Bringing cities back to earth

When people dream aloud about wanting to live in harmony with nature, it’s usually a sign that they’re headed for a sea change.

Have humans fenced themselves off from the natural world, living in modern cities with that vast expanse of concrete, steel, glass and smog?

What if urban living could get us as close to nature as a move to the coast, while retaining the vibrancy of high-density life, its diversity and diversions. And what if city life could also be environmentally responsible?

There’s a line of thinking among city planners which argues that our urban environments can be reunited with our natural surrounds in ‘ecocities’. These settlements align themselves with their local ecologies, reduce waste, embrace sustainability and bring green spaces back to the centre of where we work and live.

Building facade with plants

The term can be traced back to the work of Californian urban theorists in the 1970s, and over time it has come to cover a broad range of utopian fantasies. The idea of an ecocity always upholds the principle that cities can (and should) tune in to the native environment.

It’s not only a theory. Several countries have promised to put ecological ideas at the centre of new developments. In the United Arab Emirates, Masdar City began construction in 2008 and claims to represent a ‘greenprint’ for sustainable urban living. The Tianjin Ecocity development promises a city underpinned by the ‘three harmonies’ of social harmony, economic vibrancy and environmental sustainability. It’s a joint project between the governments of China and Singapore.

Neither Masdar nor Tianjin are complete: each houses only a fraction of its projected population. Early reports highlight the challenges of turning a pre-fab city into a true community, and community effort is undoubtedly what takes to bring the ecocity ideal closer to reality.

 Modern building with green space

The possibilities are tempting. Imagine a Melbourne crisscrossed with broad, leafy pedestrian boulevards, where community gardens cap off skyscrapers, greenery tumbles down the walls of Federation Square, and a clear, cool Yarra River invites summer swims. It would be a sea change right in the central city.

We might not be quite there yet, but the ideas that shape ecocity theory have already spread out to established cities worldwide, Australia included. Key tenets of the City of Melbourne’s vision for the coming years include environmental sustainability and adapting to climate change. Acknowledging its commitment to ecological thinking, the city plays host to the 2017 Ecocity World Summit this month.

At the heart of ecocity theory is the idea that cities should should not abandon a deep and integrated relationship with nature, in which citizens live alongside local flora and fauna.

City of Melbourne has introduced data-driven initiatives to help its residents to play a part in its ecological health, which brings the city’s environmental credentials in line with its status as a Smart City. People can visualise the spread of trees across the city, get information about planting schedules and lifespans thanks to the public dataset maintained by the City of Melbourne through its Urban Forest Strategy. People can even email individual trees, a feature which was designed to aid the reporting of damaged or unhealthy trees, but instead inspired people to send fan letters to their favourites. Information on canopy coverage in the city, local species of bugs and bats, and even soil types is available as data so the public can take a greater role in the city’s environmental wellbeing.

It’s not just about data. Being an ecologically friendly city is about helping natural spaces flourish in urban environments. Through the Greening the City project, City of Melbourne encourages the addition of new trees, gardens and pocket parks to the central city. Residents can even get advice on the best species to plant. Four laneways have already been selected for public redevelopment and ‘greening’, with designs being finalised this year.

These kinds of public initiatives are a first step toward bringing the community in on the possibilities of ecocity living. Making the shift to ecocities is a creative challenge that ultimately encompasses much more than urban planning decisions; it means rethinking our most fundamental ideas about transport, employment, consumption and community. If we can bring nature back to our cities, we can bring our cities back to nature.

Written by James Douglas.