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Ecodistricts: a sustainable utopia?

20 years ago, they were considered a true revolution. Today, ecodistricts are growing fast and in many ways it seems they constitute a promising solution towards inventing the ultimate sustainable city. But they are also a cause of debate, and their ability to prevail outside Europe is also in question.

April 2013
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20 years ago, they were considered a true revolution. Today, ecodistricts are growing fast and in many ways it seems they constitute a promising solution towards inventing the ultimate sustainable city. But they are also a cause of debate, and their ability to prevail outside Europe is also in question.

75% of global energy is consumed in cities and they are still very dependent on fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas). Over the past fifty years, European cities have expanded by 78% in average while populations grew by only 33%. Urban sprawl leads to longer distances and therefore to an increase in traffic. The question now arises in the same terms, albeit in an accelerated manner, in the metropolitan areas of developing countries. Thus, the idea of making cities the very place for sustainable development does indeed makes sense. It is in this context that ecodistricts are being launched today – an urban project aiming not only to save energy and materials, but also to achieve better water management, a diversified soft mobility and a better quality of life.

Twenty years after the Rio Earth Summit, red lights are everywhere – and even more so than they were at that time. Some experts question an urbanism that never quite managed to break free from the functionalist utopia that followed the Athens Charter of 1933, separating functions within the city (life, transportation, work, consumption). Today, the spatial separation of urban functions is creating sprawl and fragmentation. The aspiration of many to enjoy individual housing, the loosening of households, the desertification of city centers in favor of peripheral areas, miserable outskirts: such are some of the known symptoms of urban disorganization. But then again, everything is relative! In Europe, where cities are relatively dense, urban sprawl is limited. But what about the United States, where the low population density (34 inhabitants per km2) causes, in terms of urban planning, a mindless devouring of space? Let us also remember also that Americans consume an average of 12,000 watts per person per year, against 6000 in Western Europe and 1000 in India or China.

Finally and most importantly, what leeway do we have? Given the complexity of demographic and social factors, can we stop building? “It would probably be logical”, convenes Nicolas Foucrier, Project Manager at Paris Habitat, “but it would omit that architecture is one commissioned art, which is only a reflection of the society and the economic system in which it is inscribed. But degrowth is not on the agenda, and in the meantime, we have the architecture we deserve”.

A new urban utopia

In the meantime, regardless of this hypothetical breakaway from our mode of development, Europe is reflecting on ecodistricts which, on paper, meet all the challenges of the city of the future... all at once! Because the reduction of energy demand would go hand in hand with a urban planning thought from the ground up, at the neighborhood level: “From a certain density onwards, neighborhoods make it possible to develop synergies between housing, jobs, local shops, leisure activities, which may to some extent contribute to transportation demand.” In addition, the ecodistrict would be a most beneficial response to the paradox between the need for density and the demand for detached housing, which is a devourer of space and energy. Dense individual housing – what a dream!

Thus, for over fifteen years, exemplary places born in Northern Europe have been cited time and again: Vauban in Freiburg, Kongsberg in Hanover, Västra Hamnen in Malmö, Hammerby Sjöstad in Stockholm, and most notably, the pioneer of pioneers: BedZed in Great Britain. Launched in 2002, BedZed is the first residential block to have developed the principle of a carbon neutral footprint at a large scale. Spread over 6 hectares, with 85 units, 2,500 m2 worth of offices and a nursery, the place tries to combine ecological architecture, soft transport and local economic development. Large window openings provide natural light, thermal solar panels heat living areas, rainwater is collected, counters are equipped with flashing lights to indicate users how much energy is being consumed, and gardens sprout on rooftops. And that’s not all: to avoid ghettoization, BedZed has divided housing into ownership programs, condominiums and social housing. An incarnation of the “sustainable dream,” BedZed was indeed the first to show that urban design bases were actually reversible.



It is hard to define the ecodistrict otherwise than through some sort of “composite drawing.” Because each project in fact brings local responses to global issues. While the issue of domestic heating is at the heart of the city of tomorrow, it does not arise in the same terms whether you’re in Nice or in Copenhagen.

We must not forget that a crucial stake is to fight against urban sprawl. Thus, an ecodistrict ideally sets up upon an already urbanized site, an industrial wasteland example. Its mission is to apply within itself the major guidelines of sustainable development: environmental, socio-economic and participatory dimensions.

The key issue of energy

To the public opinion, “eco” essentially means “green.” A district that effectively reduces energy costs starts by constructing buildings with low energy consumption (materials, orientation, insulation, ventilation). Then, it uses renewable energy – solar, wind, biomass, geothermal – to meet the (lowest possible) energy needs. The district must gather “positive energy buildings,” that is to say, buildings that produce more energy than they consume. Developers are also working on water management, most notably by re-permeating soil to feed groundwater tables: Evergreen for instance has developed grass parking plates that allow for infiltration of soil.

Globally, transportation is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. Ecodistricts think up their flows, developing clean vehicles, public transport service with high-quality service, soft transport such as walking, biking or carpooling. But all this also requires functional diversity between businesses and housing so as to allow residents to work close to home and to reduce their dependence on the automobile, whose cost is too high, whatever the point of view. Ecological is also the word for waste management here. Often cited is the example of Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, which is equipped with an underground waste collection system. Waste from each household is sucked up at 70km/h into selective collection points.

Envac Waste system

Le système de collecte de Hammarby Sjöstad (Envac Waste System)

But an ecodistrict is more than a mere accumulation of buildings boasting ultra-high-tech specs! Behind the word “eco,” there is also an economic issue at stake that French experiments are particularly keen about. The idea is to do away with zoning, that is to say with the urban patterns that have prevailed over the past forty years, which in many cases have led to a phenomenon of ghettoization. Ecodistricts wish social and generational diversity. They wish to create jobs, to spur new trade dynamics. It is widely agreed that Malmö is a dismal failure in that respect, and given that it can’t be decreed, other projects ever since have been trying to facilitate the social mix. The joint development zone of Bonne in Grenoble, France, winner of national contest “Econeighborhood Projects 2009,” combines 900 family housing units, 40% social housing, 200 students housings, a retirement home, 5000 m2 of offices, shops, a cinema , restaurants and schools. The stuff of dreams... A price cap on sales, as is the case for ecodistrict of the Saint-Ouen Docks, is also an effective method. Ratios of low-income housing, diversification of tenure rights, friendly taxation system for specific social groups... these are the main instruments that allow to curb gentrification processes.

Finally, since participation seems to have become a staple of sustainable development, and since ecodistricts in themselves pose maintenance challenges, new projects always carry an underlying intention of governance based on the integration of the local population in decision making processes. In Malmö, for example, a committee of inhabitants (including children) was involved in the early stages of reflection, and was the source of creation of long term jobs dedicated to managing stormwater and waste.

New ghettos?

It is hard not to be seduced. However, despite the undeniable qualities of each one of them, every aspect of ecodistricts proves to be impacted by serious limitations, starting with the most emphasized part - the ecological one. When speaking of ecodistricts, the planner Thierry Paquot begins by invoking the original definition of the word “ecology” as stated by Ernst Haekel in 1866: “By ecology we mean that which addresses total relations, because they alone are capable of maintaining biodiversity. If the ecodistrict allows synergies within itself, it is not interfering with the outside world and in that, its objectives are futile from the start.” Let us take note of an example which is as eloquent as it is extreme: Masdar, a model green city project launched by the government of Abu Dhabi in the desert.

By combining traditional architecture and technologies, that city wants to be THE cutting-edge laboratory where cities of the future are concerned. In theory more ambitious than a simple ecodistrict, Masdar is nevertheless based on a gross aberration, Thierry Paquot notes: “While it is waiting to open up to the market, this prototype city functions through a partnership between local funding and the MIT. Let us pause a moment on the energy cost of back and forth trips on the plane!” Moreover, and even though the lab attracts top sustainable city experts, technological performance cannot be a substitute for common sense. This is what Françoise-Hélène Jourda, a pioneer of eco-construction, has been proclaiming for years: she regrets that “architectural objects are all too often but objects.”



At once detached from a system and permeable to the normal (i.e. harmful to the planet) course of events in the world, ecodistricts, to some, are environmentally vain. And from an economic point of view, what are they? Ecodistricts for example seek to advance local shops. Yet such a laudable ambition collides with local economic landscapes. For instance, in Germany, 40% of consumption turnover is made in inner suburban districts, 30% downtown and 30% in the outskirts. The location is therefore favorable. In France, however, this ratio is respectively of 10%, 20% and 70% in the outskirts because of the location of large retail groups. The ecological subdivision of Courtils, in Hede-Bazouges, is living proof of that pattern: the baker, the beekeeper or the market do not seem to meet the needs of people who continue to do their shopping... in Rennes, the nearby metropolitan area.

The social dimension of ecodistricts in turn is much more complex than what developers suggest. In fact, the location and residential attractiveness of new neighborhoods can spur new housing pressure which excludes some of the less favored population. Hammarby or Bo01 undoubtedly selected middle and upper classes. Since then, such “neighborhoods for bobos” have been slated as the epitome of counter-examples. For Antonio Da Cunha, director of the Institute of Geography and of Observatory of the city and Urban Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, such criticism is reductive. Social mixing is by no means ensured by residential diversity: “Classical sociological studies show that neither social homogeneity nor social heterogeneity guarantee that individuals will actually socialize.”

Thus, even when it is programmed, the social mix is neither achieved, nor helpful. Moreover, a third echo is often heard. At the “Geography” Department of the ENS school in France, Marion Salin collected the testimonies of inhabitants of the Vauban ecodistrict from the city of Freiburg: “Social homogeneity poses even more problems as it is sometimes presented as one of the operating conditions of the district. Indeed, it is much easier to make certain decisions, to make certain choices, when lifestyles and world visions (what sociologists call the “habitus”) are concordant.

Like any innovation, ecodistricts also subvert uses... unless, in our case, uses are the ones jeopardizing the eco-district. Vincent Renauld, who has undergone a research on French ecodistricts at INSA Lyon, often tells the example of how the environmental projections of the designers of joint development zone of Bonne in Grenoble were met with the inhabitants’ habitus. The apartment floors, for example, required maintenance without water or detergent. “That was a tremendous break with the notion of cleanliness inherited from the post-war boom’s Golden Age, with Ajax’ white tornado deeply rooted in the collective imagination!” Unable to reduce housework to a mere sweep of the broom, people carried on doing as usual, with a lot of water and household cleaner. And thus the floor, which was supposed to last 30 years, will have to be replaced.

For Vincent Renauld, ecodistricts reproduce, in the name of sustainability, what large housing developments from the fifties/seventies imagined for the sake of modernity: “Here technical standards are the ones that shape the social norm, teaching the inhabitant how to inhabit.” This analysis drove the researcher to question, as a whole, the participatory approach inherent to ecodistricts: “What we have here is an ascending, educational, and informative process, but certainly not a participatory one. The people are not being consulted, they are being trained, so as to fill the gap between technical innovation and use.”

What are the trade-offs?

In addition to these failures, for some, ecodistricts have a hard time concealing purely political opportunities seized by politicians. For example to clean up a tarnished reputation, or to capture green ballots... there are also “bad” reasons to launch an ecodistrict. Far from systematically pointing the finger at ambiguous intentions, we instead argue that the goal of attracting middle classes is nonetheless what motivates many a municipality. And what of the cases when environmental commitment is for real? Why bother, others say, if the major construction companies continue to build brand new things? If buildings are still being erected despite the ecological crisis, it is also because the deterrents to alternatives are tough: before anything, architects are trained to build things from scratch, and new buildings seem more manageable than low-energy rehabilitation, where standards and safeguards are still lacking. However, in ecological terms, and also because new construction does not really weigh much in real estate, the urgency would probably be to refurbish what already exists.

It is true that in the short term, rehabilitation is more expensive, as it needs more demanding skills. But in the long run, the economic interest is real: “Low-energy renovation requires 70% working time and 30% purchased materials, whereas for the same work in classic renovation, the proportion is 50/50, and therefore it means less job creation.”

For Nicolas Foucrier, who has led a discussion about new generation social buildings with the Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris, the term ecodistrict is almost redundant: “The ecological approach in new construction is in fact the default case. We need only look at technical regulations, that were again updated recently, which impose environmental performance. In fact, what some people are passing off as ideological motivations are only regulatory requirements (local development plans and national legislation, 75% of which are a transcript of European law).”

But then, if for detractors, ecodistricts are futile from an ecological point of view, uncertain from an economic point of view, counterproductive from the point of view of habits, or even simply misleading... why do we keep planning new ones?

Because what they offer, even in the form of samples, is a real alternative to our productivist city. They are laboratories. They are kick starting awareness. They seek to be examplary. They launch a new approach for peri-urban space, an issue that is key to the sustainable city of the 21st century. But most of all – because they offer to improve the quality of life, and this is no trifling matter. By combining together, the concepts of “eco” and “district” mutually enrich one another. It has been clearly demonstrated, such a neologism allows to restore the complexity of the totally overused word “eco.” On the other hand, more profound meaning is restored into the word “district”: neighborhood, living together, solidarity, closeness, pride, identity, intensity, density...

The ecodistrict proclaims the virtues of the neighborhood, a living environment which, even though it has not entirely disappeared, suffers from mobility and individualism. Finally, “ecodistricts confirm the efforts of our old Europe, which is all too often dismissed as uncool, to build its future with some diligence,” concludes Nicolas Foucrier. In other parts of the world, where the concept of sustainability has yet to take hold, where urban habitat either sprawls (in the US), or rises sky-high (in the Emirates or Asia), there are major difficulties ahead: from consumption of natural resources to the management of aging populations isolated in the outer suburbs, not to mention the maintenance costs of hundreds of kilometers worth of networks, or the maintenance of disproportionate equipment, the future of these cities is not very enticing... Both design models and levers, European ecodistricts may not necessarily be at the right scale or be a generalizable solution. Perhaps then we should conclude, along with Antonio Da Cunha, that they sound “like a relevant level to collectively experience the mysterious alchemy of moving from words to deeds.” And that’s a start.