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Eco-cities : All in the mind?


Eco-Cities : All in the mind?

The term ‘eco’-city has an optimistic, almost utopian, ring to it but the debate around what constitutes an eco-city has been gathering momentum since the early 1990s. First coined by Richard Register in 1987, few could have foreseen the extent to which this concept has influenced urban development in subsequent years. While the term has yet to be comprehensively or consistently defined, it has certainly entered the mainstream and become the backdrop of a wide range of activities in urban sustainability.

Since the term was first coined, eco-city summits in Montreal, Istanbul, Shenzhen, Curitiba and others have explored the philosophy, policy and practice of the concept. Meanwhile, an extensive range of literature has been created, by the likes of Herbert Giradet and Mark Roseland, on the creation of sustainable cities.

In the last decade, ambitious and high-profile projects have grabbed headlines, most notably Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. These showcase examples demonstrate a commitment to new technologies, innovative urban planning processes and new forms of mobility for the 21st century, recognising the deep challenges of carbon neutrality and achieving commercial returns.

Away from these headline-grabbing examples, many cities are developing smaller, neighbourhood-scale eco-districts. These micro-models embrace a local approach to minimising environmental impacts and maximising social and economic benefits.

It is clear that eco- city metrics of performance will become as important to the market as the measurement of the value add of green buildings. Understanding risks, returns and benchmarking cities against each other will become important features in the eco-city arena. But how can we truly measure what is yet to be concretely defined? This is an uncomfortable question for many, but pragmatism demands that some measures are better than none, while experience tells us that markers in the ground are vital.

Indices, such as Siemens’ Green City Index, have begun the process of measurement and comparison. CDP Cities is delving deeply into a wide range of sustainability practices within cities. Cities are now filling in detailed questionnaires about aspects of governance, strategy, finance, partnerships and risk awareness and their sustainability. The results give a clear insight into the different measures, progress and challenges across cities, and the different routes they are taking towards a more sustainable future.

The transformation of our cities will, in the most part, occur incrementally through the spread of best practice and the increasing effectiveness and affordability of new measures. The likelihood is that, over the next few years, we will continue to be debating the definition of eco-cities. The key debate will be how we manage to balance assessments of affordability with the continuing environmental and social challenges we face. The ultimate goal is for all cities to be working together towards creating a built environment that provides environmental, social and economic quality both now and in the future.

Originally published : May 2012