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Transforming cities - the eco-tech approach Print
iees_symposium_2012.jpgBy Bastian Etter, Switzerland

How can future cities become greener? How can we reconnect our urban living space to nature? What is green and what makes it green? Tempted by the idea of simply peeling off a city's concrete cocoon, to revert to its natural functions and forms, the International Ecological Engineering Society debated on visions and ways ahead during their symposium held at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) in January 2012.

Indisputably, natural resources are becoming scarce, and human settlements exercise a firm pressure on natural habitats and ecosystems. This tendency will accelerate further, as a growing part of the globe's population goes urban. If our cities are to become more liveable and our environment is to sustain the urban sprawl, we have to explore novel ways of planning, and shape our living spaces accordingly. Ecological engineering, or eco-technology, is a practical approach to "turning regenerative cities into reality", e.g., as Anna Leidreiter suggests in her article in The Global Urbanist (24 April 2012). The IEES symposium presented a platform to subject present urban paradigms to a critical scrutiny, showcase the range of potential solutions, and discern possible obstacles for the urban metamorphosis, i.e. the implementation of ecological engineering.

To the people from the people
Although diverse ecological engineering projects populate the urban habitat, opinions converge on essential success factors: the described projects involved a broad range of stakeholders to shape the outcome in a participative process. A close dialogue, across the disciplines, leads to a holistic approach and the required integrated formulae. So to speak, bridges to be built head in various directions: besides an approving public, market acceptance, and an enabling policy framework are crucial for success. An obsolete regulatory body can be a common obstacle for a swift implementation of novel ideas. Contrariwise, a reliable economic partner, who knows the local market, may reveal to be a sure asset.

When interacting with the stakeholders, it is indispensable to show working examples, to visualize that the concept will function in practice, in order to overstep the critical threshold from vision to reality. However, no off-the-shelve solutions are available; concepts have to be customized to the context, and planners have to create new networks between the public, the authorities, and funding sources or the market with every new case.

Inspiration on form and function from nature
In ecological engineering, as a process claiming to make cities greener, it is many times nature itself, who delivers solutions: "In what context does form function?" utters Anna Maria Orru (annamariaorru.com) the apt question. The architect has been exploring the paths of biomimicry, the art and science of designing structures, forms, or functions based on nature's principles and examples. For instance, the structure of a plant stem has inspired the construction of a lightweight beam, which consists solely of a fabric tube filled with pressurized air, but is able to carry the weight of a truck. At a larger scale, functions in an ecosystem may inspire the mass flow in cities, thus creating an urban metabolism relying on recycling and regeneration. Another contributor to the debate, architect and urbanist Joachim Eble (www.eble-architektur.de), sees "landscape as a design driver". His projects bear the signature of ecology, interweaving urban spaces with agricultural or wildlife corridors and waterscapes, which "breathe and flow with the landscape".

Especially when developing brownfield sites, ecological engineers are sought after. Artist and landscape architect Herbert Dreiseitl (www.dreiseitl.com) calls the process "peeling back the skin of the city". As a way to confront urban rehabilitation projects, Dreiseitl proposes to reflect on the state of the site before any human intervention. Though, his work is more than a simple reversion; it is rather a composition based on natural principles, but enveloped in appealing aesthetics. By adding an artistic aspect to green technologies, Herbert Dreiseitl contemplates to act as an icebreaker for their implementation and for a general paradigm shift. Gaining inspiration from nature epitomizes the ecological engineering conviction that we as humans are part of the global ecosystem, and we need to join forces with nature to make our cities more liveable.

From eco-efficiency to eco-effectiveness
"The current state of thinking focuses too much on being less bad" proclaims Andreas Schläpfer, who reiterated the bases of a regenerative approach to the symposium's audience: he calls into question the on-going efforts to cut down energy consumption or reduce resource dissipation, in order to green well-established processes. To take human activities beyond of being efficient, sustainability advocates demand for further steps. Whereas in a conventional life span – covering a product's trajectory from cradle to grave – efficiency can minimize the environmental impact, effectiveness means rethinking the product's life cycle, thus conceiving its 'reincarnation' right from its inception. As a result, products and materials will circle within the economy, ideally in a cradle-to-cradle movement.

A network of technologies
Considering a city being "peeled" from its human-made wrappers, such as the sealed surfaces, a strangling road network, or the influences of contaminants, there are several imaginable techniques: on one side, a layered approach, tackling one aspect after another; and alternatively, a sectorial approach, attempting to integrate various layers and getting as close to the "core" as possible. Whatsoever, working towards more regenerative cities calls for a combination of approaches. Probable environmental engineering solutions encompass a network of technologies, wisely integrated and adapted to the local situation.

As a basis for discussion, some of the possible technologies presented during the IEES symposium are visualized in the figure below. To conceptualize the multiple aspects of urban transition, the technologies are depicted as pathways leading from a current situation, which exercises excessive pressure onto the environment, to a more desirable future situation en route to 'englobe' a green or regenerative city. The enumeration does not claim to be comprehensive, though illustrates the variety of aspects to take into consideration and the multi-dimensionality of ecological engineering. We invite the reader to imagine any aspect shifting more or less towards a green future and peeling more and more layers off the city. 
Contact information:
Bastian Etter
P.O.Box 611
8600 Duebendorf
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Editor's note: This article has been published as the first of a series of articles on "new solutions by transforming traditional ways of thinking", following-up the IEES symposium 2012

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 September 2012 )
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