Ecocity? What is an ecocity?

| Eero Paloheimo’s article has been published in EcoCities Emerging, Dec. 2008 |

The ecocity has already become a concept, a positive concept. Therefore, there exists the danger that it will acquire political or commercial connotations and so become a synonym for something good. Numerous similar examples already exist, like sustainable development, welfare state, democracy and freedom of speech. They are all rather vague expressions that no-one can define precisely. However, everyone is certain that they are all good. Unfortunately, use has rendered many of their original literal meanings somewhat trite or commonplace, even sometimes a travesty. This should be avoided.
Once a concept acquires a positive aura it is used in arguments to authenticate, becoming a banal phrase, an indisputable argument. Its meaning undergoes inflation and becomes increasingly imprecise. A similar fate is threatening the concept of ecocity. Thus it is right to ask: What is a real ecocity? And can there be an intermediate ecocity, a half-way house?
Let us start with the basic problem and basic aim. The ecocity is one of the most important part solutions to the ongoing global environmental crisis. It possesses two basic characteristics:
1. The ecocity makes economical use of natural resources – materials, energy, space.
2. The ecocity does not pollute the environment – land, water or atmosphere.
These two properties are rational. The emotional requirement is presented already in Richard Register´s book Ecocity Berkeley (1987) and it could be called a Happy Marriage
of Nature and Man. I assume everybody understands.
Of the first two characteristics, the first is related to the beginning of production and consumption, the second to the whole of production and consumption, as well as the end of consumption. These two criteria can be considered the categorical imperatives of the ecocity as they establish the conditions for the production of goods, traffic, land usage, building, energy usage and the urban way of life. A radical ecocity is as different from the traditional city as dogs are from cats. But then there are many breeds of dogs.
In all production and its sub areas we can progress towards cleaner energy and product solutions, but if these solutions are developed independently of each other, then their interactive effects may remain unnoticed. This is why so many important factors may be forgotten during the design stage of new products. In a real ecocity, the aim is to introduce new technology simultaneously in all solutions, and therefore their interactive effects are vital and should be automatically taken into consideration from the very beginning.
The first ecocity will certainly not be orthodox, perfect. It will not have zero-level emissions, and it will use natural resources because it does not know how to recycle all materials. The quality of the city will be evaluated according to certain basic criteria, indicators. Using these we could talk of a fifty per cent ecocity. One such indicator would show, for instance, how much energy is consumed. How much unclean, carbon-dioxide producing energy is used per inhabitant? And how does this compare to energy consumption in a traditional city?
The dual nature of indicators
Choosing indicators can easily lead to some confusion, because traditional cities also require them. They can be used to evaluate, for instance, the cost, pleasantness, functionality, traffic facility and health of the city. But these criteria, though fundamentally good, do not describe the special characteristics of an ecocity. They are the general quality criteria applied to traditional towns and cannot as yet be used to evaluate the orthodoxy of an ecocity.
Ecocities are not clones of each other. In the future there will be ecovillages, ecotowns, ecocities, ecometropols, even ecodistricts or ecoregions. Some of them will be built in pristine environments; others will be old cities that have been restored for the better. Atmosphere, terrain and culture will all impose their own conditions. There will also be ecocities that will be inexpensive and modest and others that are costly and luxurious. There will be badly and well-planned ecocities. Their ecologicality or environmental-friendliness will be evaluated by comparing them to traditional towns. Quality standards and ecological orthodoxy should not be confused.
Even so, a basic problem occurs. Do the demands of ecocities conflict with the general quality standards of towns? If, for instance, the ecocity undermines the generally accepted quality standards of towns, which one should give way?
The quality demands of ecocities may well conflict with traditional ones, especially as the result of hasty planning. It is not perhaps understood that fundamental technical solutions demand a new urban culture, aesthetics and architecture in order that these solutions are natural and in symbiosis with the basic objectives. If we blindly combine the forms of traditional town planning with new technology, then we shall find ourselves with the same kind of botched job as when applying the shape of a sailing boat to a motorboat. Or vice versa for that matter: applying ancient technology to a new, ecological veneer.
Not only aesthetics, but also traffic solutions and land usage must obey the conditions of the new technology, such as, for example, new energy production. The planner must understand that the aesthetics and functionality of an ecocity are vastly different from that of a traditional town. New technology and new aesthetics are both absolutely essential and seamlessly integrated with each other. The ecocity is an entirely new type of city and as such lives a new kind of life.
Life-cycle analyses
It is easy to delude yourself when planning ecocities. Perhaps only a few sectors are examined separately – for instance, energy consumption – and solutions are sought only to their problems. This may be done very precisely, but at the same time many other equally important factors are forgotten. Good examples are the natural resources used in traffic and the resulting emissions. Either the overall flow of materials remains unexamined or the indirect effects of land usage are completely forgotten. The main attention is focussed on factors which have been solved satisfactorily. In this way “ecocities” have and are being built in different parts of the world that differ very little from traditional towns, but attract much attention thanks to their ostentatious nomenclature.
One vitally important factor to be taken into account concerning production, especially in the case of ecocities, is the life-cycle of the products at our disposal. Let us again use the example of energy production. Although all the energy consumed by ecocities may be clean and even the volume considerably less than in traditional towns, all that is examined, however, is the production and consumption of the utilities in question, the wind generators or solar panels, when they are in use. This is not enough.
It is more logical to examine the amount and quality of the energy during the whole life- cycle of a product. This means “one cycle”, which starts from the birth of waste and the use of new natural resources. Then we proceed via recycling and usage until the point is reached at which the product is removed from use as waste and is in the same shape as at the beginning of the process. Life-cycle analysis takes into consideration the balance of energy and materials, and naturally economy. Only then can an overall picture be obtained of the product’s environmental impact. Combining all the product balances used in energy production will give the correct picture of the town’s energy balance. Similar analyses should be made for traffic, construction and the whole infrastructure, as their sum total will make it possible to evaluate the ecological quality of the town.
What is a town?
Life-cycle analyses extend the “ecological footprint” of a town temporally so that the environmental burden caused by goods is examined both before they come into use and afterwards.
There is also good reason to extend the analysis to a wider area. It is wrong to limit the calculation of the environmental burden of a town to its administrative area. Here it is essential to include the areas producing the energy, food, water, timber and paper for the town’s inhabitants. They are part of the daily metabolism of the town irrespective of whether these areas are within or beyond its administrative control. If one wishes to be very precise, then the calculation must include all the areas in which any product used in the town has been made. But this is very complex, leads to endless chains and is not decisive to the areas concerned.
The areas devoted to agriculture, commercial forestry and energy production are, however, extensive and their surface areas are, even individually, in the same class or greater than the built-up area. There is no justification at all to leave them outside the calculation. The fields and forests from which townspeople derive their food and materials are essential to the life of the town and a vital part of it irrespective of their location.
This principle does not only concern the space involved. For as in estimating energy production and the life-cycle of products, the balance must also include the consumption of energy and materials resulting from the operations and traffic in goods in these areas. For this reason, food that is produced locally employing simple methods is ecologically more beneficial than that which is industrially produced and transported over considerable distances. Food transportation is an everyday occurrence.
And what concerns the transportation of food also concerns travelling to work and the shops. If the vast majority of townspeople could get to work and manage their everyday affairs by walking or cycling, this would be a major ecological victory. The opposite of this is a town structured to allow for the tens of kilometres of daily commuting for some reason or other. Viewed in this way, the advantages of living in a metropolis are questionable. The environmental burden created by this daily shuffling back and forth should be calculated in its entirety and not just within the administrative borders of the town.
The future of the ecocity
Ecocities are the answer for tomorrow’s world. China has already become the pioneer in this respect. The quicker they become a normal routine for the country, the better. Therefore it is essential from the outset never to compromise, but to aim at such solutions that will withstand even the severest criticism. These towns must by no means be simply ecocities in the cosmetic sense, but neither can they be torsos in which only one aspect has been satisfactorily implemented.
It is also essential to ensure that the ecocity is also responsible for its indirect effects. It may not, in the interests of its own purity, transfer its environmental burden onto a neighbouring town, country or even another continent.

You will find an illustrated version of this article in the homepage of Oy Eero Paloheimo Ecocity Ltd (EPECC) .