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A New Paradigm for Sustainable Urban Development: Circular Abundance and the RENEWW ZONE – Eugenie Birch, University of Pennsylvania

By on October 6, 2016
Lecturer - profile

Eugenie Birch

Nussdorf Professor

Main affiliation
University of Pennsylvania


United States

North America



Eugénie L. Birch FAICP, RTPI (hon), is the Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research, Department of City and Regional Planning, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania. She is the founding co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, dedicated to integrative research and instruction in sustainable urban development. She is co-editor of Penn Press’s The City in the 21st Century series that has published more than twenty volumes since 2005.
Dr. Birch has served in many leadership positions including editor, Journal of the American Planning Association, chair, Planning Accreditation Board, president, Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, Society for American City and Regional Planning History and the International Planning History Society. She has received several awards: the Lawrence C. Gerkens Award in Planning History, Jay Chatterjee Award, Margarita McCoy Award and Distinguished Educator Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.
Dr.Birch’s most recent publications include Global Urbanization (2011, co-edited with Susan Wachter), Women’s Health and the World’s Cities (2011, co-edited with Afaf Meleis and Susan Wachter) and Neighborhoods and Life Chances, How Place Matters (2011, co-edited with Susan Wachter and Harriet Newberger). Her current research includes Penn IUR-sponsored Anchor Institutions in the Northeast Corridor, APEC-Energy Smart Communities Knowledge-Sharing Platform supported by the government of Taiwan, Energy Efficient Building Stakeholder Platform supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, and Sustainable Development Indicators Project supported by the Ford Foundation.

Dr. Birch has served as a member of the New York City Planning Commission and on the jury to select the designers for the World Trade Center site. She is currently chair, UN-HABITAT’s World Urban Campaign and president of the General Assembly of Partners, a civic engagement platform for Habitat III. Her lecture on slums is in the top ten of most viewed of UN Habitat Global Urban Lectures .

Dr. Birch, who lives in New York City, holds a Ph.D and Masters in Urban Planning from Columbia University and an A.B. cum laude in History from Bryn Mawr College.

English Proficiency
Mother tongue

Previous experience of recording video lectures

Experience of lecturing to large audiences

Experience of lecturing to large audiences

Frequency of lectures
Very often

Recording opportunities
Habitat III attendance and availability
October 15-21



Main themes
Slum Upgrading
Planning and Design

A New Paradigm for Sustainable Urban Development: Circular Abundance and the RENEWW ZONE

The New Urban Agenda calls for employing new paradigms for sustainable urban development, this lecture will offer an example that illustrates a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder project, the RENEWW Zone that links a water, energy, food and waste solution in informal settlements, a concept inaugurated at Habitat III.

Issues which the lecture addresses
This lecture will focus on how the New Urban Agenda is stimulating innovative thinking by explaing and illustrating an emerging example: the RENEWW Zone (Renewable Energy, Nutrition, Environment, and Water and Waste resource recovery Zone), a concept that helps meet several SDG goals (e.g.poverty, water, energy, sustainable cities, partnerships) while addressing existing and future settlement trends and their physical, economic and environmental dimensions, including the growth of informal settlements, the absence of key municipal service in these places, the need to help make slumdwellers’ informal employment in waste disposal more safe and stable, and other issues.

Short analysis of the above issues
The world’s water, energy, and food challenges are inextricably linked and growing. Increased global population growth and industrialization are having significant environmental, economic, and social impact, especially in the developing world.

To keep pace with this growth, it is estimated that by 2030 – just 14 years from now – the world will have to produce 40% more water, 35% more food, and 50% more energy. Moreover, these basic resources are mutually interdependent – to produce more of any one of the resources requires more of either one or both of the other resources. And increasingly, these resources will have to be made more accessible to people in cities.

Right now, about half of us live in cities and, by 2050, that number is expected to climb to 70%. Most of the urban growth is expected in developing countries, where cities are least able to cope. Already, around a billion people live in slums or informal settlements, where there is high unemployment, poor housing, unsafe water, no proper sewerage, intermittent or non-existent electricity, and where nutrient-rich fresh food is scarce.

While the number of slum dwellers has increased, the proportion of the urban population living in slums in the developing world has declined from 46 per cent in the year 1990 to an estimated 32 per cent in 2010. Despite this progress, the number of slum-dwellers is expected to double by 2030. UN Habitat estimates that some 3 billion people, or about 40 per cent of the world’s population, will need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure and services such as water and sanitation systems by 2030. It is clear that traditional methods of producing food, water and energy, and handling waste can no longer keep pace with urban population growth. In many cities, existing water and sewer infrastructure is over capacity or deteriorating for lack of funding, making expensive peripheral expansion to informal settlements impractical. Many cities in developing countries treat less than 10% of their wastewater, causing ecological damage and spreading disease.

Solution: Create Circular Abundance in RENEWW Zones
The concept of “circular abundance” means capitalizing on the innovative integration of energy and water efficient businesses, technologies, or other resources that flow from one to another in a synergistic, sustainable manner. It envisions a closed-loop model of responsible conservation and economic development that replaces fossil fuels with renewable sources; derives new water from waste water, rain, and agricultural water; and produces food with recycled energy and water, while creating near net-zero waste. This nexus model aggregates and co-locates solutions – such as vertical farming; blue, green and solar roofs; and waste-to-energy technologies — so as to allow the movement and utilization of resources easily from one production facility to the next. For example, using waste from a fish farm and converting it to energy to run the facility, and then incorporating other technologies like efficient water filtration, water reuse, LED grow lights in vertical green houses, and solar panels can make the location ecologically and financially self-sustaining. Sewage water can be transformed into drinking water, electricity, biogas, and ash. And, polluted water can be processed to extract fertilizer, industrial chemicals and metals for reuse/resale. And, by co-locating these production processes, we will maximize the efficiency of each individual process, minimize the amount of raw resource inputs (such as fuel, water, land) required, and eliminate waste. Creating a system of “circular abundance” requires holistic water-food-energy planning – but in large-scale disconnected systems, the technical and social complexity of the challenge generally overwhelms even the most qualified urban sustainability planners.
Ergo, to achieve this vision of sustainable resource use, we propose a new organizational paradigm: The “RENEWW Zone” (RENEWW: Renewable Energy, Nutrition, Environment, and Water and Waste resource recovery Zone).

RENEWW Zones would be collaboratively created at the outskirts of major metropolises or on brownfields in areas in underserved or informal settlements exist, and would sustainably serve poor communities of 5-10 thousand people with the basic necessities — water, food, energy, and green spaces – all within walking or bicycling distance. RENEWW Zones would include natural systems that will improve air, soil, and water quality, and provide green spaces for community recreation. The small-scale RENEWW Zones would function as decentralized “satellite” service delivery regions, managed autonomously from central utility services, and consuming minimal new inputs from external sources. Each RENEWW Zone would provide fresh food, energy, safe drinking water, and improved sanitation for the families living and working in that Zone.
Ideally, people living in these Zones will have:
*Easily available, affordable high-nutrient food (e.g. aquaponics, vertical farming, greenhouses, hen
houses, hydroponics)
*Safe, low-cost fresh drinking water close to home
*Access to electricity and biofuels produced from renewable energy sources (for e.g. solar, wind,
geothermal, small hydropower, waste-to-energy, bio-diesel, biogas, etc.)
*A dual-use green space – for cleaning waste water and green recreational areas
*Improved sanitation systems and better health
*Opportunities to sell recycled and repurposed waste (fertilizer, ash bricks, biofuels, new plastic market
bags, etc.)
*Local employment and vocational or management training opportunities for men and women
*Shared-governance and some form of employee co-ownership or profit-sharing
*Opportunities for micro-businesses in local water/food delivery, and waste collection/recycling
*Well-planned urban extensions that plat out future settlements, with open spaces for parks, schools,
clinics, transportation lanes and storm water management OR infill development on restored

Propositions for addressing the issue
Creating this new construct for life in informal settlements will require a holistic, integrative approach. The various engineering, technology, and sustainable business model components already exist independently, but they have not been fully integrated across all of the energy, water, food, and waste streams simultaneously. Moreover, none of the existing efforts attempt to address the communities most desperately in need of solutions. This is part of the transformative aim of this initiative and differentiates this approach from existing wealthy-city efforts. The RENEWW Model will motivate urban planners, architects, engineers, IT specialists, social scientists, and business modeling experts to break out of their siloed approaches to sustainability, and come together to re-imagine and re-engineer the future by designing scalable – financially robust – models that will change the way people live in peri-urban areas worldwide. And, with these new transformational integrated models in hand, it will take governments, aided by development banks and the philanthropic community where necessary, to incentivize the formation of integrative coalitions, promote local community acceptance, and create the enabling environment for model construction finance. In this way, we will ensure that each RENEWW Zone model will be designed to fit within the social, economic and geophysical parameters set by the communities, the governments and the businesses businesses that commit to building each Zone

Additional Reading Materials
World Economic Forum, Towards the Circular Economy, V. 3 (Davos: January 2014)
Yousef, Tariq Bin, 3R (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) in Bangladash, Municipal Solid Waste Management in Asia (NY: Springer, 2014)
Gouverneur, David, Planning and Design for Future Informal Settlements (New York: Routledge, 2015)

Draft presentation