Statement by Hans d'Orville
Creating Eco-Cities - An Urban Contribution to Climate Change Action and a Green Society

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The scale of risk from climate change is arguably of a greater and different magnitude than that the financial crisis. Equally big are the consequences of ignoring or mismanaging it, which may be irreversible and may inflict damage on generations to come. Indeed, climate change is of a civilizational, if not planetary character, whereas the financial crisis is more of a technocratic nature.

Hence China’s call for working towards an ecological civilization, which like any civilization has an innate ability to dialogue –peacefully- with other civilizations. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made an energy-saving, environmental-friendly society a mandate in its Charter. The objective of such a civilization is to ensure that human and nature are in harmony, development and the environment form a win-win interrelationship, and the economic and social development achievements are shared among all social members.

In the quest for a green economy, the prefix eco- is being appended to virtually every conceivable activity and initiative: eco-innovation, eco-transport, eco-architecture, eco-jobs, eco-farming, eco-living - and of course, eco-city and in future maybe eco-regions, akin to the special economic zones, to build low carbon economic areas.

The practice of the eco-city approach is a relatively recent phenomenon in urban planning and design – while the theory and thinking about eco-city and eco-system programming dates back to the early 1970s. UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) launched in 1971 Project No. 11, “Ecological aspects of urban systems with particular emphasis on energy utiization”. Prescient for its days, MAB can thus be considered the pioneer in ecosystem ecology and its application to (intergovernmental) sciences cooperation. As this project has continued relevance for present-day climate change and zero-emissions deliberations, one just wonders why it took more than three decades to become a coveted approach.

In 1983, Soviet scientist, Academician Oleg Yanitsky, then head of UNESCO’s MAB, described the complementary MAB project 13 “Perception of environmental quality” in an article in the International Social Sciences Journal (ISSC XXXIV N° 93) entitled "Towards an eco-city: problems of integrating knowledge with practice". In it, he defined an eco-city as "a human settlement of the future in which social and ecological processes are harmonized in the best possible way." Yet, "the concept of a human settlement as an ecosystem is far from clear ... the transition from hunting and gathering to economic activity, from the use of natural resources to their reproduction as traced by social history provides the basis for the construction of the eco-city concept. This historical approach appears the soundest and corresponds to the idea of 'eco-social development'."

On-line the term is attributed to someone else: "Richard Register first coined the term "ecocity" in his 1987 book, Ecocity Berkeley: building cities for a healthy future”(http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Ecocities)
Register is also cited as founder of the annual, global Eco-city Conferences, the first of which was held in Berkley CA in 1999. The next edition will take place in Istanbul in December 2009 http://www.ecocity2009.com/ Another leading proponent of sustainable cities was architect Paul F. Downton, who founded the company Ecopolis Architects.

UNEP, which came into being in 1972, embraced thereafter the concept. The Convention of Biological Diversity, concluded at the Rio Summit in 1992, included the ecosystem approach in its international legal framework.

Today, a sustainable city, ecocity or ecopolis is defined as an entire city dedicated to minimizing the required inputs (of energy, water and food) and its waste output (of heat, greenhouse gases, water pollution and waste). A sustainable city can feed and power itself with minimal reliance on the surrounding countryside, and creates the smallest possible ecological footprint for its residents. This results in a city that is friendly to the surrounding environment, in terms of pollution, and land use, and which contributes to the alleviation of global warming.

Yanitsky’s article was prescient indeed. In a rapidly growing and urbanizing world, due to population growth and migration flows, cities are bound to play a significant role in any national climate change action and the building of a green society and green economy. More than half of the world’s population, more than 3 billion people, live now in cities. Urbanization can thus be both a pillar and an engine of eco-development and in the fight against poverty.

China’s urbanization rate in 2005 was 43%. Over the next 10-15 years it is expected to rise to well over 50%, adding an additional 200 million people to the current urban population of some 560 million. Growing cities and a growing number of cities will greatly increase consumption of energy and water and contribute to the emissions of greenhouse gases. The way how urban centers organize themselves and their economic activities including the type and location of jobs, their transport and waste management, their water management and the urban environment, including physical infrastructure and urban services, will be a key determinant for the eco-propensity of a city. Considering the expansion of cities as such, it will be a major determining factor for the emergence of a green economy at the national level.

The international debate on eco-cities has run quite a diverse course. We can distinguish several different approaches:

  • Some eco-city models – self-contained to boot in a zero-waste, car-free, light-rail transport, solar-powered, biofuel-generating algae ponds, carbon-neutral city environment - are being designed from the scratch on the drawing board (Masdar, UAE – price tag: US$ 22 billion; Dongtan, China), though their viability has not been proven yet. People are to be relocated or moved to these cities as of a certain D-day, when all facilities and services will be operational. Masdar: 40,000 residents – 6 square km.
  • Such new designs are often carried out by specialist international firms, like Norman Foster architects (Masdar) or ARUP (Dongtang) or Singapore’s Urban Development Agency (Tianjin).
    In Masdar there will also be the world’s first post-graduate research university in science and engineering focusing on alternative energy and sustainability. Partnering with MIT, the Abu Dhabi government provided a five-year investment of US$ 1.5 billion – initially 25 faculty members and 100 students. Brain gain mitigating the brain drain of past years?
  • Other ecocities are existing cities, with million of inhabitants and a working economy, which requires city governments, industry and citizens to engage in bulk urban transport (Curitiba, Brazil), infrastructural and industrial retrofitting or urban regeneration measures.
  • Yet others, focus on the transformation of specific infrastructure (e.g. public transport, eco- and energy-efficient buildings, the introduction of IT managed services or the citywide switch from high-carbon to low-carbon use, e.g. through the introduction of energy-saving lights and lamps)
    In China, the Green Lights Project – implemented together with the UN at a budget of US$14 million – is promoting the use of enery-saving lampsand phasing out the sale and production of incandescent lamps – for the entire country, including eco-cities. It could cut Chinese energy consumption by as much as 8 per cent. Guiyang has begun to adopt this approach along the river walk and in the underpath.

The transformation to or the creation of eco-cities poses several particular challenges, namely:
  • the creation, transformation or retrofitting/redesigning of an eco-city must be conducted in a holistic process;
  • the involvement of all multiple stakeholders in an inclusive manner;
  • the definition of measurable results and impact;
  • ideally, the chief planners should be chosen from among actors in a city as opposed to external consultants (e.g. ARUP, South Korea, China);
  • being a political process, a supportive government structure should be in place;
  • monitoring, a regulatory and judicial framework as well as enforcement mechanisms should be envisaged;
  • major links between economic, social, cultural/cultural heritage and ecological substructures will need to be identified;
  • the ecological needs of various social groups and their participation in improving their environment will need to be taken into account;
  • educational and briefing programmes need to be offered for various stakeholders.

Guiyang City has been at the forefront in leading the green economy initiative in China. As the capital of Guizhou province, it is the political, economic, educational and cultural center in the region. Called the Forest City, Guiyang boasts of “green color sticking to the mountains on the four sides of the city, buildings and houses covering the city layer by layer, two green belts surrounding the city and one green river running cross the city” – an ideal landscape to build a modern ecological city. A master plan was set up by the government to develop the regional economy, with the purpose of sustaining the city's ecological environment and improving the overall quality of the environment. By 2010, 40% of Guiyang will be covered with greens and the average green area per person will be 10 square meters.

There are a multitude of focus areas for eco-cities:

  • pattern of land use and the role of agriculture
  • use of forests and other natural resources
  • creation of sustainable livelihoods and green jobs (jobs in sectors advancing green technologies and products such as solar energy, bicycles, hybrid cars; on the other hand jobs that help to move towards a greener reality without necessarily producing green products: energy efficiency, reducing carbon-footprint etc)
  • use of renewable sources of energy, including emissions trading
  • building of knowledge society
  • water and waste management
  • transportation
  • change of industrial structures
  • sensitization of citizens and building a consensus around the eco-city project
  • involvement of soft actors with huge impact on individual behaviour: culture, music, media, education

Ultimately, I would argue we have to move away from a false competition or even beauty contest between cities as to who has the best ecocity approach. Either all cities become eco-cities of one way or the other – or we will not be able to achieve a green economy at national and international levels. The experience gained with the model eco-cities must be replicated, according to the urban situations, and mainstreamed to the maximum, learning from and adapting different approaches. The key will be whether or not the cities will be able to move away from a vicious cycle of a carbon-heavy development to the virtuous cycle of a low-carbon, sustainable approach.

Ultimately, city mayors and managers will all have to develop a long breath and view – beyond the pressures of the electoral cycle – engaging into complex and multiple-layered projects.

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