Green Urbanism: Learning from the world

A necessary evolution of cities

Modern urban life — at least, the technology that makes it all possible — has made a stranger of nature.

Occasionally nature intrudes into our lives through weather or natural calamity. And, while some like venturing into the wild to play or relax, after the weekend is over, it’s back to the urban silo.

In the magical world of the city, needs are invisibly met. Flick a switch and “presto” night is day. Twist a faucet and clean, drinkable water gushes, seemingly without limit. Flush a toilet and stinky sewage disappears out of sight and mind. At the store, shelves teem with fresh and preserved foods that appear, manna-like, each new day.

And the sheer ease with which all this happens makes it easy to forget that outside the silo lays a vast network of utilities and infrastructures that continuously work to extract raw materials from nature, transform them into useful products to deliver goods to us, creating garbage in the process.

The problem is that our flick-and-flush existence conceals many of the destructive effects our consumption patterns create and the fragile state of the ecological systems that underpin them. And being physically removed from nature fosters psychological detachment. So much so that when confronted with alarming claims that could conflict with our daily safe, healthy and abundant personal existence, we often ignore them, or worse, deny them.

This city-nature rift perhaps explains why we continue to build as we do. A city of far-flung suburbs and drive-to malls is unsustainable and everybody knows it: planners, politicians, people and even developers (although they don’t typically admit it publicly). But things are changing out there and to adapt we’re going to have to change as well.


That’s why building cities as we have in the past is not an option for deep thinkers like Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia. He believes the future of our species is intimately tied with our ability to coexist with the natural world.

For Beatley, a world expert on city-nature relations and author of 15 booksincluding Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities (2000) and Green Urbanism Down Under (2009)this means reorganizing cities to satisfy our needs for clean, healthy and safe places to live and to balance the environmental impacts created in the process with the planet’s capacity for renewal.

The solution, or part of it, lies in what Beatley calls “green urbanism,” a way of meshing urban development with environmental and social goals in a manner that unites rather than divides communities.

Green urbanism is a necessary evolution of cities, says Beatley.

First, he points out that humans have become an urban species. Globally, more than 50 per cent of us now live in cities and that number is quickly growing. By 2050, according to United Nations’ statistics, the number is expected to reach 70 per cent. And forecasts show that by then, seven billion people, about the same as the global population today, will be living in cities.

This leads to the second point. If we plan and build our cities in the future the way we’re doing now, Beatley fears the environmental systems that support us will be fatally compromised. And historical problem-solving techniques won’t be able to fix them. That’s what makes green urbanism different. It takes a longer view by creating cities that don’t outpace nature’s ability to sustain them.

Green urbanism has a number of design principles and characteristics, some practical, some inspirational. One is to reduce ecological footprint, which measures the amount of resources we consume and the rate at which we consume them. Reducing consumption and being more efficient with resources helps reduce ecological footprint. Footprint analysis is used to compare the consequences of certain choices, such as the difference between commuting by car or rail.

Another is to live within local limits. For example, in Calgary the availability of water will eventually limit our ability to develop. At current flow rates our rivers can support up to three million people, a population the city is expected to reach by 2075. What then? And if the predictions of global warming (hotter, dryer weather) come true, we may breach those limits much sooner. Other places, naturally, face different local challenges.

A third recognizes that cities — though man-made — function like living organisms and play an important role in the global ecology. City planners who practise green urbanism look to nature for inspiration in developing ways to manage our impacts. For example, nothing in nature is wasted. One organism’s waste is another’s breakfast. Using this principle helps green cities find creative ways to organize urban living while reducing environmental impacts.

These principles point to a strong ethical component in green urbanism. Admitting our connections with the natural world, and other people, forces us to shed our urban cocoons, stand up and take shared responsibility for a greater common good.

Green urbanism is different everywhere. Every place has different challenges and each is shaped by a unique blend of geographic, cultural, political and economic factors influencing the development of local institutions and processes.

And no one place is doing everything right. “Even the most exemplary cities fall short,” says Beatley. But, he maintains that if we focus on what is being done right in North American cities, which are much less advanced in many ways, we would likely move closer to green urbanism.


One place to see how these things could come together is Freiburg, Germany, a mid-sized city of 220,000 inhabitants nestled along the western flank of the Black Forest. Under the leadership of world-renowned urban planner Wulf Daseking, Freiburg has become a model for 21st century green urban development.

In a presentation he gives to visiting planners, politicians and students, Daseking begins not with the expected overview of Freiburg’s impressive environmental and social accomplishments, but with a world tour of favelas, barrios and slums — from Rio to Manila to Mumbai. “We are all connected” he begins, affirming the principles of green urbanism, “to each other and to the environment.”

And Freiburg’s accomplishments are impressive. Long before the term ecological footprint had been invented, Freiburg was already developing a long-term plan to reduce the city’s crippling fossil-fuel dependence.

Freiburg had a two-pronged strategy. The first encouraged the development of solar power, both as an alternative-energy source and as the focus of a new industry. Governments of all levels provided incentives to help the new industry along, from guaranteeing minimum prices for green energy, to programs that helped businesses and homeowners convert. A solar research institute opened in 1981, which, in turn, attracted a cluster of private corporations, government agencies and national and international sustainability organizations — all focused on solar power — to Freiburg. Today the city is festooned with solar panels, on homes, government facilities and businesses.

The second strategy was to radically reformulate the goals of town planning. Instead of building more car-dependent suburbs, the city invested heavily to create a high-quality transit network consisting of trams, buses, bikes and foot traffic. New residential development, both in suburbs and the inner city, was designed so that residents could get along without cars if they desired. Trams linking new neighbourhoods were up and running even as the first residents were moving in.

Daseking admits the new system isn’t cheap. “We pay high taxes but we don’t mind,” he says. “We get good value for our money and at the same time we take responsibility to help preserve the environment.”

But it isn’t simply technology. The innovation was that local government, in its role as master planner, facilitated collaboration between developers and residents in the creation of new neighbourhoods. This process transformed development goals from focusing on maximizing profit — based on the ideology of competition — to one maximizing the well-being of residents.

At every stage of the process — beginning with the initial design and not ending until the final nail was pounded — citizens were consulted, progress was assessed and sustainability goals were scrutinized. From the largest vision to the smallest detail, ordinary people discarded their indifference and claimed responsibility for planning their city. And herein lays the secret and the hope of green urbanism.

Many other places are equally innovative. For example in the early 1970s, Curitiba, Brazil, a city similar in size to Calgary, was on the same auto-dependent track as we are. But, inspired by a visionary group of architects, planners and engineers, the city has created one of the most successful examples of green urbanism. As in Freiburg the strategy had both social and environmental elements.

On the environmental side, since the ’70s Curitiba has re-established natural drainage systems in parks to manage flooding. Some 1.5 million trees have been planted and quality green space has increased fivefold. A large flock of sheep maintains city grasslands.

In the social realm Curitiba has a comprehensive recycling program that involves citizens in poor neighbourhoods who can exchange trash for bus vouchers, theatre tickets, food and school supplies. Downtown, the main car-corridor (similar to Calgary’s Sixth Avenue) was transformed into a thriving pedestrian street with many shops and services. Curitiba’s flagship achievement is its low-cost transit system that carries two million passengers a day. Since 1974 Curitiba’s population doubled, yet car usage has declined 30 per cent.

Another example is Växjö, a city of 85,000 in southern Sweden that began a trek toward carbon neutrality in the late ’90s. Their idea was to use waste from the local timber industry to power a high-efficiency incinerator to generate electricity and create enough heat to meet most of the town’s needs — all with no new carbon emissions. Following nature’s example of using waste from one process to power another, Växjö’s experience shows how major environmental milestones can be achieved without sacrificing quality of life. Today the village of Eden Mills, Ont. is striving to become Canada’s first carbon-neutral jurisdiction.

In Helsinki, Finland, a winter city, what was once Europe’s biggest glass and ceramics manufacturing complex has been transformed into a green community called Arabianrantra. Home to 10,000 residents the new urban village contains a cluster of small- and medium-sized creative arts businesses employing around 5,000 people and a university campus for 6000 students. Following the city’s master plan, diverse groups of interests including city social housing, not-for-profit groups representing seniors and the disabled, students and private firms developed their own properties. Architectural competitions were required for every individual parcel. High quality green spaces and community gardens are around every corner and 10 per cent of the building budget has been ear-marked for public art. Arianranta is serviced by an innovative high-speed communications network and owns and operates a high-efficiency district heating network which distributes heat to homes and businesses negating their need to install a furnace. The community borders a protected wetland and is connected to central Helsinki by an exclusive bike route. As well, two tram lines service the community.

And that brings us back home to face the fact that our city-silo is threatening us. Although we hear about global warming, biodiversity loss, peak oil, threatened fisheries, looming water shortages, etc., inside we have little personal sense of the enormity of their effects. It’s even harder here because our prosperity has bankrolled an especially comfortable refuge to nestle in.

And although, happily, many innovative, creative and indeed pioneering schemes are blooming in Calgary, it can be argued that most have been isolated initiatives rather than the result of a co-ordinated strategy.

But, with a new mayor, a new development plan that points in the right direction, and citizen groups such as Sustainable Calgary and CivicCamp (among others) that have already made the commitment to reconnect with nature and people, perhaps things are turning around.

In the end, Calgary may do the right thing. The question is: Will nature force us to change or will we find a way to come together and change ourselves before it does?



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