Not only are many cities bursting at the seams from urban overcrowding; they are also increasingly starting to bear the strains of climate change. Although there are numerous solutions to either challenge, the building up of new "eco-cities" tries to kill the two birds with one stone (or rather, tries to bring back the birds, Silent Spring-style.)
But what is the role, really, of these master-planned communities in our sustainable futures?
The concept of an isolated, ecologically minded community is by no means a new one. The ever forward-thinking Buckminster Fuller was talking about idyllic "domed communities" in the early 1960s, and in 1975 writer Ernest Callenbach published his seminal novel Ecotopia, greatly influencing the green movements that would quickly follow.
Although a number of eco-communities, villages, and communes popped up in the following years (like Davis, California), it is only recently that an "eco" model has included so much technology and been practically expanded to the scale of entire cities.
While smaller versions may have grown more organically, contemporary Eco-Cities are often top-down master plans designed by big-name firms, like Foster + Partners’ Masdar City or Perkins + Will's Dockside Green Development. Since many of these Eco-Cities are still under development, we can only speculate about their future performance and whether they will be flexible enough to function as a "real city." Not all functions can be predetermined, and to act like the grown-up-cities they must be prepared for unexpected urban surprises and to react to feedback and complaints.
Masdar City (top) and Songdo (bottom)
Ok, so we realize that it’s wrong to lump all Eco-Cities into one conversation—after all, there are drastic differences in scale and context (and quality). However, it is pretty clear that to build an entire city from scratch, especially if you want to include all that techy-goodness, you’re going to need a bit of extra cash.
Some cities are lucky enough to have seed capital provided by governments, like Masdar City in the loaded United Arab Emirates, but many resort to having companies or individuals as backers. Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town, for example, is largely backed by Panasonic—and Fred DeLuca’s Destiny in Florida, by the Subway co-founder himself. In addition to the annoyance of a company monopolizing the new city, you can imagine that a few people will be expecting returns on their enormous capital investments. New cities must therefore sustain rapid growth by attracting businesses and industries, often resulting in policies that favor the wealthy. For example, Songdo, one of the more talked-about current eco-city developments, will have a cap on income tax, allowing the wealthy to increase their profits... leaving behind those that earn less.
On the hunt for more clues about Eco-Cities, we approached eco-expert Michael Sorkin, an architect, urban planner, and critic. “The idea of building cities from scratch doesn’t necessarily lead to gated communities, and we must strive to resist this, to contour our cities to the cultures, histories, capacities, and bio-regional contexts that shape them," Sorkin told us. "The real risk is that we create a world of sameness in which the privileged live in glassy towers with a Starbucks on every block and the poor are relegated to a world of hyper-crowding and misery."
Although "affordable housing" is included in many of these projects (the US even enforces it when issuing permits for developments over a certain size), will the baristas and construction workers actually be able to afford living there? Also, poverty won’t exist, right? This is a utopian construction, after all. I imagine that the Millennium Development Goals Report’s statistic that "1 in 3 urban dwellers lives in slum conditions" will not be given proportional representation in eco-cities anytime soon. These from-scratch developments have the luxury of running away from some of the complex social problems that are prevalent in older cities, and by excluding the poor from plans, social and spatial division is encouraged. Images of Elysium spring to mind...
However, as Sorkin points out, “with the urban population of the world growing at the rate of close to a million people a week—half of whom will live in slums—it’s clear that we face an enormous crisis. The answer must certainly include the project of building new cities and lots of them. Every city—new or old—must strive to be sustainable, equitable, and beautiful, but these goals can be frustrated by certain forms, by unmanageable mega-cities, destructive and alienating sprawl, or inescapable, degrading slums.”
New cities will never stop being created (we’ve all heard the statistics of urbanization), but should we be focusing so much eco-power on new communities when we could concentrate our efforts on rewiring existing ones? Although the first zero-carbon city of Masdar sounds great, it ultimately won’t have much impact on the United Arab Emirates as a whole, considering that the UAE is one of the largest carbon-emitting areas in the world.
Admitting that not everyone is going to jump ship and move into shiny-new Eco-Cities, these developments can be seen as experimental playgrounds that have the luxury of QA-testing cutting-edge technologies and urban planning tricks. All the better for older cities, who may then choose to implement these ideas (after they have actually been proven to work!). Clearly, such measures would be a much larger investment for existing cities, not only for sheer scale of infrastructural overhaul that may be required, but also seeing as cities usually have a ton of other issues on their plate. Let the experimental teenagers make the mistakes for you.
Compared to a city smeared with a palimpsest of historic residue like New York, the appeal of a sterile new development isolated from the rest of civilization is, admittedly, limited. Desperate times call for desperate measures though—which would you choose?
Images from "New York City (Steady) State" by Michael Sorkin's research NPO, Terreform.