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.)d04d87_21eb8c98764846e3aacf846386379119.jpg_srz_500_500_85_22_0.50_1.20_0.jpg

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.Korea-Seoul-Cheonggyecheon-01.jpg

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.

Next page: Sky City – 17,000 people in one building!