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What Would Eco-cities Look Like?
Sarah Rich, 19 Jun 06

63214main_centralpark.jpg We talk all the time about urbanization and the future of the world's megacities. It's a pressing issue, given that we're just passing the tipping point at which more people on the planet inhabit urban than rural areas. Cities comprise a mere 2 per cent of the Earth's land, but use up seventy-five per cent of its resources.

An article in this month's New Scientist asks what are the key components of an "eco-city" of the future? What are the most important conditions of existing cities that must be changed, and what services and plans added, in order to create a sustainable urban environment that can accommodate massive population booms within its city limits?

Returning the world's population to the countryside isn't an option...And dividing up the planet into plots of land on which we could all live self-sufficiently would create its own natural disasters, not to mention being highly unlikely to ever happen.
If we are to protect what is left of nature, and meet the demand to improve the quality of living for the world's developing nations, a new form of city living is the only option. The size of a city creates economies of scale for things such as energy generation, recycling and public transport. It should even be possible for cities to partly feed themselves. Far from being parasites on the world, cities could hold the key to sustainable living for the world's booming population - if they are built right.

The primary points the article focuses on are auto transport, food sources, degree of density and capacity for further sprawl. Minimizing the need for cars by planning cities that foster walkability should be a primary goal, but placing inhabitants in high-rise apartment complexes near transit hubs can end up cutting off city dwellers from contact with open, green space. Instead, encouraging density without building sky-high housing units promotes a balance. The article points to shantytowns and slums as organic, self-built and largely unplanned models of this kind of efficiency:

These shanties meet many of the ideals of eco-city designers. They are high-density but low-rise; their lanes and alleys are largely pedestrianised; and many of their inhabitants recycle waste materials from the wider city.
From a purely ecological perspective, shanties and their inhabitants are a good example of the new, green urban metabolism. Despite their sanitary and security failings, they often have a social vibrancy and ecological systems that get lost in most planned urban environments.
So perhaps something can be taken from the chaos and decentralised spontaneity embodied in shanties, and combined with the planned infrastructure of a designed eco-city...The key is to put people and ecology joint first.

Another element, which we just recently highlighted as a key element of booming megacities is urban farming, which sustains a huge portion of the world's urban population, in developing and developed nations alike. New techniques and media for growing food have evolved by necessity from the conditions a city environment presents farmers who once grew their food in rural plots. Again, the idea of treating human sewage for use as fertilizer in urban agriculture arises here, acknowledging the known dangers, but pointing out the potential for proper treatment of waste in order to have a safe and abundant resource for cultivating fertile gardens.

And lastly comes the question of where the limit lies in the explosion of a megacity. The article argues that there is a point at which populations centered around a single urban hub simply cannot continue to grow, and a flight from that center scatters satellite city centers around the outskirts that become urban corridors and clusters.

Something new is happening. Single megacities are being replaced by urban archipelagos, only some of which have a dominant megacity at their heart. Helped along by the boom in cheap communications, extensive transport networks and cultural changes in work and living, they have become 'the largest, most complex man-made structures ever created.' says Herbert Girardet, professor of environmental planning at Middlesex University, London.

If indeed the "wholesale rethink" of formal urban planning, and the infusion of lessons learned from the thriving density of slums, can yield largely self-sufficient cities, perhaps the megacities of the future will become not only the most complex man-made structures ever created, but the most intelligent, efficient and sustainable.

via: Archinect

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Everyone likes to talk about future cities but the fact is they definitely aren't the 'only' solution for green living. The idea of green rural and suburban communities may be less sexy (no parallels with slums or crazy skygardens) but should be acknowledged...after all, the hankering to live in a real house with a real garden and a field on the doorstep is pretty innate in many of us and can really be the basis for some very sustainable and interesting (socially, economically, environmentally) lifestyles.

Of course we won't all be living in suburbs or villages - and the need to think about sustainable urbanism, particularly for developing countries, is pressing - but neither will we all be living in dense cities. Let's start talking about some different models as well, and stop making those who don't want to live in cities feel guilty for compromising the future of the planet...

Posted by: Hana on 19 Jun 06

Let's talk more about visions of our cities, renovated. I love the mental image of a green urban archipelogo, but what is the mental image of a green Houston? And what about all the built suburbs?

I know that these are questions we address here and that the ultimate answer is that no one entirely knows yet, but I get frustrated by the lack of inclusion of the cities of today in the "eco-cities of the future". It feels like we're taking babysteps toward a worldchanging vision of cities. The eco-cities of the future have to the be cities of today, in the future. As much as we can't afford to continue building unsustainably, we can't afford to continue building new. Let's put more weight on recycling and renovating what we have now in our visions for the future.

As cool as the green cities China is developing are, they aren't nearly as green as a city undergoing a green renovation would be.

The lack of connection between the vision of green cities and the vision of our cities green feels like an elephant in the room.

Posted by: Ryan K on 19 Jun 06

What about other alternative and different perspectives on healthy, future cities other than those considered "eco-cities" using the "unplanned" and "organic" planning?

You know, it is possible that not every city will want to use "eco" in its marketing brochures.

It's possible some cities will have planned order, use planning frameworks to do long-term planning and implementation, and be dependent on the surrounding region and other cities instead of being completely self-sufficent.

Posted by: matt on 19 Jun 06

A vital question and a great post. Thanks Sarah!

It's interesting to ask a question of description: What would eco-cities look like? But it's more profound to ask a question of creation: What are the instructions for creating eco-cities?

If eco-cities are like organisms, then they have something like a genetic code. Deciphering that code is of urgent importance. Descriptions are nice, but they don't create much - for that, we need instructions. Otherwise, we could fool ourselves by happy talk and hand-waving. We need to ask: what is the Pattern Language of an eco-city?

Posted by: David Foley on 19 Jun 06

A lot of vernacular urban design is ecological. My vision of an eco-city always has to include some of the ideas in Diane Schatz' old posters from RAIN magazine and many of the pictures from _A Pattern Language_. Add green roofs and solar collectors and John Todd's biological waste treatment systems and you've got something I can see a way toward.

Let's take a field trip to Curitiba and stop by Gaviotas on the way.

Posted by: gmoke on 19 Jun 06

The New Scientist article somehow manages to get Christopher Alexander's positions exactly wrong and turned around 180 degrees, blaming his popularity for the spread of functionally regimented sprawl. At the same time, the solutions proposed by the article are basically Alexander's in nature. It's hard to think of a sloppier piece of journalism.

I'd like to see some proof of this quote: "From a purely ecological perspective, shanties and their inhabitants are a good example of the new, green urban metabolism." As I understand them, urban slums are ecological disaster areas. Whatever green characteristics they may have is solely the result of inhabitants' deep poverty and their inability to afford many goods and energy services. When income increases, so does resource consumption -- unless there are bright green alternatives available that people freely prefer.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 20 Jun 06

"You know, it is possible that not every city will want to use "eco" in its marketing brochures."

heheh, that's spin for saying, is possible that not every city will care about climate change &/or environmental destruction that will likely eventually wreck their own city in the future &/or reach the diminishing returns to constantly feed city activity daily.

Why not put it up for a vote, before "politicians" or "economists" speak for those who live in cities. When someone says "not every city," who/what are they addressing? People should be voting on stuff every single week on the changes &/or maintenance they want to see manifest. Until then, nobody should ever address the "city" without asking it's people first; lol...

Posted by: Francis Scully on 20 Jun 06

As far as urban gardening goes, ...for those that live in climates that seasonally turn cold, is it possible to build greenhouse growers that maintain a good temperature using solar panels?

Posted by: Francis Scully on 20 Jun 06

Speaking to Hana's comments about suburbia. I can think of one vast improvement that needs to be made to US suburban communities right away, sidewalks. The old rural towns of the US had sidewalks and were more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

Somewhere in the 1930s someone got cheap and we began to see endless loops of sidewalk-less cul-de-sacs. This was almost certainly a cheapness decision. Plumbing and wiring is much cheaper for loops of cul-de-sacs than it is for the rectilinear, grid pattern of streets you find in older rural towns. Yet another example of how shortsighted cheapness costs us more money in the long run.

It's going to cost us a lot of money to retrofit the older suburban areas into sidewalk bounded, grid patterns again. Hopefully the "new urbanism" will prevent future suburbs from being built in the inefficient cul-de-sac mannner again.

On another point, I don't quite see how living in multistory buildings near mass transit cuts off people from greenery and open space. Haven't these people heard of ivy? Of parks? Or roof and balcony gardens? Or interior gardens surrounded by high-rise?

In a dense city people can find open space; it's just *shared* open space. Having an enormous backyard with a riding mower is simply a luxury we're going to have to give up for the good of the planet.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 20 Jun 06

For greenhouse and winter growing, check out the city of Burlington, Vermont. They have a policy of increasing the percentage of food they get from the city itself.

Posted by: gmoke on 20 Jun 06

Having read this, I can only imagine that these people are invisioning what cities might look like 100 to 200 years out. When I talk to 20 somethings and ask about their vision of their future, more than half embrace the suburban vision rather than some urban paradise. I can't imagine turning this around in the near future without draconian laws or an economic collapse of some kind.

Posted by: bob on 21 Jun 06

Well Bob, as long as those suburbs, old and new, are built in an ecologically sound way, there's no problem.

I don't see any reason why families desiring a small backyard and a quiet neighborhood, the chief draws of suburban life aside from the cheaper land, should have to give that up.

Suburbia just has to be made somewhat more dense and much more mixed use to be pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Suburbs have to be better serviced by mass transit (At least in the States, I don't know now how it is in Europe or Japan.). Suburbia should require as little car use as possible.

Those changes will be slow and expensive to make but I don't think they violate the family orientation of suburbs.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 21 Jun 06

Pace wrote: "Suburbia just has to be made somewhat more dense and much more mixed use to be pedestrian and bicycle friendly."

One possibility for that goal spins off from the idea of shanties mentioned in the article when it says "So perhaps something can be taken from the chaos and decentralised spontaneity embodied in shanties, and combined with the planned infrastructure of a designed eco-city"

Remember that shantytowns are not located where they are because a city planner said "You all can build your shanties here". They start in little spots where there is an open space near food, water, transport and commerce - then those pioneers create an atmosphere conducive to others filling in more nearby spots until the shantytown begins to create more space for itself by replacing the original purposes of the space.

Picture that process happening in today's suburbs...If the image of tarpaper shanties puts you off remember that we are in the rich world and our version of suburban shanties would be better described as garage apartments, home based retail or cafes, mother-in-law apartments, boarding houses, lean-to additions, immobile RVs and Mcmansions converted to multifamily McApartments.

You can see some of this now in a university town in the areas just off of campus.

It would be very unplanned and often strongly resisted, but it would make useful use of an available but faltering location that already has most of the needed infrastrure in place. Once the pioneers increase the density enough then mass transit could service the area and they would experience a growth boom.


Posted by: Greg Baka on 22 Jun 06



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