Architects and the branding of the new Ecocity: The need to dismantle the greenwash

We have just had the Ecocity 2017 world summit or conference in my city. Al Gore came to speak about his work and he received an honorary doctorate from my university. I didn’t attend the conference but the spin round it prompted me to think a bit about what an Ecocity might be. It made me think how architects and urbanists should respond or think about the Ecocity concept.

Since 1990 the ECOCITY World brand has claimed to address “the way humanity builds its home — its  cities, towns and villages.” Interestingly, the Ecocity brand is promoted as a series as if it was some kind of global franchise:

“The series focuses on key actions cities and citizens can take to rebuild our human habitat in balance with living systems, and, in the process, slow down and even reverse global heating, biodiversity collapse, loss of wilderness habitat, agricultural lands and open space, and social and environmental injustices.”

I worry that the Ecocity brand nexus of neoliberal policies, big property linked to the markets, and what I would call the “smart” and “sustainable” city industry is only leading us down the Business As Usual path to climate catastrophe. For some of your reading this, in mentioning the C word (catastrophe), I am going to sound uncool and alarmist. But maybe that is the reality and maybe since  Nicolas Stern’s The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review neoliberal and oh-so-nice, left of centre policy makers, have really been compromised.

 It’s always great to talk about cities as ecosystems or as places full of so-called smart sustainable infrastructure. There is a lot of that talk in my architecture school about this. But, is this enough? Do we really need cities; and in the Anthropocene, is it wise to conceive of cities as ecosystems. Doesn’t this conceptual act place our own species with a role at the center of the natural world. Are we really at the center?

A recent book by Derek Jensen the radical environmentalist also raises the above questions. He argues that sustainability is now a devalued term. He writes about what he calls the conservation-industrial complex:

“big green organizations, huge “environmental” foundations, neo-environmentalists, some academics–which has co-opted too much of the movement into “sustainability,” with that word being devalued to mean “keeping this culture going as long as possible.” Instead of fighting to protect our one and only home, they are trying to “sustain” the very culture that is killing the planet. And they are often quite explicit about their priorities.”

Jensen, argues for, and imagines, an end to “technologized, industrialized civilization and a return to agrarian communal life.” Of course to the well-heeled policy urbanists this is a seemingly extreme view. But nonetheless, it is a view, that at this point in time, I am drawn drawn to. It reminds me a bit of the urban efforts and gestures of the architects Leon and Rob Krier to return us to a pre-industrial urbanism. So what exactly would be wrong with such a return? 

Another author of interest to me in this debate is late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood. Plumwood questions what she denoted as hyperseperation. Hyperseparation gives rise to the dominant structures that drive binaries such as, nature-culture, matter-mind and savage-civilised. In the context of the Ecocities debate we run the risk of simply arrogating all mind to our own species and seeing everything else as mindless matter. Matter, as exemplified by the cities formed in our own image. These Ecotopias, Ecopositive cities and Ecocities are now crowding out our social media feeds, and these imagined cities are too often image-cities emptied of, and destructive of, real ecologies.

A real debate around cities needs to merge that examines how cities might be dismantled and decolonized and how we might see them less as machines of innovation and capital. At the conference the academic program looked like more of the same old pap: Densification, greening the cities or “Bringing Nature Back In”, resilience, healthy cities, new forms of co-operation and sustainable food production. Certainly there was some good stuff in the conference around the First Nations and those other real cities, the organic informal cities full of inequalities.

But, in the face of climate change and the loss of actual and real ecosystems, habitats and species, outside of our existing cities there is only so much of this pap I can take. A few papers held glimmer of hope about new research agendas and questioning of this prevailing, and increasingly branded paradigm. I guess the image that headlined the conference (ably devised by Simon Cookes) of chucking plants onto concrete buildings and rooftops kind of says it all for me.

As architects and urbanists we need to explore the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the real and deeper ecologies than just greening up the cities in Photoshop. This also means having a debate around how we might dismantle the cities and explore new forms of settlement. We need to dismantle the greenwash.

COP21 and the ecotopian fairy tale.


COP21 is almost upon us and prompts me to think about future cities and the way in which they are currently being design and proposed. In urban theory the discourse of sustainability has tended to focus on existing global or megacities. New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Delhi, Shanghai or one of my favourite megacities Mexico City. Like the so called starchitects these are the starcities of the world which urbanists often suggest other smaller or newer cities should emulate. After all densification is a good thing, it is inevitable and cities can only get bigger. So why not emulate the star-cities?

As a result of the above, in response to the warming of the globe, much of the discourse is centred around how to densify the cities further, mitigate to fix their inherent problems or give these cities some kind of low or zero carbon makeover. The recent Planetary Urbanism competition exemplify schemes that demonstrate the range of these different approaches.

But, outside of the star or megacities, as I have called them, there are other seemingly lesser cities that are worth considering in the context of climate change. These are those cities or ecotopian proposals that are currently being proposed, design or built. In other words, these are cities that may have been recently built or are currently proposed as ecotopian cities. A very brief survey of these more recent and newer ecotopian cities suggests how prevailing thinking in urban and city design should be questioned.

Such a discussion must start with China where cities are rapidly being proposed or built everyday like Meixi Lake by Kohn Pederson and Fox which according to the marketing pitch “establishes a paradigm of living in balance with nature.” This is a city of 80,000 people that is masterplanned around conventional functional zoning. Some of the newer Chinese cities highlight photovoltaics. For example, China’s Solar Valley or Solar City  located in Dezhou. It is claimed to aspire to be a Chinese version of Silicon Valley. The city of Solar City  is full of strange monuments. Think of an Alucobond office park with Solar Photo Voltaic add-ons. Solar City city has been developed by the visionary entrepreneur Huang Ming.

Many of the new Chinese cities seem to presume greenfield sites. Sites or landscapes without ecological contexts or indigenous histories. This is often a defining feature of these new cities. For example in Australia there was a proposal for a ecotopian city in adjoining Lake Argyle in the remote Kimberly region. It is a proposal to develop a city of 150,00 people. The city will be fully data connected to the rest of the globe to take advantage of the regions abundance of water and to promote, mining, agribusiness and of course tourism. In some ways this is City is not unlike one of the new Chinese cities built on a greenfield site.

Recent proposals for new cities by architects or urbanists normally focus on the technologies or mix of functions that will be our salvation. But economic or social factors are ignored. China at least in the lead up and at COP15 has announced it will move towards a nationwide Emissions Trading Scheme. This initiative has grown out a pilot trading scheme which covers seven of China’s regions and cover 36 cities. These pilot schemes have been assessed as being generally good. Once fully implemented China will, of course be, the largest market for carbon emissions across the globe. It would be good to see more urbanists strategically consider in their proposals the market mechanisms that new cities need in order for the globe to de-carbonise.

One notable recent city which claims to be carbon free is Masdar City.This city is being developed by the Masdar corporation based in Abu Dhabi whose mission is to “integrated, holistic” business model that merges higher education, research and development, finance, and the development of large-scale renewable energy projects and sustainable communities.

Green cities like Masdar abound as an element of marketing and nowhere is this more evident in Dubai and the large developments undertaken by Nakheel. I have a guilty pleasure in that I must admit that I love the 2008 Nakheel video promoting Dubai. It was produced just before Global Financial Crisis. But maybe if you ever see a video like that you just know you are at the very peak of  a property boom. Whilst Dubai is in a different region of the world its marketing promotions prior to the Global Financial Crisis seem to have set a standard that others like China’s Solar City appear to emulate.  Recent city projects fostered by Nakheel include International City and the curiously named Veneto which is a little more tasteful with its abstract modernist look.

Nakheel projects, such as the Palm Jumeirah and the World also seem to evoke more utopian schemes and with the threat of rising sea levels marine and even underwater cities have made a come back. I discuss some of these in my thesis about the marine and underwater cities of the 60s and 70s. But today, with the spectre of rising sea levels there are numerous examples of these. Some are truly frightening. In their utopianism, these cities seem to ignore basic ecological principals. One of the most frightening for me are the underwater skyscrapers, seascrapers or waterscrapers, as they have been called by there proponents. Not unlike luxury cruise liners, these seem to celebrate the architectural language of resort architecture and ignore issues of spewing pollution into the oceans.

The other category of cities that appear to address the climate emergency are the biomorphic cities. These all seem to look like Darcy Thompson’s diatoms.  This is the new global style of avante-garde urbanism; and arguably it is just that: a style. It abounds in the architecture school’s of my city. But it’s proponents have asserted that the cities of the future can only become truly sustainable if they are parametric. But in more recent statements the parametricists, or should I say the Parametricist, argue that politics has no place in architecture.  It is difficult to understand how the need for sustainabilty, in light of the climate emergency, can be divorced from political agency.

Parametric cities usually look more or less biomorphic, such as in the work of Biothing. The look ecotopian. But it seems that the large urban projects exemplary of this style make little effort to unravel the mechanisms of class, politics, consumption and global financial systems. Although, there are some efforts to more literally and realistically meld biological forms and processes together for example in the work of Francois Roche. The Toronto architect Phillip Beesley’s work is also similar. In some ways Roche and Beesley’s work results in the magnification of biological processes that results in picturesque ruins. To my eye these schemes appear like grottos in the ruined and anxious landscapes of the anthropocene.

Outer space cities have even made a come back in recent years. These cities have been given impetus by the possibility that the exploration of Mars may now be more feasible. Of course this impetus has probably been accelerated by climate change and the fear of tipping points. NASA’s 3D printed challenge ticks the box of Martian habitation and 3D printing. This is not the first time that architects and urbanist’s in obsessed with technology have saught to inhabit outerspace. Paolo Soleri’s Asteromo is probably one of the best examples of this from the 1960s.

Of course my favorite starcity, which is also a Chinese city, perhaps because of its hint of irony, is the one produced by MAD Architects for the 11th Venice Architecture Bienalle. Superstar: A Mobile China Town is claimed to be an ecotopia. It’s authors state it to be “a benevolent virus that releases energy in between unprincipled changes and principled steadiness. It may land in every corner of the world, exchanging the new Chinese energy with the environment where it stays. It’s self-sustaining: it grows its own food, requires no resources from the host city, and recycles all of its waste.” Given the form of the building and the collages which depict it in various locations it is refreshing know that irony still has a place in all of the earnestness of ecotopian and city design.

Many of these newer cities, these new ecotopias, often purport to solve some problem or aspect of a warming planet; they all seem to tout particular technologies, almost seeming to imply that they can easily be rolled out across the global level. It is probably this reproducible characteristic of these cities that I find the most disturbing. A characteristic that implies the erosion of local and regional conditions; such as ecology, climate and indeed indigenous communities. In the planetary urbanisation and urban data and data diagramming discourse difference is too often eroded.

It may seem strange but all of this brings my mind back to the 1960s where technological solutions obsessed urbanists. Arguably, the 60s was the decade in which the city  was first formulated as a global technology.  One of the  great examples of this in 60s architecture was Ron Herron’s Walking City of 1964, inspired by the defensive WW2 forts in the Thames estuary, it posits the idea that the city is  a global technology. Part ocean liner and part space ship Walking City was a technological apparatus clothed in zoomorphic and biomorphic forms.  Herron’s city would conquer new territories, traversing existing environments and in the process immersing itself and the bodies which inhabited it into various mileux. It was a protective cocoon that would protect its inhabitants from an exterior hostile environment. It was both defensive and conquering. It didn’t matter too much what it trampled on.

In the 21st Century technology is back as our salvation. After the events of the worker and student riots in Paris in 1968 the ecotopias and techno-utopias of avante-garde architects rapidly came to be criticised. Buckminster Fuller, (whose geodesic dome adorned the Expo 70 site) was denounced as a fascist, Archigram were seen as being fantasists who could not and were not given the opportunity to build. In the 1970s the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies led by the American architect Peter Esienman, an avowed anti-technophile, pursued notions related to architectural syntax and grammar rather than technology. Given this gap it is not surprising that architects and urbanists have now returned so easily to the simplistic technological narratives of the 60s.

For the Marxist historian Tafuri architects such as Archigram were futurists creating a nostalgia for the future which was clouded by a subjective techno-mysticism. Claiming that there existed an“academy of the utopian”  across the international avante-garde which  harked “back to the Futurist idolatory of an industrial dynamism of biomorphic and mystical countenance.” An academy seemingly ignorant of the real laws of technology.

Tafuri’s criticism still seems to be a valid of many of todays ecotopias. In the face of climate change we are witness to an academy of the utopian. But this new academy of ecotopian projects is different.  It is different for two reasons. Firstly, climate change is real.  Secondly, the media of through which architectural knowledge is disseminated is now completely different. This only intensifies the fairy tale nature of these new ecotopian cities along with the efforts to deal with the starcities and megacities. As Antoine Picon notes we are on the eve of re-enchantment of the world. A world full of fantastic technologies, cures and copy written words embedded in the current crop of ecotopias. In order to decarbonise the planet we should avoid the ecotopian fairy tale.