Urban Metabolism

Explaining the latest urban planning lingo.

Every profession has its own special brand of jargon. Like a secret handshake, specialized buzzwords can signal inside knowledge, authority, or expertise. Of course, that makes them kind of confusing for everyone else.

Let’s look at an urban planning term from 1965 that has recently been brought back into the conversation: urban metabolism.

The California Center for Sustainable Communities defines urban metabolism as “a systems approach for assessing sustainability by measuring the total energy, materials, and waste products that flow into and out of an urban area.”

Got it? Didn’t think so.

In shorter, less intimidating terms, urban metabolism is a way of analyzing the resources of a city. A city with a low metabolism consumes a small amount of resources and produces a relatively small amount of waste. A city with a high metabolism does the opposite.

Like living organisms, cities take in energy and spit out unwanted byproducts. From this perspective, urban “metabolic inputs” are the water we use, the food we eat and the fuel it takes to run our offices, homes and cars. Conversely, “metabolic outputs” are sewage, garbage and pollution.

The term urban metabolism has been around for five decades. It was first coined by Abel Wolman, a Johns Hopkins professor with a penchant for, you guessed it, sanitation engineering. Abel saw urban metabolism as a great way to measure the efficiency of neighbourhoods and cities. Unfortunately, this idea fell flat because gathering all of the different kinds of data required to calculate urban metabolism was virtually impossible at the time.

Today our data measurement instruments and skills are vastly superior to those available in 1965. Our improved technological capabilities are why urban metabolism is back on the minds and tongues of urban planners around the world.

With access to reels of operational data, planners can assess the cumulative outcomes of sustainability, efficiency and ecological footprints. While its broad lens isn’t perfect, urban metabolism provides a useful framing metaphor for analyzing the way we live and ways we can increase our efficiency and lower our city’s metabolism.

Sometimes the best way to get people’s attention is to give them a different way of looking at a problem. Until a new catchy buzzword is coined, we’ll be hearing a lot more about urban metabolism and how it can help us understand consumption in cities.

March 12th, 2015
Updated: September 18th, 2017

Looking at urban design through the metaphor of biological metabolism.