Smart Forest City Credit courtesy of Stefano Boeri Architetti scaled

5 ways cities must become more self-sufficient

The world outside our window in 2020 highlights why cities need to become more able to satisfy demand for vital resources locally.

The pandemic crisis is the latest in a series of events that includes the oil dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia which show how cities rely too much on the wider world. This presents challenges to ensuring they continue to function properly and serve their inhabitants effectively. Add cities’ commitments to the climate and the broader environment and the need for self-sufficiency looks even more urgent.

How cities are becoming more self-sufficient.


One way cities can move towards a self-sustainable power supply is by becoming energy suppliers themselves. In Spain, both Cádiz and Barcelona have taken this approach, distributing renewably generated power to citizens through publicly owned companies. “We set up two permanent citizens’ energy forums and the people have been the driving force behind the improvements we have carried out. The people of Cádiz are the motor of energy transition,” Cádiz mayor José María González told The Guardian.

On a smaller scale, Tesla’s Powerpack batteries have been deployed around the world in conjunction with renewable energy sources like solar panels to make commercial developments self-sustainable through microgrids as PlaceTech has reported before.


Vertical farms are a developing area that will see cities able to feed themselves without relying on polluting, congesting deliveries from elsewhere. Retailer Ocado invested £17m in the field through two deals in 2019. “We foresee a day where customers’ vegetables are harvested hours before they are packed, metres from where they are shipped, bringing the freshest, best tasting, and pesticide-free produce to customers with the fewest food miles,” the company said.

Smart Home Farming Credit Masdar City

Smart Home Farming. Image: Masdar City

And individual homes and offices will be able to grow their own food too, through the development of ‘smart home farming’ technology. This has been hailed as an important trend for the future by the Masdar City project — a planned, sustainable city in Abu Dhabi.


With the climate crisis an increasingly pressing issue around the world, having a reliable and self-sufficient source of water is becoming more important for many cities. Santa Monica in drought-prone California is working towards complete water self-sufficiency by 2023. This has involved building groundwater wells and an underground treatment plant. The city has also implemented strict ‘water neutrality’ rules. These mean that when a site is redeveloped, it cannot have greater water requirements than the previous development at that location.

Desalination can be an option for coastal cities, such as Singapore. The city state needs to achieve water self-sufficiency by 2061 when a supply deal with Malaysia expires. However, moves to achieve this have already led to increased prices for the public.


The more data a city collects, the more able it is to make informed decisions, tailored to a city’s specific needs. This is demonstrated by Vancouver’s VanDashboard. The dashboard allows citizens to see how the city is performing against 65 indicators across six categories: core service delivery, affordability and housing, climate change, economy and finances, equity and social issues, and vibrant culture.

Sidewalk Toronto Credit Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Toronto: Image by Sidewalk Labs

And on the other side of Canada, Toronto is set to push the boundaries of city data collection through Sidewalk Labs’ plans for what it describes as “a neighborhood on Toronto’s waterfront that achieves new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” However, the company’s relationship with Google (they share a parent company in Alphabet) led to a lack of public confidence in the project. Sidewalk Labs has lately moved to counter these concerns.

Circular economy

A circular economy factors reuse and recycling into the demand for products and services, and the concept can be a real boon to cities pursuing sustainable self-sufficiency. The Netherlands offers a good example of this in action. Government, non-governmental, and business organisations have committed to making the Dutch economy run completely on reusable raw materials by 2050.

CopenHill In Copenhagen Credit Max Mestour And Amelie Louys

CopenHill In Copenhagen. Image by Mestour And Amelie Louys

In a fully circular economy, even waste isn’t wasted. The CopenHill incinerator in Copenhagen, Denmark turns 534,600 tons of waste each year into energy that electrifies 30,000 homes and heats 72,000. There’s a business case for a circular economy, too. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has said that the circular economy could save European businesses up to $630bn a year or more in material costs.

Perhaps the clearest vision of this working in the context of a self-sufficient city is Stefano Boeri Architetti’s Smart Forest City proposal. If delivered, the city in Mexico would have a circular economy, with all of its food, water, and energy needs self-generated.

Smart Forest City Credit Courtesy Of Stefano Boeri Architetti (2)

Smart Forest City: Courtesy of Stefano Boeri Architetti

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These are clear and exciting proposals and examples. It’s time for the United States to follow these and create a model city. With the pandemic showing that we have 23 million workers who can live anywhere, and the social justice protests showing that we have a broad base of motivated people, now is the time to prepare for the future migrations. Creating a brand new city using these guidelines, we can show the way to a brighter future for the millions soon to be displaced by rising tides and changing weather patterns. (Let’s pick a state that has been losing people and prove that these concepts work there, it will work anywhere!) Thank you

By Chuck Heckman

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