Elena is an architect, and she has devoted her professional career to working with landscapes and urban planning, understood as urban regeneration in the city, and regeneration also at a territorial level, always from a metabolic perspective.
She created an architecture cooperative with colleagues from university, a cooperative which is called Cíclica, espai, comunitat i ecologia (“Cyclic, space, community and ecology”). They are involved in architecture, but understood in a broad way: the territory, the landscape… and not just buildings. Energy rehabilitation of buildings or creation of energy communities, for example, “as well as landscape management, working from the productive or reproductive landscape (as I prefer to call it), because it is one that allows, not only to produce at a given moment, but also to reproduce over time,” Elena tells us.
Regeneration is based on understanding sustainability. It’s not just about greenwashing, it’s about changing the system. Degrowth as an approach, and above all, understanding that this system by which we are ruled is not sustainable either economically, socially, or environmentally, and therefore, change strategies are needed.
Social metabolism allows us to understand how society works. Just like a living organism in its anatomical and physiological form: the body metabolises the resources it consumes, and it excretes the waste it generates. Society also works the same way. If architecture has usually focused on what is anatomical, on the structures we inhabit, “social metabolism allows us to understand how we live in these spaces: what it means living there, how we live there, the resources we consume, both at the level of the building, and at the level of the territory. And what is pursued is what we call circular social metabolism. In other words, closing cycles. And to close cycles, things cannot work in a single way, or in isolation, but in a systemic relationship. A holistic view that allows us to understand that no system is independent in itself, and that it needs another to complement each other and generate a richer ecosystem,” she says.
When we talk about metabolism, we mainly talk about 4 vectors: water, organic matter, inorganic matter, and energy. In nature, water closes the cycle naturally. Organic matter closes its cycle thanks to water, and the sun. Inorganic matter has minimal mobility in nature because, basically, it is produced by water entrainment. However, in urban metabolism, it is the vector that generates greater impacts. And, finally, energy, which is not a material flow, but in the natural ecosystem is solar energy or its derivatives, such as wind or hydraulic energy.
Recovering traditional knowledge gives us many keys to understanding the different territories, and it will allow us to adapt the management strategies used by the vectors to current needs, obviously different from those of the past.
In the past, water was managed only by gravity, and differentiating the several qualities for the different uses that were made of it. The productivity of a territory or a landscape was always understood according to its relationship with water (closer, more distant, scarcer…). Water is the largest vector, an average of 100l per person per day is consumed, compared to 3, 4 or 5 kg of another waste matter. Inorganic matter was always extracted from the immediate environment, and was renewable or of minimal mobility, like stone. And concerning organic matter, human capital was invested in recovering and maintaining the productive or reproductive capacity of the land, the soil.
The problem came with the industrial society, because it uses, mainly, fossil energies, and in the case of the other vectors, the cycles have been opened, and the system follows a linear metabolism. The resources we extract from the lithosphere are returned to natural ecosystems in ways which cannot be assimilated. The situation becomes unsustainable, adding to this, the resulting local and global impacts, such as climate change, the biggest impact we know.
To give a specific example, in the case of Gallicant (an abandoned village in Camp de Tarragona), they carried out a landscape analysis to see how the use of the landscape had changed in the different historical moments. The landscape was marked by dry stone walls, explaining that it was a landscape of vineyards in the past. Vineyards that generated an economic return that allowed investment in making terraces. Therefore, the landscape was built, it wasn’t urban. The landscape is anthropogenic everywhere. Now, that landscape is in a process of abandonment and forest recovery. The terraces allowed for more optimal water management, and also allowed for strategies of accumulation to have punctual irrigation, or even provide water to roe deer and wild boars, which live in the forest and are a danger to the crop, especially in periods of heat when they look for hydration in the fruit.
“We must change the productivist view of the landscape that prioritised the mobility of horizontal resources with large mobility infrastructures, and once again, know the productivity of each piece of landscape and each ecosystem. This way, we will work again in favour of sustainability. Luckily, vineyards and winery economically allow an integrated management of the landscape that other agricultural systems do not allow, and it is therefore a privilege,” Elena tells us.
Thank you, Elena, for this master class on social metabolism and, above all, for making your contribution in this big change that we are dealing with.

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