This article was first published on the JPI Urban Europe website on September 26th, 2022.
It’s a Matter of Cities Serving Their Citizens
Resources are finite. Earth’s population is growing. More and more people are becoming part of the middle class, with all the needs and demands that come with it. We need to become more efficient with the resources we have – namely food, water, and energy – to serve the growing population. Since a lot of this growth is predicted to happen in cities, this is also where we need to take action. But how can we do so?
While thinking about (and implementing!) stormwater systems in cities is an ambitious step forward and investing in renewable energy is definitely going in the right direction – as are new forms of integrating agriculture and food production into the urban context – there is so much untapped potential still left by setting goals for food, water, and energy separately and pursuing separate measures to achieve them.
Nexus thinking (nexus = connected), however, bears extraordinary efficiency potential: it’s not a matter of thinking of the three separate areas together, it is a case of recognising that they are inseparable – a single entity. It’s a simple calculation:
- We need water to grow food.
- We need water to produce energy.
- We need energy to extract, treat, and distribute our water.
- We need energy to transport our food from field to table.
- We need food to feed the growing population.
- We use food for biofuel.
Even though it’s a complex challenge to tackle – and very much one that has communication, collaboration, and correct data usage at its core – it is one worth investing in when it comes to a city’s resilience. How so?
Making a City Resource-Resilient
The Resilient Cities Network defines urban resilience as “the capacity of a city’s systems, businesses, institutions, communities, and individuals to survive, adapt, and grow, no matter what chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience”.
At the same time, climate change is projected to increase risks for people, assets, economies and ecosystems, including risks from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea level rise and storm surges in urban areas. Cities are therefore called upon to better equip themselves for these challenges and to change the way they function in a way that can cushion such effects.
The system of the city, which the Resilient Cities Network refers to, can be considered on many levels. The resource system, which concerns the supply of water, energy, and food, is essential for the basic supplies of city dwellers. If we look at the metabolism of a city, it is obvious that cities consume a lot of resources that they do not produce themselves but obtain externally – and that at the same time a significant amount of waste leaves the urban cycle.
Out of 12 key indicators listed in the City Resilience Framework, minimal human vulnerability is named first, relating to the extent to which everyone’s basic needs are met: “Access to shelter and food – particularly for vulnerable groups – as well as sufficient, safe, and reliable citywide water, sanitation and energy networks are key to achieving this goal.”
Here’s where the food-water-energy nexus comes into play: using the nexus as a lens to analyse cross-sectoral synergies and trade-offs allows for a more objective and detailed understanding of resource constraints and can also help (better) project and manage future risks to water, energy, and food security in cities.
The nexus helps cities develop more practical solutions in key area resources. It does that in three ways: optimisation, synergies, and trade-offs. The nexus helps identify the strongest interconnections between department-specific goals to then generate integrated approaches and policies for them, summarises Felix Dodds.
When it comes to translating the food-water-energy nexus from a theoretical framework to the urban context for a more productive and resilient resource management, there are questions to ask and steps to take for decision-makers and those advocating for them:
Acknowledge the Connections and Assess Your Status Quo
The nexus is all about understanding how food, energy, and water relate in an urban context and how to use them more efficiently, intertwined. The first step to dealing with existing inefficiencies is acknowledging the interconnection and putting it into your local context; failing to recognise the consequences of one sector on another can lead to notable inefficiencies in the entire system.
Use the nexus as a tool that helps you look at the city’s infrastructure through a collaborative lens and evaluate the status quo. It is necessary to include not only technical and financial, but also organisational and social factors into the assessment. For all (at least three – water, energy, agriculture) involved departments, it is necessary to ask:
- Identify system interdependencies
- Which sources does the city depend upon?
- How is the city’s water, energy, and food being produced, where, and at what cost? What is the long-term perspective of this?
- How dependent is the city on imports when it comes to water, energy, and food?
- How much of the respective resource is needed and will be needed in the future?
- Who has jurisdiction over different elements in the resource cycle?
- What kind of data on each of the fields is available?
- Review key local stakeholders and processes
- Who are key stakeholders when it comes to governance functions?
- What are key infrastructural assets and governance processes?
- Define strengths and weaknesses in the city’s resilience
- What is the present-day performance, and what are predictions for the future when it comes to water, energy, and food resource needs?
- Where are governance gaps in designing and implementing policies and regulations?
- How prepared is the city when it comes to disaster response and recovery in water, energy, and food?
- How compatible are the city’s solutions to tackle climate change?
- What are sustainable solutions and innovations that can help the city tackle challenges in water, energy, and food supply?
- Define priority areas
- Where do you need to act quickest?
- Where are the biggest inefficiencies?
- Which solutions can be implemented fastest or at the highest efficiency rate?
- What are your short-, mid-, and long-term goals?
Based on questions like these, you will be able to develop an action plan. The City Water Resilience Approach, Energy Resilience Framework and the Innovator’s Handbook on Enabling Sustainable Food Systems can be of tremendous help with this. Necessarily, this is something you cannot develop on your own or even within a single department.
From Silo to Dialogue: Enable and Incentivise Cross-Departmental Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement
City Administrations, Businesses, Academia, NGOs – all of these are basically groups of people working together and serving each other. Naturally, communication is one of the most important skills needed to advance change, make cities and systems more sustainable, and take care of each other. Knowledge, empathy, ideas: it all depends on communication.
When it comes to complex, intertwined sectors such as food, water, and energy, it is absolutely crucial to get all stakeholders involved and communicating with each other. Silo-thinking is one of the strongest roots for inefficiencies. The way forward is to install a consortium of different stakeholders or install a coordinator with decision-making power whose job it is to communicate with all parties involved.
In this way, systems can be viewed holistically, and synergies can be used meaningfully. To learn more about how to get stakeholders involved in FWE nexus implementation, head over here.
Take It Step by Step and Close Inefficiency-Loops
When it comes to conclusions on how to operationalise solutions on the ground, Wahl et al. define the following five recommendations for decision-makers:
- Carry knowledge development through to the implementation of change-strategies.
- Engage relevant stakeholders at all stages in the solutions process to align potential solutions with actors who have the agency to implement them.
- Move beyond flows and metabolism, and engage the behaviours, habits, and social patterns that underpin urban complexity.
- Include nexus thinking in participatory/laboratory approaches.
- Purposefully integrate research into municipal strategies and plans.
These can ensure that outcomes of urban laboratories, such as Urban Living Labs, are directly relevant to a broader sustainability strategy, while creating pathways for a sustainability transition in the urban FWE nexus.
Moreover, the nexus approach relates to other concepts such as the Circular Economy, as their general direction aligns: both concepts can have a synergistic output towards the optimisation of resources and minimisation of waste. Unlike the Circular Economy, the nexus is not yet as high on the political agenda as it could be – this could change, since “Nexus thinking has been illustrated as ‘the most appropriate way to go ahead’ for transitioning to [a Circular Economy]”.
Putting It Into Practice – Implementation Examples
What does an integration of the food, water, and energy nexus into a city look like? Essentially, this is about a holistic, integrated planning approach, largely influencing a city’s infrastructure. It is also about opening up to innovative solutions and thinking in a less linear and more circular way. To name a few examples of what this could look like:
- Reducing food waste (e.g., through crop production planning, improvements in storage, refrigeration, and transportation facilities, or consumer education).
- Reusing food waste (e.g., energy production, feed for livestock, insect meat production).
- Establish new forms of urban agriculture: vertical farms, for example, use 70% less water than conventional farming. They also save transport emissions, and digital tools can connect these farms with marketplaces to create a more efficient supply chain.
- Enhancing recovery, treatment, and reuse of wastewater (both for potable and non-potable reuse, e.g., irrigation).
- Establishing rainwater harvesting systems for buildings.
- Installing a city-wide stormwater management system (this also helps reduce energy usage in your city – look to Copenhagen for an example).
- Encouraging the implementation of rooftop photovoltaic systems and developing energy self-sufficient housing, buildings, and urban blocks.
- Improving energy efficiency in housing and buildings.
- Reusing energy, e.g., heat (look to London where thermal energy generated by the metro system is used to provide heat and hot water for several hundred homes, or to Stockholm where cold water is used in data centres to stop servers from overheating, and is then redistributed for heating homes).
In a Nutshell
At its core, implementing the food-water-energy nexus in your cities means reducing inefficiencies through collaboration all while striving to fulfill your citizens’ most basic needs. Though complex at first, there is a lot to gain by intertwining goals and action plans of the respective departments.
This article is part of a pilot effort between CityChangers and JPI Urban Europe to highlight the complex interrelations of urban food-, water- and energy systems to a non-academic audience. The articles are based on interviews with researchers from five of the 15 projects funded in the SUGI FWE Nexus, reports produced in the SUGI FWE Nexus initiative as well as public statistics and reports. The conclusions and recommendations derive from the authors conclusions.
Read more articles and access research results from all SUGI FWE Nexus projects at the Urban Europe website.
- News // Searching for inefficiencies in the food–energy–water nexus
- Research Article // Circularity in the Urban Water-Energy-Nutrients-Food nexus
- Research Article // Urban WEF Nexus: An Approach for the Use of Internal Resources under Climate Change
- Research Article // GIS-based assessment for the potential of implementation of food-energy-water systems on building rooftops at the urban level