Urban Metabolism | In relation to Urban Design

The content of this article was inspired by a lecture on Urban Metabolism given by Stefano Cucurachi (Assistant Professor in Industrial Ecology UL) for the minor Sustainable Development at Leiden University. This minor focusses on sustainability and a system approach for solving complex sustainability problems in urban areas.

The ‘urban area’ is a term used a lot in the Faculty of Architecture at TU Delft. Besides this, you often hear other phrases such as urban dwelling, urban design and urban development. However, the urban area is mostly considered to be the largest design scale in architectural education. Yet, designing sustainable cities is much more complex. In fact, the ‘Urban Metabolism’ scales up to far beyond the city borders.

Primarily, the word ‘metabolism’ is referred to as the processes of a human body that demands food and converts that into energy and waste1. However, this term can likewise be applied to the cities. Cities and urban areas demand a huge amount of resources such as food, clean water, energy and other materials. These resources provide citizens to live comfortably and consume their necessary goods. The downside of this inwards flow of resources is that cities also have an immense outwards stream of waste and pollution. These flows of inputs and outputs of urban areas are overarchingly described as the ‘Urban Metabolism’.

Certain research on Urban Metabolism helps governmental agencies towards sustainable development of their urban area. For example, in a recent study2 a team of researchers has analysed the Urban Metabolism of Madrid to provide the municipality insights into the current state of flows and its impact on the environment. The research intended to hand this information to the government as a scientific base for changing policies towards a more sustainable city.

The research approach was to first create an overview of the in- and outflows of the municipality, a so-called Material Flow Analysis (MFA). This analysis covered seven different topics being food and drinks, energy, clean water and wastewater but also transport, manufacturing and municipal solid wastes. Then, the Life Cycle Assessment or Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) methodology was used to define and quantify the environmental impact of the researched material flows.

As a result of the research, the municipality of Madrid has received a complete examination of both their most environmentally friendly as environmentally unfriendly material flows and businesses. Logically, once that is on the table, policymakers can start to operate in order to reduce the municipality’s polluting behaviour.

However, urban designers and architects are no decisionmakers in policy. They do not determine regulations even though they do have to follow them. But then why is the large scale Urban Metabolism of importance to designers in the built environment?

As a matter of fact, being aware of the bigger system in which we as urban designers and architects design, will broaden your perspective on cities. It will show you how the built environment can be seen as a lively organism that consumes and wastes. This could open doors to different approaches in designing. Not to forget that a larger contextual conscience of Urban Metabolism will help to see beyond the city borders when it comes to sustainable urban development.



1 Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). metabolism definition: 1. all the chemical processes in your body, especially those that cause food to be used for energy…. Learn more. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/metabolism

2 González-García, S., Caamaño, M. R., Moreira, M. T., & Feijoo, G. (in press). Environmental profile of the municipality of Madrid through the methodologies of Urban Metabolism and Life Cycle Analysis. Sustainable Cities and Society. Https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scs.2020.102546

Metabolic. (2018, November 20). Urban Metabolism Input and Output [Illustration]. Https://Www.Metabolic.Nl/. https://www.metabolic.nl/news/what-cities-can-learn-from-human-bodies/