The Anarchist Urban Ecosystem: Rethinking the Urban Environment
The concept of Auroville – an ideal township devoted to an experiment in human unity – came to the Mother as early as the 1930s. In the mid 1960s the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry proposed to Her that such a township should be started. She gave her blessings. The concept was then put before the Govt. of India, who gave their backing and took it to the General Assembly of UNESCO. In 1966 UNESCO passed a unanimous resolution commending it as a project of importance to the future of humanity, thereby giving their full encouragement.
The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity – in diversity. Today Auroville is recognised as the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with – and practically researching into – sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind.
On 28th February 1968 some 5,000 people assembled near the banyan tree at the centre of the future township for an inauguration ceremony attended by representatives of 124 nations, including all the States of India. The representatives brought with them some soil from their homeland, to be mixed in a white marble- clad, lotus-shaped urn, now sited at the focal point of the Amphitheatre. At the same time the Mother gave Auroville its 4-point Charter.
Auroville is located in south India, mostly in the State of Tamil Nadu (some parts are in the State of Puducherry), a few kilometres inland from the Coromandel Coast, approx 150 kms south of Chennai (previously Madras) and 10 kms north of the town of Puducherry.
They come from some 49 nations, from all age groups (from infancy to over eighty, averaging around 30), from all social classes, backgrounds and cultures, representing humanity as a whole. The population of the township is constantly growing, but currently stands at around 2,400 people, of whom approx one-third are Indian.
Overview of the city plan
At the centre of the township lies the Peace Area, comprising the Matrimandir and its gardens, the amphitheater with the Urn of Human Unity that contains the soil of 121 nations and 23 Indian states, and a lake to help create an atmosphere of calm and serenity and to serve as a groundwater recharge area.
A 109-hectare area to the north of the Peace Area, the Industrial Zone, a zone for “green” industries, is focused on Auroville’s efforts towards a self-supporting township. It will contain small and medium-scale industries, training centres, arts and crafts, and the city’s administration.
The largest of the four city zones, comprising of 189 hectares, the Residential Zone is bordered by parks on the north, south and west. Main access to the zone will be through the crown road with further traffic distribution via five radial roads that divide the zone into sectors of increasing densities. This zone wants to provide a well-adjusted habitat between individual and collective living. 55% of the area will be green and only 45% built surface, thereby creating an urban density balanced by nature.
The International Zone, a zone of 74 hectares to the west of the Peace Area, will host national and cultural pavilions, grouped by continents. Its central focus is to create a living demonstration of human unity in diversity through the expression of the genius and contribution of each nation to humanity
Planned on a 93-hectare area, situated to the east of the Peace Area, the Cultural Zone will be a site for applied research in education and artistic expression. Facilities for cultural, educational, art and sports activities will be located in this zone.
The city area with a radius of 1.25 km. will be surrounded by a Green Belt of 1.25 km width. As a zone for organic farms, dairies, orchards, forests, and wildlife areas, this belt will act as a barrier against urban encroachment, provide a variety of habitats for wildlife, and serve as a source for food, timber, medicines etc. and as a place for recreation.
Presently an area of 405 hectares, the Green Belt – though incomplete – stands as an example of successful transformation of wasteland into a vibrant eco-system. Its further planned extension with an additional 800 hectares will make it into a remarkable demonstration site for soil and water conservation, ground water recharge, and environmental restoration. As lungs for the entire township, it will complete the healing process that Auroville started several decades ago.
Auroville, very much like The Venus Project, are both great examples as to how the urban environment can be altered so that cities can not only sustain themselves but also become ecologically rich environs benefiting mankind and servicing nature. In order for us to do so, we must create radical shifts in the way we think about the vital needs of our civilization and follow the examples biology can give us. Many of these changes can be implemented right now and could be greatly supplemented and developed in an anarchist society and indeed some of these concepts and ideas can indeed form the basis of an anarchist revolution.
The modern cityscape is one that can be characterized as a concrete jungle or an ecological wasteland. Today’s cities are deserts and suck the life out of their surroundings. They are in their current state absolutely dependent and inefficient. From the anarchist perspective, they are abominations that serve as giant machines to centralize wealth and resources to unjustly keep but a minority of a few in a life of luxury.
However, civilization, with cities as its pinnacle is not something most people would be willing to do away with so it is up to us to re-envision the way cities work. Hierarchy in my opinion, is the social reaction to scarcity and is further and greatly compounded by artificial scarcity which has been one of the great factors in capitalist praxis. Such modes of organization are incredibly inefficient and cannot be anything less than dangerous to civilization, mankind and the Earth. It has been said that all conflict stems from the juxtaposition of those that have and those that have not and it is precisely due to our inefficiency and waste that many if not MOST human conflicts arise. In order to do away with hierarchical domination, its inequalities, in-justices and its resulting poverty we need to remove not just those who have power over us from their ability to do so but we must also and simultaneously work to abolish the mechanisms that allow for and even require them to do so. By replacing artificial scarcity with a more naturalized abundance and efficiency we will have a much easier time in doing this and it will be far more successful.
Water is our lifeblood
Water is probably the single MOST important thing to the survival of any living thing and indeed it is vital to the sustainability of civilization itself. Without any doubt water issues should be paramount in any anarchist vision of the future. From the way we use water to the ways we protect it or clean it. Starting off there is a technology called a bioreactor which can “brew” human waste giving off methane and other flammable gas as well as fertilizer which can be very cheaply converted into compost. The gasses the are produced in such a reactor can be used to generate electricity and the waste water could then be put through a “living machine” which would utilize certain types of plants in an artificial wetland to clean it. When combining the two technologies, there would be the yields of fertilizer, clean water and power some of which would have to be used in the process itself but not all of it and what wasn’t used could go back into the city. Cities today are also very wasteful of water. Individual over-use of water is not the only aspect of this problem. Cities not only currently have a difficulty in dealing with rain water run-off but the current methods of dealing with such result in the loss of water for the urban environment.
Envisioning agriculture in the city
Food systems are integral to the support of cities and indeed are vital to living things including people. Modern food production in the form of industrial agriculture is incredibly destructive and inefficient. There is a great waste of resources in the form of fuel, time, and other inputs with relation to the rural based corporate farming model. However, those are not the only problems with monocutlural food production.
Carbon emissions from mechanized farming and the subsequent and loss of soil through the resulting erosion are also huge problems. Soil loss in particular is a very terrifying prospect and in my opinion should be of more concern than global climate change because without soil we not only wouldn’t be able to maintain civilization but life on this planet would be threatened in a far more profound way. It is precisely due to industrialized agriculture that over half the world’s top soil has been lost in just the last 150 years. Places like Haiti are the absolute prime example of the devastation that can be wrought by such damaging practices.
Deforestation which is a very key cause in soil loss through erosion is the result of the clearing of land for monoculture farming or to produce paper. Hemp could easily substitute trees for the making of paper and can yield far more per an acre per harvest than a forest can and it can be harvested over and over again. Hemp also adds nutrients to the soil and requires very little help to grow. Cannabis after all, is not called weed for no reason and can be grown in almost any climate in any region on earth. The cannabis plant also very useful in may other aspects including food, clothing, building material, oil just to name a few.
As far as practicality is concerned I believe it would make far more sense to grow food in the city than it would to grow it miles upon miles away, especially when considering that most of the food grown in rural areas is for city use anyway. In fact before the modern practices of industrial agriculture most major cities had virtually all their food requirements provided for from within the city limits or very near by. Even New York city (which by no means was small even then) was no exception.
However, today’s cities are ecological wastelands devoid of any meaningful abundance of biodiversity. Such cities are not only sucking the planet dry but are also what could be considered as concrete jungles. Modern man thinks of nature as being someplace else and it is no surprise that many of us love to get out into the woods to alleviate the stress of modern urban or even suburban living. A long distance relationship with nature divorces the average city dweller from a meaningful connection to the earth and subsequently facilitates in the devastation of the planet. By introducing a productive ecological system within our cities we would achieve the vital connection with nature that many of us crave while providing ourselves with a sustainable source of food. Food that would in fact have a higher concentration of beneficial nutrients in it due to the fact that less would be lost in transportation when compared to the current agricultural methods.
Urban farms and especially community farms within our cities would benefit more than just us people. They would create habitat for a large variety of species that under existing conditions have a much harder time finding an ecological niche in the urban environment. Urban based agriculture would also greatly reduce traffic because there would be far less associated with the transport of food in our cities. This would also allow us to reduce funding for road enlargement project which in and of themselves are huge producers of carbon emissions and a drain on resources that could be used elsewhere.
Space to grow food in our cities already exists and indeed can be expanded. As In many cities here in the United States (especially in the cities of Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, St. Louis, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and many others) there already are plenty of vacant lots that could be used for urban farming and community gardening which would not only reverse urban decay but simultaneously provide countless new jobs and would bolster the floundering economy. These new jobs would also dramatically increase the size and scope of the job market.
In fact the space required would be less than what we currently think of due to the abhorrent fact that much of the food produced toady is dumped at sea because it has no profit value or to keep the price of food up.
There is also plenty of opportunities to incorporate food production systems into the very structure of already used parts of the city. In this way we could maximize the usefulness of every single inch of our urban or suburban environments.
With the rampant problem of poverty, underemployment, unemployment and poor quality of education, urban agriculture could be a very useful tool to minimize these issues. Such problems especially effect people living in the inner-city and often they are minorities. These disenfranchised people often turn to the illicit drug trade for income. However, in an anarchist society or in a post-drug war era they will no longer be able to rely on such avenues to provide for their livelihoods. Without prohibition, no one would buy drugs from any street dealers when they could go to far more reliable clinics or drug shops, and in an anarchist society (one without rulership or its subsequent laws which create crimes of consent) there would be no black market at all. Without a black market gangs would loose much of their relevancy and the violence associated with them and other organized criminal elements would drop dramatically.
Farming in the city would provide the vital income to keep these impoverished people afloat and alive. It could also revitalize ares affected by urban decay and transform the “ghetto” into an area of beauty and abundance. Organizations like Food Not Bombs, would do well to implement such practices into their campaigns. Instead of feeding the impoverished “rescued” food they should use such resources for composting so they can provide them with wholesome and fresher and all around better sustenance.
The youth and “unskilled” of today also have a very difficult time finding employment and growing food on a massive scale would greatly alleviate this problem. Permaculture, Masanobu Fukoka’s Natural Farming methods, no-dig gardening and other less labor intensive and higher yielding agricultural practices can also allow the elderly or people with disabilities to participate. In addition to being far less strenuous in terms of physical strain, the aforementioned methods are also great for building soil as they are not damaging to it while they also work with rather than against nature.
One of the great injustices that modern industrial agriculture causes is the loss of traditional farming skills and techniques. This is due to the fact that corporate farms displace individual farmers who cannot compete with them and as a result they must relocate to the city for income purposes. Unfortunately in the process, the traditional skills they have are lost because there are no ways for them to earn a living in the modern urban environment by utilizing their previous farming knowledge. By creating urban farms, we would prevent the loss of valuable skills and knowledge that rural farmers could provide when they migrate to the urban environment. This would also make it far easier for them to establish roots in the city after having to move there.
Maximizing a yield from the space available requires that we do not solely rely on horizontal growing space but that we also utilize the vertical element. One method of doing this is agroforestry which is an important element in permaculture. By planting beneficial or productive trees on the farming or gardening plots, we can provide shade for crops that require it and complete a satisfactory root system to keep the threat of soil erosion at bay. This method has produced very impressive results in almost every climate it has been used in. Trees also are vital to the water cycle and an abundance of them greatly helps to prevent droughts. There is also the vertical space on the sides of homes and buildings that can be taken advantage of by trellising and planting vines. Hops and grapes being ideal for such practices.
There are numerous places that can be used to grow food or other living components that help enrich the urban ecosystem. The roofs of buildings in our cities can be transformed to provide both electrical power and green spaces. This way, not only would the vacant lots and unused spaces in the city become green but the spaces that buildings occupy would as well, which would greatly increase the ecological wealth and biomass of the urban setting.
By themselves, green roofs would offset the amount of natural habitat destroyed by our buildings so when combined with trellising on their sides, any building in a city could easily provide more biomass that the original landscape could have provided for naturally. Vertical farms take this concept and would increase growing space even more. Basically vertical farms are urban high-rise buildings that could produce a massive quantity of food. Their key strength is that they take up a nominal amount of space on the ground but multiply that vertically. A building that covers one-half acre at street level can easily provide several acres of climate-controlled space vertically.
Winter itself would be far less of a problem in a food production sense if vertical farms were built and with the use of winter farming methods, like some of the ones pioneered by permaculture practitioners, combined with greenhouses in the larger of the urban farms or gardens, there wouldn’t be too much of a need to import food.
Vertical farms would also be the ideal environment for breeding plants for optimum growth in their specific cities and would provide a nice escape for the people of the city from the cold of winter. They could also provide food that could not otherwise be grown in specific regions where those plants were ill adapted for cultivation due to various factors.
In areas that do not get too cold during such periods, food production could easily be increased by using such techniques and that food could be used for trade. In the rural areas near agri-cities in winter affected regions, the surplus food produced during summer could be traded with regions that either where in the opposite hemisphere and were experiencing summer, or equatorial regions that have year round growing seasons to help supply the cities.
To add to the richness and diversity of this new urban ecosystem, the re-introduction of livestock (specifically dwarf or miniature breeds) and poultry would well round the over all effect of creating a complete and harmonious system and aid in natural, chemical and toxin free, pest control while simultaneously providing sources of high-quality, local meat, eggs and dairy.
By growing food in the city we would provide ourselves with a stronger bond not only to nature but to each other and the cities we live in. We would also create an extremely rich and diverse ecosystem that would be beneficial to our planet. By implementing such practices, we would also address one of the key problems with our ever growing global population. We can begin to achieve this now by taking direct action and creating guerrilla gardens and if we formed urban farming collectives and food cooperatives following the principles of anarchist autogestion, we could achieve this vision in our lifetimes, and possibly sooner than we think. If the anarchist movement got behind this kind of a massive project and especially if we spearheaded it, we could dramatically and positively shift the opinion of the masses regarding our ideology while allowing us the ability to show our cause in its true light.