The zillion year town

Nick Sharp

Human-caused climate change is our second biggest existential challenge, and it's a sub-set of the biggest, which is achieving total sustainability. That is mandatory.

Currently, we use up non-renewables, and faster than ever before. That will stop, once they've all gone. Avoiding further climate change requires we stop burning fossil fuels. Total sustainability requires that we stop using up all non-renewables. That's not the unthinkable "stop using non-renewables", but they have to become assets to cherish, not consumables to trash.

We must also stop over-harvesting fragile renewables. We vacuum the sea and wreck the brood stock – no more fish. We clear fell timber on rainforest hillsides – millennia of soil is lost in the next monsoon.

We must nurture: the land, the waters, the air, and most living species. Obvious? Of course, but it's equally clear we are accelerating in the opposite direction. Why? Many of us live in cities and suburbs. They are deeply unsustainable. Their construction, maintenance, and operation consumes: cement, concrete, steel, aluminium, brick, tile, glass, marble, tarmac, coal, oil, gas, and just about every other non-renewable. Little is reused, and only a modest proportion is recycled, or usually decycled to some lesser purpose. Even plantation timber is partly non-renewable, thanks to the fossil fuel inputs to its production.

Cities and suburbs are also inherently non-resilient, only kept functioning thanks to the work of thousands in ‒ traffic control, emergency services, driving buses and trains, and lots of other occupations.

And many cities and suburbs are coastal. Climate predictions suggest they will be under water within a few centuries, much sooner for Kiribati, Tuvalu, The Maldives, coastal Bangladesh, and perhaps The Netherlands. Their peoples will have to move, requiring massive and generous international cooperation. There are several web sites where you can view the effect of rising sea levels on the land.

So, cities and suburbs are: UN-sustainable, UN-resilient, and eventually many of them will be UN-der water

So we will have to relocate many people over the coming decades and centuries. To have any chance of doing so in a controlled and totally sustainable way, we must start soon. So, where to move and how to live? New cities and suburbs on higher ground? No! That just repeats today's errors.

The tree change? The five-acre lot, grow vegetables, raise chickens? That's a retreat to a peasant economy, devoid of industrial products, schooling or hospitals.

No! We are a gregarious species that thrives by living communally, specialising, then trading our skills and wares with each other. I suggest we need to consider living in medium-sized towns (perhaps 15,000 residents); towns that are sustainably constructed and operated, and adjacent to sufficient land to satisfy most residents' needs for food, soft fibres and timber, with at the outermost a generous allocation for wilderness. Those outer areas from adjacent towns should eventually form a transcontinental wildlife corridor. And the locations would be sufficiently elevated to survive an eventual 70M sea level rise.

Town size is important. Too small makes it difficult to afford key social infrastructure. Too big, and the inefficiencies of cities return. On average, a population of fifteen thousand would include about twenty six hundred students from kindergarten through high school. That's an intake of two hundred a year, a good level for excellence in schooling. Also, 2013 Australian figures suggest the town could support about 60 doctors, and perhaps as many as 300 other medical staff, giving excellence in health.

Today, dwelling occupancy averages two and half people each, so there might be some six thousand residences of various sizes and types. Let's allocate about a thousand square metres per residence (including street space, parks, shops, offices and light industry). It's neither generous nor exiguous. Thus the size of The Town, excluding the surrounding lands, could be as little as six square kilometres. Suitably laid out, there could be no more than two kilometres in the town from any house to the shops, offices and factories.

It is realistic to run such a town with no cars. People walk, cycle, skate, and scoot. The disabled could use small electric vehicles, or ride in a covered tricycle rickshaw. Roads would be half the normal suburban size ‒ perhaps five metres wide ‒ and would be marked with lanes for walkers and riders. Heavier vehicle visits would be rare.

All buildings would have composting toilets, which would also take all kitchen scraps. Full hoppers would be swapped out and the material processed and sent to the food and fibre lands. This saves water, organics, but most importantly: closes the phosphate cycle before we exhaust the phosphorus mineral sources, on which today's agriculture deeply depends.

Agriculture and forestry would be organic: no artificial oil-based fertilisers, and extensive use of permaculture and no-ploughing techniques, to minimise run off, and loss of soil and nutrients.

There would be no mains water system. Composting toilets, better habits, and standard water saving techniques, could easily halve the household water demand, which could then be satisfied primarily by roof capture of rain, thus eliminating the entire system of catchments, reservoirs, pumping and purification stations, pipelines and local reticulation.

There would be no sewers. Thanks to the elimination of the flush toilet, waste water would be light grey, and could be disposed of by sub-surface irrigation in the gardens, thus eliminating sewers, sewage pumping and processing stations, and river or ocean outfalls.

There would be no storm drains. Halving the roads, omitting driveways, and capturing all roof water would minimise run off except in the heaviest downpour. Since walkers would use their road lanes, there would be no need for pavements (side walks). Instead, adjacent to the roads would be concave swale drains, growing grass for soil stability, and fruit trees for shade and food productivity. 

Electricity could be primarily from roof photo-voltaic panels, though there would also be a town micro-grid which could be powered by wind, concentrated solar thermal with storage, and perhaps a high intensity PV farm. There might well need to be (underground) electrical mains, partly as back up to the house panels but also to collect any surplus power from them. No more lengthy high voltage transmission lines.

The mains ducts would also carry fibre to the premises for all non-wireless communications needs. The fibres would carry subscription and free-to-air TV (so no aerials), Internet connectivity, educational and entertainment video on demand, and video conferencing for work, socialising, and many medical appointments. Fewer hours spent in the doctor's waiting room swapping germs with other patients!

There would be no gas. Water and space heating would be solar, aided by intelligent house design. Cooking would be electrical, using resistive ovens, microwaves, induction hobs, kettles and toasters.

The Town could be semi-circular, with the diameter parallel to a nearby highway, accessed by feeder road. Along the diameter would be retail, office, garaging, and light industrial premises, which all need twin access: by residents on The Town side and by vehicles on the highway side. Thus highway traffic never enters The Town. No pollution and far fewer accidents.

Such a town would have to have its own local council. Some of its planning would be at odds with legislation in many jurisdictions, so it could not work under a nearby council's building codes. Authority for creating and managing The Town would probably require both state and federal legislation, and would have to leave a substantial amount of decision making about various standards to The Town council, since at least the initial Towns would effectively be social science experimental laboratories.

The Town should own all its lands and buildings, and residents should own The Town though shares. That would be their property investment. Thus there would be no buying and selling of real estate, or personal investment in disruptive house alterations or complete rebuilding. Instead, residents would be more interested in Town investments, which should increase their share values. Moving would simply involve leasing another property, thus avoiding huge expensive financial transactions. And in the event of difficult times, a resident could sell a few shares instead of an entire property. Inheritance would also be easier; no need to sell a property to divide the loot.

Farmers would be cultivating Town land, so would not carry today's immense capital burdens.

For those who really need them for out-of-Town work, cars could be leased not owned. Responsibility for maintenance, registration and insurance would rest with the lessor, who would have a keen interest in the safety, long life, maintainability, and ease of reuse or recycling at end of life.

And what about work? Less of it would be needed. Few would be buying cars, caravans, or boats. Most would pay almost nothing for water or sewerage, and a lot less for electricity. Most food would come direct from the farm lands, with minimal costs for packaging and transport, and no profits added by middle men. More people would work in agriculture, which might have to become less mechanised. Knowledge workers could network from home, and be prime contributors to The Town's balance of payments.

Most physical goods would be created from renewable materials, primarily wood to make new houses and furniture, and soft fibres to make fabrics and clothing – which, being from purely natural materials, would, at end-of-life, be compostable. Teachers would work at schools in The Town, and many people would be involved in its social life, such as care of the elderly, and tutoring youngsters towards a good life and career.

In short, The Town delivers a far better, healthier and safer lifestyle, and eliminates much costly infrastructure, and most of the causes of today's obesity epidemic. 

The Town is about employing simpler ways to provide life's needs. The developed world is already too complicated to survive much longer. Soon enough, total sustainability will be mandatory. We cannot continue indefinitely to use up this finite planet's non-renewables.

Nick Sharp is a former International ICT Infrastructure Consultant

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016

Reprinted from ABC Ockham's Razor,