The Chinese Society for Urban Studies (CSUS), the Center for Design & the City at the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), and OTIS hosted the first Sino-U.S. City Design Summit in Zhuhai, China, July 16–17, 2013. The Summit was held in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s 2013 Conference on Urban Development and Planning. The Conference drew an audience of more than 1,500 Chinese mayors, government officials, developers, and city planners. At the Summit, delegate John Syvertsen, AAF vice chair and senior principal at Cannon Design, stressed that global urban solutions on the large scale must be built on independent, smaller sustainable systems.
We can imagine an inevitable future state of our global cities. This future state will come into existence either in response to a compelling positive vision of human/natural ecology or in reaction to global environmental catastrophe. If the latter, it is questionable whether any response will be successful. Yet, global economics and politics make the former quite unlikely.
Taking an optimistic view toward in the future:
- We will live in regenerative cities; cities that are ecological organisms that advance the quality of life for all people—socially, economically, and environmentally.
- This will occur:
- By developing a global value system that, beyond being measured in monetary terms, will be measured by its ability to support sustainable human civilization.
- By finding a way to discuss ecological principles in society in a manner that draws people together and engages all human endeavors.
- By shifting from a technological prowess focused on “collecting more” to a prowess focused on “consuming less.”
- By embracing the compelling possibilities of new forms of cities, and by transforming our processes and policies to achieve them.
The U.S. and China are vast countries with seemingly inexhaustible resources. We both have a need and a tendency to focus our efforts on the largest of scales. In doing so, in our planning processes we often assume that the large scale will naturally scale down to the local or even human scale. It may seem impossible to create a human/urban ecology by focusing on the small scale, given the sheer magnitude of major urban infrastructure needs and national and cultural ambitions. Yet we will argue that global solutions on the large scale must be the accumulation of a multitude of micro-ecological, molecular successes. A system built out of independent, smaller sustainable systems is inherently more robust, flexible, and adaptable. Cities are taking up the mantle of being that smallest unit, and in the U.S. doing it faster than state or local governments can, and by doing so testing a much wider variety of strategies and opportunities. But it will eventually break down to the point where neighborhoods and blocks and buildings do everything in their power to be self-sustained and carefully manage and exchange the resources they have.
Environmentalist Paul Hawken, in his book The Ecology of Commerce, writes: “Big corporations (cities) take care of what they know how to take care of, namely, other big things: factories, mass markets, mass production. In this respect, corporations are the opposite of nature. In habitats and ecosystems, we sense how important the small things are. We humans have yet to create anything that is as complex and well designed as the interactions of the microorganisms in a cubic foot of rich soil. No ecologist would claim to fully understand the workings of an ecosystem, but all praise the minutiae within, the economy that governs it, the wondrously designed interaction and diversity that marks that cubic foot of soil, a mysterious process that produces the maximum amount of life with an absence of waste…you could almost define a restorative economy as one that turns its attention in a big way to small things.”
We will reconnect with the things we eat and the power we use because they will be closer to us.
Massive highway construction and reconstruction and eternal expansion vs. High-speed/light rail and car and bike share
Chicago deep tunnel vs. Jaypee Sport City (City-wide network of small bio swales)
Massive solar arrays and wind farms vs. Building arrays and precinct/residential bio digestion with dramatically reduced transmission losses
Corporate mega-farms vs. Spanish aquaponic ecology and urban farming
John Syvertsen is vice chair of the American Architectural Foundation’s Board of Regents and a senior principal at Cannon Design, with overall authority for overseeing the firm’s environmental sustainability and community outreach efforts. Over his more than 30-year career, John has devoted himself tirelessly to design excellence. He is a former chair of the National Committee on Design of the American Institute of Architects and past president of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Featured image courtesy of Sean Pants .