City Engineering: «new-old» technologies
2013-09-24 | Text: Georgy Afanasiev | Photo ©: | 4106


By expert estimations, the technologies that are used in Russia nowadays relate mostly to the third and fourth technological generations with their level. At the same time in developed countries for a long time the fifth technological generation has been prevailing and the sixth is actively implemented. In this situation it is quite natural that when considering some new technology, we often treat it as “fantastic” or, in the best of cases, possibly achievable in the future. But it turns out that in the leading economies, this technology is already being used or now is even considered outdated. One of the fields with such a pattern is city engineering.

Director of an industrial energy business, Georgiy Afanasiev told us about the problems of Russian cities and about a direction which the rest of the world is now moving in.


Urban environment changes are defined by two very different and, it can be said, absolutely distinct technology classes.

The first class solves the task of maintaining the existing urban environment; this includes the most advanced technologies dedicated to the improvement of such an environment that is already pooled in established cities.

The second technology class actually constructing the city “from scratch” on the basis of a completely new concept. Its essence is to turn the city into a resource-producing territory.

Before we closely studied the difference between these technology classes in example relating to energy, let us speak now about how it looks like from a living system’s point of view.

All the cities that we built earlier were devised and designed in such a way that all the city resources (food, water, clean air, energy) could be added from the outside. Such a city surely needs a suburb. People have also become an external product. Villages and small towns are their suppliers. The most talented are born somewhere out of town, but come to it to capitalize on what the city can offer. By the way, this is a very interesting effect which has not been analyzed by anyone yet: what allows us to accumulate social capital outside a big city that today simply consumes, but cannot produce?

All the “technological revolutions” in such old cities balked at the improvement of things that had been working badly for hundreds of years. They worked inefficiently just through poor design. As an example, because soil is needed to create lawns in Moscow, so it is brought in to the city from the countryside. Now, with all this food waste which is produced in the city, but dumped or burned outside the city, we know enough about ecosystems that much of this waste can be turned back in to compost and that can be used to “soil” for the city. Why don’t we do this? Because we are living in a resource-absorbing city concept. And it's not about there being no ideas – they are everywhere. But the whole system is set up so as not to be either implementing them.

The search for models capable of resource-producing or, in other words, a city capable of generating its own clean water, land, air and energy is being going on for the last 20-30 years and it is a technological challenge. Basically this is the returning of a city to its basic function, to be a city. But this is not a town attached to a factory, or a military settlement responsible for its territory, as these can be transferred to a new location tomorrow. These technologies work on another, different, urban environment, where you will not buy a soil for 5 euro to plant your ficus, but one where trash you take out to a yard composter will be turned into a crumbly, reusable earth. And all the key cities of the world are developing such approaches today. For example, they are coming to the creation of the “city without trash” concept. Utilization systems are just a convenient example. But the gap between the evolution of Russian and the world’s major cities is not based on the narrow-minded task solution of the rebuilding of the waste handling systems. The world’s cities, in their development, are taking other routes, changing the direction of city development in principle.

In the West, for example, home composters appeared. Imagine that next to a dishwasher you have now a composter. All processes take place in it are odorless, without any problems for the home. After all, in a week 5-7 liters of compost can be produced in your kitchen.

In Russia such technologies are not used. And we are not talking only about ultramodern technologies, but well known and even technology which is already obsolescent somewhere. But the rest of the world is constantly thinking about these things. Life systems are taken and inserted in a city infrastructure. And the garbage is only one of those. The same situation is happening with water. The most common “new-old technologies” for today are biological management and disposal of waste. We cannot reach such effective disposal chemically as we can biologically – involving plants and microorganism – i.e. bioplateu system. Then it can be upscaled! An interesting example of this is in Europe when, after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc one of the small countries, instead of having a centralized water supply has created a network of 30,000 local reservoirs. It is clear that in one case the business is in building over the channels and keeping water out. A kind of water despotism with water quality becomes clear to everyone. In the second case the business was much broader. It started with selling knowledge about the structure of reservoirs, services and equipment. But then it turned out that 30,000 lakes also involves food safety. Fish appeared in the reservoirs and people began to rear crayfish. Touristic attraction to the territory grew: 30 thousands places emerged where it was simply pleasure to go. Not to mention how much work was also created as a consequence.


Another example: at Fukushima they are now using micro-environment cleaning technology to remove emissions from the nuclear power plant accident. It is mushrooms which absorb ten thousand times more cesium than is averagely contained in the soil. They are concentrators which humanity is not able to recreate. But even if they could, they will not be as good and will definitely be more expensive.

If we will investigate further, we will see that when we begin to take the living systems and consciously design a city with biocenosis, then there needs to be very serious restructuring of the urban environment. For example, we are creating parks in the city – those little bits of greenery. The World’s best municipalities create parks in the cities. It seems to be a simple “worlds” rearrangement, but it changes everything because we place the whole city into a natural environment. And this is a scientific challenge as all the knowledge about living systems should be collected to rebuild old and create completely new infrastructures.

A separate issue is a new view of health. We learned how to build cities where there is almost no place for plants. And man pays for it with a reduction in health. It is true that life expectancy grows, but this growth is achieved due to medicine. An urban environment holds this advance back. And who knows what it would be, if we had not turned our living room into a concrete jungle. The basic task which builders and architects are performing now is to make the city flat, i.e. remove all unevenness. At the same time we have special medical centers for treatment of core elements which need to be maintained, it is like being on alike a roller coaster with long ascents and descents. Because man needs a lot to keep healthy, he needs to exercise a great deal of the time. Most of all, it appears that it is windy in leisure areas and carved and sculpted contours can create a thermal zone. A structure of roads is asphalted, and then people run on the asphalt “for their health”. But running or even walking on the asphalt is a series of continuous attacks on the musculoskeletal system. Humans are not biologically adapted to move on solid surfaces. They must be elastic – or earthen, or rubbery. Accepted methods of territory enhancement create conditions for health deterioration. Flat land without hills is a windy place, but with a level surface comes less load bearing and better physical health, including fewer back problems.

The amount of greenery per inhabitant in our cities is very small. But according to the value of this parameter it can be reasonably understood what we can expect in principle. For example, we know that today, storm-water sewers in Moscow cannot handle simple rain, simply because it falls on asphalt and not the earth. This is such a fact: forest absorbs 100% of any moisture falling out of the sky. You can walk in a forest 20 minutes after it has rained, and you will not find many any puddles. Everything sinks in to the earth and is absorbed. And a city such as Moscow absorbs only 10% of precipitating moisture, and it has to deal with the remaining 90%. Because, in fact, Moscow does not have any surfaces which may collect and use this water. But instead we have a special service "Mosvodostok", which deals with sewage. Now there is a total problem with storm drainage that must be cleaned. A solution may be to expand the disposal of surface water in the same direction as the expansion of the city, but at the same time, there may be a way of increasing the area of greenery and open spaces. In this scenario we will see that there is no such a problem with excess water as natural storage and usage of water will occur.

Or there is another example. German analysts have calculated that if the roof of a building is green, i.e. is covered in plants with a fibrous root system, this roof generates such a volume of oxygen it is enough for the residents of the building itself. Plants eat carbon dioxide. A person exhales carbon dioxide. It is waste for the person, but for plants it is nutrition. A plant produces oxygen, a human consumes oxygen. Ideal symbiosis, which we are now “chasing away” from our environment.

If you will look at the central part of Moscow on a satellite map you can discover that roads and roofs occupy 80-90% of its surface. There are no places where greenery could appear. People located here breathe the oxygen brought through air flow from the surrounding parks or forests. But we should not overestimate the possibilities of this “transport”.

Concepts of town planning that we are developing come from a different angle now – in order to penetrate all urban and industrial buildings with plantations, to start urban construction by creating a “Green Plan”. There are examples of countries that are leading the way in this area, consistently implement this new concept. For example, in Singapore, with all its development intensity, total inhabited floor area and other effects on the metropolis which have all increased, the percentage of greenery in the last 10 years has increased by about 12%. This is a very high figure.

But in many other places the situation unfolds differently. Humanity grows as mold that eats forests does. If you look at the maps which are animated in time, the picture will be very similar to the vitiligo disease: the stain spreads as soon as it appears somewhere. Unfortunately, there is no other metaphor that I can find. Thanks to the advent of satellite maps, we have the opportunity to watch this tragedy unfold. 


In building the “city in the park” concept we need strive to ensure that the nearest public garden is within walking distance of resident's homes. They could run into it, or ride there on a bike and after creating a system of green space, move on to a park, then a forest park, and ultimately reach a dense forest. The principle of continuity of this system, its non-division with roads and buildings is very important here. Because the system dimension is extremely important from the angle of biology. You cannot create biocenosis on six acres, as it is impossible to do it on a hectare. There are some minimal dimensions that allow all society to reproduce by itself and then it will not require constant care. Modern development dissects urban environments. But if we look at some cities we unexpectedly discover that roads have been removed. And it is made for keeping the territory a single unit, for not making two areas of 50 hectares from one of 100. In biology, 2 times 50 is not equal to 100. In a forest of 100 hectares a deer family can live, and in fifty – not really, as it will not find sufficient sustenance there. But if we look now at the suburban parts, we can see that the main activity of man is expressed in the dissection of the remaining forests in to pieces – with roads, fences and everything else. From the point of view of bio-systems integrity, these fences and roads are having very harmful impact. This cannot continue indefinitely.

On average, each person generates a ton of waste per year. This is a huge mass with which we contaminate suburban land. The only solution that is possible is to create a large dispersion of biological methods and living ecosystems in cities.

The second step which occurs in this revolution lies in a more radical statement: you can eat everything that grows in the city. This important opportunity is connected with transport system change – with the transition to hybrids, electromobiles or a slight shift of rules on fuel. High level European standards already allow us to grow food plants almost alongside the roads and it is happening today in Europe. The city turns into a place where edible plants are grown and specially cultivated. For example, Detroit – the U.S. automotive industrial center, akin to our Togliatti – expands the program associated with the cultivation of foodstuff in city buildings and parks. And this leads to a very serious chain of events. The concept of “Food Forest” is being added. This is a very interesting decision allowing people to grow grocery “forests” in urban environments, which need the same nutrients as a normal forest. It seems incredible, but only because of all that has spoiled us with agriculture, where you have to continuously work to get something. If you look at the forest system from the point of view of gathering berries, mushrooms or nuts, then the work costs money only once there – when you start the system. And this system is stable, it reproduces itself. Yes, unlike agri-food industries it will be less productive, but instead it will not require any liters of fuel or unit operation force. “Food forest” can be supported for thousands of years and have 3-4 “floors” with fruits, as a “multilayer forest”.

Keep on going. We know that the Amur grape can withstand temperatures down to minus 45 degrees. It creeps up to 25 meters. It is even an edible grape. It is not very tasty, but the vine can be grown. Why then are our houses are not covered with the Amur grape vine? It's not even that it is beautiful so you can create a valuable raw material. It turns out that in the summer you can save 5 degrees for cooling. That is a building whose walls are entwined with grape vines has no need to be cooled on the inside. And of course it must be used.

Such possibilities need be researched and implemented in the common system and in the right way. The challenge is to set up a city’s biocenosis planning system. Now we cannot form biocenosis just anyhow. For some reason we are planting shrubs and trees, but no one is building a system where there are all the components and they are connected between each other – human, plants, animals, microorganisms, insects. A good example is flowering plants that disappear because they cannot exist without bee’s participation. That’s why in a city there can be no fruit trees if there are no pollinators. It is not an accident that all European countries are developing “solitary bees”. They are not honey bees so nobody ruins their nests. But special houses are built for them to keep them in a city, because only they are able to provide longevity for plants growing there.

But all of this can be viewed also as a new, huge market, also for Russian biotechnologies. We have a lot of good and previously deployed biological centers. The city needs the bacteria for composting and land reclamation, new varieties of plants and fruit trees. It needs a large set of directions which will in turn open up fantastic prospects.

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