Main Feature

Mar-Apr 2013


by Judith Ryser

The case of rapid urbanisation, scarcity of resources, climate change and thus the need for sustainable development has been made extensively worldwide, so the focus here is on eco-cities, a specific ecological solution conceived to redress urban development deficiencies. 

Register’s “Eco-city”
The term “eco-city” has been coined arguably by Richard Register as early as the 1970s guiding his Ecocity Builders company. According to Register, an eco-city is:

“- An ecologically healthy human settlement modelled on the self-sustaining resilient structure and function of natural ecosystems and living organisms
- An entity that includes its inhabitants and their ecological impacts
- A subsystem of the ecosystems of which it is part—of its watershed, bioregion, and ultimately, of the planet
- A subsystem of the regional, national and world economic system.”1
He initiated the first international eco-city conference in 1990.2 His notion of urban ecosystems are urban entities which form part of larger systems providing essential services to mankind, albeit often undervalued as they tend not to have market value. They include air, water, soil and natural regulatory processes. Register’s human settlements are self-sustaining resilient structures which do not consume more resources than they produce, more waste than they can assimilate. Conditions are that eco-city inhabitants practice planetary supportive lifestyles and a social order that reflects principles of fairness, justice and reasonable equity. These attributes could arguably remain guiding principles of contemporary eco-cities.
Attempts at ecological development
The idea of ecological living is not new. It can be dated back to vernacular living of hunter-gatherers, nomads or early settlers. Triggered by the devastations caused by acid rain during waning industrial times, the United Nations raised awareness of ecological husbandry at the 1972 Stockholm conference on the human environment. This was followed by focus on the man-made environment at the UN 1976 conference in Vancouver, which created UN Habitat, in charge of what was becoming sustainable development of human settlements. Among many initiatives, UN Habitat produced the sustainable cities programme underpinned by the 1993 resolution
against forced evictions.
Earlier on, the 1972 Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth3 was a wake-up call about the adverse effects of population explosion and rapid urbanisation also in the developing world. The 1987 Brundtland report4 on sustainable development is the first to propose a ‘universal’ definition:
“Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This definition has influenced environmental and energy policies throughout the world, inter alia the conventions of the UN World Earth Summits 1992 up to the latest, Rio+20 in 2012, as well as the Kyoto Treaty 1997 and subsequent protocols.
Various studies of the ecological footprint of human activities continue to relate economic growth, population growth and urbanisation to finite resources of the planet.5 There is thus no shortage of knowledge and policy recommendations promoting sustainable development. Nevertheless, in the real world, ecological objectives tend to be displaced by economic development pressures.6
Conceptual frameworks with ecology in mind
Despite well-thought-out political definitions of sustainability, and in particular eco-cities, scientific evidence about adverse effects of climate change on the built environment and its use is contested. Conversely, some scholars decided to rethink the veracity of economic theories. Eric Beinhocker offers a critique of orthodox economic theories and is exploring a new approach based on systemic ecological thinking.7
Fundacion Metropoli8 is continuously exploring ways of working with concepts of ecosystems towards a better understanding of sustainable cities. They perceive them as ‘innovation hubs’, which act together as ‘urban ecosystems of innovation’. This conceptual framework is guiding their design of eco-cities and eco-regions, building on their ‘archaeology of spatial memory’9 and harnessing their transformational dynamic at interactive physical scales.10 Gabriel Escobar and this writer attempted to produce a realistic representation of the ‘city–climate change’ interplay and to propose some sustainable urban strategies.11

1 Richard Register, 1987, Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future, North Atlantic Books, with definition of ‘ecocity’.
2 Past Ecocities conferences.
3 Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Joergen Randers, William W Behrens, Forrester Institute MIT, 1972, The Limits to Growth, a Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Potomac Associates Book, Earth Island Limited. They were not the first to relate population growth to available resource of the planet. See also Thomas Malthus (1798, An essay on the principle of population).
4 Our Common Future, Report of the Brundtland Commission, 1987, Oxford University Press.
5 E.g., Herbert Girardet. Creating Sustainable Cities, Schumacher Briefings, 1999, Green Books. The Gaia Atlas of Cities, new directions for sustainable urban living, 1996, revised version, Gaia Books Limited.
6 Both the USA and China opted against concrete pledges to act against adverse effects of climate change at the Rio+20 conference, thus
making it easy for much smaller countries to escape from or postpone prior commitments.
7 Institute of New Economic Thinking. See also, Eric Beinhocker, 2006, The Origins of Wealth, evolution, complexity and the radical
remaking of economics, Harvard Business School Press
8 Judith Ryser (ed). 2010. The Fundacion Metropoli, Landscape Intelligence, Visions and Projects of the Fundacion Metropoli. Published by Fundacion Metropoli, Madrid, Spain.
9 Judith Ryser & Salome Meyer (eds), 2011, Cultural Policies Towards Economic and Social Urban Sustainability, The Swiss Embassy in London
10 Fundacion Metropoli. Op.cit Chapter 2. Understanding Cities, Chapter 6, Conceptions, urban ecosystems of innovation, Chapter 8 Eco-Development Strategies, eco-cities.
11 Judith Ryser and Gabriel Escobar, Climate Change and the Cities of the Future, art, technology and economics against climate change, In: European Climate Forum, Climate Change and the Cities of the Future, 2010.

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