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Reader Report: Review of the Ecological Urbanism conference

By Herbert Simmens

Some 57 speakers from a half dozen countries presented projects and ideas spanning three continents - all in three days - at the Ecological Urbanism: Alternative and Sustainable Cities of the Future conference at Harvard this past April 3-5.

What was possibly the most intensive conference ever focusing on the intersection of ecology and urbanism brought together 500 academics, practitioners and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Accompanying the conference was an exhibition of leading edge designs for ecological urbanism from around the world. Many of the proposals and ideas are influenced by the marriage of biology and design, in part as a result of support from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, which sponsored the The Wyss Prize for Bioinspired Adaptive Architecture for best exhibit.

While impossible to summarize the presentations, the organization and ecology (if you will) of the event deserves comment. Put together an emerging discipline of worldwide interest, a group of confident and often compelling speakers whose perspectives necessarily differed -an attempt at having a common definition of ecological urbanism was not even attempted - and you have an environment both rich with information and innovation and with an intense creative tension.

The array of speakers from such fields as religion (presented by a Buddhist scholar), public health (examining the compelling relationship between social justice, health and neighborhood residence), and even olfactory science (featuring an analysis of the common smells of neighborhoods in Mexico City) brought diversity of perspective to the conference.

Diversity was also in evidence with the selection of projects shown. They were as large as new eco-cities - MASDAR in Abu Dhabi is the largest and probably the best known - and as small as guerilla style streetscape improvements, as in the work of Rebar in San Francisco.

Yet despite the geographic range of the speakers and projects, and the many disciplines represented, there were virtually no speakers who were actual ecologists. How do common concepts of ecology such as niches, overshoot, succession, density, competition, and behavioral adaptation relate to urbanism? What can we learn from ecology and ecologists? These questions surprisingly were never directly addressed.

A second limitation of the conference was the absence of community or indigenous representation. Whether it was the heroic architect imposing his or her ecological vision on a community or region, or an interdisciplinary team of experts from around the world presenting their vision, it was still a top-down model that was on display.

Changing the world requires that we find more effective ways to marry the expertise being developed in universities and private practices all over the globe, with the grassroots knowledge embedded in local communities. What are the best models of cooperation across disciplines and between experts and local communities? Answering that question requires a series of conversations between those who inhabit our neighborhoods, our public institutions and our academies. We’re still waiting to see who will take on that challenge.

Podcasts of presentations from the conference are available here. The exhibition will remain at the Gund Hall Gallery at Harvard through May 17th.

Herb Simmens is a longtime advocate for and practitioner of sustainable development. As director of state planning for New Jersey in the 1990s, he led development of the first statewide master plan with a focus on sustainability. Simmens also recently served as executive director of an organization of New Jersey colleges devoted to becoming sustainable.

Editor's Note: We encourage "Reader Reports" -- submissions from members of Worldchanging's global audience who volunteer to write up their notes from travels, conferences, workshops and other worldchanging happenings they participate in. If you'd like to contribute your own report, please email editor[at]worldchanging[dot]com.

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