An integrated approach to the water, food and energy interactions in cities for resource efficiency

This week we have another blog from Livia Kalossaka who is on the MSc in Environmental Technology offered by the Centre for Environmental Policy here at Imperial College London. Just like our MSc she has had to work on an independent research project over the summer term as part of the course. She has kindly written us a blog post on this work looking at the interconnectedness of water, food and energy in building a sustainable urban environment.

New York City

There are no two ways about it, currently cities are just not sustainable. Their continued growth and consumption of resources is leading to environmental degradation, depletion of their own resources and an over-reliance on a constant flow of supplies from outside. The march of urbanisation and population growth means it is vital to develop an alternative model to make cities more resource efficient, resilient and provide reliable services.

It’s not all bad news for our urban environment though. Cities have an important role in delivering economic, social and environmentally sustainable societies. Compared to rural areas, cities have the great advantage of generating better income and cheaper infrastructures for energy, sanitation, transportation and communications. However to build on these advantages, while maintaining sustainable growth, we need a more interconnected approach for urban planning and management. Working as part of Dr Nick Voulvoulis’ group, my project’s aim is to reveal the potential to increase resource efficiency of the water-energy-food interactions in cities through what is known as Systems Thinking.

Systems Thinking is one of a number of approaches used to gain a holistic understanding of how cities work. The way cities function can be compared to organisms in the sense that they are dynamic, requiring external raw materials that are processed to give rise to specific goods and services that then produce waste. This linear approach (make-use-dispose) to resources is underpinning the current environmental degradation driven by cities and has an impact on the resilience of cities.

Systems Thinking as a tool to identify interactions between the parts of the system
Systems Thinking as a tool to identify interactions between the parts of the system

For my work I used Systems Thinking as the main tool to describe how cities work as it can demonstrate the emerging properties of the components that when linked together lead to a new level of organised complexity. The whole system can be then described and studied by properties that are more than just the sum of its parts.

Part of my reason for doing this research is that currently other studies treat the city as a black box, resources go in and waste comes out. They have not tried to describe how resources and their correlated waste can be attributed to specific activities inside the city. Usually the flows of material, energy and water have been described without linking them to the intricate set of institutions and activities that govern and guide their dynamics.

The rationale behind my study is to introduce some of the weaknesses of the present approach and give an alternative to the current linear system. My work analyses the system from a technical aspect while also setting it in the political and institutional context. In this way I hope to create a more integrated and efficient approach in the understanding of cities and how their components can be identified.

I believe that better planning of cities would have a positive impact on the quality of life of its inhabitants, reduce pollution and make essential services such as water, energy and food more accessible and safer for everyone. My work on a more complete view of how a city works will make this easier to achieve.

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