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Eco-cities: Fad or a sustainable development option?

Author: Kine Nordstokka
Published Date: 23 July 2012

By Nicholas You and Sjoerd Louwaars

Paper presented at the World Cities Summit, Singapore, 3 July 2012


The eco-city concept can, by no means, be considered a fad. A fad, by definition, is limited in its duration and its influence on thinking and human behaviour. The term “eco-city” dates back to the 1970s and has been gaining ground, albeit unevenly, ever since. The concept is generally attributed to Richard Register, the co-founder of Urban Ecology (1975) and the eco-city movement, later to become Ecocity Builders (1992). While these dates coincide with the emergence of the concept of “sustainable development” (Stockholm 1972) and its global action plan (Agenda 21 - Rio 1992), the two concepts have different origins and intended outcomes. The purpose of this paper is to briefly describe the genesis of the various city movements including the eco-city movement, how the latter compares with other movements and initiatives, and where we stand today in terms of meeting the sustainability challenges facing our increasingly urbanised and rapidly urbanising world.


Ecological metaphors have a long history within western paradigms of urbanism. During the Renaissance the notion of universal harmony played a major role in ideal city plans (Rosenau, 1983), often using the notion of the perfect city as the embodiment of the perfect human body.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the cities in the west, as a result of rapid and unplanned growth during the industrial revolution, were considered as a diseased body needing drastic treatment. Modern empiricists turned to science in an attempt to develop the city along lines of planned social and spatial coherence (Wilson, 1983). The modernist planning school was inspired by the idea of the city as an industrial machine. Urban planners and sanitary engineers attempted to transform cities into rational spatial models with a strong emphasis on end-state plans as expressed in the form of master plans.

Late in the 20th century, post-modernist ideals emerged in western urban planning and design. These were much more focused on the city as a market and made up of with diverse identifies and cultures. The post-modernist vision of the city was a strong reaction against the machinist vision of the city and underscored the organic process by which cities evolve (Louwaars, 2011).

While in theory both schools of thought professed natural processes as metaphors for the city, the end result in practice was a negation of nature and, at times, nature’s destruction.

Much of urban planning and design practice today originates from one or both of these schools of thought; their principles remain embedded and are recognizable in contemporary urban planning models worldwide.

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