Building Cities from Scratch: Is There a Formula for a Sustainable City?

November 2, 2015

Busy Crossing Street in Hong Kong, China. CREDIT: Shuttersock

Every year, thousands of tourists visit the small university town of Freiburg, Germany. Nestled in the Black Forest close to the borders with France and Switzerland, Freiburg's primary draw is not its picturesque location, nor its charming town center. Rather, you will find these visitors taking a tram out of the town center and gathering on the car-free streets of Vauban, a small residential district built in the 1990s on the site of a former French military barracks. In Vauban, residents park their cars in garages at the edges of the district, leaving the neighborhood largely car-free. Buildings are designed to use minimal energy, or even generate power through the use of solar collectors. Landscaped storm water runoff channels provide a place for children to play and reduce the need for expensive flood management infrastructure.

Vauban's draw is its renown as an example of good practice in sustainable or "green" urbanism. Vauban and Freiburg's sustainability achievements have been lauded by numerous institutions and experts, including the United Nations and the late, eminent urban planning scholar Sir Peter Hall. These accolades, as well as active promotion of Freiburg's sustainability credentials by the city itself, have resulted in the town's popularity as a site for urban sustainability study tours. According to the founder of Innovations Academy, a company dedicated to organizing and guiding study tours in Freiburg, the city hosts approximately 20,000 such visitors per year. These include everything from municipal officials from China wishing to see what lessons they can take back to their own cities, to German schoolchildren.

These study tourists are attracted to Vauban in large part because it is one of the very few urban districts built from scratch with the explicit objective of being highly sustainable. Freiburg's visitors are often on study tours visiting other, similar projects including, in Sweden, Stockholm's Hammarby Sjostad district and in Germany, Hamburg's HafenCity. The number of international visitors flocking to these projects each year demonstrates the global nature of the market for urban planning and policy ideas. Well-known projects do not come solely from Europe—Bogotá, Colombia's Transmilenio bus rapid transit system (BRT) is often cited as an inspiration for sustainable, low-cost public transit systems around the world.

These examples are evidence of the fact that increasingly, city leaders, planners, and developers are looking far and wide for ideas and inspiration. One of the drivers of this desire to learn from places like Vauban is a question that is critically important for our planet's ever more urbanized future. How do you design a sustainable urban area from scratch, and how can we learn from places that have already attempted to do so?

One group of people who are particularly interested in exploring this question are the architects, planners, property developers, and engineers tasked with designing the next generation of sustainable cities and neighborhoods. They have played an important role in the recent increase in proposals for new urban developments designed along sustainability principles. These sustainable urban projects, from small urban infill projects to entire new towns sometimes called eco-cities, are today an international phenomenon. These include, in China, the Tangshan Caofeidian International Eco-City, planned with the input of the Swedish engineering firm Sweco; in India, the privately developed sustainable city of Lavasa, master-planned by the American architecture firm HOK; and, in Abu Dhabi, the zero carbon Masdar City, master-planned by the British architecture firm Foster and Partners.

While these projects are appearing in a diverse array of locations around the world, they are largely conceived and designed by a small, elite group of international architecture, engineering, and planning firms based in North America and Europe, sometimes referred to as the global intelligence corps (GIC). Between 2010 and 2012, I carried out a research project investigating the role that the GIC play in the international travels of ideas about how to create more sustainable urban areas. I interviewed more than 50 individuals, including members of the GIC from 13 different firms, their clients, and other stakeholders with experience in developing sustainable urban areas. I also observed and participated in their work, reviewed the plans they produce, and joined a group of designers on a study tour of sustainable urban projects around Europe.

As the market for sustainability becomes global so does the market for the global intelligence corps. Practitioners with experience working on sustainable urban development projects are in demand. Their clients, usually city officials and property developers, often believe that when it comes to sustainable approaches, local expertise is lacking. In addition, foreigners are often hired specifically for their "global" approach and aesthetic. The "brand value" of retaining a prestigious firm or celebrity architect to design a project can help increase a project's profile and obtain the political support and investment necessary to move forward.

Working abroad is increasingly a core part of the business model for many GIC firms. International work can help grow the business, particularly when domestic markets retract. There are also reputational benefits to working on high-profile projects abroad. Projects branded as "eco" or zero-carbon often attract a great deal of publicity. Many firms also find working in a foreign context satisfying, as new markets offer opportunities to try novel and innovative designs that would be less likely to be built in more traditional markets.

The demand for the GIC's services, and their eagerness to supply them, has placed them in an influential position in the urban development industry. The industry is rapidly evolving with a constant stream of new ideas and innovations emerging from places all over the world. In this context, the GIC plays an important role, serving as knowledge intermediaries. They are responsible for keeping abreast of the state of the art in urban planning, design, and engineering. If a client wants to design a project sustainably, their role is to explain the available options, help their clients understand how they might apply these to a particular project, and develop an actionable plan to take the project forward.

This description of the GIC's role demonstrates that we are far from the days when ideas from elsewhere were introduced under conditions of extreme power disparities, such as colonialism. Rather, in the contemporary urban development industry ideas travel in the context of a commercial transaction in which practitioners are hired to provide a service. This matters because in such a context, ideas about sustainability need to be translated and communicated in such a way that they appeal to the client's interests. These interests may be a genuine belief in the value of sustainable urbanism, but are also likely to include attracting investment, tenants, and government approval, and being able to market their project.

I suggest that there are two things we can learn from the GIC's work that speak to the questions I posed above. Firstly, the aim when harnessing ideas from elsewhere should not be to import a wholesale model. The plans prepared by GIC firms tend to cite a small group of precedents and examples of "good practice" that sustainable urban projects should aspire to, such as Freiburg and the other projects mentioned above. While these places may be inspirations for many, they should remain as precisely that—an inspiration rather than a model. As Shanghai's failed experiment with creating a series of new towns modeled on European cities demonstrates, the wholesale import of a particular approach to sustainable urbanism, no matter how successful it is in situ, is not a viable approach to urban development.

Secondly, when ideas about how to create sustainable urban places travel, they must be flexible and high-level enough to be adapted. My research found that there are some fairly standardized principles of urban sustainability that practitioners attempt to share internationally. These include elements of Freiburg's approach, such as planning policies that encourage dense residential areas and mixing land uses (such as putting apartments above shops), or prioritizing investment in public transit to discourage automobile usage. Approaches to implementing these principles, however, must be informed by context. For example, Vauban, which houses 139 persons per hectare, is considered dense by North American standards but is very low density compared to many cities in Asia. Similarly, in a small city like Freiburg with excellent public transit, not owning a car may be practical and even desirable. The same is unlikely to be true for a resident of an American suburb, or for a middle-class resident of a Chinese city who aspires to the same lifestyle enjoyed by his or her counterparts in wealthy nations.

Lessons gleaned from places like Vauban must be seen as a starting point to the development of a set of high-level principles robust enough to remain relevant through the years that can take to build a new urban development, and ultimately, a sustainable future.


Key references

"Globalizing Sustainable Urbanism: The Role of International Masterplanners," Rapoport, E. (2015)

"Globalization and Urban Change: Capital, Culture, and Pacific Rim Mega-Projects," Kris Olds (2001) 

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