What are the different ‘flavours’ of dense and diverse city design?
- New Urbanism
- The Eco-city
- The eco-village
- The Village-Town
- Which style for Sydney?
- How many CBD’s? A thought experiment
1. New Urbanism
Defined on my REZONE page as neighbourhoods clustering around a traditional town square as visualised in TV series like Smallville or the Gilmore Girls, serving anywhere from 5000 to 18,000 people. Some New Urbanist’s talk about a 4 storey limit, the School of Life “How to build beautiful cities” video says 5, other studies have shown that greenhouse gas savings for density peak at 8 storeys high. When I spoke to Chip Kaufman of the Australian Council for New Urbanism, he laughed and said there was no height limit and they can cater for residential skyscrapers if necessary. I’m going to stick with the 5 story rule from the School of Life video, mainly because many New Urbanist’s look to Paris and other quaint European cities for their inspiration.
2. The Eco-city
“EcoCity Builders is advocating transformation of cities for radically lower energy use. We plan energy demand so low that transition strategies to environmentally benign renewable sources like solar and wind become not just practical but ample.”
Richard Register for GPM
How does he do it? By going up — way up! Like New Urbanism, Ecocities are also about dense and diverse neighbourhoods that are walkable. But where (some) New Urbanism tends to limit itself to traditional 4 or 5 storeys, Ecocities house people in eco-skyscrapers with incredible land savings. Richard explains some of the economic trends as this transformation takes place. The ultimate goal is retreating cities! Richard Register imagines how Denver’s sprawl could be converted into clusters of ecocities. The grey of sprawl and concrete becomes the green of parks and pastures! Rivers are unearthed and pulled out of the ugly concrete drains they were trapped in, soils are restored, and local agriculture and forestry begins again.
Who pays to ‘move’ accomodation like this? Richard unpacks it further:
“An eco-city downtown with waterways restored, bridges between buildings, pedestrian streets, solar active and passive energy technology and design, rooftop access to elevated “streets” and bridges between buildings. Slowly, people are moving in from the suburbs toward city and town centres using development profits to help pay for buying and removing buildings in automobile dependent areas. Now the city centre runs on a fraction of the energy as before, has streets filled with fruit trees, is extremely friendly to the pedestrian and the whole city takes up much less room, making room for more agriculture and natural land”.
Next we’ll see the 3 illustrations of a ‘big-box’ chain store being turned into an ultra-density, ultra-diverse functionality eco-city. From Treehugger.
For those of you who are curious exactly how Richard Register’s ideas would work in practice, here’s what it could look like if Americans ever decided to retrofit their downtowns for true sustainability.
“We know how to build the ecocity. It’s easy if you want to: up-zone for more density and diversity in the centers and withdraw from sprawl. We are replete with tools.”
The starting point is any downtown in America. Most likely, this will be a central place, dominated by the automobile. Buildings include malls, big boxes and parking garages, with wide, congested streets and generous parking lagoons nearby. Nothing is built with the pedestrian in mind, very little thought is given to accommodating natural flora and fauna, and smog is a common phenomenon.
Now rebuild it: reconceptualize the buildings while recycling building materials, uncover buried natural waterways, provide pedestrian infrastructure and mixed land uses so that every important need is within walking distance.
The end result:-
The end result: an ecocity downtown with waterways restored, bridges between buildings, pedestrian streets, solar active and passive energy technology and design, rooftop access to elevated “streets” and bridges between buildings. Streets are lined with fruit trees, energy demand is way down and space is saved for agricultural and natural areas outside the city. Don’t be shocked when suburbanites and developers flock back to the city.
Via:: Ecocity Builders
Illustrations by Richard Register.
Believe it or not, there are the beginnings of eco-city trends in Australia!
First, there’s Central Park. As the Climate Council says:
The HUGE Central Park development in inner Sydney includes 3000 residences plus 65,000m² of retail and commercial space – all powered, heated and cooled by an on-site thermal tri-generation plant (twice as efficient as coal-fired power plants). It’s estimated that Central Park will reduce emissions by up to 190,000 tonnes over 25 years – similar to removing 2500 cars off the road every year!
Central Park’s ‘square’, could use a little framing by welcoming businesses, and illustrates the challenges of trying to develop an attractive town square in the shade of huge towers! (But when we discuss Sky Cities below, we’ll see that some are planning the shopping district to be an indoor, or even underground meeting place.)
Paul Downton’s Christie Walk, Adelaide
I’ve had dinner with Paul Downton and he seems like a genuine guy. He designed the Christie Walk project in Adelaide, Australia. He is associated with Richard Register’s eco-city movement, and said his Christie Walk development was an example of at least getting started at the local level. It works in its own right as energy efficient, densely populated, beautifully gardened community building neighbourhood. Paul emphasises the importance of starting at the small fractal scale of the local neighbourhood which can be built up from there as the locals catch the vision.
My comments on eco-cities:
As we saw in the Denver before and after shot above, just picture an area of the ugliest suburban sprawl you can imagine collapsing back into a series of beautiful ecocities and local farms and parks.
However, the irony is that if this tries too hard to maintain nature in the city, it might sacrifice it elsewhere. Cities like Brisbane that have struggled to maintain both Nature and City have sacrificed the integrity of both. As page 27 of the ACNU guide says, it can lead to fragmentation of both. Tiny isolated island pockets of nature are not connected. Wildlife cannot migrate with the seasons, has difficulty migrating our suburban life to find a mate, etc. The recommended solution, in some instances of endangered pockets of biodiversity, is (as heretical as this may sound to some environmental orthodoxy) to move it! Developers can buy the land off the crown and the crown transfers the money to biodiversity experts to move or transplant into a similar wild ecosystem. This has proved effective in some circumstances.
The number one concern of New Urbanist’s is to make cities more like cities so that rural areas can be rural, and nature can be left alone!
Sometimes there might be rare instances where moving a critter or species just will not work. When the best biologists have determined that it cannot be moved, it should be protected. Happily on some occasions natural capital can be so beautiful that it adds to the value and character of a city. Think of Sydney without its harbour!
Think of Seoul. Sometimes a river needs to be unearthed, not just for the river, but for the city! As a short case study, let’s consider the river unearthing in Seoul, South Korea. An hour documentary I watched on it considered it a clever and bold move. It achieved the eco-city objectives of creating a beautiful riverside park that encourages birds and lizards and other critters to live within the city. It was a clever transport move as well, removing a congested highway and redesigning the city so that highway was not even missed! The traffic just disappeared, was replaced with a few bus routes — but there were not enough buses to replace the old traffic. Much of the traffic volume just vanished. Where did it go? There are a few theories. Some of the traffic may have been converted to bicycle rides along the river on the way to work. It’s so pleasant and easy that the riverside park became a transport route in its own right. Other trips may simply have been recreational or lunch outings across town that changed their destination and went to the riverside itself. Why go all the way across town in the search for an attractive place to eat when it is right in front of you? Grab a meal, sit by the river — what’s not to love?
It also lowered the overall city temperatures in summer, slightly reducing the air-conditioning load on an entire city! Now that’s impressive. It is a valuable river paradise running right through the heart of the city. It took bold thinking, radical planning, and the creative destruction of a highway. City building can include ecological thinking. However, note the scale. This is vast! This is a city-level project. The fractal intersecting scales of local neighbourhoods feeding into town squares will be effected by this, much as Sydney Harbour effects our own town planning. But these natural features can give each city its own distinctive flavour and heartbeat. The riverside shops can easily function as an alternative to the New Urbanism main-street, as long as their diverse functions are supporting a dense population within walking distance, its still New Urban. But the point is something of this scale is city infrastructure. It is so attractive it will draw people from very distant neighbourhoods, and city wide rail networks will need to support this kind of city park.
The main point for me is that where natural beauty of this scale exists, it should be respected. But how far do we take that thought? I’m not sure that a tiny dip in the land that might only become a brook during heavy rains qualifies as a feature to build around. A flowing river is one thing, a drain is another! I want to see neighbourhoods and towns that are true – that have authentic architecture that works, that says something distinctive about the people who live there, and that does not need a fake ‘nature-band aid’ slapped onto it to hide something hideous! But if you can have both true architecture and nature, then you’ve won the jackpot! You’ll have a world leading city of beauty and recognisable distinctiveness.
Bottom line? The built infrastructure must be beautiful, and the city is about the city. If we get that right, and collapse suburban sprawl back into town cores in the process, then real wild ecosystems will do that much better elsewhere.
3. The Sky-city
The Sky-City idea is the inside out version of the Eco-City, it’s all shiny streamlined towers on the outside, and eco-apartments with gardens on the inside. Why? Because the air outside is nasty! Welcome to one of the Chinese versions of the Eco-City, where you stay inside to play because that’s where the only fresh air is. I want to say from the outset that I doubt this will ever be built. The wind-sheer will probably sway the top around, making residents near the top feel seasick. It’s huge. After all, at 17,000 people this one building contains most of the population of an entire New Urbanist town (of 18,000 in 8 neighbourhoods feeding the one town). The base functions as the town square, containing an entire shopping mall and swimming pools and gyms and doctors and schools. The tower itself includes hotels and office space and even cinema’s. But the interesting aspects of this are that the internal structure of the Sky City has one eighth devoted to gardens. These are little park areas for people living largely indoors to hide from the smog. My sister-in-law has a Phd in sustainable architecture and has taught and written about restorative ecological eco-cities for years. I once asked her what the most important feature of an eco-city skyscraper was, expecting to hear something about the materials used or passive solar designs. Instead, she surprised me. She said “Social spaces!” Our need for human connection is so strong that it would harm the overall success of an eco-skyscraper to neglect them. Universities are starting to recognise this also. The university grounds are not the only place students need to interact, but student innovation and ‘spark-plug’ brainstorming ideas can be facilitated by clever dormitory social spaces. As New College says of their 2012 renovations:-
The College has a number of excellent communal areas that facilitate interaction between residents. One is the Main Common Room – used as a large lounge area, meeting room and theatre for revues, plays, musicals and other productions.
I was invited to the opening ceremony of this new residential area of New College, and learned that these spaces were not just about official meeting rooms, but little common areas and coffee points in the hallways to their dorms. Indeed, the telco campus where I work has moved away from an ‘office space’ to layouts with abundant little meeting areas and ‘town halls’ around that floor’s kitchen. Even workplaces are facilitating this idea. We should not be surprised that a purported city in the sky also includes parks up on the 30th floor! It’s China. They simply don’t want to go outside for the foreseeable future, because the air is poisonous. But why is a dirty great big skyscraper on an environmental blog?
Comfort of Skycity
• 100% fresh air, no mixed with return air, eliminate infection. 3-stage filtered fresh air , 99% nano-particulates be filtered. Indoor air is 20-100 times cleaner than outdoor air. Central vacuuming system keeps indoor air quality.
• Space blocks and all rooms remain at 20~27 ℃ all year round, glass wall enable
sunshine lighting up the streets.
• The clear height of residences and office is 2.8m, the clear height of space blocks are 5.6m, 9m, 12m respectively.
• Four 4 meter wide streets start from the ground to the floor 121 at 400m, the total length of street is 12km, shops, agriculture markets, handcraft shops, restaurants, amusement parks, sports centers, natatorium, cinemas, opera houses, museums, libraries, training centers, schools, kindergartens, clinics, banks, police stations, etc. on both sides of street, same as city downtown. Botanical garden, natural parks, fishponds, waterfalls, sand beach can be found in some floors, same as the suburban.
• 16 large observation elevators and 31 high-speed elevators can serve 30,000 people every hour.
• Level 9 earthquake resistance, scale model will be tested by national authorized institution.
• BROAD unique technologies “diagonal bracing, light weight, factory-made” ensure the
highest earthquake resistance level with minimum materials.
• Trapezoidal construction structure corresponds the law of mechanics, which can withstand earthquake and storm.
• Sky gardens locate on floor 71, 121, 156, 176 and 191(12,000m2 in total), also function as the helipads, which are able to evacuate tens of thousand people during fire emergency, provide extra fire protection than conventional skyscrapers.
• 150mm exterior insulated walls, triple-paned windows, exterior solar shading, interior window insulation and heat recovery fresh air, 80% more energy efficient than conventional buildings.
• Adopting “distributed energy system”, turbines provide power independently, exhaust from turbines is the source for cooling, heating and sanitary hot water. 50% more energy efficient than the power grid.
• Indoor HVAC is controlled by occupancy sensor, fan speed will be automatically adjusted to the lowest load when people left.
• Elevator generates electricity when ascending unload and descending full load, also choose the floor outside the elevator, and other electricity saving methods can save 75% more electricity than conventional elevator.
• LED lamp, 90% more energy efficient than incandescent lamp and 50% more energy efficient than fluorescent lamp.
• Separated drainage system, rain water is used for plant irrigation, bathing water will be directly drained after settled, bathroom sewage and kitchen waste go to biogas tank, biogas is used as fuel for air conditioning, and solid wastes become organic fertilizers.
• Annual energy conservation 60,000 ton oil equivalent
• Saving 600,000 ton construction materials
• Saving 1.4 sq. kilometers land (volume ratio 50)
• On-site construction waste is less than 1% of the total weight
• Zero raise dust on-site
• Zero water consumption on-site
• Recycle processes of living garbage from the building
• All steel structure, reuse after abandoned
My gut reaction is that it’s a stunt, and that they would be better of splitting it down into 4 towers sharing a beautiful communal town square down underground. It should be near or above a subway station. After all, the company that wants to build Sky City has already built Mini Sky City. As the Next Big Future article above said, this kind of mass produced environmental pre-fab could halve the cost of accommodation. Cheap, green housing with social spaces built-in. That could be a big deal for the developing world!
The ground level surrounding the 4 towers would of course be manicured parks. We see something like this in Singapore’s town plans for the future, including Mass Rail Transit subways under a layer of short-trip robot-taxis under a layer of park! Check out the cross-sections below. Think of it as a game of 3d chess, except the goal is moving people through an attractive city scape as cheaply and conveniently as possible. They’re a gorgeous vision of convenient transport where instead of just thinking about flat-land based transport, you go down and then come up directly under your destination. Going to a restaurant? This way there’s a park just outside, but possibly containing a water feature as well.
The same scene at night, with a mix of New Urban / eco-city and Sky City in one.
Now imagine what China will build over the next few decades. Imagine they perfect a variety of well designed Sky City towers that plug into a variety of multifaceted town-square spaces. The population moves according to the Singapore plan above, mostly in subways, but also in subway robot-taxis. Surface areas are mainly reserved for parks. Imagine the skies clear as China’s coal is closed. Could this system of eco-towers become less shocking, more commonplace? Could this become the birth of a whole new kind of dense and diverse eco-urbanism with its own recognised social norms and architectural grammar. Who can say? We need to try it first, and give it a test run. Who’s up for designing an attractive underground 3d town square?
4. The Eco-Village
At the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, we have the eco-village.
“intentional, traditional; rural or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes in all four dimensions of sustainability (social, culture, ecology and economy) to regenerate their social and natural environments.” 
The movement is strongly influenced by ideas like David Holmgren’s Permaculture, and Ted Trainer’s The Simpler Way, emphasising extreme localism in all interactions between food, trade, commerce and culture in a post-oil world. It’s beautiful, and I think there’s a niche place for them in the world. But as I show you the photo of the Ithaca Eco-Village, can you spot the problem?
Cars! It’s like a tiny New Urban neighbourhood getting disconnected from the normal expanding fractal matrix of neighbourhood, town square, then overlapping city superstructure that comprises the lot. It’s a neighbourhood on its own, trying to do the primary, secondary, and tertiary economic roles all in one. Where are the other neighbourhoods? Where’s the town square? Where’s the city? Where’s the trains or trams or trolley buses (or these days, electric buses?) Their small group of 100 to 150 is disconnected from the larger structures of city life, so you know that means. Cars. Most eco-villages I’ve read about require cars. They don’t have a dense enough population to support a railway. A railway requires at least 3km of solid housing either side of it to be financially viable. (See the ACNU guide.)
It loses the 30% GDP bonus! We have seen that economically, cities have advantages of scale. The more people that can live together, the better the GDP effect. Remember, doubling population of an interconnected town gives you a free 30% GDP! More people can live together and do more at scale, like support a University or Silicon Valley industrial park and computer chip manufacturers and hospitals. It’s about the metabolism of cities, and the 30% GDP bonus you get every time you double the population of a city. It is easier to do this without cars when more people live closer together.
The real estate costs are prohibitive! Because eco-villages tie in the relationship with agriculture, they require vast areas per person and are simply not an economic proposition in the big cities of the world. Unlike the eco-city or Sky City above, they do not have the density of population to roll back suburbia into local farms and parks. I love the idea of them, and think they reflect what suburbia wanted to be: a rural homestead with an integral relationship with the land. But they’re not going to house the 10 billion people we’ll have by 2050, nor should they try. It’s not their role. I see them more as rural retreats, places us city folk can visit to reconnect with the older, pre-industrial rhythms of our history. We can run educational programs, nature retreats, and even church weekends away in these places, supporting rural hippies in their attractive lives. Let’s embrace their good intentions and visit them more often! But New Urbanism does not seek to grow food within city limits, nor does it need to in a future world with the abundant clean nuclear power. It simply imports it from the best agricultural areas, and hopefully consumer power will exert some influence over how that food is produced.
I met Claude Lewenz at TEDx Sydney 2009. It was great. Think of New Urbanism but with a series of walled, private designed ‘micro-villages’ of 500 people. You can design your village to look like an Australian pioneer village, an Italian plaza, or even a village from Lord of the Rings if you wish! It’s up to your 500 people. Like most New Urban and Ecocity designs, it is fractal in nature, replicating smaller units that fit within bigger units that usually fit within the city. The smallest unit here is the village of 500, which has parks and gardens around it. That each walled village can have its own theme or flavour is quite attractive. They are a short cycle from each other, and contract with the surrounding land for food.The villages are clustered into 20 villages which then form 10,000 people surrounding the town core. It’s like New Urbanism, but contracted to the local farmers that grow your food. Each village is walled to prevent cars, and only a quiet electric delivery vehicle like a golf buggy is allowed inside. The purpose is that each village becomes a vehicle for what Aristotle understood the good life to be:-
“The social pursuits of Conviviality, Citizenship and Artistic, Intellectual and Spiritual Growth.”
You’ll need a bicycle, but that’s pretty much a given for all these schemes. Click on the image below to enlarge, and check out the plan.
The TEDx talk where I met him. To contact him and discover if he’s built one yet, see his website at The Company Ltd
Folke Günther‘s Rural Outpost is a similar system of townships with a strong relationship with the local land. His particular concern is for saving phosphorus at the local level, and directs the town and drainage and agricultural systems around saving phosphorus. It’s like a perma-culture designed interface for the town and local agricultural community.
Like Eco-Villages they have a relationship with the food and fibre they use. That is their beauty, and their curse. As I explained above in my Eco-Village comments, it will forever ban these plans from the big cities where real estate is a hot investment item for buying homes, not growing bread. However, both the Village Town and Rural Outpost at least have town squares with the right sort of density of population within easy cycling distance, even if it isn’t within the strict 5 minute walk New Urbanism rule.
6. Which style for Sydney?
I can imagine any capital city having their CBD’s transformed into a mix of Eco-Cities and Sky Cities, with New Urbanism gradually replacing our suburbs. Indeed, in Australia it is already beginning to happen as our inner cities experiment with density of population over diversity of functional zoning. Food will respond to the demand of consumers, still being trucked and trained and shipped and even (sadly from a CO2 point of view) flown into Sydney. But it’s starting, bit by bit. See Green Square for one example of something heading into high-rise New Urbanism.
Which can be what it’s all about, a place with a town square or beautiful main street, a nice coffee or lunch, and some good local friends. These photos remind me that towns can live up to Aristotle’s idea of a place that enables “the social pursuits of Conviviality, Citizenship and Artistic, Intellectual and Spiritual Growth.”
7. How many Central Business Districts? A thought experiment…
Even Paris with her beautiful 5 story height limit has had to allow one City (known in Australia as Central Business Districts or CBD’s). But Paris is one City within a broader metropolitan area of 12 million people! It means poorer people sometimes live on the outskirts of Paris and have very long commutes into the city.
Sydney has a population of about 4.5 million people and the main harbour CBD / City. Plans are underway to try and create 3 Cities in Sydney by 2050, when the population should be at 7.5 million people (compared to today’s 4.5 million).
It seems they are aiming at one City for every 2.5 million people. The problem with the graphic here is Sydney is a suburban metropolitan area that takes up 10 times more land than if it was New Urban. The “Built to Last” video up top says suburbia spreads a million people over 400 square miles but New Urbanism only takes up 10% of that — 40 square miles. That’s only 103 square kilometres, or just over 10 by 10km square! At that rate, Sydney with 4.5 million residents would only occupy 465 km2 — not the 12, 367 km2 it takes up today! I’m not saying we should shrink Sydney, but just illustrating that there is plenty of room to house our growing population within Sydney’s existing city limits. There’s no need for expansion.
Now, to transport. The goal of the 3 cities plan is a 30-minute drive to work. My goal is to eliminate the need for most driving! I’m trying to imagine 3 Cities of 2.5 million people each as a collection of New Urbanist towns. They’re around 15,000 to 30,000 people, but let’s say an average of 20,000 people. That would be 125 towns or a grid of roughly 11 by 11 towns with the City in the middle. Imagine what that means! Depending on how train lines merged between towns and down into the city, it might mean the furthest people can live from the closest CBD is only 5 or 6 train stops!