"In order to transform our cities, we need to move from ego-culture to eco-culture."
President, Ecological Society of China
The EcoCity World Summit (see my intro here) wrapped up on Saturday afternoon in San Francisco. An incredible assemblage of the world’s brightest minds that are working to build greener cities and towns gathered for three and a half days of presentations, discussions, city tours, arts & culture, and celebration. As an urban planner for whom the sustainable cities movement is not only a passion but also a raison d’etre, professionally speaking, I found the conference to be nothing short of mind-blowing.
A vast amount of information and ideas was exchanged, and after letting it all sink in for a day or so I’ve summarized what I thought were some of the most interesting concepts and initiatives presented at EcoCity.
The Big Picture for Saving the Planet: Sustainable Cities
Amazingly, somehow I have worked as a city planner in Oakland, California for almost a year without knowing that right here in my own neighborhood is one of the leading green city advocates in the country, if not the world: Richard Register. Dubbed "EcoCity Master" by his conference co-organizer, Rusong Wang of China, Register is the President of non-profit EcoCity Builders.
Looking critically at the environmental movement, Register asserts that humanity is "winning the battle but losing the war." Despite lots of successes – stronger environmental legislation, recycling programs in most metropolitan areas in the U.S., and the like – ecological degradation continues and is, in fact, worsening. That’s because, says Register, we’re not paying attention to the big things. And the big things, first and foremost, have to do with the design and functioning of our cities. Urban population is on the rise the world over, and cities are by far the greatest sources of natural resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and other pollutants. For this reason, a sustainable global future cannot be achieved without re-thinking and redesigning cities to reduce their ecological impact.
An important point that Register makes is that the eco-city concept is not a new phenomenon – it’s actually hundreds or even thousands of years old. The old city, the expression of humankind still living more or less in harmony with our natural environment, was much more ecologically sustainable. So working now toward eco-cities is really more of a reclaiming of past ideas about city form and function, as well as a revival of smart and ecological alternatives that have been neglected or suppressed for the past few decades. "All the solutions are here," says Register.
Americans are Connecting the Dots
Parris Glendening is the former governor of Maryland and the current president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. His talk on the importance of compact, dense urban land use patterns that are well served by multiple and sustainable modes of transportation – a theme that was well covered at the summit – was informative. But for me the most insightful of Glendening’s contributions to the dialogue was his observation that mainstream Americans are starting to "connect the dots."
What he’s referring to is the shift that is starting to take hold in our collective consciousness about the degradation of our quality of life and how this relates to issues like land use and transportation that, in the past, have seemed irrelevant to the layperson. But "common folks," says Glendening, are starting to understand that our ever-diminishing free time, the loss of sense of community, rising gas prices, the sub-prime mortgage implosion, and a whole range of other current societal problems are all pieces of a bigger puzzle. We’re starting to understand that all of this points toward a fundamental problem with the way America has designed and developed our communities over the past 60+ years. This shift in thinking among the American mainstream is beginning to bring about the popular and political will to rectify our past errors.
EcoDensity in Vancouver
No serious discussion about urban sustainability goes far without somebody bringing up Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver is highly lauded and well studied for its achievements in city planning and sustainability. It ranks #1 on many a list of the the world’s most livable cities. But like a true overachiever, Vancouver says it still isn’t doing enough.
Planning Director Brent Toderian spoke about the City’s new EcoDensity initiative – a groundbreaking public outreach campaign and dialogue about what he calls "strategic densification." Toderian explains that from a physical standpoint, including the street grid system, zoning code, etc, Vancouver is ready to accept higher density development on a large scale. But the more crucial question (and city planners everywhere will nod their heads in understanding) is, is the city ready to accept density from a political standpoint?
This was the impetus behind the EcoDensity initiative, which involves lots of media coverage and extensive public participation. The goal is to increase public understanding about the ecological value and necessity of denser urban areas, and to allay some of the common fears and misconceptions about density. The campaign is using innovative tools, like community publications, video, and a great website that summarizes the deliberative public process.
Curitiba, Brazil: It’s About the Kids
Jaime Lerner is the man behind one of the world’s greatest urban success stories as the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. He was the highlight of the summit for me (and not just because he drank out of my water bottle since they didn’t stock disposable cups at the water dispenser in the exhibition hall).
One of the most memorable moments of the conference was the recounting of how Lerner, a former architect, came up with the idea for the bus-boarding tubes that help make Curitiba’s transit system so efficient and successful. He was thinking about the design of a subway system, with its tunnels, cylindrical form, and stations for entering and exiting the trains, and started to move his hands back and forth in the shape of a subway tunnel. It seemed to Lerner that building an efficient transportation system on the ground was simply a matter of bringing the subway-boarding concept to the surface. That’s brilliance in action, if you ask me!
Perhaps what endeared Lerner to me the most was his philosophy that making a better city starts with the children. A lot of effort has been made in Curitiba to teach environmental ethics and stewardship to children in the schools from an early age. And then, Lerner explains, the kids teach their parents. "This is the fastest way to make people understand that it’s possible to make their lives better."
Jaime Lerner's TED presentation (which I saw months later via video) remains a deep turning point for me. I think it helped my whole worldview change.
As one of the 49% of the planet that lives in a rural area, though, I often feel powerless to change my community. My rural community of about 3000 people has no town center, no commercial center, and no impetus to move into a town center or even towards its old 'village crossroads' that were way stations at the time of the American Revolution.
How do we go about invigorating a New England rural township as a center for real, green change, when we don't have public transportation or walkable centers or interest in density?
It seems that these principles can best be applied in India, China, and other populous countries that are rapidly industrializing and therefore rapidly urbanizing.
It seems that these principles are best applied in populous countries that are rapidly industrializing and therefore rapidly urbanizing.
I too attended the eco-city world conference. I was witness to the fact that the report on which I am commenting largely captures the spirit of the event.
For those of us in the community of thinkers and practitioners who are either working in urban contexts, or who believe that the city is a critical nexus for addressing ecology and civilization, it is good to include a couple observations about the health of the movement.
First, as the numbers of those placing their energies into urban issues increases, the level of conversation has been sadly diluted. What seems to have happened, and I imagine this has been the case with many environmental movements, is the dual influx of activist-oriented groups, and professionals who feel either morally or financially obliged to be involved.
This is a sign that the memes are sticking and the movement is permeating. Yet is it sobering and ultimately important to be aware of the state of the issue amongst its followers.
The conference was a mixed affair; brilliant practitioners such as Brent Taderian shared stages with Chinese officials presenting slides making the case that better cities come through de-densification.
That Chinese official suggested, showing the plans on-screen, that Beijing should grow on the basis of arterial highways and greater suburbias. The crowd responded to his talk with a rousing applause.
The Vancouver EcoDensity Initiative is a near total failure. Neighbourhoods are resisting it and City Hall is acquiescing to the NIMBYs. Sadly, the problem was the planners. Planners are used to solving relatively small problems using Dotmocracy or other meaningless ways to make citizens feel they had input. This type of planning exercise is incapable of dealing with the magnitude of climate chaos and resource depletion. The media is fairly consistent in asking where the Eco in EcoDensity went.