Eco Cities and the Eco Valley

by Eero Paloheimo and Pekka Paloheimo

A Global Survey 2011 on Eco-Cities [1] includes 174 examples of Eco-Cities in the world and also a short historical view on their development. As far as we know, the first writer using the word Eco-City, was Richard Register in 1979 followed by his book nine years later, first with ecocity in the title, “Ecocity Berkeley” proposing a model scenario for that city into the future [2]. The concept of Eco-City and existing plans of Eco-Cities are rather new and their emerging is fast, but anyhow and sincerely: no real Eco-City exists in the world yet.

The variation between the different given examples is great and the definition of the Eco-City is also still open and varying [1]. In [3] a suggestion for the definition of an Eco-City is presented as follows:

“The ecocity is one of the most important part solutions to the ongoing global environmental crisis. It possesses two basic characteristics:
1. The ecocity makes economical use of natural resources — materials, energy or space.
2. The ecocity does not pollute the environment – land, water or atmosphere.
These two properties are rational. The emotional requirement is presented already in Richard Register´s book Ecocity Berkeley (1987) and it could be called a Happy Marriage of Nature and Man.”

The definition might either be the one presented above or something similar. It could refer to the possibilities of joining the so called clean technology inside one specific area. In all cases, we believe that there is no sharp border between the ecocities and the traditional cities. The change is gradual and in the future we can probably speak of 75 % – ecocities as well as of 50 % – or 25 % – ecocities. These may be defined by using some kind of indicators. These indicators can be calculated by applying input-output models and taking into consideration the whole life cycles of both material and energy of the production or consumption of an area [4]. All products used in the Eco-City must be included in this study.

New and Old Cities
About 3,5 billion people live in cities today. There are about 50 megapolises having more than 5 million inhabitants and their summarized population is about 500 millions.  We can estimate that in the near future the urbanization of the world will increase yearly with 80 million people.

The basic purpose of the ecocities is to stop the ecological and environmental crisis of the world. If we think very optimistically, in 20 years – that means in 2032 – all new cities are ecocities and their environmental footprint is essentially lower than today. But we think there are two crucial issues that should already be considered now.

The first issue concerns the timetable. The environmentally disastrous processes are mostly accelerating and the condition of the planet’s environment in 2032 is most likely much worse than it is today. The ideological change of building new kind of cities should apparently be even faster than the optimistic estimation above. Still, more important is the second issue: only a fraction of the whole constructed urban area would change, if we concentrated totally and only on the new areas; towns and cities. The goal is to prevent the environmental catastrophe, and thus it is necessary to concentrate both on the existing built environment, the old cities and simultaneously change the form of the new cities. The first one is the bigger of the two tasks.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to tear down the old buildings or to change the city plans fundamentally. The change corresponds very much to the changes that have been made in many old cities already in the past. What happened, when horses were changed to cars, gaslight to electricity or wells to water pipes? We did not change the streets or the buildings but only the infrastructures. This is what will happen also in the future.

We have to change the waste treatment, the traffic and the energy production. All this must be realized with new goals and new technology. But that does not lead to the destruction of Berlin, Beijing or Berkeley, their appearance would not change essentially. This basic renewal has to be done during the next decades in a global scale – and we are in hurry.

Scattered Research

A practical problem is that different sectors of technology only improve their own expertized field today, independently on each other. Thus their common goal is based on the old-fashioned values, purposes and possibilities. These are economic growth, sufficiency of natural resources and negligence of the evident damages (as pollution) of the traditional behavior. I refer here to such technological sectors as energy, traffic, construction, ICT, agriculture, forestry etc. The different sectors try to change their own field perhaps separately and usually this happens without considering the development of the other sectors. However, the processes of the different technical fields have a mutual dependence. This may partly be considered when planning Eco-Cities, whereby the different technical solutions are applied simultaneously. But this is not enough.

There is an urgent need to a new scientific approach, common to the different expertized fields, which could be called e.g. clean technology. To be effective, this approach should also be a combination of theory and practice and in the ideal case a combination of the natural sciences and the social sciences. In the ideal case the theory and practice should be concentrated locally in the same place. To be realistic, this should be a common global laboratory of future development. An area like this could be called EcoValley.

Ecovalley as a Solution

Silicon Valley in California has been a kind of global trademark of ICT for years. Referring to it, in 2010 started a project in Mentougou, China (Fig. 1) and it was named from the beginning “EcoValley”. The idea of the project was to combine three types of synergy in the same package. Also: Eco-City is a new product and products need a factory.

Fig. 1

The first synergy was the connection of theory and practice. The area of the town for 20.000 people was located in a beautiful valley and there was the real problem of employing the people living in the area already today. The area is not agriculturally very fertile and the original idea was to create a small but real Eco-City in the valley. Later the basic idea was first extended to a combination of a real Eco-City and a bunch of innovative institutes, all studying the different sectors of modern, clean technology. The reason for this was that the new types of innovations might include unexpected practical problems in everyday life and the feedback from them would in this way be immediate and smooth. The scholars could try to solve them quickly. Of course – on the other hand – the inhabitants of the city could get the latest innovations freshly to their use and get immediately an advantage from them faster than other consumers.

Altogether ten institutes were planned on western slope of the valley. The apartments were situated on the opposite, eastern side and the employees of the institutes were supposed to live there. The ten institutes were not directly built for the basic scientific work, but rather for the innovations of new products, applying the basic science having been developed in different universities and scientific centers.

The second synergy is created by the co-operation of the different institutes (Fig. 2). It is evident that the cleanness of e.g. traffic does not contain only electric vehicles, but also a clean production of the needed power. For the production and storage of the power the whole water-management system of the area had to be combined. Similarly the agricultural land-use, production of food, use of water and waste treatment were in close connection with each other. These are just some examples of the necessary co-operation between the different innovation-institutes in EcoValley. We can expect that a prototype of a new model of city will create hundreds of small new questions, waiting to be answered. These solutions require a co-operation of different innovative technologies.

Fig 2.

In Mentougou two institutes were suggested also, which are not technological. They were the institute of health and the institute of travelling and spare-time. This can be considered as a seed of something larger, of more institutes studying people’s welfare and social relationships. In future, as the idea becomes more common, there will certainly be more proposals of this kind.

The third type of synergy was the planned east-west co-operation. This idea was mainly commercial. We thought that the co-operation between China and western countries would be purely scientifically fruitful, and even more. China is a large market, and the biggest western companies developing the different fields of clean technology, would have commercially an attracting environment in China. On the other hand, the Chinese probably would gain from the western innovations.

Economics and Politics

One financial problem has to be solved. The first real Eco-City (without compromises) is a great economical risk and a huge investment to any private company. It will be a prototype of a new product. The prototype can have errors and it is in all ways more expensive than its followers. Also the first EcoValley will not be realized by private investors, while the gains for it will return first after decades and even then indirectly. We should admit that for a company that is looking for short-term and safe gains, there are better investments than Eco-Cities and much better than an EcoValley.

The future generations will gain of the Eco-Cities and EcoValley. The benefits are global and general. So they are not yet everyday business, although they certainly will be it in the future. The first Eco-City without compromises and the first EcoValley should be built by public financing. If they are created by developers or private investors, the economic limits are tough and get a huge role. No company wants to make an offer like that, and it cannot even be required. But the realization of the basic, original goals suffer from this.

Therefore the political leaders have to give public money to the prototypes. However, this is not strange. Taxpayer’s money is given continuously to hospitals and universities, schools and railways, even to the police and army. All this has the same basic purpose. We want to guarantee a good life for future generations, although nobody can gain great short-term profits by these investments. The first real Eco-City and the first EcoValley have exactly the same purpose.

One more remark. During the last years there has been written much about downshifting, e.g. [5] and [6]. We don’t think that it is an alternative to clean technology but rather a welcome supplement, which is directed at the same goal. The difference might be in the realistic time-table. We think that the downshifting needs a deep and basic cultural and spiritual change and therefore takes probably generations to become effective. The efforts to realize the ideas of clean technology are ideologically smaller and might be realized perhaps faster.

EcoValley is the peak of the economic food chain. On the other hand it researches and develops practical innovations, and thus simultaneously shows the direction to a new economic structure. This new kind of economy has to be based mainly on maintenance and services instead of production. The essential question: can economic growth be gained without increased consumption of natural resources? As we already overuse the capacity of the planet, the only possible alternatives seem to be downshifting or reconstructing radically our economy.

For these reasons we think that the world needs quickly at least one EcoValley. We believe that it will be created during the next decade. But will it be built in America, China or Europe? Let’s wait and see.

No, let’s not wait. Let’s do it.

Eero Paloheimo is a Finnish designer, politician and university professor. He and co-author Pekka Paloheimo can be reached at and, respectively.


[1] Joss, Simon; Tomozeiu, Daniel and Cowley, Robert: Eco-Cities – A Global Survey (2011, University of Westminster)  

[2] Register, Richard: EcoCity Berkeley, Building Cities for a Healthy Future (1987, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley)

[3] Paloheimo, Eero: Ecocity? What is an ecocity? (2008, Ecocities Emerging, Dec.)

[4] Paloheimo, Eero; Salmi Olli: Evaluating the Carbon Emissions of the low carbon city: a novel approach for consumer based allocation (journal homepage:

[5] Jackson, Tim: Prosperity without Growth (2009, Earthscan, London)

[6] Heinberg, Richard: The End of Growth (2011, New Society Publishers, Canada)

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