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A Geography of Ecological Urbanism?

The Ecological Urbanism conference 2009 at Harvard’s GSD ambitiously set out to define a ‘new ethics and aesthetics of the urban’, taking a design approach to developing a multi-disciplinary understanding of urban ecology. The contributions in the accompanying publication are highly diverse, contradictory even; ranging from small scale to the regional, practical to polemical, from favelas to futuristic utopias. The results are rich, muddled, often fascinating, and fail to reach any consensus on ecological urbanism. I propose here that a true multi-disciplinary understanding of urban ecology needs to interface between design and the social-sciences, particularly economics and geography, an approach rarely touched on in this volume.

In the introduction Mohensen Mostafavi argues that ecological urbanism can define a new set of revolutionary sensibilities and practices in design that challenge established socio-economic and political structures. Indeed the book includes many inspiring examples of small scale eco-architecture. The difficulty is whether architectural projects can really ‘scale-up’ to bring about city-wide and global change. Cities are not the result of architectural design, but emerge through complex social and economic (generally capitalist) interactions. Urban development is subject to this capitalist order, with iconic buildings used to brand cities to compete in global markets.

The choice of opening keynote for the conference, Rem Koolhaas, met with criticism as he is precisely the kind of ‘staritect’ marketeer that has engaged little with ecological urbanism. Yet he is ironically the only contributor to discuss greenwashing- an important concern for sustainable architecture. Even the oft-cited eco-cities of Masdar and Dongtan, while being larger scale and revolutionary in scope, have elements of greenwashing writ large, with UAE’s oil-money Masdar a small distraction from the insanity of Dubai, while Dongtan is a drop in the ocean in China’s coal powered western-style urban explosion (and may never be built).

Image taken from constructionweekonline.com / Masdar City, Foster & Partners. Eco-city projects provide a test-bed for comprehensive urban sustainability solutions, but how can these ideas be applied to the thousands of existing cities? The US $22 billion project is being developed in seven phases.

So how could a geographical approach contribute to an ecological urbanism? Well it would begin with cities as they are- urban evolution and retro-fitting are the priorities. Indeed several articles in the conference volume do discuss regional integrated urban assessment approaches, in terms of the many dimensions of sustainability such as energy, water and waste. There is also interesting discussion of the complex and productive social structures in slums, particularly in Mumbai.

A considerable additional challenge is to consider cities in terms of their global relationships and flows, the economic and power structures that define urban function and growth. Thus it is entirely possible for a city to be ecologically sound in its physical form, but embedded in environmentally damaging economic and political structures. London is a case in point, with positive moves towards local energy generation and sustainable urban form doing little to change the ills of a capitalist system in which it is a primary centre (London based BP struggles to contain environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico as I write). Very few articles in the volume grapple with these issues. One that does is Hodgson & Marvin’s critique of eco-planning, which convincingly argues that energy security and social and material reproduction concerns are the main roots of trends by capitalist cities towards improving self-sufficiency and adopting sustainability discourses.

In conclusion, an aesthetics of ecological urbanism in isolation cannot be sufficient, and the perspectives of economics and geography are needed to place cities in global structures. Interfaces between the design and social sciences are the most promising path for understanding local and global connections and creating an ecologically based urbanism.

This Guest post by Duncan Smith forms part of the discussion in the urbanTick series on Ecological Urbanism.

Duncan Smith, is a researcher in GIS and urban geography at CASA UCL, completing a PhD on the topic of polycentric urban form and sustainable development. He also works as a research fellow at the Greater London Authority Economics Unit.