Can Ecological Urbanism be a planning tool for an ecologically sustainable and liveable world?

A guest post by Annick Labeca, contributing to the second Ecological Urbanism discussion hosted by Annick Labeca, Taneha Bacchin, dpr-barcelona and UrbanTick.


Numerous studies have pointed out that massive urbanisations [urban agglomerations and density, industrial processes, urban systems for transport, waste dispersal, heating and cooling] have created global ecological conditions that cities are facing today, and will face in the future. As far as we are challenging critical issues such as global warming [water shortages, climate change, environmental disasters, ozone, sanitation issues, etc.], cities size will pursue their growth if we don’t call for new ways of building cities. If we don’t find any solutions to improve living conditions of population inside and outside cities, not only will it be more and more difficult to live in the cities but also migrations to cities will increase rapidly, with the risk of serving to worsen urbanity. A growing number of research, among others Ecological Urbanism or else OMA’s project Roadmap 2050, Europe, Urban Age/LSE, also younger architectural think tanks such as InfraNet Lab, argue that it is urgent to draw clear objectives which will be to transform the built environment into a more liveable, sustainable, climate-friendly environment with positive outcomes.

The core elements that are derived from these studies can be summarized in one important point: the need for a planning tool that will allow the reinvention of opportunities and mechanisms to build existing cities and future cities. To a large extent, the question, I would like to ask, is whether or not Ecological Urbanism can be this planning tool. My opinion will be that it can, but, if, and only if, it has the capacity to respond to a certain number of criteria that I will expose briefly in this paper. This text will attempt to explain the reason of this urgency. Precisely, it aims at explaining why Ecological Urbanism must be considered as a planning tool, that is to say, as a conduct, a transmitter and a receiver in order to transform cities into sustainable, liveable and accessible [to all] cities. In this context, Ecological Urbanism will not only function as a planning tool, but also as a political and social tool as well as it needs a frame to be operational, that is to say, a global governance.

Even though this paper will only laid down the first guidelines of a discussion on the need for the creation of a global governance for cities, needless to say that without a clear and global governance that will take in charge all the aspects we need for a best living condition, that is to say, an access to the city, an improvement of mobility [which supposes, we will see, an improvement of urban system of transport], and zero carbon emission environment, etc. More than local impacts, this global governance must take in charge cities from North to South, from advanced cities to developing cities with same objectives. Without the setup of this governance as a global scale, our efforts for an improvement of living conditions in cities as well as the transformation into ecologically sustainable cities will fail. What I want to say is that cities need, indeed, a frame that can make the transformation into ecologically sustainable cities easier and accessible to the whole population of the world. It supposes that we change our ways of using urban environment. This is probably [and the Kyoto and Copenhagen Protocols have proved it] the most difficult to do.

Different systems of cities contain different mental temporalities. In that context, we need to speak in terms of scaling [territories, as well as sectors such as buildings, to quote but a few]. As Saskia Sassen mentioned at the conference “Cities, Design and Climate Change” organised by the London School of Economics in November 2009, scaling must not be understood in terms of micro and macro. It is more complex. Scaling must be understood in terms of temporalities and, subsequently, in terms of internal components. This paper will focus on three scales, buildings sector, territory [precisely land use], and human’s use of city.

Firstly, I would like to go back to an initiative that has been launched in April 2010. OMA and the European Climate Foundation have co-developed the project Roadmap 2050, which objectives were to set a design for a liveable and affordable Europe with less CO2 emissions. Precisely, Roadmap 2050 aims at reducing Europe’s CO2 emissions to 80-95 % by 2050. This is very ambitious. Other Reports confirmed Roadmap 2050 when diagnosing transports and building sectors as the most important CO2 emitters. We here will focus on the building sector, but it will be urgent to include other CO2 emitters like the transports sector. Another aspect is the high consumption of world’s resources. Cities are getting larger and larger and will go on facing with population growth. These growths will call for massive urbanisations to dwell these populations and to develop infrastructures for populations as well as corporations. Yet cities are challenging issues that ask for a restriction of its growth, global warming are among other issues but probably one of the most critical issues that need to be urgently settled.

A growing number of studies on CO2 emissions reduction, Ecological footprint, buildings footprint, such as those of Wackernagel and Rees, van der Bergh and Verbruggen, Kuik and Verbruggen to quote but a few, we can also add OMA’s project Roadmap 2050 and recent Ecological Urbanism to this list, point out those efforts. These studies bear in mind that the search for an operational tool for a sustainable city should be guided by a number of specific criteria. We will expose a few of them.

The organisation of this brief article is as follows. The first section Clean your City! discusses the urgency for a liveable and sustainable city. We will borrow the concept of “cities as a matter of scalars” that Saskia Sassen exposed in her paper for the conference “Cities, Design, and Climate Change” (November 2009, LSE). For this, and as our paper deals with architecture and urban planning, we will be taking the issue of building footprint as one example among others. The core of this sector is to advance the desire for a better city and environment design in the future. We will see that while it is urgent to shift into an ecologically sustainable city, the objectives, yet, require efforts if we want to resolve these issues that we are challenging. These efforts are numerous. The two most important efforts are the need for a planning tool, the creation of a global governance, and the inclusion of the social movement in the environmental discussion. Sector 2 Space and Ecology pursues the discussion by interrogating the spatial dimension of the impact of built environment, with the notion of land use. The core element of this section is the shift into “Minimising land use, Maximising regional land productivity”. We shall see that this trend for a return to the village is not naïve or ironic. On the contrary, it provides a new vision of land use. Now that cities pose serious issues in terms of size, more and more architects and urban planners seem to have new interests into regional land. The third and last section The Place of the Population in the Discussion of Ecologically Sustainable Cities concludes by offering a critique, focusing on these tools that should relate to clear policy objectives, interpretations and be understandable to non-specialists. The question is how to include human’s need in the environmental discussion? How can Ecological Urbanism bring first solutions to improve local living conditions? I cannot of course answer to these questions; I can only expose some facts that will help to encourage a growing number of initiatives from architects to local associations to help to improve living conditions.

Clean your city!

The alteration in the global environment has recently become critical issues. Copenhagen Protocol, and before Kyoto Protocol, has showed that it is indeed urgent to develop technologies that will help to reduce Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Needless to say that the large global scale issues (climate change, environmental disasters, water shortages, etc.) have immediate and local impacts. At worst, global warming would increase these ecological implications. Implementing sizable and sustained reduction of GHG emissions would significantly reduce the consequences of global warming, that is to say, the pace and the overall amount of water shortages, environmental disasters, climate change. This solution is supposed to be one of the most feasible solutions proposed by not only professionals in architecture and engineering but also specialists of ecology, economy, even politicians.

Figure 1. CO2 Emissions per Country in mmTC shows CO2 emissions and rank per country.

These bars confirm the first rank place of China followed by U.S. Firstly we recognize that the world emits 29,195 mmTC [Million Metric Tons of CO2]. The analysis per country shows that China that meets an urbanisation in a large scale is ranked at first emitter with 6,017.69mmTC [2006] followed by U.S. with 5,902.75mmTC [2006]. Japan which biocapacity decreases while ecological footprint increases emits 1,246.76 mmTC [2006] and is ranked fourth. Countries like Brazil, India or United Arab Emirates, which are facing with an urbanisation boom, increase their CO2 emissions with respectively 377.24mmTC [ranked 17, 2006 and 2007], 1,293.17 mmTC [ranked 4, 2006 and 2007] and 149.52mmTC [ranked 31, 2006 and 2007]. But engaging the question of Greenhouse gas emissions [GHG] can be clearer if we go deeper in the analysis. Here re-appears the question of scaling. I am now considering the case of building. We all admit that cities as a complex system. Speaking of cities as CO2 emitters is inadequate if we don’t take into account its components, such as building. Cities use 75% of world’s resources but occupy only 2% of the world’s territory. To illustrate my assumption, my focus will be residential and commercial buildings.

Two examples illustrate my assumption: the first one focuses on United States (U.S.); the second one on Japan. Various reports indicate U.S. buildings sector as responsible for GHG emissions and energy consumption. The amounts which follow show the urgency to consider a solution for a massive GHG emissions reduction: 50.1% of total annual U.S. energy consumption, 49.1% of total annual US GHG emissions and 74.4% of total annual U.S. electricity consumption [note: reference. Other countries like Japan recently made serious efforts to reduce GHG emissions, in particular, in sectors like buildings, precisely residential and commercial buildings that are the most responsible for energy consumption and GHG emissions. I later go deeper with the problem of land-use. Japan building sector emits about 35% of the total amount of CO2 emission and half of this 35% concerns the residential sector (17,5%) (precisely, more than 35% of the total amount of CO2 emission seem to be emitted during the construction phase and the building’s use phase).

To respond to these challenges, efforts have been focused on the wish to cut countries emissions. Recent Copenhagen Protocol has showed that leaders wanted to reach rapidly these objectives. In the U.S. case, the decision of cutting emissions 25% to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% to 95% below 1990 levels by 2050 reveals these efforts to constrain global warming within 2°C. Recently President Barack Obama has called for an 83% reduction of US GHG emissions below 2005 levels by 2050, which equates to approximately 80% below 1990 levels. Another case is Japan. Japan wants to make the reduction of CO2 emissions as one of their objectives for 2050. Various projects such as Fiber City 2050 undertaken by Japanese Urban planner Ôno Hidetoshi are among these recent efforts to transform existing cities into ecologically sustainable, and zero carbon emissions cities. The major solutions that are recently advanced are various: recycling urban waste, using natural ventilation, developing renewable energy and public transport.

What we can say at this stage of the discussion is that all these efforts inquire out that cities have been thought as an environment of damage processes. They have not been thought intentionally as environment of damage processes. But they have produced an environment of damage processes. Saskia Sassen noted that as world increases asymmetrically, it is polluted on cities, and that cities development and growth have, and will go on having, severe impacts on natural elements such as water, ground, etc. It is consequently urgent to rethink our way of building cities whilst asking us to reinvent new opportunities and new instruments for planning. It can be to do with existing cities, precisely existing technologies as suggested OMA in its Roadmap 2050 document. It can also be to invent new technologies that can rapidly respond to the critical issues of global warming. The setup of a global governance of cities, I mentioned above, requires to address cities, as Saskia Sassen argued, as neighbourhood. “Cities as neighbourhood” is a complex concept. But not taking “cities as neighbourhood” for granted will make our challenge be in vain. By reducing buildings CO2 emissions, as a first solution, can be an example of her concept of “cities as neighbourhood”. But how can Ecological Urbanism participate to the buildings CO2 emissions reduction?

Space and Ecology

Another example of critical issues is that of land use. I agree with many specialists like Richard Burdett and Saskia Sassen who argue that urbanisation must not be considered as a whole. This is not that urbanisation has produced damages. This is a type of urbanisation that we have produced which produced damages. The concentration on cities that produced cities with enormous size is an illustration of this type of urbanisation.

United States’ Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, © Global Foodprint Network

China’s Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, © Global Foodprint Network

Japan’s Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, © Global Foodprint Network

United Arab Emirates’ Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, © Global Foodprint Network

All the above images shows the tracks the per-person resource demand [Ecological Footprint] and resource supply [Biocapacity] per country. Biocapacity varies each year with ecosystem management, agricultural practices [such fertilizer use and irrigation], ecosystem degradation, and weather [after The Footprint Network].

Having a large number of cities with multimillion populations has been the target of the 20th century urbanisation. An example is urban agglomeration. Urban agglomerations, argued Saskia Sassen in her paper Human Settlement Development, are “today the engine of consumption of the world’s environment”. She added that they occupy only 2% of the world’s land. Yet they use over 75% of the world’s resources. Japan can be an interesting example insofar as its footprint increases per year while its biocapacity decreases. Tokyo agglomeration [or Greater Tokyo Area] with its population of 43,203,574, its area which covers 36,889.84 km2 and its density of 1,171.2 person/km2 [2010 estimations] is an example among others of a highly use of the country’s resources. Tokyo, according UN estimation is the second largest in the world in terms of built-up landmass at 7,800 km2 (while the urban area surrounding New York reaches 8,700 km2). It is clear that humans now consume nearly half of the world. Hence a growing number of research which call for the need of the use of Ecological footprint as an instrument to reduce human footprint, and to a large extent, building footprint [and of course transport, energy]. These factors justify the need for a shift into a regional land productivity as Jeroen van der Bergh and Hermen Verbruggen suggest. For them, “the ideal situation is […] a level of population and economic development that “uses” more land than is available in the region.” Which supposes to develop a regional land-use that can be accessible even for population and trade [we all know that cities = economies and economies participated, if not to say encouraged, cities growth and concentration of resources and fields in terms of human, economics and politics]. My assumption is that new policies should take into account these two principles: minimising land use and maximising regional land productivity, as new instruments of planning. These instruments can provide new ways of interact with environment. Minimising land use supposes a new spatial organisation, that is to say: other spatial forms should be invented or updated. And that supposes that we plan a new type of urbanisation. In that sense, spatial optimisation of land use [regional land use] through architecture and urbanism can contribute to sustainability, if and only if we don’t use regional resources [in other words, we must avoid mistaken we made with the 20th century urbanisation]. Yet it may be possible if we produce a planning tool that allows to do with, and will restrain the use of the available land. Yet the obvious question is under conditions. Which conditions? We cannot answer to this question yet. We can however provide keys that can help us for an orientation towards a liveable, sustained place. Doing so would help to reduced, if not to say, decrease Cities size. The Japanese case, particularly Tokyo’s case, is interesting. Residential land dominates other land-uses with a 58.9% of total land-use. The recent high speculation on land revealed the limitation of an urbanisation based on economy. This type of urbanisation has dominated the 20th century urban policies. Basing urbanisation on economy [if not to say trade] does not take into account the environmental and ecological aspects. Now debates on land-use in Japan focused on another form of using land: vertical densities, for many urban planners and economists, can provide a solution for a better use of land, if not to say an optimisation of land without causing a urban sprawl. The other solution that emerged recently of maximising land regional productivity appears to be a more sustainable solution because it permits to reduce the overload on cities which suppose to move cities resources, such as trade, human, to quote a few toward regional land. As Jeroen van der Bergh and Hermen Verbruggen argued, “trade based on sustainable land use is more desirable — and peaceful”, depending on the creation of an ecologically economics capable to accept that city is not the only place for trading. Recently concepts such as “ecological economics”, “green economics” have emerged as well as “green architecture” without a clear explanation. This paper will not define these concepts and I invite the reader to read specialists’ research, among others Urban Age organised by The London School of Economics, that is to say, Richard Burdett, Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett.

The place of the Population in the Discussion of Ecologically Sustainable Cities

We have seen above that, if we want to produce sustained cities, cities must be considered as global governances. But this may be possible if we integrate non-specialists in the production of liveable and sustainable existing cities and future cities. If we don’t include the non-specialists (population), I am not sure that this shift can be possible. Recent studies such as Wackernagel and Rees’s Ecological Footprint, Jeroen van der Bergh and Hermen Verbruggen’s proposal for an ecological footprint as instrument that will depend on a minimisation of land use but a maximisation of regional land productivity inquire out that the ideal situation is a level population development that will use land differently than we have done last century. But the integration of the population into the process of ecologically sustainable city needs a frame that provide keys for a better understandable of the shift into a sustained cities, that is, ecological urbanism is supposed to need an educational approach that permit to all of us to access to sustainability. Gottlieb’s theory posits that we have to turn discussion of environment into “a discussion of social movements in response to the urban and industrial forces of the past hundred years.”

Indeed, as I previously wrote above, these large global scale issues, that are warming, ozone and emissions, will have serious implications on the society. But another issue will have a profound impact, in particular at a social scale. Inadequate Sanitation and hazardous indoor air quality will have a far more direct fatal impact on large sectors of the world’s population. In this context, I agree with Gottlieb as well as Saskia Sassen on the assumption that the discussion of ecologically sustainable cities needs a rapid shift into the discussion of social movement mentioned above that will respond to the urban and industrial forces of the 19th and, especially, that of the 20th. Subsequently, sustainable and environmental questions have to be understood in terms of class, for an urban act depends on the participation of each member of the society. Otherwise, the sustainable city will still be enjoyed by the only wealthy class. Yet, a sustainable city with an excellent living condition asks for a combination of human needs and ecologically sustainability. Hence the creation of a planning tool than can be easily accessible to the whole populations, from the patricians to the non-specialists, from the wealthy class to the poorest class, from the advanced cities to the developing cities. In other words, Ecological Urbanism must act not only as a planning tool for a sustainable and liveable city but also as a conduit, a transmitter and a receiver.


To conclude I will borrow the formula for environmental pressure to write Ecological Footprint from Jeroen van der Bergh and Hermen Verbruggen as follows:

EF = P * C *(Er + Ex),

with P for population, C for (average) consumption per capita, and Ei for environmental pressure per unit of consumption. The latter amounts consist of regional (i=R) and external pressure (i=X). What we can retain from that formula is that Ecological footprint (EF) is the produce of pressure from Population, consumption, and the both variables: the regional and external pressure. To a certain extent, ecological footprint will go on growing if it is still planned on the stress from population and the average consumption. And to this formula we should add this variable G for cities and population growth,

EF= P*C*G*(Er+Ex).

This simple formula reveals the following:
a) the specific characteristics and effects of urbanisation and the deterioration of immediate and local environment;
b) their contribution to global scale issues [emissions, warming, disasters, ozone];
c) the environmental impacts of built-up and urban function on the biocapacity of the world. All these three aspects that we, unfortunately, exposed in this brief paper stress the importance of the setup of an instrument that will be able not only to take in charge the question of sustainable city but also will respond and correspond to the human needs. In other words, Ecological Urbanism as a planning tool must combine sustainability and human needs. Yet this objective of Ecological Urbanism as a planning tool can be achieved if, and only if, we decide to set up a global governance for cities within not only patricians but also non-patricians can access, within not only the North but the South can access. Can Ecological Urbanism be this instrument? This question is still open but a growing number of studies, initiatives that include all the scales of the city show a good direction to the set-up of a sustainable planning tool. Be it call Ecological Urbanism or not, this tool may be a first but important answer to challenge the growing numerous issues.

– The Footprint Network, in
– Robert Gottlieb (2005), Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, Island Press (Revised edition).
– Michael Grubb, 2003, “The Economics of the Kyoto Protocol”, World Economics, Vol 4, no. 3, July-September.
– Infranet Lab, in
– Diane M. Liverman, 2008, “Conventions of climate change: constructions of danger and the dispossession of the atmosphere”, Journal of Historical Geography, doi: 10.1016/j.jhg.2008.08.008.
– Peter Marcuse (1998), Sustainability is not enough. Environment and Urbanization, 10(2).
– OMA (2010), Roadmap 2050 Europe, in
– Hidetoshi Ôno, Fiber City Tokyo 2050, in
– Saskia Sassen, “Cities, Design and Climate Change”, paper conference, LSE, November 2009, [PDF]. A podcast is available at
– Saskia Sassen (unprecised), Human Settlement Development: The Central Role of Cities in our Environment’s Future-Constraints and Possibilities, Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems, in [PDF]
– UNEP Assessment Report, Part III Global and Future Implications.
– Urban Age/LSE (2009), Cities and Social Equit. Inequality, Territory and Urban Form, LSE, in [PDF]
– U.S. Green Building Council, Buildings and Climate Change.
– Jeroen C.J.M. van der Bergh, Harmen Verbrugen, 1998, Spatial Sustainability, Trade and Indicators: An Evaluation of the “Ecological Footprint”.
– Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, 1996, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, The New catalyst bioregional series, vol. 9, PA: New Society Publishers.
– Mathis Wackernagel, William Rees, 1997, Perceptual and structural barriers to investing in natural capital: Economics from an ecological footprint perspective. Ecological Economics, Vol. 20(1): 3-24.
– Rick Weiss, Rachel Wilhelm, Anne Waple, 2009, “New report provides authoritative assessment of National, regional impacts of global climate change. Details point to potential value of early, aggressive action”.


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