What on Earth is an Ecocity?

Most of you are probably familiar by now with my posts about ecocities. From Venice and Istanbul to West Oakland, I’ve written about urban areas within an ecocity context, and I’m about to launch another series about places I’ve visited or studied recently.

While it’s fun to showcase elements of cities considered to be in balance with the web of life, it’s equally important that there be a metric with which to measure a city’s “econess.” Not only to avoid greenwashing, but to make sure that well-intentioned city planners’, architects’ and residents’ efforts are channeled toward the greatest possible ecological good.

Enter International Ecocity Standards.

Following is an overview of this new and exciting project that I think will revolutionize city design the way the LEED® rating system revolutionized building design.

Everybody’s talking about Ecocities

Google the word “ecocity” and you’ll get over a half million hits, ranging from “Ecocity Vehicles” to “Sex and the Ecocity.” Ecocity is fast becoming a buzzword among urban greenies. With climate change front and center in our public discourse, this sudden interest in urban planning and development comes as no surprise: Home to over half of the world’s population on less than one percent of the earth’s surface, cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions. There is growing consensus that the path to reversing climate change must lead through cities.

In many ways, this is a welcome acknowledgment of the tremendous role urban design can and must play in changing our wasteful ways and reducing our global carbon footprint. However, as with the terms “green” and “sustainable,” the rising popularity and widespread use of “ecocity” has brought with it the need to define what it actually means and what it should be used for. Not unlike greenwashing, “ecocity” used as a feel-good word for any town with a bike lane or a recycling program can hurt the cause of building and reclaiming an integrated urban ecosystem more than it helps.

At what point then, does a city graduate from boasting a collection of “eco-scores” to becoming an actual ecocity?

Fortunately, a lot of footwork (pun intended) has already been done in answering this question: from Ecocity Builders founder Richard Register first coining the term in 1979 to the current development of International Ecocity Standards, the ecocity model is a well-seasoned concept being applied in cities around the world already and on its way to becoming a globally recognized metric.

But let’s back up just a bit…

What on Earth is an Ecocity?

“Eco” is derived from “Oikos,” the ancient Greek equivalent of a household or family, in which everyone works together to create a functioning unit. Similarly, eco cities are conditional upon a healthy relationship of a city’s parts and functions rather than just a laundry list of random “green features.” While there are single categories such as transportation, buildings or industries that play important roles in defining a city, ecocites’ complex living systems interact three-dimensionally and in relatively close proximity, not unlike our human bodies.

The key word here is proximity. If there is a single defining feature of a lean and functioning ecocity, it would be the ability of its residents to access most basic goods and services by foot, bicycle or public transportation, preferably in that order. While a complete phase-out is not realistic at this point, the staggering environmental costs associated with the automobile (ranging from the extraction of raw materials to production, road building, disposal, petroleum depletion, and CO2 emissions) should keep driving at the very bottom of this inverted pyramid. Using the analogy of our human body, the automobile is like a 5000 calorie daily diet, a burden on the system that negatively impacts all other organs and our overall health, and any serious attempt at establishing an ecocity infrastructure must keep car-free, pedestrian designs at its core.

“Density done well” has been a description used by many municipalities who have been working on implementing ecocity principles into their city plan. Brent Toderian, Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, Canada, also calls it “The Power of Nearness,” expressing a changing shift in perception about urban living. While a century of unimaginative urban planning has branded cities into our collective consciousness as drab and anonymous concrete jungles, a new generation of planners and architects are showing how rich and fulfilling city life can be when vital services and cultural offerings are within walking or biking distance. Think of it as a network of walkable urban villages, each one reflecting its own community’s needs and aesthetics, linked to each other and to a strong downtown by public transit, with room for urban agriculture, creek corridors and greenways.

Instead of viewing integrated ecological design at odds with economic development, city planners worldwide are increasingly promoting urban density with a focus on community and people’s connection with nature as an automatic boost to small business and local commerce. From Freiburg/Germany to Tianjin/China to Curitiba/Brazil, this new urbanism combines the strengths of the market with the strengths of good planning and basic ecological and social principles.

International Ecocity Standards

Imagine the USGBC’s LEED rating system applied not only to buildings, but entire cities, integrating factors as diverse and complex as energy conservation, biodiversity restoration, and social justice. A set of standards and criteria so comprehensive that it would measure factors such as wealth and economic security of an entire urban area in accordance with the needs of all stakeholders, including the environment and the community; a rating system in sync with human values, rewarding collaboration and synergy as much if not more than competition. Enter International Ecocity Standards (IES).

Currently being developed by Ecocity Builders and a host of partner organizations from around the world, IES will evaluate and judge new and existing cities’ progress towards becoming an ecocity. Similar to LEED, it will rate urban development at various levels of attainment, from small neighborhoods to the regional scale, using basic principles of ecologically healthy systems and designs. From ecocity mapping to human development, from urban fractals to building codes, IES measuring categories will be as integrative and multi-dimensional as the complex living systems it aims to evaluate.

For anyone familiar with the challenges of creating a fair, effective and universal ratings system for buildings, the idea of expanding the metrics to entire urban areas may at first appear daunting. However, as mentioned above, the reason for IES’ ambitious scope is that cities have the potential to become not just less damaging but “net contributors” to restoring global biodiversity, productive agriculture, and energy independence. By including larger structural indicators such as net energy and materials input/output, appropriate locations, and impact of external trade, IES will emphasize the foundation upon which an ecologically balanced and healthy city must be based upon.

Some countries and municipalities have already put into place initiatives that are good first steps toward creating more and better ecocities. Good examples are The Living Building Challenge, which gives certification only after buildings have been performing for a year, One Planet Communities, or Vancouver’s EcoDensity Initiative. IES will also incorporate existing indicators of urban health established by the United Nations’ Human Development Index, including poverty rates, food and water security, infant mortality, longevity, and basic literacy. The United Nations has expressed interest in partnering with Ecocity Builders to integrate HDI with IES.

In order to meet the potential for truly transforming urban landscapes around the world, an internationally acknowledged, comprehensive, and binding set of standards is needed, and that is the aim of International Ecocity Standards. Ecocity Builders and associates have been laying the foundation for this transformation for over twenty years, and with the recent 2020 Global Climate Leadership Forum in Salvador/Brazil and the upcoming Gaining Ground Conference in Vancouver/Canada working to integrate these groundbreaking standards into a streamlined track, 2010 promises to be a landmark year for the rise of true ecocities.

The seeds have been planted, it is now time to water them.


Excerpts from Ecocities – Setting the Standards by Kirstin Miller and Sven Eberlein, published in the Summer 2010 issue of GreenMoney Journal.

Ecocity sketches by Richard Register, Walter Hood, and Christian Runge

crossposted at Daily Kos and Get Energy Smart! Now!

5 responses to “What on Earth is an Ecocity?

  1. Nature in an urban environment–the thought of it brought tears to my eyes. As I read on and saw that to be an ecocity, the community would be created, based on human values such as economic stability, my eyes overflowed a bit. Holy words, dear friend.

    • Yes, I think community is the key word. Any place is only going to be as great and imaginative as the people living in it. And I think we’re slowly realizing that economy and ecology are intimately related. If the ecosystem is in balance we can actually have a functioning economy as well, not an economy based on the delusionally unsustainable concept of perpetual growth.

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