City Eco Lab: Debt, Diesel and Dämmerung

What’s the poihnt of City Eco Lab? To understand why I believe these modest experiences to be important, take a look at today’s The Automatic Earth; it reviews once again the ways that economy, energy and environment crises are converging. The jolly editors of The Automatic Earth, who describe these times as “Debt, Diesel and Dämmerung”, rightly criticise politicians’ use of words like “probable recession” or “slow down.” Pretending that these are temporary problems disables people from preparing for the liklihood that they will be permanent.

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From mega, to micro: What You Can Do With the City

The atmosphere at last week’s Megacities conference in Delft was subdued. I don’t suppose my own talk, which ploughed a similar path to the Debt, Diesel and Dämmerung narrative I mentioned yesterday, helped lighten the mood very much.
Spirits were low because it is becoming clear that mega solutions of any kind – whether or not they are desirable – will be extremely hard to sell, let alone launch, for the forseeable future. Given that our host venue, TU Delft, is Europe’s degree zero for mega-solutions, glum faces were to be expected.

So it was especially cheering when, the next day, Martien de Vletter (its Dutch co-publisher) gave me the brand new catalogue of an inspiring exhibition has just opened at the Canadian Centre for Architecture Actions: What You Can Do With the City.

The show features 99 actions that have the potential to trigger positive change in contemporary cities. The seemingly common activities, that feature walking, playing, recycling, and gardening, show the potential influence personal involvement can have in shaping the city – and challenge fellow residents to participate.
The project website includes projects by a diverse group of “human motors of change”. They include architects, engineers, university professors, students, children, pastors, artists, skateboarders, cyclists, root eaters, pedestrians, municipal employees.
The 99 actions touch on the production of food, and possibilities of urban agriculture; the creation of public spaces to strengthen community interactions; recycling of abandoned buildings for new purposes; the use of the urban fabric as a terrain for play such as soccer, climbing, skateboarding, or parkour; alternate uses of roads for walking, or of rail lines as park space.

Actions is curated by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, with Lev Bratishenko, Meredith Carruthers, Daria Der Kaloustian, and Peter Sealy. The catalogue, which I warmly commend, contains case studies and short texts on most of the featured interventions.

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City Eco Lab (Sustainability festival, St Etienne, France, 2008)

City Eco Lab was a two-week festival of projects that took place in November in St Etienne, France. These 50-plus projects involved productive urban gardens; low energy food storage; communal composting solutions; re-discovery of hidden rivers; neighbourhood energy dashboards; de-motorised courier services; and a wide variety of software tools to help people share resources. This blog post is a summary. Detailed stories about City Eco Lab are to be found here. The event was hosted by the St Etienne Cite du Design; its designers were Exyzt and Gaëlle Gabillet.
As with Dott07 which we programmed in England in 2007, citizen co-design of projects was at the core of City Eco Lab. Among its highlights:
Mathieu-Benoit-Gonin’s installation on urban permaculture:
Magalie Restallo designed a prototype vital flows dashboard for an eco-quartier in St Etienne:
Hugo Bont and Olivier Peyricot built an urban fish-farming prototype; (I’m not sure the cutest baby in the shed knew the fish were to be eaten):
Emanuel Louisgrand designed an urban garden toolkit:
Avinish Kumar collected sounds and images of bicycle-based merchants in Delhi for an installation on the delights of de-motorised transportation:
Bethany Koby and Ellie Thornhill created this tool shed with resources to help people improve their projects: tools for designing, tools for modelling and making things, tools for monitoring local flows, tools for finding and sharing resources.
Francois Jegou’s “story scripts” – shown on small screens in City Eco Lab – in which people from St Etienne imagined their current life using solutions that reduced their impact on the environment and also regenerated the social fabric around them.
In the middle of this market (it was in a 5,000 square metre former gun factory) was an ‘Explorers Club’ for encounters between citizens, project leaders, tool makers, and designers. Here, for example, food producers and citizens discuss ways to enhance the AMAP system of community supported agriculture:

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City Eco Lab: Exyzt’s buildings as events

Shown below, Exyzt’s hang-out that they built for themselves at City Eco Lab. Not very Design – but the coolest corner in the shed.
Exyzt next project, which is called Monumento that they’re about to do in Brazil with Coloco, is to re-purpose this 24 story skyscraper in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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Land and re-localisation

With allotment waiting lists in the UK massively over-subscribed, and people right across the country keen to grow their own fruit and vegetables, a new project called Landshare aims to make British land more productive and fresh local produce more accessible to all.
Within days of registration being opened, thousands of landowners and would-be gardeners have signed up. A website, hosted by a television network, Channel 4, enables people to find land where they can grow their own; offer land in return for produce; identify land suitable for planting; and build a growing community.
“The sort of land could be a garden share, a yard behind a company, a slice of a farmer’s field, or a flat roof capable of taking the weight of a few pots” say the producers. “We don’t limit the variety or size of plot, nor who should get involved. The scheme is for individuals, families, businesses and organisations”.
Landshare is not just about private gardens. Many organisations have large and under-used banks of land – utility companies, property developers, supermarkets, government bodies, charities – and churches.
Among 140 different religious groups in the UK, say Landshare, the Church of England on its own is one of the country’s biggest landowners. Extraordinarily no-one, including the Church itself, knows exactly how much land it owns. “It is likely to be over 250,000 acres but could be considerably more” say the Landshare team.
It seems as if Landshare has been inspired in part by a project called Garden Share in Totnes, home of the Transition Towns movement. The Totnes service, too, matches enthusiastic growers with local garden owners who want to see their gardens used more productively.
The Totnes project was always conceived as a long-term community initiative with people gardening the land year after year if possible. “Every person who grows more of their own food is taking an important step towards greater local food resilience” say the Totnes team.
How well and how fast might the Landshare project scale up nationwide?
One of the key lessons we learned in the Move Me project, in Dott 07, was the importance of building trust between participants. Move Me was a ride-share service, and no parent would countenance sending a child to school in a car driven by a stranger.
Websites that match people wanting to go cheaply from A-F, with drivers of vehicles with empty seats, appeal to a limited demographic of, for the most part, sturdy able-bodied students. For everyone else, a precondition for being ‘matched’ is learning to trust people during face to face encounters.
Parents and staff in a school community (where Move Me was based) already know each other. How different is sharing a garden, or the field behind a church? We shall see.
Meanwhile, back in the global economy, re-localisation proceeds at an impressive pace. The Baltic Dry Index (below) provides an assessment of the price of moving raw materials by sea – such as 1.000,000 metric tons of rice from Bangkok to Tokyo. Demand in the market right now is heading vertically towards zero.

Posted in city & bioregion | 1 Response

“Presidents are only presidents”

Our election night here in France was febrile. As I listened to the results (and finished Sharon Astyk’s book during the dull bits on the box) a tremendous storm raged outside and the power went down several times. That has has not happened here in seven years. All very Macbeth-like.
I don’t suppose you need more punditry right now – but if you can’t get enough, World Changing has just published a bunch of answers to this question: “In 100 words or less, what should the next president do in his first 100 days to address the planet’s most pressing problems?”
Answers from the likes of Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, Bruce Sterling, Cameron Sinclair, Howard Rheingold, Pierre Omidyar, Mathis Wackernagel, Jacqueline Novogratz, Paul Hawken, Robert Neuwirth (et moi) are here.
“There ain’t no cure, and I’m not sure he knows”. Illargi’s take is darker than the generally can-do comments of the the World Changing group. “Whatever hope a new administration may evoke in the hearts and minds of Americans and people across the globe”, Illargi writes, “one thing still stands…millions upon millions of jobs will be lost in the US alone within the next 12 months. Obama’s task will not, because it can not, be to lead his nation back into prosperous times”.
If prosperity means returning to a world of perpetual, inequitable, resource-intensive growth, then for me at least it’s not a desirable destination.
A better word than Prosperous, for me, would be Prepared.
That’s why my advice to the President would be to tell the truth about the likely consequences of peak energy, food and water and the like. This truth will confront people with the need to prepare for hard times, yes – but also to regenerate, and mend.
He should ask each U.S. region to map its ecosystems and human resources; identify any gaps; and then hold Transition Meetings to draw up Living Economy Action Plans.
In other words, he should delegate the whole thing to the people and re-cast the President’s role as Co-ordinator in Chief.
“I am a firm believer in the people”, said Abraham Lincoln; “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
Or as Sharon Astyk puts it in her pre-election comment: “Presidents are only Presidents – the people, well, that’s something else”
So much, so portentous, I know. I’m off to buy candles – and then to eat rosti for lunch with our friend up the hill.

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City Eco Lab – the encounters

Like all that soil? One of the key ideas in City Eco Lab is to make eco-systems, earth and water the basis of re-imagining the city – not “the economy”.
The lower photograph shows jonggi, or earthen jars, used in Korea to store condiments and kimchi pickles. The image introduces a statement about food storage that Debra Solomon has published at by way of a preview of her participation in City Eco Lab, at the Cité du Design Biënale in Saint-Étienne which runs from 15-30 November. (The full November Doors of Perception Report is here).
(Together with chef Paul Freestone, Debra will be pickling, sauerchocrouting and making delicious kimchi as one part of her installation in the food area of the event).
I love this image because it answers, for me at least, a central question posed by City Eco Lab (which is, after all, the main event in a national design biennial). If a sustainable life is to be less about stuff, and more about people – with few new buildings and products being made – what is there left for designers and artists to do?
A big part of the answer is to seek out daily life solutions that already exist – such as the collaborative, low-energy food storage solution shown in the photograph – and then to adapt and improve them for new contexts.
We can discuss that further if you make it to the event – or via this blog.
For now, here is a summary of the encounters and presentations that will run in City Eco Lab during its two-week run. This list will evolve day-by-day and announcements posted on the City Eco Lab blog. (The blog will come properly to life life just before the opening).
Avinash Kumar on the story behind, a media installation made by a team in Delhi that brings the bike-based commerce of the streets of India alive – in St Etienne. (Saturday 15/11)
New economic models, complementary currencies, local economy trading schemes, alternative trade networks, community supported agriculture: Bethany Koby & Ellie Thornhill talk about their shop-within-a-shop for eco-software. They are followed later that day by special guest Alex Steffen, editor of Worldchanging. (Sunday 16/11)
Allan Chochinov, editor in chief of, gives a keynote on “design imperatives”. Later, a worskhop on design and energy wil discuss: can design help us choose among the growing number of green energy offers ? (Tuesday 18/11)
Clare Brass + Flora Bowden from SEED Foundation talk about neighbourhood-level composting services. Later there’s a design clinic : Design for mobiliy, or de-motorisation? There follows a special keynote by Ezio Manzini on “design strategies for the small, local, open and connected”. Oh yes, and the French edition of In The Bubble is launched at 18h. (Wednesday 19/11)
A sustainable world will be densely networked – but not by closed, proprietary neworks. Juha Huuskonen (Pixelache, Piksel, Pixelvärk, Afropixel, Pikslaverk, PixelAzo) and Jean-Noel Montagne (CrasLabs, Paris) discuss how self organisation and technological autarchy will be crucial in the coming years. (Thursday 20/11)
Emanual Louisgrand talks about l’Ilot d’Amaranthes – his gardens on brownfield sites in Lyon. Later, a design clinic on Food and the City features Matthieu Benoît-Gonin (Jardinethic) ; Debra Solomon, (; and François Jégou ( (Friday 21/11)
Doors of Perception lunchtime discussion. If you are serious about hoping to do a similar event in your own region to City Eco Lab (or Dott 07), Doors cannot fund it, but we can help with the strategy and process. (Saturday 22/11)
Design clinic for and with local companies.(Monday 24/11)
How to find, document and enable eco-materials – and human savoir faire (Tuesday 25/11)
Re-connecting a city with its natural systems, including projects for St Etienne’s River Furan. Plus a design clinic on sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS). (Wednesday 26/11)
Pirjo Haikola from the Why Factory (NL) a research institute on the future city founded by Winy Maas and MVRDV, shows how maps are used in rethinking, researching, reshaping and enhancing images of future urban life. (Thursday 27/11)
Citizens and designers involved in one of St Etienne’s “eco quartiers” (eco neighbourhoods) will discuss what functions make a place eco – or not – and how to measure their performance. (Thursday 27/11)
The City Eco Lab restaurant serves food sourced within a 80km radius – the maximum distance food may travel in France without being refrigerated (Friday 28/11).

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Unplugged – or unhinged?

I’m reading reading a moving and important book by Sharon Astyk called “Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front”.
Uniquely among recent books on life after the Peaks – energy, protein, biodiversity etc – Astyk does not write to scare us all witless. She does not write about elaborate ways to fix The Economy. She does not even furnish a shopping list of green tools and equipment that we can all buy as evidence that we are Doing Something. (This latter prohibition is a particular disappointment to Kristi and me: we’ve been compiling a shopping list of high-end fruit dryers, choucroute kits, and grain grinders, that we were about to send to our friends before Christmas).
On the contrary, Astyk writes about the benefits that can come (and will come, for most of us) from being poor in material terms. She proffers practical advice on how best to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and generally how to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis.
This shocking approach clearly freaked out the the New York Times: they ran a patronising story in their Fashion and Style section about Astyk’s work and life. The Times even dug up a so-called “mental health professional” – a Dr. Jack Hirschowitz – who was happy to pronounce Astyk’s “compulsion to live green in the extreme” as a kind of disorder.
There is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the “compulsion toward living a green life” but Hirschowitz – a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for goodness sake – said that “certain carborexic behaviours might raise a red flag.
“The critical factor in determining whether something has reached the level of a disorder is if dysfunction is involved,” he said. “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work?”.
Aaah: work. That would be the activity that makes tens of millions of people do depressed that they have to be medicated by people like Dr Hirschowitz just so they can carry on doing it?
And that would be the work whose trainees – ten per cent of all American school-age boys – are now doped up to the gills with psychoactive drugs by Dr H and his colleagues to make them pay attention?
Rather than fight The Economy, or try to fix it, Astyk seems to be suggesting that we simply ignore it – that we unplug. It’s a very un-male, un-macho solution – which is why the book is subversive.
Astyk may have unplugged, but she’s not the one who’s unhinged.

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Moths to the flame

I was mesmerised by last night’s tv ad for Westfield, a vast 150,000 square metre shopping mall that opens in West London next weekend. The ad features attractive and horny young people who turn into fairies. Fair enough, but they then start taking off and fly across the city’s rooftops in ever-denser swarms. Their destination is the burning light of…..”a new and innovative shopping experience”.
Please reassure me that I did not imagine the whole thing. Go, check out their ad . Is it, or is it not, a film about moths to the flame ?

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