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Eco-city Now!

4 min read

A new eco-city, Dongtan, is being built off the coast of Shanghai. It will house half a million people and be located on an island of shifting sand and mud in the delta of the Yangtze River. As described in ”How to Build a Green City,” residents will walk, take bicycles, and, in a pinch, use electric cars. Dongtan will feed itself with crops grown in its own organic farms. The city’s recycling program will be exquisitely thorough, reusing wastewater and solid—even human—wastes. Power will come from renewable sources like wind and solar energy. Large areas of moist land and marshes are already reserved for the millions of birds that have established migratory vacations or permanent residence there. The density of development will support bicycles, pedestrian thoroughfares, and even canals as waterways. In other words, its master plan, as designed by London-based Arup Group, calls for housing, jobs, commerce, education, food, and nature itself to be close together and integrated, making the city energy-efficient and self-sufficient. As innovative as Dongtan will be, urban designer Richard Register asks, can we go even further?

Dongtan, China’s planned eco-city, is the best news in years. Though we’ve been doing a better job of recycling, cleaning up power plants, putting smog devices on cars, and restoring the landscapes on which endangered species depend, somehow things have gone from bad to worse. The very climate that warms, feeds, and cheers us up is spiraling out of control.

There is an enormous difference between improving existing methods of conservation and renewable energy, on the one hand, and a full realization of an eco-city on the other. In addition, a sort of ”critical mass” of sustainability must be achieved and maintained. What would it look like if an eco-city were developed whole and truly beautiful, a living organism at home in the local and global environments?

It might, oddly enough, look like some of the world’s oldest cities. The first city of any size, Ur, was built on an artificial island elevated about 20 feet. When floods came the city would became a ship heading upstream in the surging ”lake” that formed in the Tigris and Euphrates delta. More than 800 years ago the Indians built elevating natural levees with baskets of earth along the Mississippi, creating raised villages to escape the floods. After the Galveston Hurricane in 1900, much of the city was raised from 5 feet to 20 feet. To this day, villages in the Ganges and Brahmaputra delta elevate their homesteads and small fields on artificially raised land. Dongtan, as a city on an island, has many lessons to learn from these examples.

A highly compact pedestrian community, not the widely scattered motorized one, is the arrangement with a physical footprint small enough to make building on elevated land practical. When a city is built around the automobile, you cannot raise its vast expanse—too much earth would have to be moved.

Dongtan is hardly different from New Orleans, where the lessons of the French Quarter are powerful. On a natural levee rising above the floods and with the city fabric compact enough that buildings sheltered one another from the fierce winds, the quarter survived Hurricane Katrina handily. The surrounding city of cars and artificial levees did not. Dongtan architects should similarly plan the city to rise above the floods—especially given that the oceans will rise significantly before humanity can slow down—and then stop—the oceanic deluge of global warming. A pedestrian city can survive the worsening storms and stop producing most of the carbon dioxide that’s causing the planet to warm in the first place.

Buildings do more than protect one another from weather. What are the right buildings to build if we are to heat and cool them efficiently and make cars unnecessary? We have yet to hear all of the plans for Dongtan regarding innovative building design and efficient positioning of the structures. And we are aware of such features as terracing and rooftop gardens and ”miniparks in the sky,” as well as windscreens, greenhouses, and the passive solar design that may rise up the buildings to as much as half or more of the five- to eight-stories that Arup is planning.

Where are the bridges between buildings that could help knit the whole together in the highest degree of pedestrian accessibility and minimize the number of elevator rides needed to travel though whole districts of the city? Where are the midblock passageways through the structures—hallways and gallerias with skylights splashing beams of light onto the floors, gallerias with shops, humble alleys with cafes—also contributing to the ultimate in design for the pedestrian city? Where are the glass elevators and smooth, silent streetcars for all instead of electric cars for a small elite? Arup is off to a great start. But the planners need to expand their imaginations to include a fuller range of eco-city design possibilities and options. Large-scale structures and neighborhood centers can provide small-scale places of rich experience.

Finally, it is not clear yet whether Dongtan will ban cars entirely. It is time to take that step.

Electric cars—if powered by solar energy, say, rather than coal-fired electric power plants—reduce greenhouse gases. But no cars at all reduces their contribution to greenhouse gases to zero, and the only way to get to that goal is through a carless city design.

Venice gives us a hint of the truly possible and inspiring pedestrian environments. We can neither protect nor enjoy our cities until we give up our addiction to cars—and our addiction to oil. As we come ever closer to running out of oil and as we have become more aware recently of the dangers of climate change, we should move as quickly as possible toward the carfree city. Dongtan should be—and could be—that very paradigm.

About the Author

Richard Register is author of EcoCities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (New Society Publishers, 2006) and president and founder of the educational and research nonprofit Ecocity Builders. He founded the International Ecocity Conferences, held to date in Berkeley, California; Adelaide, Australia; Yoff and Dakar, Senegal; Curitiba, Brazil; Shenzhen, China; and Bangalore, India. The seventh in the series is planned for San Francisco, 22 to 26 April 2008.

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