Eco-City Update: From Idea to Reality

I was saddened to read about the death last month of Paolo Soleri, the Italian-American architect who was one of the godfathers of the eco-city movement. I feel fortunate to have known Soleri, and treasure the memory of the personal tour he gave me in 2001 of Arcosanti, his experimental town in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. He began building it in the late 1960s and was still working on it at the time of his death. Designed to be free of cars and bound closely to nature, Arcosanti was to reach a maximum population of 5,000, concentrated into the smallest comfortable area. Soleri believed in building up and not out, leaving as much land as possible to nature and farming.

Soleri’s principles for Arcosanti are part of a continuum of sustainable urban planning that began with the garden city movement of the 19th century, designed to address the physical and moral problems manifested in industrial cities. They are also still evident today in the development of eco-cities in the U.S. and around the world. But to call Arcosanti a successful eco-city would be a stretch; its population numbers less than 100. Are there places where the eco-city concept is faring better? Is it possible to apply these ideas to larger, established urban centers? What variations on the sustainable development theme are in play today? In this two-part blog, I’ll explore these questions with examples first from overseas (specifically, India and China), and then from the U.S., where eco-cities are offering solutions to a range of challenges, from natural-disaster recovery to the revitalization of established neighborhoods within existing cities.

Part One: Eco-city Movements in India and China

Bangalore, India

India has a long-standing eco-city movement. For example, Auroville in southern India traces its philosophical roots to the 1920s and the teachings of Indian scholar Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa. Its formal organization came later, first with a 1966 UNESCO resolution that supported Auroville as “an international cultural township designed to bring together the values of different cultures and civilisations [sic] in a harmonious environment,” and then with an inauguration ceremony in 1968 attended by representatives from 124 countries. Seeing itself as “a universal city in the making,” Auroville strives to be a place where people “live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities” in an ecologically sustainable way. Endorsed by the Indian government, the township is still growing with a current population around 2,300 from 49 countries.

More recently, the Indian government has begun to look at ways to superimpose an eco-city model on existing cities. As Ted Bardacke of Global Green USA has pointed out, “There is only a net reduction in emissions if you also retrofit existing places.” Bangalore, India’s urbane and burgeoning IT and biotech hub, is testing the feasibility of this idea.

In the 2000s, Bangalore’s population grew rapidly from five million to eight million. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, though, the city’s infrastructure has not kept pace with its population and economic growth. Bangalore is plagued with clogged roads, accumulated trash in the streets, opportunistic construction, contaminated water supplies, severe water shortages, and environmental degradation. Adding to the challenge of transforming Bangalore into a beacon of environmental responsibility is India’s fractious political scene, with competing, sometimes clashing interests, at the national, regional, and local levels. This political chaos has bred a culture of government corruption, with a consequent lack of responsible urban planning.

Refusing to accept this unpleasant reality, a newly formed Bangalore Political Action Committee, led by IT entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, and other public figures, is trying to muster the public will and the votes necessary to turn the situation around. They want to reinvent Bangalore as an eco-city. The success of Bangalore’s green initiative will partly rise or fall with such local, grassroots groups and their ability to harness the political forces needed to build citizen consensus and create regulatory change.

Governments and political discourse, though, are not the only factors affecting the success or failure of eco-city initiatives within existing cities. Inherent cultural dynamics also play a role. Built around a technology-oriented economy, Bangalore presumably has attracted citizens with a natural drive towards innovation and progress. Clashes between the local government and Bangalore’s predominantly young, pub-going populace also seem to point to an openness to change confronting cultural traditions. India’s democratic system of government, of which the Bangalore Political Action Committee is a prime example, should work in favor of positive outcomes to the city’s problems. And if the eco-city concept can be realized in an existing mega-city like Bangalore, its viability in other parts of India should be enhanced.

Tangshan, China

Chinese eco-city initiatives provide an instructive contrast to Bangalore. In 1976, the city of Tangshan was devastated by one of the country’s worst-ever earthquakes, followed by 30 years of reconstruction, revitalization, and new development. In 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao made an inspection tour of the city on the 30th anniversary of the great earthquake and announced his strategic vision to reconceive the city as a demonstration region for scientific development. Following President Hu’s instructions, Tangshan’s people are accelerating the process of transformation away from a resource-dependent city and toward a new ecological city.

It is important to note the Chinese approach also includes completely new development initiatives like Caofeidian, a new eco-city near the city center of Tangshan and about 250 kilometers southeast of Beijing. Initiated in 2009, Caofeidian is designed to be climate- and carbon-neutral with a projected population of 1 million citizens (my visit to Caofeidian has been the subject of some of my previous column posts). China’s goal is to build hundreds of new eco-cities in relatively short order—in just one to two decades—while simultaneously superimposing eco-city imperatives on some of its existing mega-cities. In this iteration, the national government has created a top-down planning model for eco-city development that can be seen as a driving force for rapid development.

However, as in India, cultural traditions are affecting the adoption of the eco-city lifestyle. In fact, there are already clear signs of resistance among ordinary Chinese city-dwellers, who complain about the lack of sensitivity to Chinese vernacular styles and the practices of feng shui, for example. New buildings are generic, bearing little resemblance to traditional Chinese styles, a factor of the dominant roles of Western designs firms like Sweco in environmental redevelopment in China. While China’s government may be able to build many eco-cities rapidly, the question remains: will they be socially sustainable?

This post was originally published on Reprinted with permission.