An Ecological Human Settlement Theory

Responding to Tim Hollo’s article Towards Ecological Democracy Steven Liaros suggests cities as a space in which we can achieve ecological democracy. But doing so will require significant changes to the way we live in urban settlements.


In Towards Ecological Democracy, Tim Hollo calls for the re-framing of the Greens political project around the principle that ‘everything is connected’. He argues that:

“We urgently need to articulate and build “ecological democracy” as something distinct [from social democracy and liberal democracy] – a radical political vision of deep interconnection and interdependence and of resilience in diversity. It is an enabling and nurturing politics for people and the planet, supporting people and communities to find their own way together.”

Green Agenda - Ecological Democracy - Girl - Spider WebThis article supports the call to reframe green politics and seeks to expand on Hollo’s suggestion that the concept of The Commons could be a guiding principle for an ecological democracy. Hollo draws on David Bollier and describes ‘The Commons’ as much more than a pasture open to all as suggested by Garrett Hardin in The Tragedy of the Commons. Instead, it is the combination of a resource, plus a community that shares that resource, plus the set of social protocols for managing the resource.

Unfortunately, the concept of The Commons remains somewhat abstract to an increasingly individualistic Western society with little experience in developing place-specific and community-specific collaborative and relational protocols. Whilst commons governance is a significant and important component of the proposed political narrative, there is a risk when focusing on the commons, to neglect the need for solitude, privacy, personal development and individual aspirations. The rise of communes and communal living in the Sixties is a classic example of a response to extreme individuality with extreme communality.

How do we find a balance, a Middle Way or a Golden Mean? Not a compromised middle ground, but a balance between the time and spaces for collaboration and the time and spaces needed for individual expression. Perhaps an ecological democracy could bring together the objective of liberal democrats—individual liberty—with the objective of social democrats—the common good? This would be consistent with the idea that everything is connected and would align with the way in which ecological systems function, bringing together the diverse functions of a wide variety of unique individuals for the benefit of the whole system. When the whole system provides for freedom of individual expression the result is diversity, which in turn increases the resilience of the whole system.

I therefore propose that the City—or more broadly, human settlements—would be a more appropriate lens through which an ecological democracy could be presented and developed. How might human settlements be organised or shaped so that we are able to find a balance between the public and the private, between sharing and privacy; between conforming to social protocols and the freedom to express individuality; between work obligations and the freedom to pursue individual passions and aspirations? Indeed, how do we provide for the freedom to be a part of the system or not, that is, between being settled or connected to place and being free to travel or leave?

In order to find this balance it is necessary to imagine cities not as buildings and infrastructure but as a community of citizens. More than this, we need to move beyond the conception of a static community anchored to a home and a job and instead accept our temporality and impermanence. A city is therefore a dynamic, ever changing community, a flow of humans and non-humans temporarily inhabiting or passing through a geographical location that may itself change over time.

This article will explore how we might articulate and build an ecological democracy as a political project. The approach is to illustrate how cities are shaped by their economic systems as well as the available technology and the social narratives of the day. Cities, economies, technologies and narratives are some of the material and ethereal elements of our social system. The dramatic transformations of the Industrial Revolution were the result of large-scale technologies and infrastructure, which created highly centralized cities and economies. In tailoring a new political narrative and economic system, it is important to appreciate the similarly dramatic transition being caused by the Information Revolution, the technologies of which are small scale, networked and distributed. This should inform how we might better plan for and imagine cities and economies of the future. The final section will describe the projects that the author together with co-director of PolisPlan, Nilmini De Silva, are developing to facilitate the transition to an ecological democracy and to human settlements that resonate with the ecology of their place.

Cities shaped by narratives

A city is shaped by the economic system at work in that place, which in turn, is itself shaped by the available technology as well as the narratives of that economic system. For the purpose of this argument it is assumed that ideals and values—what we say we believe in—form the narratives of our society.

Marxists and other proponents of historical materialism will argue that societies are shaped primarily by the technology or the material means of production, rather than ideals. Followers of German philosopher Georg Hegel, on the hand, argue that societies are shaped by our ideals. From an ecological, systems-thinking perspective in which everything is connected, there are no hierarchies and so no primacy of one part of the system over another. All parts of the system are relevant to the ultimate construction of the whole system, so both ideals and the means of production are relevant and need to be addressed.


Let’s look at how cities are shaped by the ideals of a society and how this is connected to the economy. An economic system could be described as the way we organise ‘work’ and that work builds the buildings and infrastructure of our cities. Economic values are underpinned by social values, with the highest values expressed in the largest structures at the centre of our cities. In the past, these were temples, churches, synagogues and mosques, now they are more likely to be office towers and shopping centres—temples dedicated to The Economy and expressing the value we attribute to work.

The narrative of ‘jobs and growth’, explicitly advocated by supporters of the ‘free’ market and at least implicitly advocated by social democrats, puts no limits on economic activity. The narrative requires constant increase in work and work outputs. This is a social expectation that prohibits or at least inhibits individual freedom. Wealth is also created through debt so the current path to individual ‘success’ is through the indebtedness of others in the system, further limiting their freedom and hampering the efficient functioning of the system as a whole. As indicated earlier, an ecological democracy should seek to find a balance between conforming to social protocols and the freedom to express individuality; a balance between work obligations and the freedom to pursue individual passions and aspirations.

Ultimately, the project of articulating and building ‘ecological democracy’ as a political project must include a narrative as succinct and powerful as ‘jobs and growth’, which informs the work that people do on a daily basis and in turn describes the world we hope to create. Fortunately, such a narrative already exists in the three-word slogan, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ from the French Revolution. This captures the objectives of both individual freedom and of social equality and asks how do we achieve both in our system, rather than pitting one against the other?

It would perhaps be inappropriate to continue to use the term ‘Fraternity’ as this masculine expression would undermine ‘Equality’. Perhaps ‘Compassion’, which means ‘to struggle together’ would be a more appropriate alternative. In our current political debate, the Right struggles—in the name of liberty—against the Left, which fights for equality. If, instead, we struggled or worked together as equals to guarantee access to basic needs for all and in doing so provide these basics efficiently, then all would have time and space for individual freedom.

Cities shaped by technology

To imagine a new vision for the future framed through the lens of a city is precisely the project of strategic town planning. Yet the very logic of town planning as it is currently practiced, was developed as a response to the issues of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Its principal concern is the management of competing private interests with only peripheral consideration given to planning for public infrastructure. It therefore does not seek to appropriately balance the private and the public.

A solar farm in Canberra. Image: Steve Bittinger (Flikr)

The practice of land use zoning, for example, which is central to our planning system, seeks to separate polluting factories from the places where people lived, a problem relevant a century ago perhaps but not the principal concern today. It has little relevance in 21st Century Australia, with little and decreasing manufacturing, while much of our work is in the service industries. Zoning created dormitory suburbs, where nothing happened during the day, central business districts where nothing happened at night and congested transport systems to connect the two at peak times. Whilst these monocultures have slowly been eroded over the last couple of decades, such changes have been retrofitted on an anachronistic planning system. The Information Revolution, which is blurring the boundary between work and home life is barely acknowledged in our approach to town planning. Town planning, like planning of all forms, must be about imagining the future. We need a new way of thinking about economies and cities—a new paradigm for town planning that attempts to extrapolate the future from the world as it is today, not from the world of the Industrial Revolution.

It is important to appreciate the relationship between our economic system and the structure of cities, and just how much these were reshaped by the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution people lived close to their place of work and over 75% of that work was in agriculture (Grigg, 1987:93). As technology changed and the efficiency of agricultural activities increased, an ever-smaller percentage of the population was required to provide food for the whole population. In some Western countries agriculture now accounts for as little as 2% of the population (Grigg, 1987:95). The massive up-scaling of factories from the mid-Nineteenth Century meant that many towns dramatically increased in size and density to become what we describe today as cities. This transformation gave birth to our modern town or urban planning system. To maintain healthy living environments, regulations to protect health and amenity were introduced. Polluting workplaces were also separated from the places where people lived through land use zoning, which in turn created the need for transport infrastructure to get people to their work. The ever increasing size and density of cities over the twentieth century—as well as the introduction of the private vehicle—made these problems of conflict between different uses, managing amenity and transport, ever more acute.

Whilst these urban problems are important, the urban environment as we know it was created by the character of our agricultural system. The production of the food needed to sustain urban populations is entirely missing from the planning of cities. The city should be imagined as a system that provides for the needs of the citizens, so food is an essential part of that system. It appears that the narratives that drew people into the cities—social and economic opportunities and access to culture—also diminished the relative social value of agriculture. Another important change was that the sense of community found in small towns and villages was abandoned for the anonymity of the large-scale city, thus enabling the pursuit of individuality.

As technology is now once again fundamentally transforming work, there is growing interest in debates about the future of work and the impact of new technologies as automation is once again taking our jobs. The dramatic reshaping of cities and restructuring of work throughout the Industrial Revolution should inform how we approach the unfolding Information Revolution, asking what is the future of work and how will this re-shape our cities?

Some of the key changes caused by recent technologies are that the internet is blurring the line between work and home, while the sharing (or gig) economy and other online platforms are transforming the way we work. It is now possible for many people to work anywhere where they can access the internet, so how might a shift from the daily commute to a tele-commute ultimately affect demand for transport infrastructure? Is e-change the new sea-change as city folk reverse the flow to the cities and start moving to the regions? The immediacy of the internet together with the efficiency of modern production techniques such as 3D printing is making ‘print-on-demand’ and direct delivery from producer to consumer more cost effective than mass production. What would cities look like if our mega-factories, warehouses and transport infrastructure were significantly reduced in scale or became redundant?

These are just some of the challenges we are facing and the technological revolution, powered by the internet is, in broad historical terms, still in its infancy. How might we develop a new paradigm for town planning that extrapolates the future from the world as it is today rather than from the world of the Industrial Revolution?

From Basic Income to the provision of Basic Needs


The potential of future job losses due to technology is just a theoretical conversation in Australia. The ongoing economic recession in Europe, though, means that that conversation exists in the context of an already high level of unemployment in many areas. Due to this and the serious inequality created by the current economic system, two important debates are evolving. The first is described as a transition ‘From a Linear to a Circular Economy’ (CE) and the second debate relates to the provision of a ‘Universal Basic Income’ (UBI) to guarantee all citizens a basic standard of living and to ensure the benefits of economic development are spread more equitably. We believe that these two debates can form the basis for a new way of thinking about economies, cities and town planning.

One of the main drivers of the UBI debate is the likelihood of substantial job losses due to technological advances. A basic income could help to sever the relationship between jobs and the satisfaction of our basic needs. Sometimes described as a guaranteed minimum income, this could be imagined as a way of creating or striving towards social equality by ensuring equal access to basic necessities for all. The provision of a UBI would then act as a platform for personal growth rather than a safety net as is the logic of the current welfare system. From an ecological democracy—systems thinking—perspective, the social system provides this platform, enabling freedom of individual expression. This creates diversity, which in turn increases the resilience of the whole system.

The problem with the UBI debate is that it is concerned about the social issue of wealth distribution and not the ecological issue of how that wealth is created in the first instance. Rather than paying everyone a basic income, we ask instead how do you design a place to satisfy the basic needs of its residents? This raises the question: Which needs do you define as ‘basic’?

Our approach is to separate those needs that are relations between different people from those that are about relationship between people and the land where they are located. Communities should be free to organise services in the way the people themselves determine, whereas we are less free with respect to those needs that are influenced by the geography and climate of a place such as the provision of water, food, energy and the design and organisation of buildings and structures. Whether we like it or not, we must comply with the laws of nature and of physics.

As indicated earlier, it is important not to neglect the planning of food systems from the town planning agenda. In order to expand the scope of urban planning to include agriculture, the term ‘human settlement theory’ is proposed as the framework for discussion. Human settlement theory incorporates the current issues explored in urban planning such as the organisation of land uses and movement within an urban area but also examines ideas such as the optimal size of settlements so that people are connected to their food systems and through this, to the natural environment. The size is also relevant to the issue of public participation in political processes to balance community needs with those of individuals. What is the optimum size of a functioning community and how could these be nested within existing built environments? Human settlement theory would also not imagine cities as isolated entities but rather as a connected network of settlements. In a now globalised world, it is perhaps more useful to imagine city planning in terms of an internet of cities, rather than individual settlements.

Commons Governance

I, alongside my colleagues, am therefore proposing a new human settlement strategy wherein places are designed to provide these four basic natural needs—water, food, energy and living & work spaces—to the future residents of each place. These are the clearly defined commons to be collectively managed for the shared benefit of the community that is managing them. As suggested in Tim Hollo’s article, the eight principles for the management of the commons identified by Elinor Ostrom can form the basis for governance of the local community. To repeat, Ostrom’s eight principles are:

  1. Clearly defining the resource which is to be managed in common and the community responsible for it;
  2. The community taking control of that resource for their shared benefit;
  3. Collective and democratic management of the resource;
  4. Effective monitoring of management and compliance;
  5. Ensuring compliance through clear, democratically developed and implemented, graduated sanctions;
  6. Open and accessible conflict resolution;
  7. Recognition of and respect for the community’s management of the resource by others; and
  8. Nested, layered or polycentric models of governance for larger communities and groups of resources, from the local to the global level.

The next question is: How big is this hypothetical place? Well we want it big enough to benefit from economies of scale but we also want it small enough to ensure that residents have an effective say in the organisation of their social protocols. We propose a number of between 100 – 200 people, which is about the size of a small village. It also corresponds with the Dunbar Number, which some anthropologists and sociologists argue is the maximum group size that can maintain stable social relationships. We would be happy to revisit this in future but our aim throughout this project is to design on the basis of the best currently available evidence.

One Planet Living for abundance

We need to choose and fix the population for three reasons. Firstly, we need a clearly defined community to manage the commons. Secondly, for One Planet Living we do not want to exceed the capacity of the land on which we are living. Thirdly, we want to design the supporting infrastructure so that there is an abundance of water, food, energy and living spaces of various forms. The over-supply of these basic needs should drive their price towards zero allowing us to offer these to each other for no monetary exchange, even though work will be necessary to provide them. Only when the price is zero do we all have equal access.

Steady State and Circular Economy

This approach of planning for a discrete population aligns with literature related to a Steady State Economy (SSE). A SSE aims “to sustain a constant, sufficient stock of real wealth and people for a long time” Daly (2010). The goal of our land development process would therefore be to create places that sustain a discrete population in their durable environment for a long time. Rather than growing the city beyond the capacity of the environment in that place, the objective would then be to replicate the process, designing each place so that it does not exceed the capacity of the land and supporting infrastructure.

Having determined the population, the next step is to minimise the work needed to satisfy these needs so that we have time for the many more interesting pursuits in life. This is where the concept of the Circular Economy (CE) comes in. The principles of the CE—systems thinking, life-cycle planning and striving for zero waste—are entirely consistent with the SSE. The term CE is useful because it has captured the popular imagination and there is growing momentum amongst business groups and various mainstream institutions around a suggested transition ‘From a Linear to a Circular Economy’, also providing a clear and concise narrative for the transition. Currently, discussion about the Circular Economy is focused primarily on the production of goods in such a way as to eliminate waste—not reducing, managing or recycling waste but designing out the very idea of waste. This requires that we think in systems and not in linear processes all of which have externalities; that is, impacts on the system that are not addressed in processes that occur in artificial silos.

We have taken this idea and asked how would it apply to the design a place? If we align with and mimic natural cycles and ecosystems we should be able to design out waste. The water cycle is the Circular Economy of water. Much research has been carried out with respect to Water Sensitive Cities and Water Sensitive Urban Design. These ideas can inform the design of a water harvesting, cleaning and distribution system. Similarly, local renewable energy generation, storage and distribution via an electricity micro-grid would not only provide the energy we need but also power the water system. Moving water might generate energy, while stationary water could store heat or potential energy. Water irrigates crops, while various plants and animals clean the water. Finally, designing buildings according to the principles of passive architectural design can significantly reduce energy demand. By thinking in systems, the delivery of water, food, energy and living spaces all become more efficient.

The City then becomes a system that provides its residents with their basic needs. The Circular Economy Innovation Hub can be conceptualised as a model for planning in both space and time not just for growth—as is our current mindset—but also for decay and regeneration. City planning should include water cycle design, food system design to align with seasonal food cycles, renewable energy, planning for product life cycles as well as designing for generational change and human life cycles.

Converting the idea into reality

Once we have imagined this hypothetical design, where do we start building it? We believe that this approach is equally applicable in rural areas as in the retrofitting of existing suburbs but early projects should support the development of rural and regional areas to rebalance our impacts on the landscape, de-congest densely overpopulated cities and support rural towns and villages. Starting in rural areas also makes sense from the perspectives of connection to existing agriculture as well as the lower cost of land. Building a Circular Economy Innovation Hub close to an existing village or township would benefit both the new hub and the existing village if complementary infrastructure is provided. It would support the e-change and help reverse the flow to the cities as meaningful work, affordable housing and connection to fresh food is offered.

Taking a systems approach to the design of human settlements involves the design of the internal infrastructure to align with natural cycles. It also involves understanding the dynamic character of human settlements and so requires an ownership structure that allows for relatively free movement between settlements. The systems approach further requires an understanding of existing economic and town planning systems, working with them to build in the mechanisms required to facilitate a smooth transition.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ~R. Buckminster Fuller


  1. Hollo, T. (2018) Towards Ecological Democracy – Part 1, from accessed on 1 May 2018
  2. Grigg, D. (1987) The Industrial Revolution and Land Transformation, in Wolman and Fourier ed., Land Transformation in Agriculture, SCOPE, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  3. Daly, H. (2010) ‘How to move to a Steady-State Economy from a Failed-Growth Economy’, Pacific Ecologist, pp.21 – 25