Cities as Forces for Good Network

Urban Material Stock: Garbage or Valued Antique?

Insights · June 16th, 2011

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Nutrient Flows: Costly Pollutants or Valued Resources?

In this CFG Insight, Michael Thompson writes of how the way we value “stuff” changes with time. The object remains the same: city house, chair, or nutrient in sewage. It is just that our perspective rotates around the object and with that change of perspective the object may come to be valued quite differently. Re-valuation in turn may have a profound impact on the metabolism of the city, material flows, and (here) the urban housing stock. An important illustrative plank in the platform of CFGNet’s research is the treatment of nutrients in sewage, for example, as resources to be gainfully recovered. What will spark the transition, if anything, from an unsustainable cost stream for pollutant removal to a sustainable stream of benefits from increasingly valuable recovered resources?

Here is what Mike has to say:

A prevalent view, among those who are concerned about the material flows we are generating, is that they are excessive and environmentally unsustainable. Greed, the triumph of competition over co-operation, the inequalities between North and South, and anthropocentrism are then blamed for this state of affairs. The solution is obvious: more altruism, a worldwide equalising of differences, a reining-in of market forces, and a whole new relationship with nature – ecocentrism. This, clearly, is a moral position, and those who act from that position will certainly be having some effect on the material flows. But there are other moral positions, and other ways of framing the problem and its solution, and it is this plurality of moral positions, and their modes of interaction, that are actually determining the material flows. If we are to understand these flows, and to come up with ways of lessening them, then the first essential is a map of these moral positions.

Without that map, we end up back with planning: an approach which has a remarkably poor record in flow reduction, particularly in its disregard for the phenomenon of re-valuation.  In re-valuation, the object is not physically re-cycled; it is seen in a different light, and this is where the small-scale market actors who averted the comprehensive redevelopment of our built environment have their part to play.  Solutions, therefore, lie not within any of the moral positions but between them: in their constructive interaction.

What is needed, therefore, is not a single “blueprint for survival” but the democratisation of our processes of technological decision making: the argumentative and constructive interplay of procedural fetishists (hierarchy), opportunistic ego-maniacs (individualism) and environmental alarmists (egalitarianism).

Contributed by M. Thompson

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