What’s an Ecocity and Why Should We Care?

tianjinEcoCity master plan.jpg

“Ecocity” is a popular designation for dozens
of global urban centers. Indeed the 9th Ecocity World Summit next week in Montreal,
Canada will be packed with city officials, planners, activists, educators, and
corporations from 75 nations, as well as the United Nations–all trying to plan how the city can
be designed and conducted more in harmony with ecosystems, culture and the biosphere.

The summit will also present a scheme to assess ecocities on
defined standards and indicators. Seeing that international standards for overall
sustainability at the city level do not yet exist, how can ecocities take
things to the next level and collectively push forward urban sustainability
performance across borders, languages, cultures and local conditions?

Cities are where sustainability meets true systems approaches
and economic need: they’ll go from harboring more than half of the planet’s
people to about 70 percent of humanity by 2050.
The Earth is undergoing the greatest mass migration in its history as hundreds
of millions of rural residents of China move to its booming cities.

Some of the largest ecocity projects include Tianjin, China (pictured above);
Waitakere, New Zealand (208,000 pop.) was self-designated as an ecocity before
it was absorbed by neighboring Auckland
in 2010.

A host of other
cities in China including Changchun, Rizhao and Tangshan (“Caofeidian International Eco-city”are modeled as eco-cities, while India is
also planning development of several eco cities along its new Delhi-Mumbai
transportation and industrial corridor
. Japan, which has been
helping India plan its largest ecocity, is also sponsoring development or retrofitting of numerous ecocities or “eco towns.”

The term “ecocity” was first used by Richard Register in
1987: Register went on to found in 1992 Ecocity Builders, a non-profit based in Oakland, California. (Disclosure: my consultancy Common
Current just finished helping Ecocity Builders
and its international advisors develop standards and indicators for ecocities,
called the International Ecocity Framework and Standards, or IEFS.)

Ecocity Builders’ Register, Executive Director Kirstin
Miller, Ecological Footprint co-creator Bill Rees and other participants will be addressing the Montreal Ecocity
Conference to present the IEFS to participants and partner cities. Four Early
Partner Cities (EPCs) for the IEFS–Vancouver and Montreal, Canada; Curitiba, Brazil and Kirtipur, Nepal–will also participate.
These cities or communities are already gathering information and data for the
IEFS in order to provide initial feedback on the standard and indicator development
process.

The IEFS consists of 15 system “conditions” or
categories. Cities will eventually be
analyzed and measured based on the performance of these components, which have
an integral relationship to the city’s bioregions (bioregional mapping will
become a key IEFS activity). The 15 IEFS categories include:

·        
Access by Proximity: Walkable access from housing to basic urban services and transit access
to close-by employment options.

·        
Clean Air: Air quality conducive to good health within
buildings, the city’s air shed, and the atmosphere.

·        
Healthy Soil: Soils meet
their ranges of healthy ecosystem functions as appropriate to their types and
environments; fertility is maintained or improved.

·        
Clean and Safe Water:
Access to clean, safe, affordable water; the city’s water sources, waterways
and water bodies are healthy and function without negative impact to
ecosystems. Water is primarily sourced from within the bioregion.

·        
Responsible Resources/
Materials
: Renewable and non-renewable resources are sourced, allocated,
managed and recycled responsibly and equitably, without adversely affecting
human health or the resilience of ecosystems.

·        
Clean and Renewable
Energy
: The city’s energy needs are provided for, and extracted, generated and
consumed, without significant negative impact to ecosystems or to short- or
long-term human health and do not exacerbate climate change. Energy consumed is
primarily generated within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy and Accessible
Food
: Nutritious food is accessible and affordable to all residents and is
grown, manufactured and distributed by processes which maintain the healthy
function of ecosystems and do not exacerbate climate change. Food consumed is
primarily grown within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy Biodiversity: The
city sustains the biodiversity of local, bioregional and global ecosystems
including species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity; it
restores natural habitat and biodiversity by its policy and physical actions.

·        
Earth’s Carrying
Capacity:
The city keeps its demand on ecosystems within the limits of the
Earth’s bio-capacity, converting resources restoratively and supporting
regional ecological integrity.

·        
Ecological Integrity: The
city maintains essential linkages within and between ecosystems and provides
contiguous habitat areas and ecological corridors throughout the city.

·        
Healthy Culture: The city
facilitates cultural activities that strengthen eco-literacy, patterns of human
knowledge and creative expression, and develop symbolic thought and social
learning.

·        
Community Capacity
Building
: The city supports full and equitable community participation in
decision making processes and provides legal, physical and organizational
support for neighborhoods, community organizations, institutions and agencies.

·        
Healthy and Equitable
Economy
:
An economy favoring
economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and
human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options
– the foundation for “green jobs”.

·        
Lifelong Education: All
residents have access to lifelong education including access to information
about the city’s history of place, culture, ecology, and tradition provided
through formal and informal education, vocational training and other social
institutions.

·        
Well Being–Quality of
Life
: Strong citizen satisfaction with quality of life indicators including
employment; the built, natural and landscaped environment; physical and mental
health; education; safety; recreation and leisure time; and social belonging.

While some of these categories are being matched to existing
tools and indicators (i.e., Walk Score and similar GIS mapping for Access by
Proximity), other categories will need a period of innovation around analytical processes or tools such as the Gini co-efficient (which may be used to measure income level disparities in the category Healthy and
Equitable Economy) and the Ecological Footprint (to determine Earth’s Carrying Capacity).
These have been extensively modeled on the national level, for instance, but have
yet to be consistently applied on the local level.

The lack of international urban sustainability standards has
perplexed and bedeviled cities, planners, developers and companies wanting a
consistent scorecard across global urban management and development.

True,
international sustainability standards exist for buildings, such as the US
Green Building Council’s LEED, and the BREEAM
standards from the United Kingdom, even neighborhoods (LEED for Neighborhood Development). China is also developing its
own Three Star standard for buildings. Emerging from the Harvard School of Design is the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, while BREEAM is launching BREEAM for Communities.

But the time has come for consistent urban sustainability
frameworks and indicators across everything from infrastructure and mobility, to
urban agriculture, energy, water, materials and biodiversity.

The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) is
one of the main entrants in the global race to define and measure what makes a
city sustainable. With the cooperation
of its Early Partner Cities, Ecocity Builders and the IEFS will hopefully begin
to answer these key questions along while getting down to the real business: helping solve how the cities of the world are
remaking themselves as ecocities or more sustainable cities to prepare for a future
of more extreme risk–which equals opportunity.

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
  

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