Eco cities: streets ahead

Sustainable, smart, green, carbon-neutral – in the future, it’s likely that we will all live in an ‘eco-city’ such as China’s Tianjin or UAE’s Masdar. Vision explores the freeways and skyscrapers of the next generation of metropolis

In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published Our Common Future (widely known as the Brundtland Report), a document that would leave an indelible mark on how industries, scientists, governments and developers dealt with climate change. The report has been widely acknowledged for coining the term “sustainable development” and its primary mandate was to raise awareness about environmental concerns and propose recommendations for strategies on how to approach these issues collaboratively.

Today, the world’s population is projected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050, with more than 50 per cent moving to urban settlements, which has created a greater sense of urgency. The investment in developing clean technologies and shared knowledge has culminated in an eco-city boom across the world. The largest of its kind to date is the partially built, collaborative Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city (SSTEC) in China’s Tianjin region. Due to be completed in 2020, it stands as an example of how such large-scale experiments are evolving as models for sustainable solutions for existing cities, as well as proposals for a new urban template.

Built from scratch on some 30sq km of brownfield, SSTEC plans to accommodate 350,000 people in the city’s mixed housing, and employ many of those in its technology and business centres.

Reinventing the masterplan

The masterplan takes its lead from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, and incorporates a number of “eco-cells” – residential blocks with amenities, schools and shops in 400m x 400m formations, intended to make it a more walkable place – as well as an “eco-valley” connecting major transit nodes and providing residents with a car-free green spine.

According to Kirstin Miller, Executive Director of Ecocity Builders, the model for sustainable urban planning is “cities in balance with nature and culture”. SSTEC’s broad lengths of road and Corbusian tower blocks aren’t explicitly in balance with its pedestrians, but the eco-city’s ambitions have an unashamed realism about creating a place that doesn’t ignore how people live today.

“Our eco-city is an experiment, but it is also practical,” said the project’s former Deputy Director of Construction, Wang Meng, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph when the first residents moved in last year.

While the crushing pace of urbanisation continues – it is estimated that China’s urban population will grow by 350 million by 2025 – eco-cities, or smart cities, need to remain appealing as liveable spaces if they are to fulfil ambitions to reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses and contribute to developing new “smart” solutions. In SSTEC, cars are welcome, but they share roads with driverless vehicles.

In 2012, General Motors announced that it would move from exploring not just the technical but also the commercial feasibility of its Electric Network Vehicle (EN-V 2.0) in Tianjin. Although it has some specific indicators to measure its sustainability, SSTEC’s goals highlight transposable systems and also changing habits. By 2020, it hopes that 50 per cent of the water supply will be from desalination plants and recycled water, 20 per cent of energy used will be renewable, and – possibly the most ambitious – 90 per cent of all trips will be on public transport, or by walking or cycling.

Such environmental changes to daily activities and domestic habits requires a cultural shift to make it a successful model. Calvin Tsao, of the New York-based architects Tsao & McKown, sees this as the most important change that eco-cities can actually bring about. “Sustainability is not a set of mechanisms, but a cultural mindset,” he says.

Social spaces

For Tsao, the key to creating sustainable cities is to consider the human conditions and the social spaces that encourage ownership and care for surroundings. “If you start to do things for people – totally green buildings, for example – you also need to organise architecture to encourage social interaction,” he says.

“It’s hard to do things by yourself, so [architects] need to create the context for communal areas, and people can then start to be more proactive in conserving their environment together,” he adds. Straightforward solutions are not easy to come by, but the more architects apply these principles to their practice, the more hope there is of creating places that are more than just technology test beds.

Masdar City by Foster + Partners also stands as a rare example of a city built not just for eco-tourism or to accomplish external mandates, but to diversify and explore building a new economy for the UAE not reliant on fossil fuels. The city itself is a carefully plotted, detailed and nurtured environment. For the design of some of its buildings, Gerard Evenden, senior partner at Foster + Partners, looked to ancient cities as successful precedents. “If a street is too long, the air heats up and sinks into the street and it gets hot,” Evenden explains. “Ancient settlements have a barrier that causes a small amount of turbulence to cause enough movement that disperses the air.”

Though Masdar has been designed to maximise natural resources, particularly the sun, it has resisted relying solely on solar panels. “Architects should be moving away from solar collectors,” insists Evenden. “It’s about the fabric of buildings. That’s what Masdar is showing.”

One of the biggest challenges is sharing energies and technologies across borders and applying the lessons learned from places such as Masdar. For the most part, however, there is not a single model city, but a series of steps forward and some steps back. While quantitative research and post-occupancy studies will paint part of the picture about life in an eco-city, it is the qualitative and experiential details that evolve over the course of time that people will be most interested in.

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