring land for landfill.

As Sebastian likes to point out, these diagrams are worth a thousand pie charts. But this is not all of it. What if you could drill deeper into the metabolism of a city by looking at each neighborhood, everything it needs to stay alive, and all it disposes? The data you get from official sources usually is very static and general. A utility company can only tell you how many gallons of water the entire city consumes per year, but it doesn’t tell you how much of it goes to toilets, laundry, or showers, or how usage varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. This makes it hard to adopt relevant conservation or catchment strategies.

This is where the on-the-ground crowd-mapping tools and initiatives of the Ecocitizen World Map Project come in.

Participatory Urban Metabolism Information Systems (PUMIS)

Mundiapolis University students and community members on their way to surveying residents of Casablanca’s Roches Noires neighborhood.

The premise of the Ecocitizen World Map Project is that if we all take coordinated actions towards a shared vision of a sustainable and equitable urban environment we can address even the most serious problems facing the planet and its inhabitants. As citizens of living urban organisms it’s only logical that we would be active participants in the maintenance and evolution of the intricate webs that sustain us, and we each bring a unique set of knowledge and sensitivity to our local physical and cultural micro-organisms.

The fact that currently the MetaFlow diagrams of most cities in the world would look similar to Vancouver’s — with very unbending and centralized flows that leave little room for localized and adaptable ways to make better use of both natural and human resources — shows that there’s a real need for tools that enable communities to better understand their own neighborhoods and identify the areas where more looping and cascading could be applied as systems become more ecological. If we’re serious about sustainability, we have to do an honest audit of our cities from the inside out instead of the current superficial top-down assessments that all too often falsely proclaim cities with gigantic ecological footprints to be sustainable.

Consequently, if we want to find out how the resources and materials that flow through an urban ecosystem are being used and distributed within that ecosystem, we have to survey residents about how they’re using those resources. And that’s exactly what we did in our pilot cities Cairo and Casablanca.


Conducting citizen surveys and parcel audits in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood.

Going into neighborhoods and getting all kinds of local information is not only great because you get a lot of previously unknown data, but it makes residents curious about things they may not have thought of before, giving them incentive to become involved in finding solutions to problems that may exist. For example, in Casablanca, water samples that participants in our “bootcamps” took in the Roches Noires neighborhood turned out to be not as clean as the city claims, which led to further questions about the water cycle and a dialog between residents and the utility company.

Ecocitizens testing water from Roches Noires, Casablanca.

Water is a very precious and expensive resource in communities like Roches Noires and Imbaba, so finding out where waste occurs and how you could loop more gray water, for example, is really meaningful. Organizing the data from the surveys into an easily understandable format is key. This is where grassroots citizen participation meets MetaFlow.

Let’s look at the water that flows through the building at 4 Sharaf Allet in Imbaba and its corresponding diagram that you can find on the interactive ecocitizen map on our Cairo pilot page.


After learning to use the UMIS data templates, the citizen surveyors can customize the templates according to archetypes that represent parcels with similar structures and characteristics. This way a lot of the values that may be the same in similar structures can be set as default. For example, the template for a UMIS water survey may look something like this.

umis water use

Once you’ve completed the survey you can create a MetaFlow diagram for just that parcel as it relates to the city’s sources, conversions, and sinks. It’s pretty cool to see it in detail.


You can see that all the water used for hygiene (shower/bath) comprises just a very small part of overall water use, but is looped back into the toilets through an onsite greywater system. At the same time, water from the kitchen which comprises the lion’s share of water use at 4 Sharaf Allet is for the most part going straight to the city’s wastewater treatment on its way to the ocean. However, a small amount is reclaimed and goes to a neighborhood water facility. Residents may ask themselves whether it would be possible to recycle more of the water that flows through their kitchens.

This, of course, is very specific data, but analyzing these localized metabolisms leads to the patterns and trends necessary to make specific adjustments on a larger scale. Just as in any sampling or polling, you have to survey just enough people or units to get a meaningful representation of a larger population or neighborhood.

In the case of the UMIS system, it is set up with a structure designed to permit easy aggregation of the parcel-scale urban metabolisms. Once separated according to archetype, the parcels can be averaged, multiplied by the population they represent, and then summed with other archetypes. In other words, the audited parcels can be used to generate accurate and precise estimates of all the systemic flows for different combinations of parcels, or for the neighborhood as a whole.

Once we get these kinds of citizen-generated reports based on real-life conditions and structured around a holistic framework, the patterns that emerge allow for both residents and planners to ask the kind of questions that can lead to both local and regional ecological improvements. What could we do for people to get by on rainwater? How could the city avoid leakage in their water and energy systems?. How do we stay within the carrying capacity?

Or as Sebastian likes to say, “we can use these diagrams to tell the story of where we want to go and why!”


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