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An excursion of a citizen-run urban scenario, for a cooperative addressal of citizen needs, sharing skills and products, via peer exchange.



A typical urban democratic scenario is a division of responsibility, where citizens elect representatives, pay taxes and expect certain services. This form of division of labour has led to a coalition of opposing interests, unfulfilled expectations and an increasing tax burden on citizens, compounded by an economic and environmental crisis. The author’s proposal is to enable citizen-led self-governing bodies, to form policy and executive bodies in cities, pursuing municipal and governmental goals on a local level.

The proposed self-governing body entails a population of 5’000 – 10’000 citizens, whose responsibility covers use and reuse of water, access to healthy food, clean energy, transportation, local environment (micro-climate), employment and happiness of its citizens. The demand for efficient city services result in administration overhead and increasing costs.

Urban space is both functionally efficient in terms of the number of people per unit area and predatory in resource demand. Resource demand from extractive processes, food and need for nature outside city limits take a high toll and has a detrimental impact on the environmental balance of the planet. A resource efficient city reduces the input/ output flows of material through compactness. Compactness (page 11) is defined by reduced demand for land and energy for transport, where urban planning is based on a vision of the future, developed with local stakeholders and crossing administrative boundaries, and is a key factor in increasing the density of urban areas, developing mixed land use, avoiding the unnecessary uptake of land and soil sealing, reducing car dependency and encouraging the use of public transport, walking and cycling.

Roads serve as conduits for movement of people and transfer of goods. The reliance on motorised traffic and its associated use of space can be seen here, where a Houston highway interchange takes up as much space as the city of Siena. Irrespective of the size of the city or its population density, both goods and people need to be able to be transported efficiently in a safe and timely manner.

A complete redesign of a city involves a carbon front-load that would require many decades to be recovered. The proposed solution uses available infrastructure that is minimally modified. The solution proposed, eliminates the need for motorised transport for payloads up to 3.5 metric tonnes, using waterborne transport. Space is also used to provide for greenhouses (where required), green space, use of waste heat and photovoltaic panels.

Road maintenance in adverse weather conditions is a prohibitive cost factor, especially in wet and snowy conditions. The presence of black ice further exacerbates maintenance conditions. The use of salt has a negative impact on plants and trees, increases salinity in soil and sub-surface water and has a corrosive effect on material. In extreme weather cases, transport is shut off, due to icy and/ or heavy snow conditions.

Fresh water is an essential and expensive commodity that is often wasted. The sewage system is often used as a dumping ground that clogs up sewage lines, fouls the treatment process and contributes to untreatable solid waste. In a self-governing environment, this citizens’ group is responsible for sourcing and conserving water. The closed loop of the wastewater treatment process sensitizes users and imposes social and monetary costs.

The tertiary treated wastewater is fed into a shallow (1m depth) and narrow (2.5m wide) canal system, sunk into public road space. At designated points, to avoid contaminating groundwater, percolation is enabled. The canals have a ~1.0° gradient and are sunk in the road, to maintain required slope. This alignment may entail deeper channels or an aqueduct form in the road. In case of height differences exceeding a certain slope – yet to be determined, the water will be channelled via pipes.

Community gardening, running under cooperative principles, is practised, where every individual has access to a portion of space for zero-budget (permaculture) farming of food, that can include vegetables, fruit, flowers and (medicinal) herbs. Individuals may farm themselves or offer other skills, in exchange for healthy and fresh food. This could cover a portion of every individuals’ food requirements.


Governance: A cooperative self-governance process, where every adult individual takes up varied roles. Governance responsibilities are shared, and each individual is obliged to be actively involved, i.e. stand for office and carry out mental and/ or physical tasks. Carrying out both policy making and execution tasks is to be part of a self-governing sharing of skills, for a learner administration setup, where a barter exchange of skills and/ or products replaces hitherto practiced forms of division of labour.

Water: Wastewater – (heat extraction) –>Treatment (mechanical – biological – chemical) –> Water channels (permits percolation at select areas)

Water channel: 1.0m depth, 2.5m wide; actual depth in road surface is decided on road and neighbouring topography and intersections. Channel/ vehicle cross-over possibilities at points for motorised vehicles, where deemed necessary.

Food: Channels topped by greenhouse with PV and solar thermal panels; zero-budget (permaculture)

Road: Pedestrian and cycle space; green space for plants and trees; ponds (fish farming)

Road intersection: Tunnels or elevated tubes, to provide a seamless cross-over for organisms, insects and other animals. Space kept aside for sitting/ relaxation etc.; ponds (fish farming)

Biodiversity: An increase in green cover would lead to a growth in local bio-diversity, with planting of local shrubs and trees.

For distances up to ~15km, electric boats serve as transport vehicles. Automated and unmanned boats of sizes 5 – 50 passengers, with a max. payload of ~3.5 metric tonnes, are on call 24/ 7. Boats are designed to also transport loose and container cargo. Deliveries, repair and construction material, mail, rubbish etc. can be transported with these boats. For traversing bigger (yet to be defined) slopes, boat lifts are used. Boat stops are situated every ~500m.

Waterborne transport is the most efficient surface mode, with tentative calculations showing a 1/3rd or lower energy expenditure, in comparison to buses. The calculation is based on an estimation of embodied and operational energy and factors in the complexity of a bus to a boat.  Waterborne transport does not have tyre emissions. Boats travel at speeds around 20-25kmph, averaging around18kmph. Separate stops for passengers and freight are provided. Freight stops enable rolling containers in/ out of boats. A further technical evaluation has been carried out, but not included here.

The entire concept of a revamp of road infrastructure has multiple knock-on effects. Asphalt is a source of pollution and is a considerable cost factor. Furthermore, road run-off (minerals, oil, plastics) is a considerable source of pollution in soil and water bodies. The sealing of road space prevents natural percolation of rainwater. Stormwater drains are, as a result, dimensioned to carry large quantities, require investments and regular maintenance.

Percolation areas together with green cover will have a beneficial effect, in withholding water mass, facilitating increased percolation and improving sub-soil quality. Green cover and transpiration have a beneficial impact on the microclimate. Together with the water mass in the channel, there are perceivably net positive effects, mitigating the effects of urban heat-islands.

The availability of good public transport, plays a major role, in reducing energy consumption (graph 1b, 3b). Public transport requires major investments and has high operational costs. Public transport also has drawbacks, in putting together large groups in close proximity, the risk of infections rise. At the same time, commuter flow is time and day dependent and, assuming waiting time of around 10-15 minutes for a bus is deemed acceptable, it would require buses with passenger capacities between 50-100 per vehicle. Automated waterborne boats with varying capacities (5 - 50 passengers) are a promising alternative, in foreseeable transport scenarios. Boats would not be a hazard for other road users and, in contrast to automated road vehicles, have a lower consumption of resources (boat vs. car (mini-bus)) and consequent emissions.

An FAL Bulletin published in 2017, on sustainable transport in the Amazon, concluded that electric boats could serve as a low-carbon passenger and freight transport solution. Though the study looked into transport in a scenario where road infrastructure is not well-developed, its conclusions do make a pertinent point about waterborne transport. In the light of the negative aspects, associated with road infrastructure, it may well be an alternative, to the urban road network paradigm that crisscross cities.

Present-day subsidies, as practiced in urban space transportation decisions, are inadequate in fulfilling the needs of urban citizens and to successfully address societal, economic and environmental aspects (Also see: Sustainability Assessment of Transport Infrastructure Projects: A Review of Existing Tools and Methods). In the prevailing dog eats dog scenario, the subsidy mechanism brings sections of the population to question the use of taxation revenue for such expenditures.

A recent study on the potential cost to provide free public transport in Zurich, Switzerland, concluded that the annual expense for the exchequer would be around 315 million Swiss Francs. The figure was based purely on an operational expense scenario. Luxembourg has recently introduced free public transport. The user pays paradigm, though logical at first sight, falls short in factoring in, income/ wealth levels. Varying ticket prices and subsidy mechanisms require a bureaucratic overhead that requires to be funded. Similarly, the free transport scenario also requires funding. The issues arising from such debt reallocation schemes could be mitigated (if not completely avoided) by each citizen ‘putting their shoulder to the wheel’ directly.

There is a need to revisit urban planning paradigms, a departure from tech-heavy solutions, to socio-economic organisations that reflect human aspirations, removed from the past and present status of human, societal and governance practices. Such a scheme needs to factor in the following parameters: 1) Economic (investment costs, operational and maintenance costs, accidents and travel time); 2) Environmental (energy and fuel consumption, emissions, landscape degradation and habitat fragmentation and noise pollution) and 3) Social (community disruption – lack of cohesion, impacts on business and community services, employment and wealth distribution).

Who will take these actions?

The author proposes building a consortium of people and institutions with various skills, to examine and elaborate on the proposal. This could include hydraulic, mechanical and electrical engineers, social, biology and food scientists, urban planners, city representatives and other relevant agencies.

What are the projected costs?

This theoretical excursion may require some funding that would need to be evaluated, as this is a combination of an academic, societal, engineering and implementation exercise.

Evaluation of long-term funding: The premise here lies in evaluating a largely self-funded enterprise, where governmental subscription plays a minor role. This is an important departure from the present system of taxation revenue that is rerouted back to the citizens. Avoiding multiple levels of administrative bureaucracy and political expediency, could foster new forms of self-sustaining lean societal structures. Here, adult members contribute a portion of their time, and the level of this commitment needs to be evaluated in a larger context, where members work partly for themselves and partly for the common good.


One year for an evaluation and experimentation of sections of the system, such as on the greenhouse, the water channel, electric drives and boat lifts. Based on the results of the evaluation, this would need to be followed by a test pilot in a suitable town.

About the author(s)

A mechanical engineer working in the promotion of community commons, self-governance, urban energy, community food and transportation.

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