The following is a short essay written by Richard Register as the published introduction to the companion book for the “Theory and Model of International Ecological City” subconference of the “20078 China International Architecture Design & Scene Planning Exhibition and Forum on Urban Planning of Senior Government Officials” in Langfang, Hebei Province, China, June 19 and 20, 2008. The book, called “The Living Land,” was published by the Shanghai International Investment Company which is building five “ecocity” projects including Dongtan, near Shanghai, and Wanzhuang, about 80 miles east of Beijing near Langfang.
There may be one or two things as important for humanity’s future, but nothing is more important than ecocities.
If human beings are stressing planet Earth to the breaking point, and we are, it is because of our vast numbers and our enormous rates of consumption of resources and production of wastes in the process. This stands as something broadly accepted in a world of climate change, the coming end of cheap energy and collapsing species diversity on a global scale.
But what is most often missed is the design and layout of our built environment of cities, towns and villages. Could we build cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well? That’s the promise of ecocities and in China some of the most important efforts in exploring cities are underway in places such as Wanzhuang Ecocity Project in Langfang. There we see the strategy of “leading by government, operating by market” which means that there needs to be a design of the incentives to assist and enable the design of the physical thing itself, the physical city as an ecocity.
First, just how important are cities? We have been hearing for some years now that “this year more than half the people in the world will be living in cities.” The figures keep shifting because the data gathered by the United Nations simply accepts and uses the various nations’ wide ranging definitions of what constitutes cities. But what is important to notice is that probably 90% or more of us – almost all of us – live in either cities, towns or villages and at all those scales our built community can be either designed upon the foundation of ecological understanding or without it. In other words, ecocity design relates to practically all scales of development and, if it were applied across those scales would be a solution of sufficient power to preserve and restore the health of the whole planet.
Second, how well recognized is the fact that ecocity design holds this enormous potential for health and happy solutions to crucial problems? Practically not at all! We are dealing with something almost a complete secret when the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali in December, 2007 fails to mention the largest things human being create when debating solutions to global heating. Not a word was said about city form or urban design. Certainly some of the world’s best scientists and most conscientious citizens and politicians were doing their best in all the ways they normally go about their work. But somehow they all missed the connection between the design, layout, planning and building of the largest creations of our species – cities – and their impacts on climate. If one kind of city puts out massive quantities of CO2, but a city built in a very different, ecologically informed way would put out one tenth as much, that is enormously important information. That building a different kind of city has this potential for good is simply an insight that is currently so new as to be almost unheard of. People have gotten used to the idea that an ecologically healthy city is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. The fact that cities do pollute has completely obscured the fact that they can pollute much less, very much less by design – and perhaps the “waste” products of that better design could actually be used for benefit instead of cast off as damage to land, life and society. We have simply not been paying attention to building the best we possibly could.
Third, why haven’t we been moving much more quickly toward ecocities? I’ve been wondering why something that sounds so good – cities designed on the measure of the person, rather than the machine, cities designed to leave room for nature in all its glory, cities to enrich soil as is done in China in a number of other countries in an older kind of agriculture that recycles organics thoroughly, cities conserving energy so well that only a modest flow of energy from the sun or wind could power the whole thing – have not been developed right along with all the other clever humans inventions. For more than forty years I’ve been working on ecological city design, and there have been others in the field too, but practically nothing until very recently has been built, and then on a small scale, as just a building here or there or a small part of city.
Lately we have been recognizing healthy “ecological” patterns in the essence of a much older way of building cities, as we see in the model of old European cities, Nepalese large towns, and traditional villages of compact design in China and around the world defining streets and bringing the full variety of mutual services close together. Why haven’t we earlier extracted the basic principles and techniques from the many pieces that seem to indicate where we should be going? Why has only recently Curitiba, Brazil assembled enough pieces of good layout and design that people are beginning to bring the picture into focus? It would seem strange that Dongtan, now said to be the “first ecocity” could actually be the first or something close to a first when we could have been building right for decades or even centuries. Maybe most important, is there something in the way we are building cities that makes it very difficult to actually progress toward cities good enough to be a positive ecological presence on Earth, a built environment in harmony with the natural environment?
I think there is an answer to this puzzle and it is that we have not been looking at things in their true proportion and we haven’t been exercising imagination fully. We stop thinking halfway to the answer.
Regarding proportionality, for example, the car is a key player in shaping contemporary cities – and disastrously. There is good theoretical basis for seeing the automobile as intrinsically extraordinarily damaging to urban health in simply noticing that the average car is approximately 30 times as heavy as the human body, ten times as fast and about 60 times as big in volume. Designing for something that overbearing in cities has been a mistake few are willing to face. Attempts at making cities healthier come up against desires for speed and bridging distances that have only been possible in an age of very cheap energy and machines that muscle their way across town while completely redesigning it. That’s one big problem in the way.
Another is a notion exemplifying lack of imagination and unwillingness to think through options more thoroughly. That problem exists even in many of the best of European towns and taught in architecture and city planning classes and that notion is that “good urbanism” doesn’t have nature in it. Why not? Who says? In what form and design? Why the lack of imagination here? This idea, embodied in, for example, the compact “walking streets” of old Europe and Asia and the squares and plazas with no plants at all and only pigeons for wildlife, or parks with 100% grass and non-native plants is an idea that has been around for so long it is taken as some sort of rule without thinking through how a much better relationship to nature could be even better urbanism, enriching urban life even more. It’s time to wake up – before nature strikes back for our lack of attention to her.
Another notion is “human scale” in cities – meaning small and often tagged to a four or five story height limit – though many people in China and larger cities everywhere take the notion much more realistically. The benefits of compact, three-dimensional form with real diversity of facilities and services means people can walk and take bicycles and transit very easily, saving enormous amounts of energy, land, time, material investment and money. There is a core of truth to the notion of human scale as small scale but it exists in a dynamic with the larger scale, which is a human product too, and which can be designed very differently than we see generally expressed now. For example, the vital pedestrian city could be one with many taller buildings with terraces linked by bridges, with large sheltered interior passageways on the scale of cathedral interiors, with sunny public space arranged around small waterways and native plants attracting native birds to high places.
I’ve seen people move small steps in the right direction and stop, satisfied that they have arrived. They, for example, might recycle better and buy an energy saving automobile, but they still live a long way from work and their friends and drive anyway. I’ve seen them freeze up the city, opposing any new “density” in already existing neighborhoods or resist adding diversity of services and jobs to a neighborhood, clinging to the segregating single uses of zoning that helped the car scatter the city of car dependent and cheap energy dependent distances. But in projects now being planned in China, such as Dongtan and Wanzhuang, the notion of “access by proximity” – being close to a wide variety of what you need in the city is finally taken seriously and will be the world model for our fast approaching future when cheap energy is gone forever.
But even there, what is missing is going for the full spectrum ecocity now. We need to be thorough. We need to see all the parts connected and understand that to have a better car actually makes a worse city because it perpetuates the same anti-ecocity form with all its excesses. It is time for imagination to explore the whole notion in its fullness. Only then can we get beyond the compromises and the habits of stopping way short of… cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well.