San Francisco's Nob Hill became a hive of green activity last week, as city planners, activists, academics, public officials, businessmen, students, indigenous leaders and others gathered to discuss issues ranging from veganism as a strategy to end world hunger to persuading unions to support high-speed rail at the 2008 Ecocity World Summit. The week-long happening, which focused on the world's cities and their interactions with the biosphere, brought together some of the key thinkers and doers in the field of city-making.
Originally organized by author and theorist Richard Register in 1990, this year's Summit, the 7th of its kind, took place in an atmosphere of particular urgency and relevance. Running through the talks, discussions and presentations were several common themes, generally framed by a "triple bottom line" approach, emphasizing ecology and social equity, as well as economy.
The entire event revolved around the concept of the "ecocity." Although there were varying opinions as to what exactly constitutes an ecocity, it was generally agreed that very few currently existing places deserve the title. The idea is catching on fast, though, and soon enough the ecocity concept just may become the standard by which all cities are judged.A Multifaceted Crisis
Much of the discussion at the Summit focused on the multifaceted environmental crisis facing the globe - the beginnings of which are already becoming clearly visible today — and how it will impact cities.
Some of these trends, such as global climate change, are by now more or less household names. Others, however, are less familiar to the general public. Peak oil and natural gas, for example. Some of the presenters offered up the hypothesis that the point where global demand for petroleum surpasses available supply has already been reached, and rapidly rising oil prices, by now well over $100 a barrel, would seem to confirm the theory.
Water issues also assumed a prominent position in the discussions. Not just dwindling freshwater supplies, which one speaker guessed would become a greater problem than the energy crisis, but also rising oceans as a result of melting icecaps. Stephen Engblom, of the firm EDAW, presented a conceptual plan for development in Los Angeles over the next hundred years. By then, he said, LA's coast will have been changed beyond recognition by the rising seas (and ironically, many of LA's inundated areas will be sites that are, one way or another, associated with the oil economy).
More than half of the world's population already lives in cities, and the other half isn't far behind. Most future urban growth will likely be in "slum" areas on the fringes of cities in the developing world, and soon enough, mega-cities will merge together to create mega-regions. The world's future is in its cities.
However, these population pressures, compounded by the frenetic, globalized economy (physically based in the world's cities) have turned cities into environmental monsters - sucking up resources and spewing waste and pollution. Said former Mayor of Curitiba Jaime Lerner:
When we realize that 75% of carbon emissions are related to the city, it's on the concept of the city that we have to work.
Learning to Design Better Cities
The urban planning profession, as Vancouver Planning Director Brent Toderian asserted, "has been largely a failure over the past few decades" in dealing with urban problems. But, he added, "there's been a tipping point, and things are changing." If cities are to be the solution, and not the problem (as Jaime Lerner likes to say), we must reconsider our entire approach.
City form can no longer be determined by the workings of the free market alone, yet, in today's globalized world, heavy regulation and anti-market measures are simply not realistic. Pragmatic planning, which cleverly guides investment and development, must become the order of the day.
One of the most often-heard points made at the Summit was the idea that cities will have to become more integrated entities. Many pointed out that the separation of residential areas from work, study and entertainment districts has proven a recipe for dysfunctional urbanism. Others noted that, as investment flows back into city centers, nature, water and ecosystems must be brought back as well, as should sustainable agriculture. The ecocity will coexist with natural systems, which in turn will support life in the built environment.
Local activist and boating enthusiast Paul Nixon explains development plans for San Francisco's waterfront to delegates on a bike tour.
The car-oriented city will become a thing of the past as fuel prices rise and neighborhoods increasingly reject highways and overpasses imposed on them from above by planning agencies. Adding car infrastructure not only does not improve quality of life, but actually does nothing in the long term to improve accessibility. Vancouver is the only major city in North America that has not built a highway through its city center, and yet is the only city in North America that has reduced commute times, and was rated the most livable city in the world by The Economist magazine.
Not only is public transit-oriented development an absolute necessity, densities must be increased to allow for walkability and street life in public spaces. Density is tricky and a hard sell, so it must be done right — otherwise no one will want to live in dense places. Creating well-designed, dense city neighborhoods that offer quality of life, sense of place and integrated uses and populations is THE issue in urban design today.
Housing forms will also have to be reconsidered. The single-family house cannot be the across the board housing solution. As Reid Ewing of the National Center for Smart Growth noted, enough large-lot single-family homes already exist to meet US demand for the next several decades. Housing units for households that do not fit the mold of the traditional nuclear family (single renters, young couples, gays, retired boomers, etc.) are not being built nearly fast enough to keep up with demand.
New cities are being built with an eye toward sustainability. Behold Masdar, Dongtan and Treasure Island. This is an enormously inspiring trend, and these places, if successful, can serve as models for future ecocities. But, as Arup's Chris Luebkeman pointed out, sustainable cities are still a work in progress. Methods must be constantly reevaluated and the bar continually raised as we look toward the future.
Just Do It
Urban design is not rocket science. Many of the solutions exist — they've already been invented, tested and proven. Quite a few of the speakers emphasized the utter simplicity of just doing — taking a good idea that has achieved results somewhere else, adapting it to the local context and making it happen.
Of course, others added, the major challenge in doing new things in the urban context is first convincing others that it will work. Arguing for good public transport for example, in the face of the belief, held by so many transportation planners, that people will never take the bus/light rail/bike to work if they can get there in their car. However, as many noted, change is in the air these days, and more and more sectors of society are becoming aware of the issues.
As the conference wound down on Saturday, many attendees spoke about feeling overloaded with more new information than they could immediately absorb. Many folks remarked that it would take them a while to sort through and process everything they had heard.
Ending the conference on a high note, Rusong Wang dramatically conferred upon Richard Register the official title of "Ecocity Master," to the delighted amusement of the audience. Jaime Lerner then took the stage and, with the audience as his beat box, concluded the weekend with his own "sustainable rap," with the refrain "It's possible. It's possible. You can do it! You can do it!"
Watch TreeHugger over the next couple of weeks, as we bring you more about what went down at the 2008 Ecocity World Summit. Also, check out the Summit's official blog here.