Thursday, October 31, 2013

How Fares the Eco-City?

I'm writing this as I race east aboard a French Intercity train (not a TGV) from Bordeaux to Toulouse. I'm in France for a couple of reasons, both "business", if you need to know. A couple of people asked if I was going for business or pleasure, and the answer is that it's for a very pleasurable business. After all, it was my choice to investigate transportation around the world and bring back to Michigan whatever best practices I've found.
I see it's been three months since my last blog post, and and I apologize for the silence. A lot has happened since then. I've been accepted as a member of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Administration's Citizens' Advisory Committee. That has meant a lot of meetings, though not of the CAC itself. And I've been asked to serve as Ypsilanti Township's representative on the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, though that has not yet been confirmed. I've also got a couple of projects under way for Trans4m and MARP.
So the two angles I'm working here in France are (1) the EcoCities Summit, and (2) innovative light rail and bus rapid transit technologies. Let's hit EcoCities in this post, and leave transit technology for later, OK?

EcoCities Summit

In 2008 I went to my first EcoCities conference, in San Francisco. The conference is the brainchild of Richard Register and his EcoCities Builders organization. The idea is to bring together all the elements necessary to build sustainable cities throughout the world. That includes just about everything needed for cities to "live long and prosper": healthy food, good water, clean air, social justice, upbuilding education, and efficient transportation.
Nantes was chosen as the host of EcoCities
partly because it had been declared
the 2013 "Green Capital" of Europe.
The 2008 conference was very inspiring: lots of ideas, big and small, were enthusiastically expounded. Many of them had to do with innovative city designs. There was an ebullience, a sense of hopeful energy, a feeling that change for the better was in our grasp.
That was before the crash.
The 2013 conference had more of a sense of fighting our way out of from quicksand. Many of the most hopeful ideas were centered not on what to do, but on how to finance whatever we should be doing. I only ran across one innovative city design, from the Italian architectural firm of JMSchivo&Associati. The general concept is a ring of mixed-use sections or "cells" surrounding a central river/lake and green area, with gardens, parks, forests. The ring is theoretically about one kilometer across, making it easy to walk from any section to any other or to the green center. Rather like my proposed greenfield town turned inside-out.
From Bhutan, we heard from Dasho Dr. Sonam Tenzin. He illustrated for us the Bhutanese idea that nations should measure their Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product, while most of the other invited speakers maintained their stodgy ideas of measuring success by economy. I'd like to write more about that later.
François Delarozière's "Green Expedition"
display in central Nantes
From Silicon Valley, we heard about the Urban Observatory from Shannon McElvaney of ESRI. This is a way of comparing the "big data" available from cities around the world in several different areas of interest. On the Web, you can compare three cities at once; in its physical implementation, large screens are set up showing twelve at once.
From Medellín, Colombia, a really encouraging glimpse at a city rising from fear to fulfillment. We used to hear of Medillín only in connection with the drug trade, as home of the fearsome Medellín Cartel and its ruthless leader, Pablo Escobar. Ana, a young woman representing the Mayor (her name unfortunately doesn't appear in the program) gave a quick but powerful talk about the rise of Medellín from fear through hope to action. Their financing methods involve public corporations whose earnings are used solely for

building up city infrastructure and services, but details weren't given in enough detail for me to pass them along. Medellín is hosting a major conference in April next year, which I hope to be able to attend. And that says a lot, as I never wanted to go to Colombia before, and especially not Medellín.
Finally, kids of guests and, I assume, kids from Nantes itself, were invited to build their ideal "city" using Legos, with sponsorship from Lego). The general outlines are lost in the mass of detail, but I did notice the presence of warriors in one part of a city, presumably built by a little boy. For better or for worse, I suppose human boys will always have the seeds of violence in them.
A child-built Lego "EcoCity"
with warrior guards

So let's keep up the struggle to get out of the economic "quicksand", get free from the violence, into unpolluted, sustainable, and prosperous cities.

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