A Beautiful Day in the Eco-Hood

There has been a good deal of babble recently on Where about eco-cities: Dongtan on Chongming Island outside of Shanghai; Foster's and Koolhaas' dueling megaprojects in the UAE; Treasure Island in San Francisco. These are great, high-profile examples of the beginning of this new fad. Mayor Livingstone has also recently proposed an eco-hood for London, to be built in the Thames Gateway. This project was brought to my attention by a recent article at Globe-Net that asserts the importance of eco-cities in the fight against climate change. The author beats the dead horse about how more than half of humanity is living in cities for the first time, but highlights the important point about most of the urban growth occuring in the slums of metropoli in developing nations.

While the UAE proposals are out in the desert, Treasure Island and the Thames Gateway project will both be built within the existing urban fabric of their cities (albeit at relatively remote locations). While it's too early to say what the number will be in London, San Francisco's eco-hood will designate a full 30% of its housing units as below market rate. Granted, "below market rate" is a warped term in the Bay Area, but this gesture sets an important precedent. Eco-cities like those listed above have the potential to start a movement, but if they are to gain any real legitimacy as a way of fighting climate change, they must consider more than just the natural environment. If slums represent the largest growth sector in urban areas, eco-cities must address the socioeconomic environment of the cities in which they are built.

It would be lovely if developers all over the world took a stand and developed eco-cities for their own moral or ethical reasons. That, of course, is not going to happen. The plans in the works right now exist because there is a growing demand for such developments. The onus for mandating economic diversity in these new developments falls on those creating that demand. The desire to move to such a place may, for some, be rooted in self-inflating or trendhopping impulses. But for most, I'd be willing to bet, there is a real desire to do their part to "save the world."

Eventually, eco-city dwellers have to ask themselves: what kind of world are we trying to save? If the answer is that it's just their own tiny bubble world, eco-cities are doomed to be obnoxiously superfulous tokens of an upper class so completely self-absorbed that it literally managed to forget the existence of the world around it. "So what?" you might ask. And rightfully so; reinvestment in central cities by the upper and middle classes was supposed to save our cities. What happened, instead, was gentrification. The poor were pushed out as the rich moved back in, and now the GAP, Citibank, and Starbucks alternate street corners in Manhattan while the city's homeless shelters overflow. "Big deal, life sucks, that's how it goes."

But that is not a world-changing attitude.

It's hopelessly idealistic to think that we can provide safe and affordable housing and create livable urban areas for people across the economic spectrum in the First World, much less the Third. Back in 2005, UN-HABITAT warned that "governments will have to take the lead in building some 96,150 housing units per day if the world hopes to avert a massive urban crisis in the near future" (emphasis added). But is it any less idealistic to think that, through our own ingenuity and some hefty innovation, we can change the course of the natural process of climate change? One could argue that we know that we can change the climate since the problem exists because we created it. To that I say: we created the slums, too.

There are no fingers to point now -- poverty has been around as long as human society. But if efforts to fight climate change have reached the level where we are preparing to change the way that we build (architecture is the slowest of the arts, after all), we have to take a good, hard look at our motivation. At it's heart, the green movement isn't really about trees, floods, or solar rays. It's about people recognizing the fact that they are part of a larger ecosystem (in a very natural, non-kumbaya way) and learning how to stop working against that system -- and working against themselves. Cities are the greatest achievements of mankind, so there is great potential for them to be the solution to the environmental challenges that face us today. We just have to remember that everyone around us is part of that environment.

(Photo from Foster + Partners.)

Eco-Cities – Building Better Cities for the 21st Century (Globe-Net)

Two Billion Slum Dwellers (Forbes)

World Faces Prospect of Teeming Mega-Slums (Common Dreams)

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