Herbert Girardet is an international environmental consultant. He is author and co-author of 13 books, most recently Creating Regenerative Cities for Routledge. As ‘thinker in residence’ he developed a sustainability strategy for Greater Adelaide which has been largely implemented. He is a member of the World Future Council and the Club of Rome, an honorary fellow of RIBA, and visiting professor at the University of the West of England.

An interview with Herbert Girardet, co‑founder of the World Future Council, author and champion of the green city.

Ben Rogers: You’ve written a new book, Creating Regenerative Cities (Routledge, 2015). Why cities, rather than say, nations?

Herbert Girardet: Humanity is rapidly moving into an urban world. We’ve just passed the 50% mark and, in Europe and America, we are already at 80%: a disproportionate amount of the world’s production and consumption takes place in cities, so the impact cities have on the environment is becoming a critical issue. National governments have great responsibilities, but unless there’s significant action at the level of the city, we’re not going to get to a sustainable, regenerative relationship between people and the planet. Climate change is becoming the defining issue of humanity’s need to acknowledge that we are on a collision course between the urbanising world and the biosphere – and indeed between humanity and its own future.

The city is often described as a highly sustainable form of human settlement – more so than low-density rural or suburban development. And that’s true in Europe, where per capita impacts on the environment in fairly dense urban areas tend to be lower than in rural decentralised areas. But matters are quite different in developing countries where a person’s move from country to city is associated with a dramatic – typically fourfold – increase in environmental impacts.

Given the speed and scale with which these countries are urbanising, we need to help them do so in much less harmful ways.

BR: Let’s move on to your idea of the ‘regenerative city’. How does a ‘regenerative city’ differ from other sorts of cities in its relation to nature?

HG: In my book I describe the evolution of the city through various phases. I start with the Agropolis – the city embedded in its local landscape. The medieval city was a good example. The great part of its food and energy supplies had to be obtained from its hinterland, whose productivity had to be maintained by crop rotation, using compost and manure to regenerate the farmland: give and take. The environmental footprint of these cities was very limited. But then we saw a transition to Petropolis – the city powered by fossil fuels. Starting in Britain some 250 years ago, the coal-fired industrial revolution caused a massive explosion in urban growth. Petropolis enabled a big increase in living standards, but it did so at great environmental cost, ransacking nature and spewing out pollution in a way that became highly dangerous.

I argue that nowadays we are struggling to make the transition from Petropolis to Ecopolis, where urban consumption supports and regenerates rather than despoils the ecosystems that nature and humanity need to survive. These days, some people argue for creating the ‘intelligent city’ or ‘creative city.’ Others talk about the ‘liveable city’, meaning a city that offers residents and visitors a good quality of life, with nice parks and safe streets and so on. And of course this agenda is very popular with city people and city governments. Then there’s the ‘smart city’ – the city that exploits all the potential of new IT technology. This is very popular with companies like IBM or Siemens, for obvious reasons, and there’s a lot of money being spent on this by city authorities and companies.

And then of course there is lot of talk about the ‘resilient city’ – although I have criticised this concept because to my mind it is rather like the medieval city that surrounds itself with a defensive wall: in the past it would have been to resist marauding tribes; increasingly today it would be walls to shut out rising sea levels.

And then finally there is the concept of the sustainable city, which dates back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where the concept of sustainable urbanism was first defined. A sustainable city is a city where people live in ways that don’t damage the chances of future generations to lead good lives.

I argue in Creating Regenerative Cities that we need to think beyond sustainability because we have not done much to protect and sustain living nature in recent years, particularly in the period since these ideas were first formulated, 20–25 years ago. We have run down the resources of the planet to an extraordinary degree. The idea of the regenerative city draws attention to the need to replenish and make good the damage we have done and to understand the city in all its complex relations to the natural environment.

BR: Aren’t these ideas inherent in sustainability? Is there really such a difference between sustainability and regeneration?

HG: Sustainability is quite a passive concept. If you said to me ‘I have a sustainable relationship with my wife’, my reply would be ‘the divorce lawyers can’t be too far away!’ We need to do more than to sustain. We need to ensure that cities do not continue to run down the world’s resources in the way that they have been doing. This is all about maintaining and restoring the health of soils, forests, water and other living resources on which the long-term wellbeing of cities ultimately depends.

BR: Which are the cities you think are leading the way when it comes to regenerative policies and practices?

HG: In my book I offer a range of case studies. The first is Adelaide, where I was invited by the government of South Australia in 2003 to be a ‘Thinker in Residence’ – to produce an environmental plan in a 10-week process. I was really happy that the 32-point plan I produced has been largely implemented. Adelaide now has one of the highest levels of renewable energy – over 40% renewable, mainly wind and solar. Tremendous efforts have also been made in retrofitting existing buildings and with water recycling and water efficiency, because Adelaide is at the end of the Murray River, which has become a trickle rather than a river in recent years. And the region has implemented 100% organic waste recycling in combination with irrigating local farmland with recycled waste water supplies. There’s also been large-scale reforestation, with more than three million trees planted in and around the city. In addition, Adelaine is now always listed as one of the world’s most liveable cities.

The second example is Copenhagen, which has gone through a remarkable process of reinventing itself over the last thirty years, starting first of all with liveability and pedestrianising much of the city, then putting major efforts into cycle lanes, public transport, renewable energy, offshore wind farms, energy efficiency of buildings, retrofitting houses and building a lot of waste-recycling facilities. Last year Copenhagen got the accolade of being the European Green Capital, and certainly it deserved it.

BR: How radical is the shift that needs to occur to move us from a Petropolis to a regenerative urban world? Can a city really be regenerative or is that a utopian standard?

HG: It is utopian to some extent because new ideas by definition tend to be utopian. But it’s not just utopian, because there is a lot happening. I’ve given you the example of Copenhagen but other Scandinavian cities are also performing remarkably well. Oslo as a city region is powered almost entirely by small-scale hydroelectric electricity. Germany has also done very well, partly driven by the strong influence of green politics in that country due to proportional representation.

BR: But how close are cities like Adelaide or Copenhagen getting to your vision of a regenerative city?

HG: Renewable energy now accounts for over 40% of electricity in Adelaide; and farmland and viticulture in South Australia uses virtually 100% organic waste recycling and recycled waste water. So these are all key steps towards making cities become regenerative and helping to enhance and improve the condition of farmland by putting carbon and nutrients back into the soil.

If the ecological footprint of people in Adelaide is still quite high, it’s because the suburbs are still growing and they rely on fossil-fuel-powered cars, especially for the daily commute to work. But there is some good news on the way because we could well see suburbs becoming much less resource-greedy than they have been. The suburb has much more space for solar energy than highly dense urban areas. And we are living through a big step forward in transport technology as we move to more efficient electric cars, which can be powered through green en­ergy. The technology is evolving fast – thanks in part to the remarkable work of people like Elon Musk, the California-based entrepreneur and investor, who started a company called Solar City and whose other company, Tesla, is revolutionising electric cars and battery technology. If Adelaide were to build on the measures it has already taken and adopt electric cars powered by renewable energy, it would come close to creating a truly regenerative urban system.

BR: Can I ask about the politics of all this: how do you win people over to adopting the sort of radical policies we need to create regenerative cities?

HG: It’s not as hard as it sounds if you can link regeneration to the things people want for their city. One of the best arguments for regenerative urbanism is its job creation potential. One of the things that got people in Adelaide – politicians, company bosses, trade unionists and the general public – really excited was the promise of creating a new green urban economy from energy efficiency, renewables, water efficiency, recycling and remanufacturing and urban farming. We talked about ‘bringing the urban resource economy back home,’ and several thousand new permanent jobs have been created.

BR: Can you tell us a bit about your engagement with London: how you think it’s doing in terms of progress towards being a regenerative city, and what the main challenges and opportunities are?

HG: I lived in London for many years and had the opportunity to make many documentaries about human impacts on the world. In the late 1980s, I found myself in the Amazonian port of Belém in Brazil, seeing a huge freighter loaded with a stack of timber which had ‘London’ written on it. And I thought, ‘does the impact of the city where I live reach that far?’ So I started to think about the long-distance impacts of cities and wondering if it would be possible to quantify the ecological footprint of London. I did a study first of all to quantify the resources going in: food, fuel, timber, glass, cement, and so on; and then the waste coming out the other end – solid, liquid and gaseous waste. I quantified London’s ecological footprint as 125 times London’s surface area. And that was roughly the entire productive land of the UK. That includes, obviously, the area required to feed London. Second, I looked at the area required to supply London with forest products, and third, at the area needed to reabsorb London’s carbon output. So, though London has 12–13% of the UK’s population, it requires pretty much the entire surface area of the nation in order to supply it with resources and to absorb its waste outputs.

To be fair to London, it is to some extent a victim of its history. In the 19th century, it was the first city in the world to grow way beyond a million people and it was up to 8 million by 1939. London was a great pioneer in unsustainable development! Many decisions were made in the 19th century that helped London to become a pretty unsustainable city. Perhaps the most important was in 1858, the year of the Great Stink.

The authorities considered several plans to deal with sewage in the Thames, including one to create a sewage recycling system that would capture the nutrients in sewage and return them back to local and regional farmland. But, rather than recycling its waste, London opted to expel its sewage into the Thames Estuary via Bazalgette’s great pipes along the Thames. And instead of using London’s organic waste to regenerate soil, the city’s food supply increasingly relied on new artificial fertilisers, with all the problems they bring.

At the same time, London became entirely dependent on fossil fuel technologies – coal-fired power stations and all the rest of it – for its energy. Converting a large old polluting city like London is quite a tall order.

But there is good news. Certainly under Mayor Ken Livingstone and his deputy, Nicky Gavron, significant efforts were made to begin to create a more regenerative city. These included attempts at retrofitting buildings with better insulation; increasing recycling and cutting down on fossil fuels. The Thames Array, one of the world’s largest wind farms, was also initiated in the Thames estuary at that time.

By and large, under Boris Johnson I think the emphasis has been mainy on liveable London, with work done on cycling routes and so on, rather than on a sustainable, or indeed regenerative London. At least, that is my perception, as somebody who isn’t a Londoner anymore.

BR: Do you have a sense of where the big wins are to be made?

HG: I remember calculating that London would need to reduce its resource throughput by about three quarters in order to become a sustainable city (which was the term at the time). How could it achieve this?

Well, obviously, renewable energy and energy efficiency measures on a large scale would be very significant. London has many historic buildings and it’s very difficult to put insulation on the outsides of beautiful facades. But there are new technologies becoming available, particularly new vacuum insulation panels that are about 1/5th the thickness of conventional insulation materials, and these can be put on the inside of traditional buildings. Certainly, one would hope that London could take advantage of new technologies much more actively than is currently the case; but London is not getting a lot of signals from Whitehall or Westminster to take these kinds of measures, because the priority is to stand out as the great global liveable city rather than the sustainable or regenerative city. London is in danger of losing its reputation as a city at the forefront of sustainable urbanism.

BR: Do you want to see a significant reduction in global trade and exchange?

HG: Not exactly, but with manu­facturing and with 3D printers becoming available, it’s possible to think about reviving manufacturing at the local level. I think for a city like London, or a country like Britain, to be so utterly dependent on manufacturing from around the world… this is something that should be looked at urgently. And ultimately having a few huge manufacturing centres on our planet can’t be good.

The most positive form of global­isation in the years to come will be the transfer of ideas about how humanity and the world’s growing populations can fit themselves into the limits of the planet. We need an international exchange of good ideas on how we can create regenerative cities and lifestyles. That would be much better than the type of globalisation we currently have.