Friday, February 15, 2008

Eco-Planned Communities

It's not a surprise for those of us in the Pacific Northwest bubble that tend to live and bleed green, but always good to get some positive reinforcement that we're doing some things right. The latest was in the form of an article in Popular Science magazine, which, through somewhat generalized scoring system, named Portland, Oregon the Greenest City in America. Barely edging out San Francisco, the article mentions a few notable elements in Portland:

"America’s top green city has it all: Half its power comes from renewable sources, a quarter of the workforce commutes by bike, carpool or public transportation, and it has 35 buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council."

:: Official Flag of Portland, Oregon - image via Wikipedia Commons

As thoughts of Ecotopia dance in our heads, and succession from the union sounds like a viable option, Portland has continued to do a few things better than most. Innovate and plan. We won't be the biggest, or the flashiest, or the most wealthy. But we will continue to push the boundaries of what is possible and continue striving forward. This fearlessness of new strategies, and a way of looking at the parts and the whole simultaneously in new ways is what contributes to 'greening' of the entire city. Sometimes wholesale, sometimes piece by piece.

This post looks at the elements of what makes communities 'eco-friendly' around the world, both in large and small scale. Treehugger offered a couple of thoughts on Ecocities, via and interview with Richard Register, who is the prophet of ecological cities, through writings such as 'Ecocities of Tommorrow' and organizations such as the visionary Ecocity Builders and the much more realistic and focussed group, Urban Ecology.

:: Ecocity San Francisco - image via Ecocity Builders

In abbreviated form, Ecocity Builders defines an ecocity as: "...a human settlement that enables its residents to live a good quality of life while using minimal natural resources... its buildings make best use of sun, wind and rainfall to help supply the energy and water needs of occupants... is threaded with natural habitat corridors, to foster biodiversity and to give residents access to nature for recreation... its food and other goods are sourced from within its borders or from nearby, in order to cut down on transport costs... the goods it produces are designed for reuse, remanufacture, and recycling... [and] has a labour intensive rather than a material, energy, and water intensive economy, to maintain full employment and minimise material throughput."

Another recent article in Natural Home Magazine (via Treehugger) identified the Top 10 eco-neighborhoods takes this down a notch, focussing on a smaller building development. A few notable local examples, including Pringle Creek Community in Salem (another GreenWorks project), and Helensview, in Portland. To the north, some more examples, including Issaquah Highlands, in Issaquah, Washington as well as The High Point, in Seattle, one of the first integrated stormwater systems at a community level.

:: Pringle Creek Community - image via Treehugger

There does seem to be a cluster of eco-planning examples in the Northwest, and a good number of future ones in the works. For a current project I am working on, we're doing some more detailed case studies of all of these precedents, so stay tuned for more info on all of these. In addition, these all evolved not from new ideas, but from some new thinking. Aside from some historic precedents, more modern examples that would fall under the mantel of 'eco-community' would be Village Homes in Davis, California, that redefined community open space and McHarg's The Woodlands, in Texas, which integrated stormwater as never seen before.

:: Village Homes - image via GreenEdge

On opposite sides of the pond, two different stories. To the east, read about 'Britains happiest eco-town', from Treehugger, the community of The Wintles, where it's quoted that: " eco-town must not only be built using the latest low-carbon technologies but must also engender a sense of place, to be a town that will work from one generation to the next and be able to feed and clothe itself from local products."

:: The Wintles - image via Treehugger

It should go without saying that sense of place comes from understanding and reflecting the culture within a place. Authenticity and tapping into the local is vital for making great communities, 'green' or not. The flip-side of this is when culture is misinterpreted or ignored, as in the case of a model green village designed by William Mcdonough. The story of Huangbaiyu is covered in a fantastic three part Frontline series, and was previously scooped by our own local Sustainable Industries Journal. Essentially, the development was designed and planned well, but suffered from trying to apply a different land use pattern for rural residents.

From SIJ: "Rigorous efforts were made to design the new village with local resources and local residents in mind. But potential income villagers could lose if they lived suddenly only meters apart with no provision for sheep pens and vegetable gardens did not appear to be part of the planners’ initial calculations."

:: Partially completed house - image via Sustainable Industries Journal

While culturally a bit different, this rings with the similar tone of people saying they will never live in high-rise housing as a response to demands for density. In Vancouver, BC maybe, but this is America, right? It's astounding the high-rise boom (and to be fair, building and habitation boom in general) in Portland, and many people who probably said they'd never give up their lawn, and McMansion are now staring at views of Mt. Hood from their South Waterfront or Pearl District towers. If you eco-build it will they come? Or are cases where the cultural issues are too great to change ones way of life?

:: South Waterfront & Aerial Tram - image via Portland Ground

Worldwide examples abound, specifically a concept for Masdar, Abu Dhabi - a six-million square meter new city in by Foster and Partners. Touted as the first 'zero-carbon, zero-waste' city in the world. Recent news in Inhabitat outlined some of the sustainable features: Along with being car-free, the development will include: "...the conscientious incorporation of wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields, and plantations, allowing for the Masdar to be entirely self-sustaining." Oh yeah, and it's a perfect square. Very natural.

:: image via Inhabitat

Eco-community planning will inevitably taper into a new form of status quo, which is a good thing. As we evolve to greater heights of carbon-free, car-free, waste-free, guilt-free and fat-free communities, we must remain wary of not slipping into the trap of communities that are also soul-free. If this results, we may just was well crawl into the computer and live out our 'Second Life' or melt into Sim-whatever (read this great recent post in the Where about 'Living in SimCity')...

...or better yet, populate someone elses created online ecotopic world. Economic development seems lean in my bustling new metropolis of CrazytownUSA, (via MyMiniCity). It's no Portland, but it's probably better than Houston.


  1. Planning more sustainable communities faces a large hurdle when comparing the number of people needing to eat vs. the space available to provide local food. Vertical farming is a possible solution to providing large scale food production within cities, if cities incorporated a few vertical growing locations, a lot less food would be burning a lot less oil to get to our dinner tables. Check out the blog for more info on Vertical farming.

  2. Michaela.
    Thanks for the comment... I definitely agree with you, as a trip around my blog (and the Veg.itecture blog as well) will attest that I'm a fan of all things vertical, including farming. I posted on Valcent here previously - and think really tackling density and livability means looking at all of our combined options. JK


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