Building better cities: cities as villages



New concepts and new design ideas are helping to make cities more sustainable. Possibly the most intriguing neo-city idea is the urban village concept, where communities within cities are designed to emulate small rural villages with shared, communal resources, and green spaces. Indeed, the secret to cities of tomorrow may well lie in the villages of our past?

The Village Concept

According to the UK Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), the concept of an urban village is where a settlement is small enough to create a community in the truest sense of the word - a group of people who support each other - but big enough to maintain a reasonable cross section of modern facilities and amenities.

Such villages are usually created within existing neighborhoods, but they can be created on abandoned brownfields or on greenfield sites. Walking determines their size - usually measured in terms of a 10 minute walk from one side to the other.

Locating new village development in older areas can help spur economic and social revitalization. Local residents become complimentary caretakers, initiators, maintainers, and users of the area and its resources and thus have a vested interest in sustaining both.

'The reward of collectivism can be true sustainability. City inhabitants, from a variety of backgrounds, can be quickly made aware of environmentally friendly ways to live.' said British Landscape Architect Martha Schwartz in a recent article for the BBC. 'This, in turn, can result in people influencing one another as they incorporate progressive lifestyle changes into the fabric of their diverse daily lives.'

This is not simply a utopian fantasy. There is a practical and economically viable basis to the concept.

These villages can improve existing communities by combining housing, commercial, employment centers and schools together. By blending these components into one community the village design overcomes many of the problems that arise with today’s reliance on urban monoculture, i.e. single-use developments such as large housing tracts, gated communities, industrial - commercial zones, etc.

Monoculture developments not only result in social problems that divide rich and poor, but also require the excessive use of personal transportation for travel between zones and subsequently driveways and extensive networks of roads. The impermeable surfaces are unproductive, have fairly limited use, require frequent maintenance and are prone to flooding.

Eliminating roads is a more practical approach to urban planning according to Green Schemes for Garfield Park, a model for an urban village in Chicago. Extra land can instead by used more productively to create jobs, homes, food or small renewable energy projects. Increasing permeable surfaces also allows for better water management. Remaining roadways are used for public transit.

For example, removing the Park East freeway in Milwaukee made available 26 acres of land for new development which has attracted over $300 million worth of investments in new development. Similarly San Francisco increased nearby property values by 300% by tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway and opening up the waterfront and stimulating the development of entire new neighborhoods.

By removing a major freeway and supplying public transit to accommodate the drivers of the 120,000 cars that used the freeway every day, the infamously polluted Cheonggyecheon River in the heart of Seoul, Korea was restored.

By consequence of design, the village concept is pedestrian friendly with very little traffic and with community facilities within a short walking distance for residents. However to incorporate all of this into one, highly populated community, development density must be high.

An urban village is developed with its greatest population and building density in the centre, with town squares and key community facilities as focal points and with an easing of density away from the centre. The boundaries of the village are marked by green spaces.

Ultimately the village concept aims for self-sufficiency and sustainability. Communities are expected to manage their own waste, provide their own supply of renewable energy, grow most of their food locally and provide local jobs.

The idea, says Herbert Girardet, director of programs at the World Future Council and an expert on sustainable cities, is to create a zero-waste city with a 'circular metabolism.'

An Emerging Design

While the idea of an urban village is hardly new, the speed at which it is being incorporated into city planning is increasing. Major cities around the world are now adopting this design. London, England first began exploring the concept in 2002 in response to escalating urban sprawl. For years a growing proportion of the population has been moving out of the city into massive, suburban housing developments. Threatened by rising oil prices and a dependency on personal vehicles, these communities are likely to become slums and ghost towns as more people begin to migrate back to the inner city.

London city planners hope to turn these neighbourhoods into sustainable, urban villages to prevent such an exodus from occurring. The plan includes local job creation, access to educational institutions, increasing green spaces, greater community involvement in planning decisions and promoting the pedestrian lifestyle.

Similarly the City of San Diego, California began to develop its ‘City of Villages’ plan in 2002. The City Council approved five innovative projects to become Pilot Village demonstration projects which are dispersed throughout the city and represent a variety of approaches and styles that will demonstrate how Villages can revitalize existing neighborhoods while retaining their individual character.

San Diego developed the plan to help revitalize certain areas of the city as well as make better use of limited available land. 'We are using our City of Villages strategy to infill and redevelop many of our older neighborhoods where development pressure and existing plan capacity allow densification,' said Gail Goldberg, San Diego’s Planning Director.

In Canada, Dockside Green is a sustainable urban village being developed in Victoria, BC that aims to be carbon neutral and waste free. The urban village created on fifteen acres of former harbour front industrial land will consist of mixed residential, office, retail and commercial space. The community will contain green spaces traversed by waterways and pedestrian walking and biking trails. It will also include a vehicle-sharing program, mini-transit system and boat launch.

Waste from Dockside Green will either be used to produce energy from biomass or will be recycled within the community. Dockside Green’s sewage will be treated on-site and reused primarily for irrigation, reducing the demand for potable water. Residual treated water will recharge the naturalized waterway that flows across the site and collects rainwater as it flows towards the inner harbour.

China: Building Cities of Villages

China has launched its own share of urban villages within its cities. There are over 100 new city projects in the works. William McDonough, a world famous pioneer in sustainable architecture and founder of William McDonough & Partners, is in charge of one of the most exciting projects, the redesign of the town of Jinan, China.

This concept plan includes a vision for a new administrative and cultural center for the government of the Licheng District in the rapidly growing Eastern Industrial Zone of Jinan. Working under the guidance and support of the China Housing Industry Association and the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, the design team has developed conceptual plans for a new urban district that would house 180,000 people and embodies the principles of Cradle to Cradle Design.

Vegetated boundaries define a network of developed areas that include residential neighborhoods and commercial/public precincts. A series of linear parks running east to west convey storm water to existing gullies and provide a setting for neighborhood amenities and a structure for pedestrian and bicycle routes throughout the district. The plan also features infrastructure for water, wastewater, and energy distribution.

By considering issues beyond the initial use and operations of the development, the plan supports later adoption of emerging technologies and systems not readily available at the time of construction. For instance, site orientation will enable the town to install photovoltaics should solar energy become equal in cost to coal-fired electricity by 2016.

UK architects Arup are designing Dongtan, an eco-city composed of three villages located near Shanghai, China. The city will integrate the most important aspects of sustainable design into its layout: small villages connected by bicycle paths, a robust public transportation system, a network of distributed renewable energy systems, local farming and a method to recycle all waste output. (See Globe-Net article - Resurrecting Cities)

The goal is to create a city that runs completely on renewable energy for its buildings, transportation and infrastructure. Dongtan will recycle and reuse 90% of its waste, with hopes of eventually becoming a zero waste city.  Human sewage will be processed for energy recovery and composting. Nearby farmland will use organic methods to grow food for the city’s population. A heat and power plant will supply energy by running on biomass in the form of rice husks, a waste product from local rice mills.

The city will be developed for pedestrians and public transit. All housing will be built within a seven minute walk of public transportation. Vehicles will be solar or fuel-cell powered. The plan is to move 25,000 residents onto the 86 square kilometer island by 2010 and steadily grow the population to 500,000 by 2030.

Making New Cities Happen

The goal now, says Michael Kinsley, a senior consultant at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Sustainable Cities program, is to get community planners to change the way they think about the development process.

According to Britain’s Martha Schwartz, city planners have consistently failed to recognise that buildings are situated in wider landscapes. Greater attention needs to be placed on the landscape to create a sense of place, identity and belonging, which will help develop sustainable communities and improve the local environment.

However it is not entirely up to city planners to get the job done. Local residents need to become actively involved in transforming the area to achieve a lasting, truly sustainable community. 'People will only be willing to go the extra mile if they feel they have a stake in the process,' says Richard Levine, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Cities at the University of Kentucky. 'This is an extension of the democratic idea.'

Predictably cost is still a limiting factor, particularly when redeveloping existing infrastructure. 'The largest challenge, of course, is that we don’t have the money to make up for the existing infrastructure deficiencies in our older communities,' said San Diego’s Goldberg. According to Goldberg, since the benefits of an urban village are so long term, it is difficult to convince developers to pay the higher capital costs, especially if the developers do not benefit from the long term gains.

'Until we can come up with some way to transfer some of that long-term benefit to the developer who is fronting the cost, we are not going to achieve the changes we are striving for,' said Goldberg.

'Certainly the city, if it is reconfigured in the right way, could become a very sustainable habitat for humanity,' says Herbert Girardet, director of programs at the World Future Council and an expert on sustainable cities. 'But we need radical new departures in urban planning and priorities for urban authorities for the city to ultimately become the solution.'

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