A Chance Meeting With Ecological Urbanism

I feel compelled to start this post with an admission. While I have endeavoured through my blog to introduce some new devotees to Ecological Urbanism, I must admit to being relatively new to the topic myself. My interest originates from observing how prevalent and pervasive the words, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco’ has become. Even a quick scan of my apartment, where almost every product seemed to be promoted as ‘ecologically friendly’ made me aware, of how ubiquitous this form of labelling now is. Importantly, how ‘the think local, act global’ mantra is now deeply ingrained in the collective psyche. Where a previous generation had lived under the constant threat of the ‘cold war’ my generation has embraced the inevitability of climate change. While the latter proved to be a battle of might and ego, climate change is backed by science. Science has a much better track record than might and ego; that other field of academia, history, has proved that. It seems somewhere along the road to a healthier planet, somebody decided there was a quick fortune to be made, at least until the government, made the observation that there were no standards or guidelines around the whole green enterprise. Green had become the new ‘lite’.

In taking the opportunity to study the field of Ecological Urbanism, my first lecture at the Australian Urban Design Research Centre (AUDRC) completely re-configured my understanding of what it actually means to think about ecology and urbanism. Outside of my lectures, I discovered the seminal text, Ecological Urbanism, written by Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The insight this book gave me was invaluable. It focuses on the role of cities as originators of environmental problems. A paradigm will that only intensify as urban populations grow, leading to greater exploitation of the planet’s limited resources. These issues have been known for some time but generally, the response has concentrated on technologies to produce energy and recycling of waste. Sustainable architecture tends to focus on the object rather than the bigger picture that extends outwards to the infrastructure of a city or town’s territory.[1] Rapid urbanisation now has shifted the goalposts.

Preview of Ecological Urbanism Ebook. (Above) Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982.Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty.2010. Images via ecologicalurbanism.gsd.harvard.edu

Ecological Urbanism offers an alternative design that can contemplate the large scale through a different lens. Moshen Mostafavi explains, ‘that this does not simply mean promoting conventional solutions but exploring speculative design innovations that have the capacity to address the longstanding conflictual conditions that exist between ecology and urbanism.’ Further, what sets Ecological Urbanism apart is it “applies a multiplicity of past and present methods, tools, and techniques in a cross-disciplinary and collaborative approach toward urbanism developed through the lens of ecology. These practices must address the retrofitting of existing urban conditions as well as our plans for the cities of the future.”[2] The key characteristics here, is that Ecological Urbanism is a multi-disciplinary approach that recognises the limits of working in isolation. While at the same time acknowledging, that the myopic view of the city as merely a physical artefact denies the dynamic relationships, including those we can, and can’t see, that exist beyond the cities boundaries.[3] These concepts seem perfectly suited to today’s cities.

In looking for a different perspective on Ecological Urbanism I had the opportunity to interview Winthrop Professor. Dr. Joerg Baumeister, Architect, Urban Designer and Director of the Australian Urban Design Research Centre (AUDRC), Perth, Western Australia.

Joerg addressing attendees at the MY FUTURE HOME exhibition, an interactive exhibition put together by AUDRC together with the Housing Authority and the City of Fremantle. The exhibition provided an opportunity for participants to engage in a range of activities and discussions to consider progressive, flexible, affordable living spaces. Below with Fremantle Mayor, Brad Pettitt.

My first question was perhaps an obvious one. I asked Joerg, why he had become interested in Ecological Urbanism. Immediately, Joerg instinctively turned the question back on me. After some reflection, I explained that Ecological Urbanism allowed me to discover a new way of thinking and doing, and also, what this could offer the design profession, which I believed was exciting. That it wasn’t just about the ecological, it was about creating environments that were also socially and economically sustainable, that offered a new way of doing things and challenged our current methods, even everyday things. Lastly, that Ecological Urbanism had given me a greater appreciation about a how a city functions as a system or metabolism; operating at different scales from the local to the global. It made me cognisant of the immense opportunity and potential that exists within the spaces around us if we can connect them to this bigger system. I explained this had impacted my practice and my way of thinking. Joerg felt this was what was important, how Ecological Urbanism had changed my perspective, how it has changed me. That is what is interesting.

I expressed my dismay at the multiple interpretations of the green, sustainability and ecology or ‘eco’. Joerg defined this as a central issue. He stated; “That is the point where everything has to be defined in the end, very, very clearly because if you don’t have a common definition, a discussion doesn’t make sense. So, if we don’t have a common language we can’t talk to each other.”

“[ecological urbanism is] the interaction of different urban elements; urban and environmental elements.” More simply, ‘an understanding that it is a kind of system which can operate in a better way.’ Joerg.

In some ways Ecological and Urbanism are a strange pairing of words, an oxymoron if you like. It motivated me to ask Joerg, how would he define Ecological Urbanism to a member of the public. He defined it as “the interaction of different urban elements; urban and environmental elements.” More simply, ‘an understanding, that it is a kind of system which can operate in a better way.’

Joerg’s view of where we currently are in terms of Ecological Urbanism centered on the Australia cultural understanding of cities which differed from his understanding and education gained in Germany. He explained that metabolism is the same irrespective of the scale. Looking at a city, or a neighbourhood, or architecture, they are all the same, urban design and architecture are the same. To appreciate Ecological Urbanism, Joerg believes, that to move forward, it must be a two-way process, where everybody learns; a kind of urban taxonomy, a base, where we can start to connect the different elements then develop a more ecological urbanism. Top-down regulations he believes are not the solution due to the need for oversight, rather, Joerg uses the metaphor of how we all came to wash our hands once we understood about how harmful bacteria could be. It really is, he believes a matter of understanding ‘how things tick.’ This process Joerg feels needs to be tested using prototypes that people can try, to allow critical feedback loops. Information is not enough he believes, people need to see and feel things. With regard to the plethora of green products and rating systems Joerg suggests the Government should devise a neutral platform as a point of reference for the public.

At this point of the interview, Joerg returned to answer my first question about how he came to be interested in Ecological Urbanism. A journey that started with his PhD, which focused on what today would be called, ‘smart infrastructure.’ The thinking was based around how better technology is prerequisite to make society better. However, living in a slum in Africa challenged these assumptions. Whilst Joerg had been a successful architect, his experience in Africa taught him that a whole community interacting together is more important than the built form. Later, he undertook research in the Middle East to understand the workings of an oasis. This experience would reinforce in his mind the centrality of water in everything and ultimately led his publication, Urban Ecolution. These experiences lead to a deeper interest in environmental aspects of his work. In Australia, Joerg did what he saw as logical and tied these experiences together into one system.

Water is a constant theme that that is referred to in Ecological Urbanism perhaps reflecting the gravitas of water scarcity. Like Joerg, I am interested in water conservation and became fascinated with The Saltwater Greenhouse project, explored in an earlier blog. The Saltwater Greenhouse provides solutions where agriculture would normally not be possible. It is ideally suited to Australia’s hot and dry coastal regions. While I previously mentioned the Sahara Forest Project that incorporates Saltwater Greenhouse technology currently being considered for Karratha; there is now a fully functioning development in Port Augusta. Commencing as a pilot project of 2000 m2, the project is now 20 hectares. Remarkably the project relies almost entirely on sunlight and seawater and does not use any freshwater. It is producing 15,000 tonnes of truss tomatoes a year.[4]

A saltwater pond at Sundrop Farms. All the water used for irrigating the crops is piped from the Spencer Gulf(SA) and converted into fresh water using a thermal desalination unit. Image sourced via abc.net.au
There are more than 23,000 mirrors in Sundrop’s mirror field and the biggest thermal energy storage tank in the southern hemisphere. Image sourced via abc.net.au
The Port Augusta facility produces at least 15,000 tonnes of truss tomatoes a year.

Ecological Urbanism has changed my belief system, it is now difficult, not to see every street corner or potential building site as an opportunity to do something more. The idea of a system or metabolism with all elements interacting allows you to see things in a different way. This knowledge has been a turning point that has enhanced my practice and how I see and think about design.




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] Mohsen Mostafavi, “Harvard Design Magazine: Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”, Harvarddesignmagazine.Org, 2016, http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/32/why-ecological-urbanism-why-now.

[2] Mostafavi, “Harvard Design Magazine: Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”.

[3] Mostafavi, “Harvard Design Magazine: Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”.

[4] Kerry Staight, “‘First In The World’: Solar-Powered Greenhouse Growing Food Without Fresh Water”, ABC News, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-01/sundrop-farms-opens-solar-greenhouse-using-no-fresh-water/7892866.

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.

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