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Eco-cities and the Developing World

What makes up the green cities of tomorrow?

In the present day, issues of longevity, sustainability and environmental stewardship are at the forefront of both the scientific and political spheres.

As such, when we examine Jim O’Neill’s ‘BRIC’ acronym for developing countries, one must note that countries such as China and Brazil factor in these concerns whilst planning their future development and growth. Gradually, Luddite scepticism has been side lined, with technocrats being likely to play a more active role in the practical steps each of these countries take, in the future. 

By definition, these countries are still “developing” – in both abstract and tangible means – and as such they are in a position to put large-scale infrastructural foundations in place. Developing countries using technology to address issues of the future is not a new phenomenon.

Indeed, China has been investing in and developing ground-breaking initiatives such as the Green Wall (1977) and the Three Gorges Dam (1994) for decades – the former increasing global forest cover by twelve per cent, the latter altering the Earth’s rotation. Not only that, ‘eco-cities’ such as Curitiba in Brazil, have been present and pioneered in the developing world since the 1970s. 

The term ‘eco-city’ is more like descriptive rhetoric than scientific classification, and is perhaps deliberately ambiguous. There is an entire spectrum of what the term ‘eco-city’ could encompass, the full extent of which can be witnessed within China alone.

Here, the term has been applied whilst describing incremental measures, such as legislation that all new buildings must be fitted with solar panels. It has also been used within discourse on immediate, large-scale action, such as the proposed construction of Dongtan – an entirely new (and perhaps an example of a more orthodox model of) eco-city commissioned by Chinese investors in 2005.

The terminology remains universally unclear and this could be because with large-scale urban expansion having already occurred across the world, the transition can be made from a normal city to an orthodox eco-city.

In the aforementioned example of Dongtan – where each component will have been specifically built and assessed through an eco-friendly lens – the process is somewhat daunting. Thus, making the term ‘eco-city’ more fluid perhaps makes it more universally accessible. In turn, widespread change is more likely, even if it is incremental rather than wholesale.

This is not to say that eco-cities, in their orthodox form, are far-fetched. Eco-cities are viable, especially in developing countries; what is in question is the utility and scale of the technology that can be implemented.

For instance, even in cities that are built around being eco-friendly, technological mechanisms are not seen as an environmental panacea. Perhaps the best example of this would be Dongtan again, which was designed upon foundations of technology and advanced planning, but never actually left the drawing board – the proposed 2006 construction start date is still postponed to this day.

In contrast, Curitiba in Brazil continues to flourish some four decades after its rebirth as an eco-city. The key to its success, however, is the interplay of technological and socio-political mechanisms. Curitiba’s pastoral initiative means that its expanses of green spaces double up as natural flood-plains for the Uguacu river; its efficient Bus Rapid Transit System means the city centre is nigh on pedestrianised and the carinheiros initiative means that Curitiban citizens can exchange their general waste and recyclables for food and bus tokens.

By implementing these measures, Jaime Lerner – former architect and mayor of Curitiba – not only prepared the city for the transformation into eco-friendliness, but also, perhaps as importantly, he made the city’s inhabitants active participants in achieving this goal.

Looking to the future, a lot can be said for the role that technology will have in finding ‘green’ solutions. However, no technology is perfect and no model for an eco-city will be complete without taking account of the human element in every city.


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Image: iStock

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