The Ecocities concept became popular in the 1970’s, focusing around ideas of sustainable urban planning, transportation, housing, public participation and social justice. The 1987 book 'Ecocity Berkeley' led to, mostly, biannual International Ecocity Conferences happening since 1990. Since the mid 2000s ecocity projects became increasingly global and mainstream, as responses to climate change and rapid urbanisation, especially in China. Failures of some recent ecocity projects has negatively affected the concept. Ecocity initiatives can work on a number of scales and incorporate components from Sustainable Cities, Regenerative Cities and other urban solutions.
Origins of Ecocities
Efforts to render cities environmentally and socially sustainable are not new and the 'Ecocities' concept became popular in the 1970’s. During the 1980s and early 1990s the concept remained largely open to interpretation both in terms of definition and focus, remaining “a collection of ideas and propositions about sustainable urban planning, transportation, housing, public participation and social justice, with practical examples relatively few and far between”. The concept was first noted academically by Richard Register’s 1987 book, 'Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future'. This was followed by the first International Ecocity Conference in 1990 at Berkeley which was followed up by, mostly, biannual Conferences organised by Ecocity Builders. Joss’s 2009 study mapped the early wave of ecocity and sustainable urbanism examples, it analysed and compared some 79 identified ecocity initiatives and identified three broad ecocity categories that encompass most current ecocity developments:
- new-build ecocities
- the retro-fitting of existing urban environments
- the expansion of existing urban areas
Negative ecocity development since 2000
In the mid 2000s things quickly changed as the "ecocity" concept was used to justify building projects of ever increasing scales, as Joss outlines:
The phenomenon appears to have become increasingly global and mainstream, against the background of the international recognition of the scale and severity of climate change and rapid urbanisation, particularly in the developing world… with countries and cities competing to take a lead in developing and applying new socio-technological innovations and thus bringing about the next generation of sustainable towns and cities.
The two grandest Ecocity projects that were boldly announced as heralding a new age for urbanism were Dongtan in China (announced 2003, launched 2005) and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, (launched 2006). Sze notes how these projects were motivated by financial and political gain and supported by elite power structures in the UK, China and Abu Dhabi. Both projects had British design groups: Arup for Dongton, Norman Foster for Masdar City. Cugurullo arques that both turned out to be spectacular failures. Similar criticisms of the capitalist forces about this recent stage of the ecocity concept have been made by Caprotti, including an indept analysis of the latest Chinese ecocity, Tianjin, where he asks; ‘Eco’ For Whom?
- Dongtan, China
- China announced in 2001 that its goal was to build 400 new cities of 1 million inhabitants each by 2020, or 20 new cities a year for 20 years with Dongtan being the flagship, Sze notes Arup’s description: “Dongtan represents the quest to create a new world”. It was planned on an ecologically sensitive wetlands island near Shanghai, to open in 2010 with accommodation for 10,000, and be onethird the size of Manhattan by 2050 with a population of half a million. The project ran into difficulties and no construction has taken place yet(get update). Sze later added: “The desires that Dongtan represents are those of green or sustainable capitalist discourse, which suggests that capitalist means are the best solution to environmental problems”.
- Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
- In 2006, the government of Abu Dhabi, the largest and most oil rich of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), announced that it intended to spend $22 billion to build a new eco-city to house 40,000 residents, which would rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources. To date, very little has been built and much is on hold. Cugurullo argues that Sustainability is not the real aim of Masdar and that the image of the ideal sustainable city was used to boost the local economy and fulfil the political interests of the ruling class. He labelled the project, and others like it: Frankenstein cities, an example of “(de)composed urbanism”, a metaphor for experiments generated by forced union of different, decaying parts, to form “a “patchwork” of different pieces of urban fabric produced by different clean-tech projects”.
- Tianjin ecocity, China
- Turning to the latest flagship project of Chinese eco-urbanism; Tianjin ecocity, outside China’s fourth largest city Tianjin, Caprotti (2015) asks the critical question: ‘Eco’ for whom?, exploring;
“whether Tianjin eco-city will become, like Masdar, a non-place (as Cugurullo had labelled it in 2013) characterized by grand corporate urban planning and environmental-economic visions, but devoid of an organic society- a city stillborn”.
- His findings point to the creation of modern apartments as bubbles or containers for eco living, disconnected from the public realm and void of a sustainable, socially resilient community in the eco-city, with much of the process of construction based on the marketing of a lifestyle (few can afford) as much as a programme that seeks to positively affect the environment. The projects levels of artificialness went as far as fake leaves being tied onto a whole avenue of bare trees, which
“seemed to point metaphorically to the strained marketing of a ‘harmonious’ and ‘ecologically friendly’ city as an artificial and ultimately misleading foil for yet another new-build luxury residential project”.
Cugurullo, Sze and Caprotti all question what type of life and citizen is being welcomed, or invited, to these new ecocities and argue that the developments are not affordable, so becoming sleek but closed communities for new urban elites. Johnson also offers criticism of this recent wave of ecocity development, calling it Cyburbia (Cyborg and Suburbia), exclusive and smart, but ultimately a non-resilient city. Speaking on BBC's 'Costing the Earth' he outlined the current problems many have with the Ecocity concept:
If you look at these “ecocities”, a lot of them have been set up as this gilded speedboat city, that a few rich people jump into to escape the sinking titanic of the megacity. As the big city goes down, rather than trying to solve its problems, they get into this gated community, a gilded city for a few.
- Ecocity World Summits
In 1992 Register founded the non-profit group Ecocity Builders. They define the Ecocity as an “ecologically healthy city” or "a human settlement modeled on the self-sustaining resilient structure and function of natural ecosystems". Since 1990 They have run, mostly, biannual Ecocity World Summits, with strong attempts to host the events equally between "developed" and "developing" countries and continents:
- Berkeley, USA 1990
- Adelaide, Australia 1992
- Yoff, Sengal 1996
- Curitiba, Brazil 2000
- Shenzhen, China 2002
- Bangalore, India 2006
- San Francisco, USA 2008
- Istanbul, Turkey 2009
- Montreal, Cananda 2011
- Nantes, France 2013
- Abu Dhabi, UAE 2015
- Melbourne, Australia, 2017
- Vancouver, Canada, 2019
- Curitiba Ecocity Festival (Ecocity World Summit 2017 - Parallel event)
The Curitiba Ecocity Festival was a self organised parallel event, created by the Ecocity Group Curitiba, to the 2017 World Ecocity Summit, which was organized by Ecocity Builders in Melbourne, Australia. It lasted 5 days in Curitiba, Brazil, from Wednesday the 12th of July till Sunday the 16th, 2017. The action had both global and local aspects, simultaneously. Globally, It was an experimental, positive provocation as to how Global Forums can become multinodal with greatly increased levels of participation, leading to greater and quicker urban transformation with the construction of an expanded global Ecocity network. Locally, the objective was to explore the idea of how to Fix The City, an open invitation to actors in the city to come together, share ideas, identify problems and possible solutions together. Attempts were explored to repeat the process during the 2019 Ecocity Summit in Vancouver, with the Ecocity Lisboa group, but it did not materialize.
- International Ecocity Framework and Standards
In 2010 Ecocity Builders launched the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS), which works with an international committee of expert advisors. Together in 2010, in Vancouver Canada, IEFS adopted the following description for an Ecocity:
An Ecocity is a human settlement modelled on the self sustaining resilient structure and function of natural ecosystems. The ecocity provides healthy abundance to its inhabitants without consuming more (renewable) resources than it produces, without producing more waste than it can assimilate, and without being toxic to itself or neighbouring ecosystems. Its inhabitants’ ecological impact reflect planetary supportive lifestyles; its social order reflects fundamental principles of fairness, justice and reasonable equity.
Other Ecocity initiatives
While the Ecocity concept has gone through different stages, the recent ones in China and UAE of mega top down exclusive projects, have not been successful. Ecocity projects that engage with all cities and communities, and not just the privileged exclusive few, seem more aligned to the hopes of SDGs, NUA and Sustainable Cities. Some groups are exploring the scaling up of best practice from the ecovillage world, specifically the main group Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). Ecocity Lisboa in Portugal are examining aspects of this through an action research project through PhD research with related projects including Urbana, ECOLISE, Communities for Future and local groups active in Lisbon city. Other groups and once off projects include the following:
- Ecocity Banja Luka, Bosnia (2003)
- Ecocity Dublin, Ireland (2005-2006)
- Ecocty Group Curitiba, Brazil (2015-2018)
- Ecocity Lisboa, Portugal (2018-2020)
- ROSELAND, Mark. Dimensions of the eco-city. Published in: Cities, vol 14, No. 4, pp: 197–202. UK, 1997. Accessed Feb 11th 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222495799_Dimensions_of_the_eco-city
- JOSS, Simon. Eco-cities: a global survey 2009. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment 129 (May), 239–50. 2009. Accessed Feb 11th 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271423351_Eco-cities_A_global_survey_2009
- Richard Register on Ecocity Builders https://ecocitybuilders.org/richard-register/
- REGISTER, Richard. Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, California, US. 1987 https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/136574.Ecocity_Berkeley
- Ecocity Builders history; The first International Ecocity Conference in Berkeley in 1990 https://ecocitybuilders.org/history/
- SZE, Julie & ZHOU, Yi. Imagining a Chinese Eco-City. Published in “Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century”, Routledge, New York. 2011. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9780203814918/chapters/10.4324/9780203814918-22
- CUGURULLO Federico (2013). The Business of Utopia: Estidama and the road to the Sustainable City, Utopian Studies Vol. 24, No. 1, 66-88. http://www.academia.edu/5428732/The_Business_of_Utopia_Estidama_and_the_Road_to_the_Sustainable_City_-_Utopian_Studies
- CAPROTTI, Federico. Eco-urbanism and the Eco-city, or, Denying the Right to the City? In, Antipode, Vol. 46 No. 5 2014. https://www.academia.edu/6264140/Caprotti_F_2014_Eco-urbanism_and_the_Ecocity_or_Denying_the_Right_to_the_City
- CAPROTTI, Federico & HARMER, Nichola & SPRINGER, Cecilia. ‘Eco’ For Whom? Envisioning Eco-urbanism in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, China. International journal of urban and regional research, Vol.39 Number 3, May 2015. https://www.academia.edu/13582411/Eco_for_whom_Envisioning_ecourbanism_in_the_Sino-Singapore_Tianjin_Eco-City_China
- MARS, Neville & HORNSBY Adrian. The Chinese Dream: A Society Under Construction. 010 Publishers. 2008. https://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Dream-Society-Under-Construction/dp/9064506523
- CUGURULLO Federico. Frankenstein cities: (de)composed urbanism and experimental eco-cities. In Evans J., Karvonen A. and Raven R., The Experimental City, London: Routledge, 2016 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325069313_Frankenstein_cities_decomposed_urbanism_and_experimental_eco-cities
- JOHNSON, Leo & Blowfield, Michael. Turnaround Challenge. Business and the City of the Future. Oxford University Press. UK. November 2013. https://www.amazon.com/Turnaround-Challenge-Business-City-Future/dp/0199672210
- JOHNSON, Leo. Eco-Cities. Speaking on BBC; Costing the Earth. Apr 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05r3w3n
- Ecocity World Summits https://ecocitybuilders.org/ecocity-world-summit/
- International Ecocity Framework and Standards https://ecocitystandards.org/