Eco-Cities Take Root

The home — and the neighborhood — of the future is on its way.

Published Ocotber 29, 2007 by 
Source Lara Abrams Melman 

The home — and the neighborhood — of the future is on its way.

Coming soon to a market near you is a zero-carbon property, surrounded by a meandering stream that treats your wastewater and recycles it to you. The heat from the sun generates enough electricity to power the entire house. The green roof and smart walls of the house provide natural, radiant heating and cooling. You and your neighbors will bike or walk to work; you'll also have the option to car-share any of the electric vehicles at their charging stations.

This home of the future is coming, but you'll find it in China before it springs up in the U.S.

Ask Harrison Fraker, Dean of U.C. Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, and he'll tell you that China is the place you can make the fastest and most aggressive change. In a country where an estimated 60 percent of sewage is discharged untreated, a population that's soaring, and the rate of environmental destruction at an all time high, global warming pollution the cause for almost half a million deaths, with environmental damage costing China to the tune of $200 billion a year, they have reason to stop and make some serious changes.

Fraker's involvement began when Berkeley was invited to work with the planning and design institute of Tianjin to work on transit concepts for a light rail system. The city leaders wanted advice and prototypes for how neighborhoods could best take advantage of green transit options such as pedestrian bike shortcuts in developing green transit oriented neighborhoods.

This request alone marked a significant detour from the current model used for urban residential development in China: the SuperBlock, a model that relies on a centralized infrastructure of power plants and electric power lines, sewage treatment plants and sewers, and a sanitary water supply provided by the city or provincial utilities. These are typically gated communities with few entry points, and very little attention is placed on creating resource-efficient homes in the SuperBlock model. With 11 million SuperBlock units under construction per year, and it becomes clear how significant a toll these communities are taking on China's environment.

Enter the EcoBlock

What happens when you add to this scenario a couple of industry heavyweights on the level of Arup, the global consulting concern, the talent from a school like Fraker's, the international scrutiny coming from the fast-approaching 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a heavy dose of the best cleantech science can offer, including wind machines, PV technology and anaerobic digesters? Very quickly, a new model of development takes the place of the SuperBlock. Call it the EcoBlock.

Designed to be replicable to the masses, a concept that in reality puts minimal pressure on off-site infrastructure and the natural environment, this is the vision of the future taking shape today. Largely self sufficient in terms of energy and water use, EcoBlocks are carbon-neutral developments. Their layouts encourage walking, cycling and use of public transport. All wastewater is recycled on-site; energy generation is on-site and any energy generated on-site from waste, sun, and wind is used to treat rainwater and gray water and provide residents with high quality potable drinking water. Even food waste and landscaping waste will be converted into energy to power residents' homes.

Constructed wetlands and swales collect and treat water for reuse, serving the dual purpose of enhancing the aesthetic value of each neighborhood and creating green waste that can be transformed into energy within an on-site anaerobic digester. And EcoBlocks are designed to use 40 percent less energy than a standard development of its size.

Under a program called the Urban Sustainability Initiative, U.C. Berkeley has been working in China, researching technologies and design of sustainable communities to make the EcoBlock a reality, first as a prototype, but soon to spread across China.

A hugely collaborative effort, involving an interdisciplinary team put together by the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley, the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute and the Gordon Moore Foundation, the team has been working to integrate the best of clean technologies into the decision-making processes of urban areas throughout the developing world. In 2006, U.C. representatives met with officials from central and local governments in China to identify a site suitable for development of an EcoBlock prototype and settled on Qingdao, a 600-unit building that will be replicated eight and a half times across a 23 hectare (56 acre) plot of land.

The potential for environmental, social and health savings that the EcoBlock can deliver is just huge: if 18,333 600-unit EcoBlocks were built, it would keep 34 landfills, 42 power plants, 54 water treatment plants, and 51 wastewater treatment plants from being built, at a total cost savings of $38,737,185,000. In a pre-feasibility report on the EcoBlock conducted by ARUP in conjuction with the University of California at Berkeley and Huahui Designs, the company estimates that the Chinese government alone would save 1.3 percent of its GDP from not having to build additional infrastructure to meet demands for energy, clean water, sanitation and waste disposal – and that's not counting the savings from costs currently associated with treating environmental pollution associated health problems, which currently claims about 10 percent of the country's GDP.

The good news? The city loves the idea. The Ministry of Construction does, too. And, according to Fraker, the economics are such for at least one of the new eco-development concepts proposed, a property manager can turn an EcoBlock into a profitable business by charging homeowners for maintaining the energy, waste and water systems. Fraker says a number of big business interests are banking on it working, and the bidding wars have already begun.

"In the first 5,000 units, Siemens wants to run the neighborhood system," Fraker said. "And then it turns out that China's biggest appliance manufacturer — the Haier Corp. — is interested in being a developer, as a way to roll out all their energy conserving appliances and what they call their 'Smart Home' concept." Approval by the city of Qingdao and the Ministry of Construction would give such plans the green light.

From Fraker's perspective, such eco-city developments will require a completely different way of doing business — at least in the U.S. — because the way the system is set up currently, he says, is slanted heavily in favor of developing fast and getting out, with minimal responsibility for environmental impact over the long term. In other words, the developer relies on a centralized power supply and they just plug into it, develop, and hand the keys to the home owner, who ends up being the one who pays the bill(s) going forward, while the developer just sells and gets out. Eco-city developments, Fraker believes, will require some sort of property management with self-interest in operating and maintaining these different, distributed small scale systems.

Fortunately, it's getting easier to create eco-cities, and the inherent changes they bring with them conceptually. "Architects and planners are once again being recognized as key players in achieving a better word," says John Bilmon, "and we're now seeing some real progress in eco-building design and development."

Principles for Sustainable Development

Bilmon is Managing Director of PTW Architects and project director for the Watercube Project China is developing for the Beijing Olympics. In an interview, he said perhaps the biggest driver propelling the concept of eco-city design, architectural planning, and urban development are the Equator Principles, in no small part because they apply to the whole of project lifecycle and in most cases require operational monitoring after project completion and final investment by the firm.

A voluntary set of guidelines, based on environmental and social standards used by the International Finance Corporation, the Equator Principles were developed and adopted by banks for identifying and managing environmental and social issues in project finance lending, and have become the new market standard transforming project finance. To date, over 50 banks, based in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia, have joined the project, and together they are estimated to have arranged about 80 percent of project finance lending in 2003 alone.

Though the sun is currently shining on urban planners, incentives will be key to continuing to drive the adoption of green practices, by both developers and residents. Richard Register, founder of Ecocity Builders, based in Berkeley, Calif., believes the steps to an ecology of the economy include some basics like what he calls "The List" — of products and services and jobs that build and maintain an [an ecologically centered] designed economy, as well as those involved in the recycling of materials, and those that relate to organic and community farming and restoration of natural areas.

Register believes incentives packages are key to an ecologically centered economy — incentives including tax and zoning regulations as well as other laws and inducements like a personal commitment to buying "green" that encourages such products, services and businesses.

"Right now most incentives support vastly destructive automobile sprawl infrastructure," he says, adding, "we need to redesign our whole approach to building and maintaining cities if they are to be sustainable, and there are even more jobs and a higher quality of prosperity down that path. We have to have the courage to change, though." And that means changing the way incentives are handed out, and what incentives are handed down.

The good news is that incentive packages for local businesses (as well as bigger businesses) are clearly getting better. And because there are more incentive options available now than ever before, the business of selling green has become a very good business to be in.

Eco-Cities Now and in the Future

To spread the adoption of truly sustainable communities and spur shifts in behavior, it's going to be critical to bring down the price point on all these clean technologies that are cornerstones of urban design and eco-city development.

While John Bilmon sees a movement back to some of the more fundamental technologies in architecture — like the use of natural materials and water recycling systems, examining how air flow systems work best, and the impacts of these systems on buildings' occupants — he stresses the responsibility firms like his carry in trying to do the right thing, and trying to convince clients to also do the right thing.

"It is part of our responsibilities as mentors to continue to try to implement, in sometimes very trying political climates, the principles we know to be true," Bilmon says. "A foreign firm working abroad carries an exemplar responsibility to demonstrate appropriate responses to 'avant-garde' considerations. Foreign firms really can bring new ideas to projects without the constraints often imposed when one only works locally and falls into a pattern of providing pragmatic solutions often aimed at satisfying local considerations alone. Because of the scale of our projects, we must consider their broader urban and cultural impacts."

Harrison Fraker also sees cultural challenges as one of the next big steps in encouraging people to adopt eco-living around the globe. "One of the cultural issues [with the Chinese EcoBlocks] has to do with how powerful gated communities are from a marketing standpoint for the Chinese," he noted. "So we have to make these blocks develop identities that capture the imagination and satisfy the Chinese need to belong to a certain segment in the community."

New technologies will help shift patterns of behavior as well as environmental impact. Three-dimensional computer modeling systems are enabling architects, designers and planners to realize projects and structures in innovative ways, and advancements in telecommunications and energy efficiencies enable the creation of master-planned communities that are no longer limited by power lines and above-ground support features.

Eric Corey Freed, principal at the San Francisco-based organicARCHITECT, believes that looking at basic community principles is key to make big changes. "In truth," he says, "we need to focus our attention on public transit more than anything else. There have been few big ideas in public transit since the 1960s, and we are stuck in this 'chicken and egg' mentality of not being able to build it without ridership, not having ridership because it isn't built out. So technologies such as traffic monitoring and control systems as extremely important to incorporate into urban planning, architectural design and development today."

The effort didn't start so recently, and it's going to take a lot more to continue to re-green what mankind has taken away. And perhaps it's not so surprising that these next-generation communities are springing up in China, with its combination of dire environmental need and authoritarian government. But there's great potential for the future of eco-cities to take root around the globe.

Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at MIT, will tell you, as he told me, that the interest in and focus on eco-centric urban planning and architectural design has never been stronger; his classes on landscape architecture and urban planning are loaded with students deeply, profoundly concerned with environmental issues. "I see real reason for hope. These students — they'll be the decision-makers of tomorrow, affecting change, making the right choices for the environment, for urban planning, and they'll do it."

Lara Abrams-Melman is a Silicon Valley-based consultant on strategy and business development issues.