Eco-Villages: Sustainable Oases or Insular Islands?


Green developments spark debate at the EcoCity 2009 summit. Image via NewVista.

A NewVista village sounds like an environmentalist's dream: a series of walkable, interconnected communities that produce their own local energy and food, offering a "low-impact lifestyle without daily automobile use." But to Austrian architect and urban consultant Johannes Fiedler, such a development is no better than a traditional housing project, gated community, or shopping mall.

All of these types of construction fall under the category of what Fiedler calls a master-planned "compound" and as such "violate the principle of public space," a key element, he says, in truly sustainable city development.

'A Retreat From The Public Sphere'
"Compounds are committed to their own logic -- they are inward-looking, retreating from the public sphere while relying on it for infrastructure," Fiedler explained in a small session at last month's 8th EcoCity World Summit in Istanbul that was devoted to "Masterplanning: Benefits and Complexities." In the main hall, developers such as David Hall of NewVista and city officials such as Brent Toderian, director of planning for the city of Vancouver, spent much of the conference promoting alluring visions of just the type of "eco-friendly" developments Fiedler scorned.

The tension between the two visions exemplified an underlying debate at the event between "eco-cities" that are planned and those that develop organically, ones that are scalable and ones that are location-specific.

'Scalable' Eco-Cities
To some participants, an individual eco-city, no matter how environmentally friendly, cannot be truly sustainable unless it is scalable -- that is, unless the solutions created within that (often rich, privileged) community can be replicated around the world, in developing cities, wealthy suburbs, and rural areas alike. Others disagree.

"What should be scalable are the principles -- applied to the place," said Toderian. "All solutions should be place-based, culturally based, economically based. We need to be engaging our community."

Importance of the 'Public City'
On that, Toderian and Fiedler may be able to find common ground. In his "Beyond Masterplanning" talk, the Austrian architect described an ideal, eco-friendly city as one that is "an agglomeration of different-scale units stitched together by public space." Master planning, no matter how well-intentioned, he says, tends to "produce large compounds that are detrimental to sustainable city development" because they expand the unit size -- from, say, an apartment building to an entire community -- and reduce the points of contact with the public sphere.

As part of his talk, Fiedler drew two simple diagrams to explain his concept. Whether university campus or eco-friendly village, masterplanned "compounds" generally have at most a handful of entrances, with individual homes, offices, etc. spun off a couple of main roads. The illustration of the "public city," on the other hand, is messy with interconnected alleywaysand intersections, plazas, crosswalks, and paths.

Avoiding 'Compound Logic'
Calling such human-scale environments "key to acceptance of the urban ideal," the architect added that "high quality public space is essential for creating acceptance of density," and, thus, sustainability. In addition, compounds often include facilities such as schools and sports fields that were previously part of the public sphere, making them less accessible to the actual public. And the more a city becomes a collection of such "unconnected functional islands," the more people retreat into what Fielder calls "compound logic," driving from one island to the next with little attention paid that what's in between.

"People don't walk if the streets aren't human-scale, interesting, and walked by others," Fiedler said. "It's better to have a little chaos than harmonious units unconnected to anything."

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Tags: Cities | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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