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.

Eco-Cities: Can They Work?

From time to time in earlier columns, I have reported on the rising global phenomenon of eco-cities, an urban innovation touted as one of the solutions to conjoined problems of urban sustainability, environmental degradation, and climate change. While eco-cities were proposed as early as the 1970s, they have only become real in the last decade or so, with announcements of the construction of model eco-cities Dongtan, near Shanghai, China, and Masdar, near Abu Dhabi, UAE. Hundreds more are now underway or about to be launched worldwide. But can these cities really do the job their advocates claim they will? Along with Westminster University (UK) and the Johns Hopkins University, the Lemelson Center is co-sponsor of the International Eco-City Initiative.  Among the products of the collaboration is a new study of eco-city standards, which attempt to put these new cities to the test.

“Tomorrow’s City Today—Eco-City Indicators, Standards & Framework”

This recently published Bellagio conference report addresses a key area of contemporary sustainability research and policy: how to define “indicators” and “standards” for sustainable cities, or “eco-cities.” I interviewed the report’s editor, Simon Joss of the University of Westminster.


What are eco-cities and why are they important?

Ideas and propositions about eco-cities have been around for at least three decades, and the last five years or so have seen a considerable global mushrooming of practical eco-city initiatives. In the recent survey carried out by our research group, we identified at least 178 eco-city projects globally, although this may be a conservative figure: in China alone, there are reportedly over 250 cities embarked on eco-city development!

That said, defining the eco-city is challenging, for both theoretical and practical reasons. Conceptually, beyond the general idea of eco-cities being more sustainable than current “conventional” cities, it is quite difficult to settle on specifics. There is no agreed norm or standard of what counts as an eco-city. Even agreeing on the basic balance between environmental, economic, and social goals of sustainability can be tricky. Practically, the fact that eco-city initiatives are applied in often vastly different national, cultural, and economic contexts means that they end up taking diverse forms and shapes: a city generating ten per cent renewable energy may be ambitious in, say, India, while the threshold is typically much higher in European cities, such as Freiburg (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden), with several decades more experience.

However, there are some general, global trends that I think drive current eco-city innovation, against the background of the dual challenges of global climate change and rapid urbanization (in 2008, for the first time in human history the majority of people lived in cities), particularly in Asia and Africa. Among these is the policy of “ecological modernization” which seeks to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. An illustrative example here is the World Bank’s Eco2 Cities initiative which goes by the slogan “environmental city as economic city.” Another trend is increasing international knowledge transfer, with international architecture, technology, and engineering firms playing a central role. Furthermore, the “carbon” discourse has become a core characteristic of the modern eco-city, as illustrated by terms such as “low-carbon,” “zero-carbon” or “carbon-neutral” cities. In this sense, the eco-city has become more ubiquitous in comparison to earlier examples from the 1970s and 1980s which were much more locally defined.

Wind farm at Caofeidian International Eco-City, about 50 miles south of the port city of Tangshan and somewhat farther from Beijing. Courtesy of SWECO.

Where is the major action today in building eco-cities?

If I had to pick one global region, I would choose Asia, where a whole range of new eco-city initiatives have been launched within just the last few years. As mentioned, this is mainly due to the unprecedented urbanization occurring there—China is said to have to build a new city of the size of New York every year for the next twenty years to accommodate people migrating into urban areas. Similar developments can be observed in India, Indonesia, and Africa. A further factor that I witnessed on visits to China and South Korea is the determination to be at the forefront of technological innovation: one really gets the sense that the new urban age is being shaped in and across Asia.

Of course, innovation in sustainable urbanism is currently also taking place in many European and North as well as South American cities. The recent eco-city initiative of Alexandria (VA), or the eco-districts in Portland (OR) may not be on as large a scale as Masdar (United Arab Emirates) or Sejong (South Korea), but they are just as illustrative of the global attempt to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Artist Impression- Aerial View of Proposed Master plan of Masdar City (Eastern Orientation). Courtesy of Masdar City.

Why should we care about “standards” and “indicators”? In fact, what are they and what problems are they supposed to address?

History teaches us that once in a while a process of consolidation and standardization occurs, often as a result of technological innovation: for example, in the late 19th century when the increasingly ubiquitous application of electricity in daily life prompted the need to develop standardized electrical power systems (though we still often have to pack adaptors when traveling abroad!). Similarly, as more and more cities, businesses, and political organizations strive to implement sustainable strategies and practices, at some point the need arises to develop a “common language.” Otherwise, how can we agree on a bottom line and framework for sustainable cities? It is for this reason that there has been a recent flurry of eco-city indicators, standards, and frameworks. While this is partly driven by efforts by scientists and policy-makers trying to define various aspects of urban sustainability, it is no doubt also driven by business interests aimed at marketing urban sustainability as a “product.”

Our new research initiative, which involves the Lemelson Center along with several other partners across the world, aims to contribute to this emerging debate. We are interested in mapping the various approaches to eco-city indicators and standards—there are so many schemes that we first need to take stock of what is out there—followed by in-depth analysis of how individual approaches actually work: how they contribute to defining sustainable urbanism, guiding policy implementation, and encouraging practice learning among scientists, policy-makers, planners, business, and citizens.

One of the challenges our project will have to grapple with is at which level indicators and standards are most appropriate. Perhaps expecting standards or frameworks to emerge at the global level is unrealistic, given the vastly different local contexts of cities across the world. Then again, reducing carbon emissions is a global concern, which suggests the need for comparable, international measures.

Apart from generating knowledge, we hope that our research will also directly contribute to policy debate and practice innovation. For example, one of our partners is the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Positive Development Program, through which we will have access to, and will be in dialogue with, cities across the world.

London Building With Integrated Wind Turbines. Photo by Christine Matthews, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is and should be the role of technological and other sorts of innovation in the development of eco-cities?

Engineering and technology firms have increasingly become centrally involved in developing eco-city indicators and frameworks. The reason is obvious: cities are one of the main sources of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. So, attempting to effect a transition to a low-carbon economy, one inevitably has to address urban development. Given this focus on energy, it is no surprise that technological innovation is to the fore. At the same time, increasingly various “smart” urban technology solutions, based on information and communication technologies, are applied to manage urban infrastructure and services. Together, these open up huge business opportunities: hence, the current jostling among international technology firms for a market share in urban development. However, as a political scientist, I would add a word of caution: a city is not just a “system,” and not just made of infrastructure; it is also a center of social, cultural, and political activity. Therefore, we surely also need social and cultural entrepreneurs to get involved in eco-city innovation!