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Can Academics Really Prescribe How To Make An Eco-City?

Jeff KenworthyWhat are the top 10 requirements for planning an eco-city, and what are the obstructions towards realising them? Put another way: can an academic's recommedations hope to gain traction in the real world of power, legacy infrastructure, politics and money?

I recently came across this list (below), from Australian academic Jeffrey Kenworthy (right)'s paper (The eco-city: ten key transport and planning dimensions for sustainable city development), written in 2006. It was as though it could have been written yesterday or, indeed, 10 years previously, and draws from his 30 years of experience (at the time) of studying urban environments throughout the world.

It's a worthy attempt to tackle the issue of sustainability and cities. But something is missing, it strikes me.

He does preface the list with qualifying statements such as: "clearly, urban systems are very complex and cannot be shaped by any simple set of guidelines"; and he admits that they "do not cover politics and power, or the many varied interests in urban decision-making processes".

But he suggests that not dealing with these 10 aspects will "severely constrain any attempt by a prosperous or less prosperous city to become more sustainable."

He then gives the following list:

  1. The city has a compact, mixed-use urban form that uses land efficiently and protects the natural environment, biodiversity and food-producing areas;
  2. The natural environment permeates the city's spaces and embraces the city, while the city and its hinterland provide a major proportion of its food needs;
  3. Freeway and road infrastructure are de-emphasized in favour of transit, walking and cycling infrastructure, with a special emphasis on rail. Car and motorcycle use are minimized;
  4. There is extensive use of environmental technologies for water, energy and waste management – the city's life support systems become closed loop systems;
  5. The central city and sub-centres within the city are human centres that emphasize access and circulation by modes of transport other than the automobile, and absorb a high proportion of employment and residential growth;
  6. The city has a high-quality public realm throughout that expresses a public culture, community, and equity and good governance. The public realm includes the entire transit system and all the environments associated with it;
  7. The physical structure and urban design of the city, especially its public environments, are highly legible, permeable, robust, varied, rich, visually appropriate and personalized for human needs;
  8. The economic performance of the city and employment creation are maximized through innovation, creativity and the uniqueness of the local environment, culture and history, as well as the high environmental and social quality of the city's public environments;
  9. Planning for the future of the city is a visionary "debate and decide" process, not a "predict and provide", computer-driven process. All decision-making is sustainability-based, integrating social, economic, environmental and cultural considerations as well as compact, transit-oriented urban form principles. Such decisionmaking processes are democratic, inclusive, empowering and engendering of hope.

What strikes me is how idealistic it is. I do approve of demanding the impossible and this is a worthy list. You cannot really argue with any of the points, but it's easy to comment that what the list or article doesn't do is engage with the reality of city management.

Perhaps this is typical of academic studies and we should not expect more. But I would like to turn the question around: if we want to create a sustainable city, what tasks are missing from this list that would deal more with the reality of cities?

Here are 12 suggestions:

  1. tackling corruption;
  2. dealing with the decay or inadequacy of existing infrastructure;
  3. tackling vested interests and power cabals;
  4. adapting the existing modal layout;
  5. the compromising requirements of capital and investment;
  6. a paucity of skills and experience;
  7. the relationship with the hinterland and supply chains;
  8. the choice of objective metrics to measure progress;
  9. overcoming self-centredness and apathy;
  10. the imperative of crisis management;
  11. not valuing what you already have;
  12. insufficient funds.

These are the impediments that administrations and those working within them encounter every day. Academic studies would do well to analyse approaches to them. I'm a pragmatic person. I love idealism, I love academic rigor. When I see a good idea I always ask: fine, but how can we put it into practice?

I am being deliberately provocative and playing devil's advocate. But are lists like this really of any use on the ground? What do you think?