All eyes on Medellín

April 7, 2014

Medellín, the host of the World Urban Forum next week, is well worthy of the recent attention. From city blighted by crime and urban decay, Medellín has embraced innovative urban policy that has drastically improved public safety while focusing on sustainability and public transportation. Learn more about the trail blazing work that is earning this Colombian city international recognition.

Streetfilms Medellín: Colombia’s Sustainable Transport Capital

Medellín was awarded the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award. Streetfilms partnered with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to document some of the changes taking place in Medellín.


Further reading:

How transit and architecture have stopped crime and transformed the city


Medellín’s revolutionary public transportation infastructure


Medellín is crowned the “Most Innovative City of the Year” by the Urban Land Instute, the Wall Street Journal, and Citi in 2013

Learning from the European Green Capitals

April 2, 2014

by Rick Pruetz, FAICP
A Planning Practice Special Feature — Practicing Planner — Spring 2014

American Planning Association logo

Anyone interested in planning sustainable communities can gain insight and inspiration from the first five cities to win the title of European Green Capital. For each of the past five years, the European Commission has named one city its Green Capital as a way of recognizing and promoting cities aiming to reduce their ecological footprint. To win this prize, cities submit applications and are judged by a panel of experts on accomplishments in 12 criteria: climate change mitigation and adaptation, local transport, green urban areas, nature and biodiversity, air quality, noise, waste management, water management, waste water treatment, eco innovations, energy, and integrated environmental management.

This article focuses on the diverse ways in which these five winners create networks of green space and nature. In addition to the inherent value of protecting habitat and ecosystems, success in these two criteria promote success in most if not all of the other criteria. For example, greenways and greenbelts benefit water management, reduce energy consumption by offering non-motorized transportation alternatives, and can be used to shape compact cities with efficient public transportation and other infrastructure. These five Green Capitals also illustrate the importance of using green areas and nature to help create inviting cities where people want to live.


Nantes, France, and its surrounding conurbation, with a total population of 600,000, won the Green Capital award in 2013. Located on the banks of the Loire River, 35 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, Nantes was historically a seaport and an industrial center. But de-industrialization took its toll, most alarmingly with the closing of its shipyards in 1987. Since then, Nantes has revitalized itself with government institutions, corporate offices and recognition as a sustainable community or, as Nantes prefers, a “green and blue city.” Perhaps the most striking symbols of this rebirth are the fanciful, animated artworks created in repurposed shipyard buildings, including a 40-foot high mechanical elephant that generates attention whenever it walks around town with 50 passengers on its back.

Nantes’s green roots predate the French Revolution, when this port city served as a nursery for botanical specimens brought by boat from around the world and ultimately bound for royal destinations in and around Paris. Some older gardens exist to this day, most famously the Jardin des Plantes, established in 1806 and now home to 11,000 species and varieties. In keeping with its playful and creative personality, when Nantes redevelops its brownfields into eco-neighborhoods, it sometimes celebrates its industrial as well as horticultural heritage. For example, the Foundries Garden retains the framework and furnaces of a factory where ship propellers were once forged as the setting for a new public garden with 200 trees and 100 plant varieties.

The “blue” in “green and blue city” refers to the 155 miles of waterways that flow through this city, including more than 100 miles that Nantes has restored or plans to restore. Along with the customary benefits of waterway enhancement, such as improved water quality, flood water management, and habitat preservation, Nantes also created a 150-mile long network of “waterside walks” giving pedestrians and cyclists access to nature as well as alternative travel options. Some of these waterside walks link the city center with the edges of the conurbation and beyond. The waterside walks on the banks of the Erdre River were once part of the 239-mile Nantes-Brest canal system, and bicyclists still use the canal tow paths to reach towns throughout Brittany. Another route heads east from Nantes along the Loire River, giving cyclists their choice of riding for an hour, a day, or several weeks on La Loire a Velo and Eurovelo 6, a 2,200-mile, 10-country bike network connecting France with Romania.

Figure 1

Nantes France
A waterside walk on the Erdre River in Nantes, France

In addition to gardens, parks, and blueways, the entire Loire River corridor within Nantes, including its shoreline, islands, and associated wetlands, is protected under Natura 2000, the network of preserves established to promote biodiversity throughout Europe. In the Loire corridor and three other Natura 2000 zones, Nantes reserves more than 17,000 acres, or almost 13 percent of its territory, for the protection of 174 plant species and 208 animal species listed as protected, rare, or threatened. Coupled with environmental restoration, Nantes has reduced pesticide use by 85 percent and uses bees as a natural monitoring system to track environmental health. To support its bee population, the city maintains apiaries in gardens, parks, and on buildings in the city center, including the rooftop of the Opera House.

In 2013 alone, Nantes hosted the conferences of 11 organizations working on sustainability issues, including the 2013 Ecocity World Summit, which gathered 2,000 attendees from around the world to learn from each other. In the process of sharing its experiences, Nantes is clearly building its international reputation while pursuing its economic development and eco-tourism strategies.


Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, the 2012 Green Capital, committed in its 1999 general plan to create a greenbelt surrounding this city of 240,000 people located 40 miles southeast of Bilbao in the Basque Country. Implementation of this ambitious goal required the ecological restoration of gravel pits, burned areas, and other disturbed land on the urban fringe, including the Zadorra River corridor, which needed a hydrological as well as environmental makeover. As its most remarkable achievement, Vitoria-Gasteiz transformed an agricultural area into the Salburua wetlands, now home to the threatened European mink, numerous bird species, and a herd of deer imported to control the marshland vegetation.

Figure 2

Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

Vitoria-Gasteiz uses deer to control vegetation in the Salburua wetlands

To maximize public access to these natural areas, the city extended 56 miles of bike paths and walkways throughout the greenbelt, offering off-road hiking or pedaling around the entire city perimeter. These greenbelt paths also are connected to pedestrian routes within the city and an extensive bicycle infrastructure that allows cyclists to reach any part of the city in 15 minutes or less. Furthermore, the bike network links with regional trails like the Green Route to Arlaban, a rail trail allowing car-free escape to the agricultural countryside beyond the greenbelt.

Unlike the outskirts of many U.S. cities, the hinterlands of Vitoria-Gasteiz are largely free of sprawl. The urban area within the greenbelt comprises less than 15 percent of the total land area of the municipality but accommodates 98 percent of the total population. From 2001 to 2010, the city maintained that ratio, capturing 97 percent of the municipality’s total growth within the greenbelt by aggressively redeveloping underutilized properties at urban densities. In the two neighborhoods adjacent to 247-acre Salburua Park, the city introduced a policy known as re-densification calling for increases in the densities previously found in the general plan. Although re-densification proposals generate tension within neighborhoods, the city has found that residents ultimately learn that these actions improve local commercial activity, safety, public services, and urban amenities, such as the ability to stroll through an adjacent natural area like Salburua to see the ducks and deer.

The words “Green Capital” are now part of the Vitoria-Gasteiz logo, which appears at every gateway to the city. In addition to becoming a centerpiece of its strategies for tourism and overall economic development, the award helps build public support for the many green initiatives that Vitoria-Gasteiz has planned for the future.


Copenhagen, Denmark, population 560,000, is consistently near the top of list of the most bike-friendly cities on earth. It has earned that reputation with more than 255 miles of bike lanes and bikeways. In addition to bike infrastructure, Copenhagen motivates cycling with promotional campaigns like “good cycle karma,” which distributes free chocolate to bicyclists. As a result, 35 percent of work and school trips in 2010 occurred by bike. Not content with that achievement, Copenhagen aims to become the “world’s best city for cyclists” with 50 percent of people cycling to work or school by 2015. This target is linked to Copenhagen’s even more ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025.

Figure 3

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen aims to become the world’s best city for bicyclists

Copenhagen is perhaps best known for alternatives to car dependency as well as energy conservation achieved through strict building codes, wind energy generation and a district heating system connected to 98 percent of all homes in the city. But its selection as the 2014 Green Capital demonstrates that Copenhagen also understands the need to conserve open space for its green infrastructure benefits, but also to maintain urban livability. Green areas represent one quarter of the city’s total land area and at least 80 percent of Copenhageners live within 328 yards of a green area. The city aims to improve that ratio in the future, according to the adopted 2007 plan Eco-metropolis – Our Vision for Copenhagen 2015.

Copenhagen is currently building Orestad, a new urban district incorporating an elevated metro rail system with five-minute headways and one stormwater system for roof drains and a second system providing additional treatment for roadway runoff. Both stormwater systems discharge to open canals that wind through green areas, providing a unifying design theme and open space to balance the high-density residential and office development concentrated around the rail stations.

In 2011, Copenhagen adopted Room for Nature – A Strategy for Biodiversity, a plan with several ambitious strategies, including the day-lighting of buried watercourses, restoration of the natural meandering path of streams, and the creation of green diversity corridors throughout the city. In addition, Copenhagen participates in “Green Cities,” an inter-municipal collaboration dedicated to biodiversity and the restoration of critical habitat. The entire region also benefits from the national planning directive for Greater Copenhagen known as the Finger Plan, a concept designed to confine growth to five transportation/development corridors radiating from the central city separated by undeveloped wedges. Unfortunately, some urbanization did occur in the wedges during the 60 years that elapsed between the introduction of the concept in 1947 and its official incorporation in the Denmark Planning Act in 2007. However, a significant portion of the wedges also has been converted to forests, parks, and other open space, providing wildlife habitat and access to natural areas for the residents of Greater Copenhagen.


Hamburg, Germany, the 2011 Green Capital, is a bustling port city on the Elbe River with a population of 1.8 million. The city’s goal of creating a Gruenesnetz, or Green Network, began a century ago when Fritz Schumacher, the City’s Chief Building Officer from 1909 to 1933, proposed a diverse system of neighborhood green spaces interconnected with greenways allowing residents access to larger parks and the countryside. The design concept resembles a web consisting of spokes radiating from a downtown lake and canal system at the confluence of the Elbe and Alster rivers. These radial spokes are linked by an inner ring created when the old city walls and fortifications were largely replaced by a system of gardens and parks, including Planten un Blomen, a botanical garden that offers a natural refuge in the heart of the city.

Figure 4

Hamburg, Germany

The Alsterwanderweg illustrates the Green Network concept

The concept of the Green Network reappeared in plan after plan during the 20th century, reaffirming the idea of interlinked open spaces aimed at enabling people to move around the city or from the city to the surrounding countryside using footpaths and cycle tracks undisturbed by road traffic and surrounded by greenery. On the Alsterwanderweg trail, cyclists and hikers travel by linked greenways from downtown to the reserves that largely dominate the northern end of Hamburg and now serve as a permanent home for fox, marten, polecat, badger, wild boar, and several deer species. Although not all of the green network has fully materialized, the Alsterwanderweg beautifully achieves Schumacher’s vision.


Stockholm, Sweden, with a city population of more than 800,000 in a region of 2 million, was Europe’s first Green Capital. In its City Plan 99, Stockholm put the brakes on urban sprawl with a strategy to “build the city inwards.” As the test case for this slogan, the city and its partners transformed an underutilized industrial area into Hammarby Sjostad. On completion, this redeveloped area will be home to 35,000 workers and residents centered on a tram route lined with high-density, mixed-use buildings. Its residential blocks use ponds and canals for stormwater control as well as the focal point for numerous open space features.

Figure 5

Stockholm, Sweden

Water multi-tasks in Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjostad

Stockholm achieves high marks in all of the selection criteria and truly excels in its approach to open space. More than half of the central city, almost 30,000 acres, is green land (including waterways). Most prominently, Stockholm and two neighboring municipalities share National Stadspark, the world’s first national city park. Although adjacent to the city center, this 6,600-acre green space, which is also known as Ecopark, is home to hundreds of species including the largest stand of mature oaks in Northern Europe.

National City Park constitutes one portion of one of Greater Stockholm’s green wedges — 10 large swaths of undeveloped land often linking dense urban areas with the rural countryside. The 26 municipalities in the Stockholm region recognize the eco-services provided by the green wedges, as well as the importance of access to nature as a critical component of urban livability. Although only 20 percent to 30 percent of these large open spaces are formally protected as nature reserves, the 10 green wedges are included in the land- use plans of all 26 municipalities.

Stockholm’s 2010 regional plan calls for improving access to the green wedges by expanding the trail system and improving its links with public transportation. The plan also promotes the creation of additional nature reserves through continuation of a program known as “never far from nature.” Significantly, the 2010 plan articulates the multiple benefits resulting from building a polycentric metropolis in which green space planning is coordinated regionally with the creation of dense urban nodes. “By concentrating new urban development in a small number of areas, valuable cultural and natural environments can be preserved” (Stockholm County 2010, 23). In fact, the plan views this approach as one of the keys to achieving its vision of making Stockholm “Europe’s most attractive metropolitan region” (Stockholm County 2010, 13).


The British Columbia Institute of Technology and Ecocity Builders, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, California, are jointly developing a tool allowing cities to evaluate their progress toward various levels of sustainability based on a comprehensive set of standards. This noncompetitive approach to measuring a city’s shade of green may not have the drama of the European Green Capital award process. But the Ecocity system will nevertheless provide similar benefits, including the opportunity for cities to gauge improvement, celebrate accomplishments, and build the public support needed to reach even more ambitious goals.

Author’s Note: For further information, visit the European Green Capitals website at

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is a consultant specializing in preservation planning and transferable development rights. In 2012, Planners Press published Lasting Value: Open Space Planning and Preservation Successes, which explores the environmental accomplishments of 24 U.S. communities. Contact him at and visit his website at



Stockholm County. 2010. Regional Development Plan for the County of Stockholm, RUFS 2010. Stockholm: Stockholm County.

©Copyright 2014 American Planning Association All Rights Reserved

Ecocity Insights: Healthy Biodiversity

April 1, 2014

By Jennie Moore, Director Sustainable Development and Environment Stewardship
BCIT School of Construction and the Environment


Biodiversity refers to the vast array of species, both flora and fauna, that populate the Earth. Their interactions create the ecosystems upon which we depend, characterized by various biomes including: deserts, rainforests, grasslands, and coral reefs (Newman and Jennings 2008).

Healthy biodiversity needs intact nutrient cycles, no net loss of soils, and no accumulation of pollutants (in soil, air or water). Although approximately 12% of Earth’s wild places have been dedicated as natural reserves, global change processes, including climate change, mean that the systemic conditions needed for these places to thrive are being undermined. Biodiversity losses are being driven in part by urbanization processes that fragment natural habitats and nutrient cycles, deplete soils and aquifers, and increase pollution levels (Newman and Jennings 2008).

To achieve the “Ecocity: Level 1 Condition” requires that the geo-physical and socio-cultural features of a city are in harmony with its surrounding bioregion ( This means that indigenous flora and fauna are allowed to flourish. Equally important, ecocities do not draw down the resources or increase pollution levels in areas outside the bioregion either. This could happen through trade imbalances and/or taking advantage of global common resources, such as the waste sink capacities of oceans and atmosphere. Therefore, ecocities are concerned both with preserving and enabling healthy biodiversity in their bioregion as well as in the world generally.


The ecocity vision includes tightly clustered development immediately adjacent to naturally preserved areas (Register 2006). This allows people to experience nature at their doorstep despite living in high-density urban environments. Ecocities also utilize clean and renewable energy and responsible resources and materials that do not contribute to the destruction of natural habitat in their extraction nor the accumulation of toxics in their manufacture, use and disposal. Finally, by ensuring healthy and accessible food, ecocities also help to protect soils while keeping citizens well nourished.


Newman, Peter and Isabella Jennings. 2008. Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems: Principles and Practices. Washington DC: Island Press.

Register, Richard. 2006. Ecocities: Redesigning Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola BC: New Society Publishers.


The British Colombia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative.


On the road to Cairo, Casablanca, and Medellín, Ecocitizen World Map in hand

March 29, 2014

Hola! Bonjour! As-salam alaykom! Hello!

EcoCitizenWorldMapProjectLogo72It’s been a busy four months since I went into woodshed mode to help create the Ecocitizen World Map Project, a portal where citizens can map their communities and share first-hand information for a holistic assessment of their city’s ecological and social health. The one thing I’ve probably missed the most while wading through oodles of HTML, CSS, and GIS has been some good old fashioned ruminating from the spaces between soil and soul. So, I’m taking this opportunity to yak it up about the project and share a few stories and visuals of Medellín, Colombia, one of our initial three pilot cities. (with Casablanca and Cairo completing the awesome triad!)

Speaking of Medellín, we’ll be officially launching this groovy tool for sustainable urban development that links community crowdsourced information to national, regional, and global data sets at the upcoming 7th World Urban Forum from April 5-11th.

More about that a bit further on, but as anyone who’s ever been deeply immersed in a multifaceted project can attest to, the danger of making sense only to yourself while sounding like a babbling cryptogram to everyone except the people you’re working with increases proportionally with each additional hour you spend your head buried in jargon and code. So at the risk of being a bit long-winded but in the hopes of reclaiming my ability to some day carry a normal conversation at a social gathering again, I will use this opportunity to pretend we’re sitting at a pub and you’re asking about that crumpled map sticking out of my pocket.

As my favorite author once launched into a story: “All this happened, more or less.”

The Idea Behind the Map


map-roundWe all know by now that if we want to keep living on this planet we have to stop acting like we have one and a half, or in the American case, five of them. We also know that cities are responsible for emitting 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases while occupying only 2% of the planet’s land cover, and that by 2050, 70% of all people on the planet are expected to live in an urbanized area. It follows that if we designed the world’s cities so that people could go about their lives without overdrafting our collective ecological bank account we’d be well on our way towards a sustainable human modus operandi.

How we get there is a much more difficult question. Cities aren’t linear, one-dimensional entities that can simply be rebooted or traded in, but complex bio-geo-socio-cultural organisms functioning within even larger organisms, not unlike our bodies. While it’s tempting to just give them an eco facelift, adding a bike lane here and an energy-efficient building there and calling it “green” is a bit like getting your hair done when you’re trying to prevent heart disease. You’ll look better and perhaps it’ll even lift your spirit for the day, but if the objective is to be fundamentally healthy you’d be well-advised to pay attention to a whole range of factors, from diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep to family history, your region’s soil condition, and your level of happiness.


This type of holistic approach to urban health has been the centerpiece of the ecocity concept. First conceived by Richard Register over 25 years ago and since developed by the organization he founded (that I’ve been fortunate to be part of in various capacities for the last decade or so), Ecocity Builders, the key challenge in recent years has become this: how do we turn this great idea that more and more people are beginning to understand and endorse into a meaningful metric that cities and individuals can go by to see where they’re making progress and where their biggest challenges lie?

This question has led us over the past four years to develop the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS), a methodology that enables cities to assess their ecological health along these 15 conditions, helping to guide progress for each urban organism to become more restorative in nature.


The visual interpretation of a city as an organism within larger organisms looks something like this…


There is, of course, a lot of tangible, empirical data each city has available to see where it falls in some of the 15 ecocity conditions, especially physical ones like clean air, energy use, or water quality. In fact, there are meta diagrams that can illustrate the resource/materials dimension of a city in simple and standard ways, tracking all that goes in, all that comes out on the other end, and what happens in between, which is what you need in order to assess a city’s overall energy efficiency and ecological footprint. In fact, one of the preeminent experts on these meta flow charts and an associate for the IEFS, Sebastian Moffatt, specializes in measuring the urban metabolism through visualization tools like the Sankey diagram.

For example, here is a meta diagram of the current energy system of Jinze, Shanghai on the left, and a scenario for an advanced system on the right that Sebastian produced for a project called Eco2 cities:

The meta diagram on the right provides a scenario for an advanced system that helps reduce emissions and costs and increase local jobs and energy security. For example, a local electricity generation facility is powered by liquified natural gas and provides a majority of the electricity needs and hot and cool water for industry (cascading).
Source: Author elaboration (Sebastian Moffatt) with approximate data provided by Professor Jinsheng Li, Tongii University, Shanghai.

But the deeper you dig, the more challenging it gets to analyze an organism as big and diverse as a city. Drawing up a grand vision and analyzing flow charts are hugely important elements, but how on Earth do you integrate and apply all that to a living breathing city in a constant state of flux, where countless different realities and perspectives intersect and evolve on a daily basis? And then compare two or more cities, to see where they overlap and where they can learn from each other?

To use the body metaphor again, it’s one thing to reset your bone when you break your arm, but what about the hundreds of conditions and imbalances, both physical and psychological, that are much more elusive and harder to track, requiring observation, context, nuance, and intuition? In other words, how do you diagnose or treat a city that might be struggling with anything from asthma, allergies, and nutrient deficiencies to migraines, ADHD, depression, and even oppression?

This is where you realize that in order to do an honest and meaningful evaluation of a city’s overall ecological health, you have to move beyond treating it like an auto body shop or a hard drive and towards treating it like… a human being! If you want to even be close to a truthful representation of an urban environment, you have to account for all those things that make it human — the history, the culture, and the politics — the experiences, perceptions, motivations, and beliefs — the personalities and the fallibilities.

And who better to provide that information than the citizens of those ecosystems — the ECOCITIZENS!


The Ecocitizen World Map Project

It became clear not too far into the deliberations and designs around the IEFS that there would have to be some sort of grassroots driver to give the initiative life and authenticity and reflect the democratic and holistic blueprint it was seeking to represent. That’s how the idea for a crowdsourced map that would complement the hard data coming from participating cities got started.

At this point I couldn’t go on without giving a huge shout-out to Kirstin Miller, Ecocity Builders’ tireless ED who pretty much single-handedly took a quiver full of the batons on both the Ecocity Standards and the Ecocitizen World Map projects and ran them across the globe, passing them off to all kinds of amazing individuals and groups who are now partnering with us on to this.

The map: We knew there needed to be both a way for anyone in the world to directly participate online by taking a survey and share individual snapshots of their neighborhoods as well as a more detailed geospatial analysis of a community’s social and environmental health that would require more sophisticated local and regional training.


The former we did not have to reinvent, as the interactive mapping and visualization platform Ushahidi that has fostered transparency and democracy across the globe was readily available. Tarik Nesh-Nash, one of our associates at Mundiapolis University in Casablanca and an experienced Ushahidi developer exposing corruption in Morocco offered his technical team to help us set up the Ecocitizen Survey along the 15 conditions as well as a simple and short survey. We’re still in the developing stages of this and eventually people will be able to upload stories and multimedia about their cities and neighborhoods, but as of this week, anyone in the world can get on the map. Go ahead, you know you want to!


For the geo-spatial aspect of the project to become a reality, it was going take a bunch of players and entities to come together and pull on the same string. In order to build out a whole systems perspective with a custom view to each location, you have to be able to access data, information and maps provided by the municipal governments, utilities, and other data providers. So you need to have participating pilot cities. You also have to have ecocitizen experts who go into neighborhoods and conduct community audits, interviewing a good sampling size of residents about the conditions on the ground and their experiences of them. Then you need the technology that can overlay the personal accounts from the community audits with the physical data provided by governments. To be able to pull all that off, you’ll have to get at least some basic funding.

ewm-team-casablancaAnd it all came together! The seed funds awarded from the Abu Dhabi Global Data Initiative (AGEDI) and the Organization of American States (OAS) have sprouted active pilots in Egypt, Morocco and Colombia. Cairo, Casablanca, and Medellín signed on as our initial pilots cities. Corresponding classes on Ecocitizenship have launched at Cairo University and Casablanca’s Mundiapolis University. One of our team members, Dave Ron, developed the curriculum for the classes and recently spent a few weeks teaching the participatory GIS elements at Mundiapolis and Cairo U.

Currently, four more Ecocity Builders team members are joining Dave and the universities for the first of the community workshops in Cairo and Casablanca, pairing up the university students with community organizations and citizens to investigate and problem solve, together, how to increase quality of life, sustainability and resilience at the scale of the neighborhood. Esri, an international supplier of Geographic Information System software, is providing the mobile GIS technology to do the field work.

Meanwhile, our third pilot city, Medellín, is getting ready to host UN Habitat’s 7th World Urban Forum and showcase the astounding urban transformation it has gone through. While we haven’t had any community events there yet, one of our team members, Ashoka Finley, has visited with city officials several times and brought back a wealth of information that Scott Allen at Conscious Global Change helped us turn into an interactive GIS ecocitizen map with layer descriptions, as well as the really cool Esri story map tour. Our project will be showcased throughout the conference at the Esri Geospatial Pavilion, with a “Building Resilience and Equity Through Citizen Participation and Geodesign” session presented by Ecocity Builders, the Association of American Geographers (AAG), Esri, OAS, AGEDI, and the US Department of State scheduled for April 10.

I’ll close with a few urban development projects from Medellín that I’ve been spending some pretty intimate time with over the last couple of months. In my view they showcase that creating a more just, equitable and sustainable city and thus world is not just a bunch of dreamers’ wishful thinking, but if done with care and conviction, can truly bring about the change we wish to see in the world.

Pilot City Medellín

Metro Cable y Medellín
Metro Cable de Medellín by Santiago Vasquez, on Flickr/Creative Commons

Medellín, you say? Isn’t that the place run by drug kingpins, the most dangerous city on Earth? Well, you would be correct if you’d be reading this a little over a decade ago, but so much has happened since the days of the Medellín Cartel that you wouldn’t recognize your own preconception if it hit you with a dull urban master plan. In fact, the urban transformation of Medellín has been so thorough that last year the Wall Street Journal’s marketing department (in partnership with the Urban Land Institute) crowned it Innovative City of the Year, ahead of fellow finalists New York City and Tel Aviv.

Having the Wall Street Journal take a bow to Medellín is as logically puzzling as it is poetically stimulating, seeing that Medellín’s success in becoming a much nicer place to live for everyone is largely built on disproportionately investing in its poorest communities. Things like access to education, health care, and public transportation for all. Redistributing resources towards the most disadvantaged. Building social and economic equity. Narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots. You know, that socialismy type stuff that’s usually the bogeyman of free market gospel.

Let me give you a few examples of what we’re talking about here.

Probably the most well-known chapters in the transformation story are the Library Parks, a series of public libraries strategically located in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the hillside peripheries of the city that not only grant residents easy access to educational materials but are hubs for community meetings, recreational activities, and cultural services designed to strengthen existing neighborhood organizations.

This is what Parque Biblioteca España in the Santo Domingo neighborhood looks like…

Medellín, la Más Educada
Parque Biblioteca España by Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, on Flickr/Creative Commons

Combining cutting edge architecture with the recovery of public space and green areas in itself may not be so unusual, but doing it in neighborhoods that aren’t already cultural hubs is the key feature here. Imagine Los Angeles commissioning Frank Gehry to build a learning center and meeting place in Compton instead of Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. Multiply it by 10, as is the case in Medellín, injecting opportunity and civic pride into the most marginalized areas in town, and you see how huge of a difference the mere placement of architecture can make to counter the injustices of traditional urban development and municipal management.

Another amazing project is the Metrocable, a network of cable car systems that has revolutionized mobility and accessibility for people, particularly in the poorest and often most violent communities that line the valley of Medellin’s mountainous region. The six cable car lines are an integral part of the metro system of Medellin, connecting the hilly areas of Medellin with the city center. Things like going shopping, getting to school, or seeing a doctor that used to take residents all day on foot or by (unreliable) bus are now a comfortable and scenic 25 minute ride down the mountainside, including transfer to the metro for about 60 cents.

MetroCable by LensesDrilling, on Flickr/Creative Commons

The Metrocable is part of a larger innovative sustainable transport system that includes the development of bus rapid transit (called MetroPlús) and the creation of a bike-share program — new transportation elements that are integrated with existing metro and cable car systems.

Perhaps the most daring piece of environmentally and socially equitable transportation is a giant 385 meter escalator to and from the once-notorious neighborhood of Comuna Trece, allowing people to ride up and down the hill, listening to piped music, in six minutes, rather than climb the equivalent of a 28-storey building, which took half an hour.

Desde arriba
Desde arriba by Telemedellín Aquí te ves, on Flickr/Creative Commons

You can find out more about the Library Parks and Medellín Metro in these videos I put together about Education and Transportation through Mozilla’s open source Popcorn Maker. You can even remix them if you’d like to. There’s also a lot more info on our pilot page about all kinds of exciting projects the City of Medellín has embarked on to create a truly sustainable and equitable city, a place that with the help of all stakeholders is taking huge steps towards becoming more ecocity-like.

As the City’s concept paper in the lead-up to the World Urban Forum states:

Bringing urban equity into the center of development means that no one should be penalized for where they live, the way they think or believe, or the way they look.

It also means that public goods and basic services should be available to everyone, creating conditions to be distributed according to needs.

Urban equity in development is not just an ideal, something that operates in the realm of ideas or aspirations. It is a concept framework that guides decision – making to enhance lives in cities for all; a useful tool needed to redefine the urban policy agenda at local, national and regional levels to ensure shared prosperity; and a factor to enhance the city’s transformative capacity to bring about collective well-being and fulfillment of all.

I’ll leave the last word as to how and why this Ecocitizen World Map can be such a powerful tool to get us there to Kirstin Miller:

As the global community is becoming more aware of the crucial role cities play in mitigating climate change and leading the way toward sustainable development, the importance of understanding and connecting the diverse layers that comprise urban ecosystems cannot be overstated. And in order to make informed decisions that benefit all stakeholders equitably and sustainably we have to delve more deeply into as many social, geographical, and environmental areas as possible. And who better to provide that first-hand knowledge than the inhabitants of those microcosms?

Car Free Journey: Welcome to Milwaukee!

March 19, 2014

by Steve Atlas

As spring approaches, most of us are eager to spend more time outdoors and travel to destinations that might be too cold for an outdoor visit during winter. Today, we visit Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Located on Lake Michigan, Milwaukee has a River Walk, summer ethnic festivals, a world renowned brewery, museums, major league sports, and numerous restaurants and entertainment options.

You will want to stay here longer than a weekend! This month’s column will give you an introduction to the city, a sampling of local attractions, and resources where you can find more details and information.

Read the rest of this entry »

Car Free Journey: Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast

March 4, 2014

For the past few weeks, my family and I have wished the ice and snow would go away-and so have many other people all over the United States. Don’t you wish you could escape it all in a warm setting with lots of great beaches that you can walk to.

Then you will want to check out Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast of Central Florida, the focus of this month’s Car Free Journey.

Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast of Florida

Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast: two great reasons to visit is the 72 miles of beaches along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Stay in Cocoa Beach and walk to beaches and many other attractions, restaurants, and entertainment the area has to offer.

For a break from the beach, you can take a local bus to Cape Canaveral, home of the United States Space Program. Here the Space Shuttle ATLANTIS is on permanent display. Port Canaveral is the second largest cruise port in the United States. Local boosters claim it will beat Miami and become the largest U.S. cruise port by 2015.
The Brevard Zoo is one of the top 10 small zoos in the United States and it too is just a bus ride away. Read the rest of this entry »

Future Arcosanti?

March 4, 2014

by Richard Register, Founder

In a distant world, long, long ago…


What’s Arcosanti? Paolo Soleri’s experimental aspiring city in the high Arizona desert, USA.

I love the place. I was there the first day of construction, July 23, 1970, a long time ago. In fact, with one other of Paolo’s students I raised the first vertical structure there, and if you know something about Paolo’s thinking about rising off the flat suburban format, that might mean something. It also makes me something of a fossil. But you can sometimes learn something from fossils, and not even only about the past. They have that much maligned ability to inform about the whole flow of time and thus hint the future as well as report the past. I guess I was a fundamentalist’s apostate since I grew up in the Jewish/Christian/Islamic monotheistic tradition but thought fossils made sense as something that looked a lot like contemporary bones but older. I am a fundamentalist though, but based on fundamental principles about the things that open inquiry might reveal these days about our beautiful universe, rather than what was thought and recorded several thousand years ago on the same subject.

Anyway, back in 1965 when I met him, Soleri was already saying the flat city of cars was wrecking not only the lives of people through serious car accidents but also wrecking the whole damn future by way of creating flat, scattered cities. That seemed to be bizarrely obscure and unwelcome information to Los Angelenos. I was one at the time I met him; but to me it simply made sense.

I’d been interested in his work for five years already when one morning I decided to call him up on what’s now known quaintly as a “land line” – Los Angeles to Phoenix, “dial up” around a little circle with numbers – to see if he was making any progress on starting his “city of the future.” In his case this future city was not sci-fi or tongue-in-cheek but deadly serious. He wanted to build one and he answered the phone at 6433 East Doubletree Ranch Road, Scottsdale, Arizona. Read the rest of this entry »


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