What is an EcoCity?

| Eero Paloheimo’s article has been published in Eco-humanity Magazin, March 2009 |

A Real EcoCity?
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.
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. This 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?
Good attempts – examples
Until now there are at least three different attempts to design something, what is called an EcoCity, but no of them yet corresponds the real final goals.
In Europe there are several small communities where mostly young people lead an ecologic lifestyle. They grow their own food, often make their own clothes and heat their homes using wood as fuel. While undeniably ecological, such communities are not cities. To qualify as cities, they would need to be bigger. And being bigger, they should use modern, environment-saving technology. These small communities cannot be called eco-cities. They are eco-communities.
Another attempt at an ecological lifestyle involves larger urban units, which seem ecological but in reality are no more ecological than other cities. The buildings may differ from traditional designs, they may have more parks than other cities and they may be more pleasant than other cities. They are cities or city sectors but not eco-cities, even if they seem that way. They represent an aesthetic idea of an EcoCity.
A third example is cities that do not seem ecological but may have some of the qualities of a genuine EcoCity. In these cities more attention may have been paid to the energy consumption of buildings, or they may have a denser public transport network, than other cities in general. They are modest attempts in the right direction. They are not eco-cities, even though they have some elements of an EcoCity. They are good attempts in the right direction.
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Goal of an EcoCity?
Let us start with the basic problem and basic aim. The EcoCity is not a new style of architecture and it is not a new way of making money, but one of the most important 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 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. 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. This means that the built environment and nature are in harmony with each other – functionally and aesthetically. I assume everybody understands.
A radical EcoCity is as different from the traditional city as dogs are from cats. But then there are many breeds of dogs.
EcoCities and Factor Four
A well known concept has been defined ”Factor Four”. It was created in 1995 n the book ”FACTOR FOUR – Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use”. The writers of that book were Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Amory und Hunter Lovins. The idea is firstly that natural resources can be used more efficiently in all domains of daily life, either by generating more products, services and quality of life from the available resources, and secondly by less resources to maintain the same standard of living. In the book 50 different examples are presented in everyday life. In those examples the ecological footprint of the product can be reduced essentially. This approach has the problem that the complex entity may easily disappear and the result is plenty of different fragments.
In all production and its sub areas we may progress towards cleaner energy and sparing products, 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.
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In this connection we should remember that the necessary basis for an EcoCity is technical, but that alone is not enough. The new environmental technology is an unavoidable tool, but only a tool. In the future the EcoCities will become more common and they will influence the whole society. It is necessary to renew the principles of planning and design and this reflects also all education.
When the principles of planning are renewed, this leads logically also to the renewing of architecture and urban planning. A new school of architecture and urban planning will be born, and the new principles are not only in the background, but they will be emphasized and they give character to the new appearance of the new cities. The same has happened earlier when functionalism or constructivism became stylistic tendencies. The appearance of the houses change due to the new ideology and the cities will not only have boulevards and gardens but large protected natural areas, agriculture and forests. For the energy production we must reserve special areas. They are not monotonous fields covered by solar panels, but great environmental art which complete in a harmonious way the other constructed environment. Nature and built, cultural environment are joined together in a beautiful way.
The cities need new models of traffic and many other new products and this renews the whole production. Energy production, transportation, communication, recycling, self-sustainability for food and water are all radically different from today’s models. The recycling of materials will become an essential part of the production. This requires new products and they are produced in new kind of factories outside the city. In our industrial era a new product creates a new factory.
It is clear that all above influence the everyday life of the inhabitants of the city in a basic way. Independently of our wishes – whether we like it or not – the inhabitants of the EcoCity will lead a different – better – kind of life than the inhabitants of the cities of today. This influences even the concept of time and use of time of the inhabitants. The working time and the leisure will be mixed with each other. The ecological rucksack – the concept, which was bound already to the concept Factor Four – is still there, but it is connected to a new, gigantic product, which is called EcoCity.
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The dual nature of indicators
The first EcoCity will certainly not be orthodox, perfect. It will not have zero-level emissions, and it will use natural resources because we do not know yet 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? If we can halve the consumption of this kind of energy, we can speak about a 50-percent EcoCity – what concerns energy. But this is only one aspect.
Choosing indicators can easily lead to some confusion, because traditional cities also need 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 ecology 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?
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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 use must obey the conditions of the new technology, such as 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. The new way of life influences everything.
A quite special attention must be given to the new land-use. It is reasonable to produce all the daily necessary products in the immediate neighbourhood of the apartments and the working places. By this the transportation costs will reduce. The most important materials in the everyday use are water, food, paper and besides all this materia the energy, which also often requires transportation. To produce food and paper larger areas are needed than for the constructions. The area for the energy production is about as great as the area needed for all the other buildings. The roofs of the buildings can – of course – be utilized. All these are essential parts of the new city. The city has its own metabolism. It is like an animal. It breathes, struggles and thinks.
The close distances between the apartments and working places is also an ecological issue, while it influences traffic. The environment is loaded less by a light traffic everywhere than masses of passenger cars driving back and forth for hours everyday using wide motorways all over the city.
All problems mentioned above can be solved by the modern information technology. The functioning of such information technology is an essential basis for the EcoCity. It creates the possibilities for the decentralized and unconventional form of the city. The information is not fixed to a certain place.
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. All the energy consumed by EcoCities may be clean and even the volume considerably less than in traditional towns. Anyhow, all that is examined, is the direct production and consumption of the utilities in question. That is: 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 also 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.
It is necessary to create a yearly environmental balance of the EcoCity, in which the whole consumption and production of the city is analyzed comprehensively. In practice this means that the city is like a gigantic machine, which is fed by material and energy from outside and it produces not only valuable products but also pollution and emissions into its environment. The yearly balance of the city then indicates in the best way the two technical requirements mentioned above: the minimum of the pollution and the sparing production. But we must remember that the real quality of the city needs many additional virtues.
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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.
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Practical solutions
An EcoCity generates the energy it needs without polluting the air, water or soil. For this purpose, a large part of the city area will be reserved for solar panels, wind generators, geothermal heat pumps and bioenergy production. These areas are at some distance from the residential areas. Bioenergy production releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but plants re-absorb the carbon from the air. Thus a balance is maintained and the carbon burden of the atmosphere does not increase. The next few decades will see that the production of solar panels and wind generators increase in leaps from current levels.
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An EcoCity also includes artificial pools for fish farming and vegetables will be grown in greenhouses where ambient temperatures are too low for normal field cultivation. Artificial pools can be integrated with the biological water purification system and energy supplied to the greenhouses the same way as other parts of the city.
In addition to food and energy, the third commodity needed daily is water. An EcoCity will have a closed water circulation system. This means that water is not imported from outside the city, nor is wastewater transported outside the city. In an EcoCity the water circulation system is controlled. It is partially based on biological and natural purification, but also utilises physical and chemical purification methods. The idea of using two circulations besides each other – the drinkable and grey water – is also possible.
Being self-sufficient in energy, food and water is not necessarily a more nature-saving or non-polluting solution than being dependent on outside production. However, an EcoCity ensures these processes are non-polluting and is careful using virgin natural resources. By being self-sufficient, the EcoCity ensures that it is genuinely non-polluting and nature-conserving. An insincere ecological approach means that you only address ecological concerns in your own area and pass all problems on to your neighbours.
Waste management and materials recycling are seamlessly integrated with all other operations of an EcoCity. Utilising organic waste in energy production and the fertilisation of fields is one aspect of these operations. In this way waste management, energy production and food production are mutually connected and form an integrated system. All of these aspects must be simultaneously taken into account in planning to ensure that technical knowledge from different fields is collected together, resulting in a functional closed system. Materials are recycled and utilised and there is no waste.
There is one fundamental fact that should be stated in connection with all of this. Although the structures of an EcoCity are designed as closed systems, there is another principle running parallel to this approach: economy and thrift. The design principle is to avoid wasting energy and minimising waste generation. This is particularly true for transport and construction.
As concerns inorganic waste and goods production, an EcoCity is not self-sufficient. Such a goal would be unrealistic. With the exception of cars, the residents of an EcoCity use the same products as other people: refrigerators, televisions, mobile phones and bicycles. The majority of these will be produced elsewhere and imported into the city, and any waste will be returned to the producers. The EcoCity cannot take responsibility for recycling all these objects. That is a wider issue for national consideration. An ecologically-oriented society will have closed recycling systems in place for even such material.
However, there are two larger issues that are fundamentally reflected in land use planning and zoning throughout the entire city: transport and construction.
There are no passenger cars in an EcoCity. They will have been replaced with vehicles resembling the passenger car. These vehicles do not pollute the air since they are electrically operated and controlled via a city-wide navigation system. They work like lifts, but move horizontally. This transport system makes urban planning easier in many ways. Streets may be narrow, pleasant and winding. Parking areas are not needed by the roadside or elsewhere. When the vehicles are not in use, their power units will be charged at stations designed for this purpose. There is no noise from traffic, which is safe and non-polluting. Bicycles are allowed.
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Data communications are of very high, state-of-the-art quality. There are rentable facilities for information distribution here and there in the city, with large panels covering the walls. The panels can be used for virtual meetings with experts around the world, finding information on the Internet, contacting hospitals or universities, trading and taking care of any number of daily matters. The facilities will be available for all inhabitants. While they resemble Internet, they are technologically much more advanced.
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As for the opportunities offered by a new goods transport system, it is not recommended for the first EcoCity. However, I mention the system here as a future transport system. In the future, goods will be transported in vacuum tubes using magnetic levitation. This will minimise the energy required for transporting goods. This solution applies to goods traffic between cities and other urban locations rather than the internal infrastructure of an individual city.
Construction and land use planning are seamlessly linked with transport. Since the EcoCity should be car-free, construction can be steered and planned without this burden. The residents can easily exchange information without meeting each other in person and live in single-family houses. Built-up areas can be interspersed with commercial forests, energy plantations and uncultivated parkland without causing logistical problems. Buildings are constructed and maintained with an eye on various ecological principles, local materials are used wherever possible and energy is conserved at the various stages of the process. Buildings are designed to be energy-saving and long-lasting. These aspects are also taken into account in land use. For example, buildings are positioned to catch maximum sunlight.
The first EcoCity will be a seed and pave the way for further development. For this reason it is evident that the city will attract a large number of residents from among those who will design the next eco-cities and later participate in their construction. To support this development, the first EcoCity could even house an international research institute concerned with the development of ecological housing and communities in cooperation with various universities. Otherwise, the residents will represent a variety of occupations like the residents of any other city: there would be doctors, farmers, carpenters, teachers, etc. However, it is clear that designing the first EcoCity is much more than a purely technical task. An EcoCity is suited for various kinds of activities, not excluding production with a special goal.
An EcoCity could house a small factory for the assembly and maintenance of the special vehicles used in the city. Production could later be expanded to supply similar vehicles to other cities. An EcoCity must also have a maintenance centre for the energy production equipment. Thus the production sector could support the basic idea of the EcoCity and thus facilitate the design and construction of the next generation of eco-cities.
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.
Finally we must emphasize that the building of the new EcoCities is only half of the whole project. The renovation of the old cities is the other side of the coin. Then we don’t tear down buildings or we don’t change the appearance of the cities but we renew totally their infrastructure. It is a long way to go. Only when Beijing, Paris, Lagos and London have renewed their whole metabolism, have we reached this goal line.

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