Turning Cities in on Themselves: the Urban Eco Revolution


Our world is dominated by cities.

Human beings are increasingly an urban global culture. Take Africa: in 1900, less than 5% of this continent’s population lived in urban areas: today, it’s over 35% – and growing by more than 4% a year. Across our blue-green planet, more than 3 billion people cluster together in densely-populated forests of stone, metal and glass. We’ve always had this habit, but it’s only recently that we’ve developed the tools to really go to town.

The unique challenge facing eco-friendly urban developers is the big cities that are already in place – huge ecological footprints, sunk deep, homes to millions of people and in use every second of every day (it’s not just New York that never sleeps). What’s the best way to tackle this problem?

By building prototypes – on a colossal scale.

In 1939, the 400-acre Treasure Island was built in San Francisco bay, named after Robert Louis Stevenson’s book (a resident in 1880). Today, it lives up to its name. Funded by the Lennar Corporation, Treasure Island is being redesigned from the ground upwards as the template for a "city of the future". Buildings capture sunlight. Car-users are penalised. Recycling is optimized. Organic food is produced across 20 acres of farmland. Every attempt is being made to create a “ËœLiving Machine’ ecosystem. (Far-fetched? Not when you consider that cities already generate their own weather).

On the other side of the world, the Chinese government, faced with housing 400 million new people over the next decade, is adopting the work of sustainability architect William McDonough to build 7 entirely new cities.

All the lessons learnt from these life-sized archetypes will suggest ways to rewire and tidy up the world’s cities that are already in place. Coming to a street near you.

Image: Ofer Wolberger for Popular Mechanics

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Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.