EcoCity – what and why?

| Eero Paloheimo’s lecture in Tianjin, China, 17.04.2007 |

There are two questions: ”Why do we need an eco-city?” and ”What is an eco-city? I will try and answer them in that order.

First, why do we need an eco-city?

The world is undergoing an environmental crisis, which manifests itself in various ways. Natural resources are being exhausted, excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane are being released into the atmosphere, the climate is warming, oceans are being polluted and there is less and less virgin land available.

This is not new. Everyone here knows these things. We have been aware of these facts for several decades. This crisis affects all countries and continents, but primarily those that are industrialized.

While different parties have proposed several solutions, one that is credible has eluded us. The core of the problem is that the industrialised world is constrained by too short-sighted interests and the rigidity of the existing infrastructure. This includes both technical and administrative structures. Sustainable long-term solutions and short-term solutions that are convenient yet wasteful and polluting are in mutual conflict.

Let us look at an example familiar to us all: the passenger car. This invention dates back more than two hundred years. It is a completely unsuitable mode of transport today. It pollutes the air, uses natural resources and causes as many deaths annually as the worst diseases. It is totally outdated. This is a confession rather than an accusation. I myself drive daily and my family has two cars.

With the help of new technology we can easily develop a transport system that is free of the problems I just listed. New systems have not been developed as this is not in the interests of the automobile industry. There are also several other industrial sectors at stake: the oil industry and road construction, for instance. A radical shift in the direction outlined is not in their interests, either. Cars bring work to a large number of designers, scientists, instructors and countless industrial sectors that manufacture car parts. The existence of cars is also in their interest. All these parties oppose the change, even while they are aware of the destructive impact of the passenger car on the present-day generation, not to mention future ones.

For decades now, the structure of our towns and cities and the nature of city plans have been shaped by the passenger car. It is extremely difficult for urban planners to think without this condition. For this reason most new towns and cities are not as pleasant as older ones, nor as pleasant as they could be without the burdens typical for passenger cars. We also know that in any European metropolis, traffic is a complete disaster in many respects.

The car is just one example. Such strong fortresses have been built around many other aspects of the industrialised society that tearing them down and replacing them with new ones seems an overwhelming effort. Nevertheless, those fortresses must be torn down, in order to save the earth from an environmental catastrophe. The underlying cause of this catastrophe is these incorrect structures.

This issue has been discussed and written about so much that this audience is very likely to feel bored. The fact is, writing and talking is not enough. We need concrete actions. We need examples demonstrating that environmental problems can be solved with the help of modern technology. The eco-city is such an example. That is why it must be built. The first eco-city will not change the world. It will only provide a seed of change. A seed will grow into a tree; a forest will grow to surround that tree. But without that first seed, the forest will never grow.

Without that first seed, the desert will remain a desert.

This is why we need one eco-city that is radically different from existing ones. The Finnish scientists propose that the first ever radical eco-city in the world be constructed in China. You may ask why we want to build it in China and not in Europe. This question is justified, but there is an answer.

Earlier, I mentioned the rigidity of technical structures and gave an example, the formidable fortress built around the passenger car. Surely environmental destruction is less advanced in China than in countries which have earlier passed the industrialisation stage. This means the majority of European countries. By taking radical action, China could still avoid the worst environmental problems that already affect all countries in Europe. China could – at least partly – jump over the industrial stage, which has proven itself to be a mistake.

The rigidity of technical structures runs parallel with administrative rigidity. This is the very issue my second argument concerns: administration and politics. Western politicians and civil servants have an unreasonable fear of the press. The media have a decisive influence on whether they may continue in their office. Thus their main goal is to avoid mistakes. This makes Western decision-makers timid. They are particularly careful not to make any radical decisions. Bold solutions must undergo review at several administrative levels, becoming more and more conservative during the process. This too is a confession rather than an accusation. I have been a member of the Finnish Parliament for eight years and an official, a professor at the Helsinki University of Technology, for five years.

As far as I understand, Chinese decision-makes do not have the same constraints and are not as easily steered by the media. Major, radical decisions may be easier to take when you believe they are correct and need not suffer from irrelevant criticism. Making such a radical decision as to build an eco-city is possible in China. It would not be possible in Finland or other European countries.

Now you may also ask what China will gain from the eco-city. This question is also justified and I will try and provide an answer.

A radical eco-city, such as I will describe later, would be an important attraction. No such city has yet been built anywhere. Since it is just the kind of city all Western countries need, it would attract large numbers of architects, urban planners, politicians and other travellers to China. I presume it would generate significant income from tourism. Unless the eco-city is radical, it will not attract anyone specially and no-one will be come to see it. For this reason, as I will repeat later, the eco-city must be radical. An eco-city that is not radical is not an eco-city. It is a normal city. It is not a tourist attraction.

However, there is an even more important consideration. A radical eco-city is a product in the same way as the mobile phone, television and car are products. It is just bigger. It has certain features based on which its value can be considered. These features can also be used to define it. I will come back to these later.

However: the design and manufacturing process for this product is similar to that of product design in general. First, you make a prototype. Once made, you test the prototype and make critical improvements. A prototype is always more expensive than the later, industrially manufactured products, which have been improved through experience. The suggestion in front of us is that China would build a prototype of an eco-city.

I venture to propose the construction of a prototype eco-city even though it will be more expensive than an ordinary city. The manufacturer of a prototype has significant advantages. He will know what improvements the prototype needs. He will be ahead of others. Even though he will not be able to take out a patent for the product as a whole, he will be able to protect certain components by patent and obtain exclusive rights worldwide. If China constructs the first radical eco-city in the world, that city will have a trademark. It will become a product that can be sold to all corners of the world.

China could produce eco-city design and eco-cities in the same way as Venezuela produces oil or Switzerland produces watches. China could become the first and most important producer of eco-cities. The next few decades would see the construction of radical eco-cities all over the world. Instead of being clones of each other, they would have significant differences due to the climate, terrain and local culture. Some would be large, some small. But they would all share certain characteristics. I will come back to these shared characteristics later.

I will now try and answer the second question: What is an eco-city? Or, what is an eco-city like? However, it is easier to first review sites that have somewhat exaggeratingly been called eco-cities but which in reality are not such.

In Europe there are several small communities where 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 eco-city.

A third example is cities that do not seem ecological but may have some of the qualities of a genuine eco-city. 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 eco-city. They are good attempts in the right direction.

There are two aspects which may be considered as absolute indicators of ecological integrity. The first one has to do with the first steps of the production process and the other with its last steps. First, an eco-city is economical in all respects. Secondly, an eco-city does not pollute its surroundings. These two aspects can be considered the basic features of an eco-city and as indicators of ecological integrity. There are several other less absolute requirements. A city must also be attractive. That is why it must be pleasant. But we should remember that any city can be pleasant. That is not an indicator of ecological integrity. An attractive eco-city is a mixture of pleasant ambience and absolute ecological integrity.

I will next attempt to provide a brief definition of issues related to the technical features of an eco-city and explain the reasoning behind these solutions. We will come back to these matters tomorrow and the day after tomorrow in detailed presentations. There may be different types of eco-cities. Let me present one example.

In an eco-city, most of the food the residents consume will be produced in the city itself, since this minimises transport costs and traffic emissions. Thus it is much less densely built-up than an ordinary city. The eco-city includes built-up areas alternating with fields, commercial forests and park-like natural reserves. Organic waste is recycled by means of composting and in bioenergy production.

A Chinese eco-city with 20,000 inhabitants would cover a land area of approximately 50 km2, which means a population density of 400 people per km2. Let us compare that with a few well-known cities. In Paris there are 25,000, in London 5,000 and in Tianjin 1,000 inhabitants per km2. These are all metropolises. In the Helsinki metropolitan area – which covers approximately 3,000 km2 – the population density is approximately 400 people per km2. This is less than the population density of a densely built-up city, but between that of an ordinary, densely built-up city and rural areas. The population density is nevertheless approximately three-fold compared with the average population density in China.

An eco-city 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.

An eco-city 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 eco-city 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. At this point it should be noted that naturally, the current water circulation system is also closed; however, water is circulated through untreated water. In an eco-city the water circulation system is controlled. It is partially based on biological and natural purification, but also utilises physical and chemical purification methods.

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 eco-city ensures these processes are non-polluting and avoids using virgin natural resources. By being self-sufficient, the eco-city 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 eco-city. 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 eco-city 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, which will be discussed later.

As concerns inorganic waste and goods production, an eco-city is not self-sufficient. Such a goal would be unrealistic. With the exception of cars, the residents of an eco-city 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 eco-city cannot take responsibility for recycling 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. But I will not discuss that here.

However, there are two larger issues that are fundamentally reflected in land use planning and zoning throughout the entire city. These are transport and construction.

There are no passenger cars in an eco-city. 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. These vehicles will be discussed in more detail in later presentations. 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 also allowed, while passenger cars are not.

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 cafés, they are technologically much more advanced. These opportunities will also be discussed in detail later.

As for the opportunities offered by a new goods traffic system, I would not recommend these for the first eco-city. In this respect, we can allow for some compromise over the requirements concerning the radical nature of the eco-city. However, I mention the system here as a future ecological transport system. In the future, goods will be transported in vacuum tubes using magnetic levitation. This will minimise the energy required for transporting goods. But for now, let us only bear this in mind. 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 eco-city is car-free, construction can be steered and planned without this burden. The eco-city will have a modern, sophisticated data communications system, which enables efficient communications between different sectors and allows for less compact development in land use. 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. This means that 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 planning. For example, buildings are positioned to catch maximum sunlight.

Finally, I should say a few words about the residents. This matter will also be discussed in more detail in later presentations. It is surely important that people move into the city voluntarily, since a city cannot be functional unless its residents feel at home in their environment. Resident satisfaction can be ensured by various ways, which are not in conflict with the basic ecological requirements. These two approaches are mutually supportive.

It should be remembered that the first eco-city 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 eco-city 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 eco-city is much more than a purely technical task.

Engineers alone cannot design an eco-city. This requires co-operation involving countless professions. When the first eco-city is being designed, the priority is to define the goals and minimum requirements correctly. Next, a team of designers representing sufficiently varied expertise must be chosen.

An eco-city is suited for various kinds of activities, not excluding production with a special goal. Let me mention a few examples.

An eco-city 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 eco-city must also have a maintenance centre for the energy production equipment. Thus the production sector could support the basic idea of the eco-city and thus facilitate the design and construction of the next generation of eco-cities.

An eco-city could house several small research institutes. For example, there could be a research institute combining the basic philosophies of Chinese and Western medicine. While this does not have much to do with ecological integrity, it is not contradictory to the basic goals and would be consistent with the spirit of the city.

My purpose in describing these examples was to provide a brief answer to a fundamental and justified question: the question of what it would be like to live in an eco-city and what kind of people would live there. These questions will be addressed in more detail in later presentations.

In conclusion, I would like to show you a sketch of what the planned eco-city could be like. (pictures and plan)

I would like to thank you all for your attention. I hope that the discussions during the next few days will spark lots of new ideas that will lead to fast, bold solutions. When the Great Wall of China was built, those who built it did not fear or make compromises. There were no fearful mutterings that something too great was happening. There were even no fearful mutterings that you should not attempt something that has never been done before. I am sure we can count on the same kind of attitude also today.