The Evolution Of Eco-Cities

We can transform today's cities through
a three-step process: reduce, reuse, recycle

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 53
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Tony Dominski has taught ecology, environmental analysis, planning, and design at the Pratt Institute, School of Architecture and University of California, Santa Barbara. Since 1984, he has specialized in land-use planning and integrated waste management. He presently works with the
Florida Department of Community Affairs.

Transforming today’s cities, with their predilection for destructive consumption, is a daunting task. There are hundreds of billions of dollars and over a century of effort invested in today’s urban infrastructure – including the buildings, the connecting freeways and roads, the utility networks, and the landscapes in which everything else is embedded. Parallel to the physical infrastructure is a legal and financial infrastructure in which there is a huge emotional investment based on habit and familiarity.

Just as an ocean liner can’t be turned on a dime, thousands of square miles of buildings, roads, and landscapes, and business habits built up over decades cannot be changed overnight. Complete renovation will take a century or more.

However, the building of eco-cities is not a utopian task to be postponed to the far-off future. Just below the surface are subtle but powerful forces poised to take cities to an advanced stage. There is much that can be accomplished, even within the next five to ten years.

Already there is a substantial body of theory and case histories that suggest how eco-cities will be built. In fact, urban dwellers have already initiated a three-stage ecological remodel based on reduction, reuse and recycling.


The first stage of this eco-city evolution, the reduction or quick-fix stage, has already begun. In cities around the world, people are reducing the impact of their consumption-oriented lifestyle by carpooling, switching to more efficient light bulbs, insulating their homes, recycling trash, buying non-toxic cleaners, and using gray water, compost, and mulch in their backyards.

The reduction stage is invaluable ecologically, economically, and educationally. It is an introduction to a new ethic and it encourages the more far-reaching measures of the reuse and recycling stages of evolution.


In the reuse stage, existing buildings, roads, landscapes, and utility networks are employed in novel ways. For example, commercial buildings can be partially converted to stores and residential units.

Roofs, now used only for weather protection, are used to grow food and collect energy. Existing roadways become rights-of-way for electric trains and bicycles. Downtown streets become pedestrian malls and "slow streets." Ornamental landscapes are converted to fruit orchards. The electric grid and rooftop panels are used to recharge small in-town electric vehicles, and the corner gas station becomes a battery exchange shop.

The reuse stage reaches further than the reduction stage in cutting consumption and improving quality of life. It also sets into motion the forces that will allow the modified building, road, and utility elements to be knit together within the ultimate stage of recycling.


The goal of the recycling stage is a city of greenbelt-framed urban spaces, where the daily needs of work, play, shopping and recreation are brought together within walking distance. This is the stage where the urban village reigns supreme. Urban villages of between 50-200 acres condense around the nuclei of the densest suburban and inner-city areas, often surrounding train stations.

To achieve this ideal, some urban areas are more densely developed in a checkered land-use pattern. Other urban areas are restored to farms, meadows, forests, and open space for wildlife. This conversion involves some limited demolition of streets and buildings. Demolition debris is re-manufactured into concrete, asphalt, steel, glass and other building materials.

The local electric train systems are linked regionally as are local sections of bike and footpaths. Similarly, sections of stream rescued from culverts and open concrete channels are linked as linear parks and forests along stream belts. Some freeways are converted into high-speed inter-city rail corridors, which become viable alternatives to regional plane travel.

In this urban evolutionary succession, each stage prepares the necessary conditions for the next step; this parallels the process by which a forest eco-system regenerates itself. The three stages – reduce, reuse, recycle – will be developing simultaneously in a patchwork fashion, much as regeneration occurs in a large forest. As forest patches are always changing in response to episodes of wind, fire, disease, and human disturbance, urban patches change in response to emerging social and demographic conditions and expanding ecological consciousness.


The successful evolution of an eco-city will depend on our developing an understanding of the ecological systems that we live with and how we need to relate to them, and on our willingness to act on that information.

Three imperatives will form the basis for eco-city evolution: social justice, prosperity, and a healthy natural environment. These are sometimes viewed as separate and even contradictory, but are now merging in the overarching vision of sustainability.

Social justice is the gateway to sustainability. Mutual trust and cooperation between neighbors will be essential. A widening gap between the haves and have-nots and the associated high crime rates would frustrate and retard the evolution of eco-cities.

Secondly, an eco-city requires a coalition of businesses capable of responding to, serving, and generating new enlightened consumers. The tasks will include reweaving the urban fabric along ecological lines, and planning and building the new urban infrastructures.

These businesses will be synergistic. For example, a gray water plumbing retrofit business needs another business to produce a non-toxic detergent. An electric car manufacturer will want to purchase efficient non-toxic batteries. Energy conservation firms need non-toxic insulation and efficient roof-top solar panels. Organic farmers and gardeners will want to purchase mulch and compost products produced by recycling firms.

These eco-businesses will be reinforced by changing consumer preferences and new government policies. An extraction tax for oil, coal, and uranium will favor energy conservation firms and suppliers of solar energy products. Similarly pollution taxes and high fees for landfills, in conjunction with lower taxes on reused and recycled products, will encourage the manufacture of non-toxic and recyclable products. To insure fairness, these policies will have to insure that low-income people are protected from carrying the major share of these extra burdens.

The link between the natural environment and human survival, prosperity, and quality of life is a third potent evolutionary force. Environmental destruction is inevitably accompanied by a decline in health and quality of life, and ultimately, a decline in the health of the economy.

It is encouraging that the three-stage process of reduction, reuse, and recycling is well underway. The first stage of awareness and application of conservation techniques has gained widespread acceptance. The second stage – the creative reuse of what is already built – is in the pilot or demonstration phase. And already on the drawing boards are plans to recycle existing roads, buildings, and landscapes into the qualitatively new forms that will mark the eco-cities’ mature stage.

There is a lot of interesting work to do and optimism is warranted. An evolutionary perspective can illuminate the way toward the forging of a new urban space, lifestyle, and ethic that harmonizes the heretofore conflicting elements of fairness, prosperity, and ecological survival.

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