Hayek to Ecological Urbanism: Nature’s March on the City

“In the name of renovation, Trump takes over whole districts of New York or Atlantic City, raises rents, and squeezes out tens of thousands of poor families.  Those who Trump condemns to homelessness are the social equivalent of the dead fish of environmental ecology.” Felix Guattari, ‘The Three Ecologies’ 1989[1]

Twentieth-century psychoanalyst and philosopher, Felix Guattari’s illustration is not unique but neither is it a fete au accompli. As governments retreat and social interests capitulate to market forces, cities are now both the “victims of a takeover and actors in a relationship that highlights the revival of the local”. For Jesko Fezer, architect and co-founder of An Architektur, the field of design offers the possibility of emancipation.[2]

“Hamburg, I want a house from you. The right to city has no limit!” Image from a demonstration against rent speculation, repression, privatisation and evictions in Hamburg, 2016. Image via rechtaufstadt.net

In a winner take all scenario, it would be twentieth-century economist, Friedrich Von Hayek’s free market ideology that would send the world hurtling down a path that would see cities become crucial arenas in the market-driven process of globalisation.  Hayek, in declaring, “for the sake of the market we must endure the hardship and privation”[3] it ponders the question: Has the price been too great? and if so, where do we go from here?

“In the background of ‘urban drama’ the emancipatory promise of deisgn may well undergo concrete renewal” – Jesko Fezer

Hayek’s incarnation, neoliberalism, became the new orthodoxy or as English geographer and social theorist, David Harvey notes, “the common-sense way we interpret, live in, and understand the world.”[4] In rolling back the Keynesian distributive policies of the past and placing a ‘for sale’ sign on nature, our faith in unfettered markets to resolve almost all social, economic and political problems through the privatisation, gentrification and commodification of everything, became the new paradigm.

Tempelhof Park, a former airport now popular public space in the middle of Berlin, roughly the size of New York’s Central Park, was to be partly developed into apartments, offices, and a library. Around sixty-five percent of Berlin voters rejected the cities development plans. Berlin listened and Tempelhof Park will remained as it was. It’s a state of affairs that would be almost unimaginable in Frankfurt or Munich, London or New York.

Attempts to ‘greenwash’ our cities in the absence of global consensus on climate change have largely failed to enact meaningful change. Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design believes sustainable design rarely represents “design excellence or design innovation” and more often creates tension between those who uphold disciplinary knowledge and those who “push” sustainability.[5]  Further, conflict arises as the mobility of financial capital under globalisation impedes governments ability to rank social or environmental needs over those of business.[6]  If not for the unfolding crisis of climate change and rising social unrest, brought about as civic spaces of engagement are swallowed up, it is doubtless that an alternative to the current trajectory could ever have been contemplated.

“Imagining an urbanism that is anything other than the status quo requires a new sensibility…” Mohsen Motafavi.

For the optimists among us, the fragility of the planet and it resources offers an opportunity to imagine a new, speculative design rather than endorsing the top-down conventional solutions that further control and commercialise space.[7] How would this design look? While Jesko Fezer is convinced, some introspection first is required to challenge the image of the design profession,[8] both he and Mostafavi are clear, “imagining an urbanism that is anything other than the status quo requires a new sensibility”. [9]

For author and urban theorist Mike Davis (Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism and Planet of Slums) his rather grim prediction is food for thought, the alternative he notes “evokes a future in which designers are just ‘hirelings imagineers’ of elite’s alternative experiences”.[10] Ouch! For Leland Cott, in his contribution to Mostafavi’s Ecological Urbanism he writes, that despite the enormity of the task, there is now enough collective wisdom to create an alternative future.[11]

Ecological Urbanism is increasingly seen as a design well matched to this task. It’s primacy lies in its “capacity to incorporate and accommodate the inherent conflictual conditions between ecology and urbanism.” Through recognising the dynamic relationships, both visible and invisible, that exist among the various domains of a larger terrain of urban as well as rural ecologies – the city is no longer viewed as a mere artifact. In promoting a transdisciplinary approach, ecological urbanism allows designers to address the multiple challenges confronting the urban environment.[12]


Master Plan for the revitalization of the Historic Centre of Asunción, Paraguay by Ecosistema Urbano. In a process of urban scale prototyping, rather than a masterplan a ”master process” brings this planning effort closer to the ever mutating reality of the city and its inhabitants combining top-down strategies with bottom up initiatives.
General plan of the proposed urban structure (2025 – 2037), showing the dynamic, green and civic corridors, the catalysts, etc.
Timetable for the coordination of big, structural interventions and small, dynamic urban actions

How we will “match consumption with available resources and how will our urban systems operate in the future?” – Architect Matthias Sauerbruch.

At is simplest, founding principal of Sauerbruch-Hutton, an international agency for architecture and urban design, Matthias Sauerbruch believes Ecological Urbanism provides answers to our questions: How we will “match consumption with available resources and how will our urban systems operate in the future?” Sauerbruch sees change as multifaceted, achieved through the use of technology, incentives and legislation, with cities functioning like habitats through a combination of ecological efficiency and a familiar sense of place. At its heart it is architecture that holds the key to Ecological Urbanism’s success. For Sauerbruch, buildings are the “agents of change, when they demonstrate a respectful relationship with the natural environment and have a certain economy in their use of natural resources”[13] they will enthuse people to become willing participants in ecological reform. Ecological Urbanism is an intelligent, sensitive and sensible ecological solution for future urban environments.

In the next blog I will illustrate how Ecological Urbanism is being applied to create viable, socially sustainable urban environments.


The Architect, The Environmentalist and The City is a blog series unashamedly attempting to spread the word and find new converts to Ecological Urbanism as a means to realise cities that are more resilient, more life-sustaining, and less costly to build and maintain.



[1] Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, 1st ed. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).
[2] Jesko Fezer, Civic City Cahier: Design In And Against The Neoliberal City, 1st ed. (Bedford Press, 2013).
[3] Peter Lindsay, “Polanyi, Hayek, And The Impossibility Of Libertarian Ideal Theory”, Polity 47, no. 3 (2015): 376-396, doi:10.1057/pol.2015.14.
[4] David Harvey, “Neo-Liberalism As Creative Destruction”, Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography 88, no. 2 (2006): 145-158, doi:10.1111/j.0435-3684.2006.00211.x.
[5] Mohsen Mostafavi, “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”, Harvard Design Magazine: Design Practices Now, Vol. I, 2017, http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/32/why-ecological-urbanism-why-now.
[6] Corina McKendry, “Competing For Green Neoliberalism And The Rise Of Sustainable Cities”, Essaydocs.Org, 2016, http://www.essaydocs.org/competing-for-green-neoliberalism-and-the-rise-of-sustainable.html.
[7] Mohsen Mostafavi, “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”
[8] Jesko Fezer, Civic City Cahier: Design In And Against The Neoliberal City, 1st ed.
[9] Mohsen Mostafavi, “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”
[10] Mike Davis, “New Left Review – Mike Davis: Who Will Build The Ark?”, Irows.Ucr.Edu, 2010, http://irows.ucr.edu/cd/courses/10/reader/New%20Left%20Review%20-%20Mike%20Davis%20%20Who%20Will%20Build%20the%20Ark.htm.
[11] Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, Ecological Urbanism, ebook, 1st ed. (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010).
[12] Mohsen Mostafavi, “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”
[13]Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, Ecological Urbanism, ebook, 1st ed. 578-583.

Grace Oliver

Grace is a Master of Architecture student at the University of Western Australia, with an interest in design and research that explores the relationship between ecology and architecture, landscape architecture, planning and urbanism.