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Envisioning the ecocity: urban environments for the post-oil age.

April 6, 2010
Cover of "Silent Spring"
Cover of Silent Spring

Author: Wiberg, Krister

In the 1960s we humans first became aware of our global impact.

Rachel Carson, with her book Silent Spring, depicted a world without birds. A lot of poets, artists, and authors instinctively understood what was happening. The Club of Rome, a group of scientists, published Limits to Growth in 1971; later came The Third Wave. Both were convincing at the time. U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Global 2000 Report (1980) confirmed the prognoses, and today the reports of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change follow the same track.

Another wake-up call was the oil embargoes of 1973 and 1979. These crises highlighted the severe dependency of the Western world on oil, as much of industry and transport ground to a halt and the downside of urban sprawl became painfully clear. These events also showcased the links between our way of life and climate change, as carbon dioxide emissions dropped.

Now, when I gather material from my years as a teacher and researcher with a focus on urban sustainability, I single out four interesting case studies that are still useful today. I and my colleague scientists and students developed solutions that are both possible and globally realistic. Stopping C[O.sub.2] emissions now seems impossible and some kind of disaster will certainly occur. The real problem is to understand what the world will look like in that event, and to find ways to cope with it. Actually, we recognize two problems–climate change and urban sprawl–and try to find weapons to attack them. The two are intimately connected. It is evident that we are trapped in an entropic world, a prison totally dependent on fossil fuel.

The four case studies, or design exercises, are all logical and realistic, even if they seem radical. They are:

Railway Nodes–changing transport and lifestyle in a medium-size Swedish city of 30,000.

Shrinking City–a medium-size city of 60,000 inhabitants in Denmark.

Polycentric City–an application of the Factor 10 principles of boosting energy and resource productivity to a city of 100,000.

Vitalizing Infill–application of architectural and specifically social sustainability ideas in a big city, following ecological rules.

Railway Nodes

The concept underlying our study for Landskrona, Sweden, (30,000 inhabitants) is a grid of new railroads and station nodes every 1 kilometer. These nodes, each with a 500-meter radius, consist of housing and daily life services and commerce. Distances are walkable and safe, as auto traffic is largely separated on parallel avenues. Small apartments are close to the station and there are garden lots on the periphery. At the node center by the station are concentrated elementary businesses, such as a pharmacy, a bank, minihotels, and restaurants. Regional traffic has connections to the harbor.

The neighborhoods are mixed, with functions close to families. Each has provision for the supply of solar heat and electricity, vegetables and fruits, daycare, and quarters for the elderly close to relatives, friends, and youngsters who can assist them. There is a carpentry, a cooperative freezer, and earthcellars, which are dug into the ground (where the temperature is a cool 7-9 degrees Celsius) and use no energy. Many simple products and services–vegetables, fruits, jam, repairs, and so on–are supplied locally. Rainwater is gathered for cleaning and to ensure secure supplies. There is a car pool for occasions when automobile travel is necessary. All living areas are smaller than today’s, well insulated, and heated by solar energy.

Shrinking City

In the Western industrialized world there continues to be devastating growth of concentric circles around the old town centers. This is an obvious pattern of centrifugal force leading to ever-increasing distances between people, which prevent them from naturally commingling. Urban sprawl binds us to an everyday life utterly dependent on the automobile and fossil fuel-driven transport.

Here’s an example. In 1800, the town of Horsens in Denmark had 2,000 inhabitants spread over 40 hectares, for a population density of 50 people per hectare. The town had very little industry. Most activity was agricultural and there was relatively little transport of goods and thus little energy consumed in such transportation. Demand for transportation and other energy was met mostly with human and animal muscle power.

By 1900 or so, the population density had risen to about 85 people per hectare. A lot of the town’s work was still performed using human and animal muscle power, but elements of new traffic systems were beginning to appear, i.e., railroads, better wagons, and a few cars. Horsens was still an integrated city with short distances, and people met easily for work and the exchange of services.

However, by 1974, when our study began, urban sprawl had advanced. Horsens had 36,000 people spread over 1,100 hectares, for a much lower density of 33 people per hectare. Distances were growing. Electricity, coal, and oil were now commonly used, largely displacing muscle power for heavy work.

Because this sprawl- and energy-intensive urban system is unsustainable–it consumes too much farmland and requires too much increasingly expensive energy–this trend has to be reversed. Our study projects a Horsens in 2014 that has grown in population (to 50,000) but which has raised its density to 97 people per hectare and has thus become far more efficient.

Modern food production requires a minimum of 0.25 hectares per person, and for sustainability the land must be local so as not to require imports from neighboring regions or countries. To keep distances and nutrient loops short, it is not possible to feed more than 45,000 persons in the central city and 15,000 established in “agrar villages” responsible for producing food, clean water, and air, and circulation of biological waste products and nutrients from town.

A typical future dense town, as we envisioned it in our study, has a radius of 800 meters (it’s possible to walk across the city in about 20 minutes), is now 200 hectares in size, and totals 60,000 inhabitants. Trees and other vegetation are planted in a belt around the city and along existing roads (so they are easy to reach for horses and people) for biofuel, air cleaning, protection from winds, and growing fruits and vegetables.

Regional and local traffic systems rely mainly on railroads, canals, harbors by the sea, and lighter-than-air airships using city-center air-ship ports. Walking and biking are the normal ways of getting around. All locations are close to water and railroads and the region is approaching a self-supporting state that has little effect on the surrounding areas.

Polycentric City

In the 1980s the Wuppertal Institute in Germany developed the “Factor 10” model to reduce energy demand by 90 percent (compared to 1990 levels) in order to achieve a fair and ecologically sustainable society. We applied the Factor 10 model to develop a future urban structure for Lund, a city of 100,000 in the south of Sweden.

The technologies and principles are well known but they must be strictly and carefully designed and applied. The Lund we envisioned demands a new way of life, with the inhabitants spending more time cultivating their own gardens and helping to maintain local parks. The concept stresses self-sufficiency and personal responsibility for food production, compost recirculation, cooperation, and local self-governance. There is a strong focus on the production of clean water and air and healthy food, and the use of passive and active solar energy. Each village is largely self-governing but they are joined by an overarching political structure.

The conceptual polycentric Lund consists of 12 village units. Some are “cityvillages” inside town, while others are “agrarvillages” with great local responsibility for food and water supply, and for absorbing the compost and treated sewage from town on the farms. Building on the ideas of Gunter Pauli, at the core of each of the villages that form the multiple centers is a zero-emission plant complex in which several factory units are arranged together so that the waste products

from one are used as inputs by another. For example, a brewery leaves waste mash that is excellent feed for pigs; the pigs’ manure is composted in biogas units to produce methane for energy, and so on. The whole system is made as closed-loop as possible.

The 1/10 houses (10 times as energy efficient as current houses) are of passive solar design, oriented to the south with windows and collectors for gathering solar energy, and of course are heavily insulated and tightly sealed against air leakage. Heat exchangers keep the houses ventilated with minimal loss of heat energy. A central “greenhouse” tower between every four apartments produces oxygen, warmth, and a certain amount of fruit. It also uses the rising warm air to drive a passive ventilation system.

As a reference we studied one of Sweden’s built ecovillages (Myrstacken, Malmo) and saw that the real costs of operation and maintenance were nine times lower than for a standard village.

Although these technologies and systems are not new, building them into a working society will take time as people are encouraged to transition from the old unsustainable ways to the new ones required by our changing circumstances.

Vitalizing Infills

Lindangen, south of Malmo (300,000 inhabitants), is a high-rise settlement from the 1960s. It is very segregated and unemployment is over 50 percent. The architecture is inhuman and monotonous, there are no natural meeting points, and the overall design discourages or undermines the natural human impulse to see, meet, mingle, and interact with other people.

We seek social sustainability as well as ecological sustainability. This means a pattern in human scale, with lower and more densely arranged buildings which shape a pattern of small streets and yards. We call this a social engineering.

In this grid we integrate and mix different people, cultures, and apartments, small ones for young and one-person households and bigger ones for immigrants with many family members. There are many places to meet, discuss and exchange ideas, rest, and watch people. There are warm corners, barbecue spots, and small houses for the homeless.

A building module system makes it possible for young and handy people to start small and expand their houses later in life when they have more children and more money. The neighborhood includes a small marketplace for the exchange and sale of homemade products. A cultivated park supplies vegetables and fruits and also cleans rain- and graywater. The houses are close to a green and beautiful environment. The whole area is structured into smaller, more intimate, more psychologically comfortable spaces that invite people in. Summing up, the whole dreary site is downsized to destroy the frightening and inhuman spaces and shape a place for humans living together.

Krister Wiberg is professor emeritus of architecture and a former dean at the Technical University of Lund, Sweden. His work has focused on designs and systems for sustainable houses, eco villages, and cities. Professor Wiberg developed the scenarios in this essay in collaboration with several distinguished colleagues, whose names can be found at

COPYRIGHT 2010 Worldwatch Institute
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.
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