Right-sizing cities is not just a matter of looking at the internal conditions for the quality of life of city inhabitants or their myriad organizations.
Right-sizing cities is a matter of right-sizing our cities in relationship to the eco-region that they are situated in.
Just as bees right-size their hives because of the inner conditions necessary to support their internal purpose and quality of life, they also right-size their hive based on the eco-region that they pollinate as they gather the energy – aka pollen and nectar – to produce the honey that is their food supply.
The success of bees in achieving their purpose of producing 20 kg of honey per year depends on the quality of life in the natural conditions of the eco-region itself. What diversity of plants exist in the region that they provide pollination services to? How many plants are there? What is their condition? What seasons do they flower in? What other natural pollinators are drawing from the same energy source? How have bees developed cooperation with other pollinators and collaboration with the plants themselves?
If we draw back and look at the rightsizing of cities, considering the same questions for humans, we must look at the science of the eco-footprint. For that measurement now gives us the necessary feedback loop we need to know how much energy we require to support our cities – whatever size they are.
Embedded in the algorithm for calculating the eco-footprint are the assumptions about the size of the city population and its consumption patterns. For large cities in the developed world the estimates for the eco-footprint shows that if everyone on earth lived at the developed-world level of consumption, it would require 3 planets to supply all the cities.
These unnerving (but long-known) calculations are offset by the consumption patterns of cities in the developing world who have lifestyles requiring less than one-planet’s productivity. Altogether our cities live on borrowed time that on average the developed and developing cities “only” require about 1.7 planets.
What this means is that human lifestyles are consuming the future of Earth’s ecological output. This inconvenient consequence of this is that we are not allowing Earth to naturally replenish her lifecycle of living resources.
Thus if we accept that the right size of cities must enable present and future generations to survive, connect with their environment and regenerate, then we are called to take some lessons from the honey bees and redesign our life-styles and recalibrate the space, energy and relationships requirements needed by individuals and collectives.
One example of how to do this, that I live with, occurs here at Findhorn Foundation, Scotland – where annually we are calculating our eco-footprint. As an individual I learned that my lifestyle for 2019 was below the median of others in the UK – except for the airmiles I travelled last year. I learned to my horror that I was living at a 7-planet level because of that energy consumption. The 2020 pandemic has “corrected” my unsustainable behaviour and reduced my airmiles to zero. It is a hard way to redeem my life choices – but it is a lesson that I invite others to reflect on.
I am learning that right-sizing cities require choices for living locally – like the bees in their hives. But it also requires choices for travelling between cities and eco-regions. The bees again remind me that unless I am performing a service to those destinations that creates renewable energy for next year, then I am spending Earth’s capital at an unsustainable rate. If I wish to walk (or fly) the talk I promote for right-sizing cities, I am going to have to change my travel choices.
Rees, W. E. P. D., & Wackernagel, M. (1994). Ecological Footprints and Appropriated Carrying Capacity: Measuring the Natural Capital Requirements of the Human Economy. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Taylor, G. (2008). Evolution’s Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transformation of our World. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.