Scarcity and the City - understanding the structure of the city is a key to the transition to sustainability.

01 September 2021

An opinion piece by Nicoletta Michaletos, Consultant, Buro Happold

“Though Nineveh of old was like a pool of water,
Now they flee away.
‘Halt! Halt!’ they cry;
But no one turns back.”[1]

Historians still regard the collapse of the ancient city of Nineveh as the ‘mother of all catastrophies’. The city fell in 612 BC, following two centuries of regional dominance at the heart of the Assyrian Empire.[2] Biblical verse even makes an example of this, the largest city in its time, as a lesson against pride and hubris, describing the fall as strange and quite sudden: an ‘utter end’, a ‘desolation’.[3]

For years, theories proliferated while there was little available proof to offer full explanation; reference was made to a battle lost or general political instability, but this was not quite convincing and never properly explained the total de-inhabitation that followed the city’s demise. Finally, around 2019, a 60-year megadrought was discovered to have affected the area, showing strong correlation with the period of collapse. A conclusive narrative was finally drawn for Nineveh:[4]  it was a drought that ‘so weakened the state’ that it was ‘overrun in three months and abandoned forever’.[5] Two hundred years after the first discoveries of the settlement, this was quite the revelation.

The medieval city of Angkor, dubbed a ‘hydrocity’, was known for its advanced and unparalleled water management system which developed over 600 years in the city. After a series of intense monsoon seasons followed by a long drought, extreme shifts in water levels damaged the complex infrastructure, leading to the failure of a critical support system for Angkor. [6] Mass exodus followed, and the city was ruined.

In the case of Great Zimbabwe, an important historical centre in sub-Saharan Africa, the city had experienced growing food shortages, political tensions, and a decrease in trade for some time, but it was a series of severe droughts that caused the wholesale abandonment of the city by the 15th century.

When the price of oil rose in mid-2007, writer Jeremy Rifkin recalls how ‘the price of products and services across the entire global supply chain began to rise as well, for the simple reason that virtually every commercial activity in our global economy is dependent on oil and other fossil fuel energies’.[7] Now known as the ‘2007-08 world food price crisis’, the sharp price increases over these years led to all kinds of social and political instability, with the emergence of riots in regions all around the world, poor and rich alike. Another price shock has since been prevented by the shale oil boom, but this is still considered only ‘a temporary lull’.[8]

In Lebanon this year, what is being called a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in cities throughout the country. In Beirut, electricity comes on for two or so hours per day, if at all. This follows severe fuel shortages after cuts to subsidies – an attempt to curb shady trading of the resource. Stress, frustration, and deprivation are already features of this city life, with a financial meltdown in 2019 after years of negligence and major debt accrual by governments since the civil war. This was exacerbated by the fuel crisis. Amidst the unresolved shortages, city life in Beirut is described as ‘hell on earth’ as pressure is felt across all operations in the city. Basic day-to-day activities take on new weight as residents struggle to get to and from work, locate increasingly scarce basic medicines, or even just get to sleep in rooms without aircon.

An ‘unprecedented rush’ for passports for emigration, of up to 5000 requests a day, has been reported in Lebanon, while basic state facilities are being suspended. An already toppling city forged by years chronic mismanagement is being pushed by a fuel crisis to the modern-day brink of survival.

What do these tales of collapse tell us about cities and the way that they work? In all cases mentioned, there is a pattern between pre-existing fault lines in the societies, like instability or growing economic obsolescence, and the wholesale pressure to the system wrought by sudden scarcity of resources. When resource volatility hits, basic constituents of a city are somehow turned upside down: human density becomes the issue, nothing works, normal city distances turn inaccessible, and a disconnect from global supplies can make a city not just inconvenient but unliveable; deep scarcity is manufactured, showing volatility as clearly no friend to these complex systems.

While not immediately obvious, these stories of collapse are not about the resources themselves – the ‘elements’, let’s call them, and their scarcity. Really, they’re about the relationship between the various elements and their organisation within the city. The organisation of parts ultimately forms the larger structure or the rules of the game, which, in effect, allow for something like fuel or water to have such an impact on the functioning of a city. The stories do not point to scarcity as an absolute measure to be reckoned with, but rather to the ‘city’ structure which is responsible for relative scarcity or abundance.[9]

Consider another example of systemic aspects of urbanisation, illustrated by a very simple description of the line of support of car culture:

“The choice to travel in [cars] rather than in trams or buses or on bicycles is conditioned by a vast infrastructure of oil terminals, petroleum refineries, asphalt plants, road networks, gasoline stations – not to [mention] the film industry, the lobbying groups, the billboards – which did not fall from the sky in this moment but was built up over time, eventually amassing such weight and inertia that other modes of transportation are now excluded, or at least prevented from rising to predominance.”[10]

Cities are a result of accumulation. There is an inherent momentum in the way a city forms and functions: they take a long time. Systems writers might use the explanation of the city form being like a ‘stock’, or ‘the memory of the history of changing flows. There are networks involved here too, and, as seen above, the crash of one or two vital networks can bring down entire living settlements. The reason cities are not self-sufficient is down to something like an intuitive cost-benefit exercise which has deemed other features, like convenience and density of human life, as more important; efficiency at the cost of resilience. Economist Adam Tooze notes that ‘what makes capitalism toxic is its expansiveness, its relentless colonisation of the rest of society’. This works hand in hand with the networking drive of the cities, but also introduces another structural aspect: scale. The role of economies of scale is undeniably a force behind urbanisation; forging paths along centralised infrastructural routes, the systematic separation, concertation, and specialisation of urban activities will be one of the most difficult to undo, if ever deemed necessary or desirable. It is an essential structuring device in support of city life as we know it. Cities are powerful units not only because they define the land and space on which they themselves exist, but also because they command whole areas of productive, supporting hinterlands in their orbits. Organic, yet heartless in their advances: driving local consumption in one place, might totally devastate another. Mono-industrial towns and cities all through time have been fated to ruin by this kind of economic obsolescence.

These relations of accumulation, dependence, and scale are a few amongst many that illustrate the structure of cities. When it comes to the kinds of sustainable transitions being envisioned, what these structural aspects tell us, if anything, is that we’re first and foremost in a rut. And that a net-zero target is intimately bound to resource flows. So, what this article leads to is not so much a radical proposition for moving things forward, but a radical proposition for taking stock.

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality that produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.” [11]

There is latent determinism underpinning headliners like ‘At least two thirds of global population will live in cities by 2050.’ Too frequently, this line is used to top articles prioritising city-based sustainability. And so, it seems the case is closed on urban migration patterns as well as the forms cities will take as they grow in size, population, and importance in the coming years. This is almost bracketed out of most climate policy equations, or, at least, it is taken as a given. Is the city future inevitable or is it something new policy unwittingly supports? And it isn’t just planning – however important it is – but also the way things look, streets function, distribution distributes, density happens, and networks develop and communicate.

‘Asking the right question is already half of the answer’ – a perhaps worn but powerful idea, especially for climate change policy where guidance and achievement are needed almost in the same second as a better and more comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Asking ‘what is the ideal’ or ‘how do we implement this ideal state of things’ is already a massive step away from ‘how do we diagnose this properly’ or ‘how do we work from what we’ve got’. Fixing on quantities – the raw materials, energy, emissions – is so important to monitor and stabilise an otherwise fatal trajectory, but treating the symptom does not necessarily get to the root. Recognising how and why cities behave the way that they do, and the compromises we already make in support, will inevitably offer opportunities for a more embodied transition.

It seems reasonable to think that a city where all people cycle for mobility will look and function in a very different way to a car-derived one. For a circular economy to really come into being, the city of today will need to make far more space for yet unglamorous activities like storage and repair, and bring workshops right back into the centres of consumption. These changes are basic day-to-day alterations, but they are structural concerns in the sense that they would not come about organically given the current organisation of things. Does this tell us more about deficiencies of city forms or deficiencies within the sustainability agendas? I’m not sure.

As a thought experiment: how would policy thinking differ if it was focused on understanding the structure of the city as a key to the major sustainability transitions? Cities are now the battle grounds of historical accumulation and visions for the future, and how the value of cities is measured and realised should be considered an open question.


[1] Biblical verse, see: Nahum 2: ‘The Destruction of Nineveh’,

[2] Sinha, A., Kathayat, G., Weiss, H., et al. (2019). Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Science Advances, 5 (11): eaax6656 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax6656

[3] See Biblical verse: Nahum 2: ‘The Destruction of Nineveh’, and Isaiah 10: ‘Assyria Shall be Broken’.

[4] Sinha, et al. 2019; Yale University. 2019. Megadrought likely triggered the fall of the Assyrian Empire. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August, 2021 from

[5] Ibid.

[6] See: Weiss, H. (ed.). 2017. Megadrought and collapse: from early agriculture to Angkor. Oxford University Pres: Oxford.

[7] See: Rifkin, J. 2013. The Third Industrial Revolution. St Martin’s Griffin. New York

[8] ‘The Geopolitical fight to Come over Green Energy, by Prof. Helen Thompson. Available at:

[9] Scarcity is measured in relative not absolute terms. This idea has been applied to ‘disasters’ more generally by historian Niall Ferguson. In his recent book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (2021), which charts a history of disasters, natural (hurricanes) and man-made, Ferguson writes that disasters are always political. If a storm hits an area and no person or settlement is affected, it is not typically considered a disaster, or at least as disastrous as, say, a famine that has caused high levels of suffering; he writes, ‘terrible politics can manufacture calamity out of nature’. The level of catastrophe is directly related to the response and management of the catastrophe: how much damage has been experienced, rather than any absolute measure or quantitative comparison of it.

[10] A description of the impact of time and accumulation on the structure of urban life, see: Malm, 2016.

[11] Quoted from Robert Pirsig, in Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems (2008)

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