Eco-City Update: From Idea to Reality (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

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 Two: Eco-City Movements in the United States

Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, created in an unsettled area and rooted in the beliefs of a visionary, is an early example of an eco-city in the United States. As the eco-city movement in the U.S. has matured, other paths toward sustainable development have gained ground.

For cities rebuilding after a natural disaster, for example, the eco-city strategy is offering an appealing alternative, especially when federal and other financial incentives are factored in. Greensburg, Kansas (one of the towns included in Eco-Cities: A Global Survey 2011, published by the International Eco-Cities Initiative, in which the Lemelson Center participates), is rebuilding sustainably after the devastation of the town by a tornado in May 2007. The decision to “go green” was made by the community within days of the disaster, and a grassroots community-based organization called Greensburg GreenTown has been collaborating with local government, businesses, and residents on the rebirth of Greensburg as an eco-city.

The GreenTown group sponsors a variety of programs, from tours of green sites around the city, a farmers market, and a lumber reclamation project, to educational presentations and volunteer opportunities. A sustainable building database, developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), documents Greensburg’s new energy-efficient buildings. Today, Greensburg uses 100% wind power, boasts the most LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings per capita in the U.S. and the first LEED Platinum building in Kansas, has sustainable water and waste management systems in place, and is the first city in the U.S. to install LED streetlights throughout the city.

The Greensburg model is also being adopted in other disaster-stricken towns. Greentown Joplin has been established to help guide the recovery of Joplin, Missouri, victim of a tornado in 2011, and organizations as diverse as the NREL, Global Green USA, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation are supporting sustainable rebuilding projects in communities hit by Hurricane Sandy last year.

It has undoubtedly been challenging for these cities to reconceive themselves in the eco-city mold and they are to be commended for embracing the future with responsibility and optimism. Those same characteristics are also being applied in the creation of “eco-districts” in existing cities around the U.S.

The San Francisco Planning Department’s Sustainable Development Program, for example, is tasked with facilitating “the implementation of sustainable infrastructure systems by coordinating private development and public improvements through community engagement.” The goal is to balance plans for the city’s future growth with the city’s and state’s priorities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water and energy use. One way in which the Program is meeting this mandate is by establishing eco-districts—sustainable “neighborhood scale public-private partnerships that can strengthen the economy while creating a stronger sense of place.”

An eco-district is planned for Treasure Island, an artificial island built by the federal government in 1939 (it has been the site of a world’s fair, a naval base, and the San Francisco International airport). The San Francisco Treasure Island Development Authority sees the project as a “comprehensive approach to sustainability—environmental, economic and social equity,” with green buildings constructed, in part, of recycled and locally-sourced materials, solar- and wind-generated electrical supplies, waste management including composting, and enhanced public transportation to reduce the use of personal vehicles.

While Treasure Island is still in the planning stages, five eco-districts in Portland, Oregon, are in various stages of realization. Defined as “essentially a neighborhood working together on things like waste management, transportation, renewable energy, energy efficiency and even district heating and cooling toward overall better sustainability,” Portland’s eco-districts are planning or implementing energy efficiency programs for businesses and residents, bike facilities, neighborhood waste strategies, energy retrofits for older buildings, and more.

The eco-district concept has reached Washington, D.C., as well. The SW Ecodistrict Initiative, announced earlier this year, is “a comprehensive effort to transform a 15-block federal precinct just south of the National Mall into a showcase of sustainable urban development. In addition to accommodating the future space needs of the federal government, the Ecodistrict will extend the civic qualities of the National Mall, create new places to live, and promote a vibrant, open, and walkable neighborhood and workplace.”

From new construction to retooling existing cities and neighborhoods, it seems clear that the idea of the eco-city is gaining ground in the U.S. and abroad. With the exception, perhaps, of the Chinese model, some common themes emerge in the initiatives described here: a shared philosophy of environmental stewardship, collaboration between private citizens and government, and an understanding of the economic and social advantages of sustainability. Paolo Soleri, I believe, would be pleased.

This post was originally published on EDCmag.com. Reprinted with permission.

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 EDCmag.com. Reprinted with permission.