Q&A: Aspiring to an ecocity future

Urban design, planning, building and maintenance must respond creatively, appropriately and effectively to the relationship between the social and the natural at both the local and global level. But how do the needs of countries differ?

Imogen Crump, University of Melbourne

Imogen Crump

Published 14 July 2017

The EcoCity World Summit is designed to focus on the way humanity builds its home — its cities, towns and villages. Although the summit brings together a diverse mix of researchers, policy makers and citizens with a common focus on identifying and creating pathways to more sustainable, resilient and equitable cities; the term ‘ecocity’ itself cannot be applied to one particular urban form.

The Cheonggyecheon Project in Seoul, Korea, revived a river that had been built over and it now helps to cool the city during summer. Picture: Wikimedia

This is because, according to the University of Melbourne’s Dr Dominique Hes, each and every place is unique – its geography, its hydrology, its history, its ecosystems and its climate – making it difficult to have a single typology or model of the ecocity. A design needs to respond to the place and be as unique as that place.

We asked two experts attending the Summit in Melbourne, what the expectation of an ecocity is in their home country.

What is an ecocity in the context of your own country?

Professor Brendan Gleeson, Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.

An ecocity in Australia is an ideal not a reality. Our cities are judged to be highly ‘liveable’ by world standards, but this doesn’t tell us much about key qualities of ecological sustainability, including carbon emissions, climate preparedness and social justice.

For all major Australian cities, like Melbourne, heat stress is going to be a significant future factor. Picture: Alan Lam/Flickr

On these latter counts, Australian cities are failing badly. While we have some potentially powerful knowledge about how to shape cities in ways that make them good enough to live in, we need to be open to learning from other nations about how to advance towards the ecocity ideal, especially in the areas of just governance, social inclusion, cultural vibrancy and climate action.

Professor Mee Kam Ng, Director of Urban Studies Programme, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In China, industrialisation and industrial effluents have contaminated ground water, polluting crops, diminishing biodiversity and affecting flora and fauna. Cities suffer from air, noise, solid waste and water pollution, compromising whatever quality of life economic growth has brought about. The past decades of capital, land and carbon intensive developments have made many Chinese cities among the most unsustainable settlements on Earth.

But the number of ecocities in China has grown over the years. One city, Shenzhen, has become a demonstration of a low-carbon ecocity. Shenzhen is a pioneer ecocity. In the last 30 years the population of this small border town has grown by more than 366 times, the size of the city has expanded by 18 times, and GDP has grown by 5,370 times. Today the 11-million (some informal estimates put it as high as 21 million) strong city has set aside 44 per cent of its land as conservation areas, where no development will be allowed.

Shenzhen’s government wants ‘’world-class green knowledge areas’’ and low-carbon development planning. Picture: Shutterstock

But the pursuit of any ecocity development in China always comes back to a search for quality growth.


Professor Brendan Gleeson: There are several priorities that require some focus to create sustainable urban centres.

One is transitioning our over-consumptive cities to low and preferably zero carbon entities, pushing back against the tide of social polarisation that is building here as it is in many world cities. This requires stronger governance of our cities. This does not mean more expert management, but democratic governances of their economies, societies and ecologies.

Professor Mee Kam Ng: Mindset is a big hurdle. Hong Kong, for example, has always been growth-oriented; growth is regarded as good and progressive. But years of economic growth that comes at all costs has impaired people’s imagination when it comes to seeing different futures. However, this does not mean that we have not done anything.

Hong Kong has been growth-oriented for a long time, and is facing some real climate threats. Picture: Pixabay.

There are many different stakeholders – both inside and outside government - that are working hard towards sustainability. What we need is a way to integrate these efforts, identify the gaps and move forward with a consensus towards an economically vibrant, socially just and environmentally sound, ecological future. This is the essence of resilience.

What are the most important climate adaptation priorities for cities around the world?

Professor Brendan Gleeson: Preparing our vast suburban landscapes for climate change and resource insecurity. We need a state-supported makeover which helps make these landscapes more resilient and less carbon intensive.

Our cities are going to be warmer, dryer, places with more extreme heat events and they’re going to experience sea level rise, so we need to move urgently to adapt those cities and make them resilient in the face of those changes.

Professor Mee Kam Ng: A priority has to be helping the less developed parts of the world as they have fewer resources.

Cities like Melbourne are going to be warmer and dryer, so planning needs to go into their resilience. Picture: Getty images

Building a sustainable environment requires a vision that goes beyond ‘mere growth’ - it is a challenge, an exploration and a learning process for people to live harmoniously with one another in nature in the long run.

Hong Kong’s move towards climate change is strongly affected by China’s efforts. The city is facing some real climate change threats. However, while the carbon intensity reduction target looks impressive, it is actually too modest for the city’s developed economy. To be a responsible global citizen and to pursue sustainable development, Hong Kong needs more concerted and comprehensive efforts to combat climate change.

What do you think are the key climate challenges that your part of the world will need to cope with in the future?

Professor Brendan Gleeson: Large and rapidly growing cities are facing more weather extremes especially heatwaves. Looking at the bigger picture in terms of the cities, Perth has already arguably been quite heavily impacted by climate change, registering what appears to be a permanent decline in its annual rainfall and loss in its catchment capacity.

Some Chinese cities, like Shanghai, suffer air pollution that impacts on quality of life. Picture: Leniners/Flickr

For all of the major cities, one of the biggest issues is going to be heat stress and the increase in the number of extreme heat days in any given summer.

Professor Mee Kam Ng: We need to find a different way of producing, distributing and consuming our goods and services to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But we also need to address people’s preparedness to revisit the values and priorities of their lives; meaning a fundamental re-conceptualisation of the relationships between ‘economic growth’ and ‘long-term development’ and challenging ‘growth machine’ institutions to practise joined-up holistic thinking in the development process.

What will ecocities of the future be like for people living there?

Professor Brendan Gleeson: I think the EcoCity Summit Principles for better cities give us a great steer on this question. These principles focus on four key areas: ecology, economics, politics and culture.

A really key change will be democratic control of economies so that they function to protect our fragile natural and social ecologies.

Professor Mee Kam Ng: An urban living that respects nature and biodiversity. An urbanism that adopts the principle of biomimicry, this is when the design and production of materials, structures, and systems are modelled on biological entities and processes. It’s an urban setting that fosters rich human relationships; as well as a diversified urban economy that nurtures re-commoning and represents socio-spatial justice.

We will require a different breed of urban planner, planners who are determined to care about the environment, to learn from and design with nature so that urban development will evolve as part of the natural order rather than worsen pressing challenges such as climate change, serious flooding, global warming, and the heat island effect.

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