Eco-cities and eco-suburbs

By Atulya Mittal

The first question that strikes me when reading about new city developments is a simple one:

“Why”?

My interpretation of a new city is people coming to a common location to pursue a better life. Cities should provide a high quality of life in terms of housing and infrastructure but more importantly, they should provide economic opportunities that draw the most active ingredient of a city – economically active citizens pursuing upward economic mobility. Thus, a sustainable city should sustain its economy as much as its ecology. Climate change, global warming, and Mr Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, have led to sudden surge in attention on ecological sustainability and new-city planners in some cases are forgetting to provide the economic raison d’etre for cities.

Cities have historically sprung up around ports (New York, Mumbai, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles) and industrial hubs (Pittsburg, Detroit, Jamshedpur, and the Silicon Valley belt of cities). In some cities, the more traditional manufacturing and port industries have evolved into service oriented city economies such as the financial hubs of New York, London and Hong Kong. However, in each case, economic activity, and not housing and malls attracted citizens. Real estate developers followed the money and the people, coming in to build houses, office spaces and malls resulting in modern day icons for the city – vibrant skylines, shopping centers and restaurants.

Today, we see new-city planners pursuing these icons of cities instead of pursuing sustainable cities. They invest in high-rise buildings even when land is plentiful and occupancy is low in cities because they want to build the commonly understood vision of a city. What they need to realize is that focusing on developing economic activity is more vital than building tall buildings. Tall buildings and restaurants may keep citizens in a city but on their own will rarely provide a reason for a family to uproot themselves from their homes and move to a brand new city. They also have to keep industries relevant. Building a financial hub where there are shallow financial markets makes much less sense than building a port where there are natural coastlines and proximity to markets. These are obvious but oft-missed factors that we observe in the development of new cities.

I earlier mentioned that there is a surge in attention on ecological sustainability. I do not dispute that this is a good thing and that city developers and urban planners should continue the focus on ecological sustainability. However, I do not think an ecologically sustainable collection of residential and commercial units can be faithfully called an eco-city. At best, it may be an “eco-suburb”. Thankfully the three letters “eco” are common to economy as well as ecology and I think a city should have true economic purpose to exist and do so in harmony with the ecology around it. This would be a true “eco-city”.

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