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.
Read the rest of this entry »


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.” 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 »


Ecocity Insights: Wellbeing and Quality of life, Beyond the GDP

February 25, 2014

ECOCITY INSIGHTSjenniem
by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development
and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia
Institute of Technology

The International Ecocities Framework and Standards (IEFS) identifies human wellbeing and quality of life as an essential social feature. Specifically, “residents report satisfaction with their quality of life including employment, the built, natural and landscaped environment, physical and mental health, education, safety, recreation and leisure, and social belonging” (www.ecocitystandards.org).

Human wellbeing depends on access to resources sufficient to lead a dignified life (Raworth 2013). This includes access to natural resources such as clean air, water and energy, as well as nutritious food. It also includes access to social resources including education, healthcare, employment and recreation, participation in decisions that affect one’s life, and freedom from persecution for one’s religious beliefs.

Ecocities not only support wellbeing and quality of life through provision of affordable shelter and services, they also enable people to: access jobs close to where they live, breath clean air in car-free cities, and enjoy nature at their doorstep (Register 2006). This is achieved through compact design of the built environment that takes advantage of roof-tops (e.g., for parks and restaurants) and spaces below ground (e.g., for storage and shopping). Landscaped environments at grade blend with the natural environment to foster ecological connections that invite nature into the city (Register 2006).

Residents of ecocities enjoy a high quality of life regardless of their socio-economic status. This means that social services are provided based on need, not just an ability to pay.

An important measure for wellbeing is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). Invented by Redefining Progress in 1995, the GPI considers changes in income distribution, volunteerism, crime, pollution and resource depletion as factors that affect quality of life (Redefining Progress 2013). This stands in contrast to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which measures the sum of a nation’s financial transactions, but does not consider whether those contribute or detract from the wellbeing of citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

References:

Raworth, Kate. 2013. Defining a Safe and Just Space for Humanity in Linda Starke, ed., State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?  Washington DC: Island Press.

Redefining Progress. 2013. Sustainability Indicators: Genuine Progress Indicator (online resource) http://rprogress.org/sustainability_indicators/genuine_progress_indicator.htm (Accessed on November 14, 2013).

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

Register, Richard. 1987. Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. Berkeley Ca: North Atlantic Books.

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


Ecocities to balance the new and the old in Bhutan

May 21, 2013

Richard is on the road again, leaving this week for Bhutan where he will meet with government officials about building ecocities in Panbang, a province of Zhemgang.

Bhutan is a small Buddhist county nestled in the Eastern crags of the Himalayas, commonly overshadowed in the news by its neighbors Tibet, Burma, China and India. Bhutan is most commonly known for its policy of Gross National Happiness (GHN), a metric introduced by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuckn and used to measure the well-being of its citizens and guide the development of government policy. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

The GNH measures reflect Bhutan’s Buddhist foundations which emphasize the need for spiritual and moral development to coincide with material development. Bhutan is cautious about modernization, and justly so. Most countries have embraced the luxuries of modernity while degrading precious traditional values and our connection to nature.

Slogan on a wall in Thimphu’s School of Traditional Arts. Court. of Wikimedia Commons.

King Wangchuck broke with his father’s legacy and has opened Bhutan to modern changes little by little (Television appeared for the first time in 1999), hoping to adopt the benefits of new technology while avoiding the evils. The results are mixed – crime, materialism and dissatisfaction are rising, but not to the rates of most other countries. Some educated Bhutanese returning from educations in the West seek to lead the country in a unique blend of Buddhist values and Western practices. Read the rest of this entry »


Floating cities becoming a reality

April 16, 2013

Building on water eliminates flood risk and enables expansion

For thousands of years, human settlements have clustered around flood planes, from the banks of the Amazon River to lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia, to the marshes of the Netherlands. These settlements are designed to account for the seasonal ebb and flow of sea and fresh water, often by constructing buildings on raised platforms and/or building dykes, dams and canals. Yet as global climate change leads to increasing sea levels, almost every coastal city will face the challenge of encroaching waters.

Presenters at the Global Town Hall for infrastructure solutions held last week in Germany introduced innovative solutions for cities on the brink. “13 out of the world’s 21 megacities are harbor cities, of which Shanghai is most vulnerable to flood and related hazards,” said Professor Markus Quante at the town hall.

Instead of holding back the flood, several presenters suggested ways to completely re-imagine a city on the water. Rutger de Graaf from DeltaSync, a design firm that specializes in sustainable flood-proof urban development in delta areas, says cities can float on water and yet stay dry and resilient. Floating structures on water eliminate the threat of flood damage and can be a viable option for city expansion. In addition, city waste such as carbon dioxide and biowaste can be used to farm algae and in turn raise fish in urban areas.

“Urbanization in delta areas has caused increasingly severe flood. It has also added pressure on space, food, energy and other resources,” said de Graaf, adding that by 2025 the world will run short of at least 22 million km2 of land – an area equivalent to the North American continent.

Rijnhaven Pavijlioner. Images from DeltaSync

The city of Rotterdam is already experimenting with floating urbanization, building its first floating pavilion at the Rijnhaven harbor. Designed by DeltaSync, the three domed structures cover the area of four tennis courts and are not only self-sufficient, relocatable structures that purify their own waste water, but also rise automatically according to rising water levels. The city plans to add many more floating buildings, including a park, as part of the Rijnhaven harbor redevelopment master plan.

Another 1,200 floating structures are planned to open in 2040 in Stadhavens – an area designated for sustainable housing development, floating communities, recreation, and research on energy generation such as tidal energy and cooling and heating from river water.

The city of Semarang, the capital of Central Java, and other coastal cities are working with the Dutch to implement their water management expertise in their own districts. Semarang has already lost 98.2 hectares of land between 1991 and 2009 due to land erosion accelerated by climate change.

Find out more about DeltaSync’s project at their website.


Why Nantes? Europe’s Green Capitol 2013

March 12, 2013

To those who say Ecocities are impossible, that a green economy will fail, and that citizens will never support or get involved in Eco-principles on a large scale, I give you Nantes.

Nantes: The Venice of France

Following in the footsteps of Stockholm, Hamburg and Vitoria-Gasteiz, Nantes Métropole is the European Union’s Green Capital for 2013. The European Commission launched the Green Capital project in 2008 to recognize and reward cities’ efforts to increase sustainability and improve quality of life. Addressing these issues is a pressing concern for European cities as three in four European citizens currently live in urban areas and that number is expected to grow to four in five by 2050.

This year will bring many exciting events to Nantes including ten local or national conferences and 11 European or international conferences, not least of which is the International Ecocity World Summit this September 25-27th.

Few outside of France may have ever heard of Nantes–it is well worth paying attention to.

Nante’s story mirrors that of many industrial cities in Europe and the United States. After the closure of the city’s main economic source–the shipyards–in the 1980s, city leaders were faced with a struggling economy, civic stagnation and abandoned, decaying industrial sites. But instead of trying to recreate failed systems and lingering in the industrial past, Nantes took a unique leap of faith and decided to invest in sustainable infrastructure, culture and quality of life. No mean feat for the 1980s.

Planners carefully redeveloped the shipyards into green public space and focused on highlighting the city’s history (dating to Pre-Roman times), fostering culture and community development, and connected the city via high speed rail to Paris. Nantes’ planning framework promotes urban density, solidarity, and equal access to green living amenities for citizens of all income levels. The result: in 2004, Time Magazine named Nantes the most livable place in all Europe.

A few numbers from Nantes:

  • 57m2 of green space per person
  • 15% of residents use public transportation daily
  • Everyone lives within 300m of a green space in the city
  • 80% of the Nantes/Sant-Nazaire metro area is natural and farmland space
  • Only 11% of household waste goes to landfills

Nantes works hard to encourage dense urban development to accommodate its growing population rather than sprawling into surrounding green areas. In addition many riverbanks, wetlands and green spaces have been restored to support a thriving wildlife population.

Nante’s city governance also attempts to break with a long history of top-down city planning that has often been patronizing and alienating. City leaders name civic pride and involvement a top priority for the city, and their policies reflect this. Vigorous public outreach campaigns involve citizens with the planning of their neighborhoods and the government also holds household workshops on carbon footprint reduction and sustainability.

Of course it is all a work in progress; still, Nantes is a consummate example of the Ecocity principles in action and we are so excited to come together for the 2013 World Summit in such a remarkable city!

Join us