Future visions: (1) Ecopolis

Over and above these achievements, urban ecology needs ambitions and future goals. In the first edition of this handbook, our great colleague, the late Rusong Wang (see the dedication page of this handbook), Paul Downton and I wrote about the ecopolis concept (Wang et al.

Table 80.1 Definitions of different types of livable city

Type of city



A sustainable city would require: a transition to renewable alternatives and energy efficiency; zero waste viz. re-use of all waste outputs as productive inputs; sustainable transport (mostly public); sustainable construction materials and building materials; locally and regionally sourced food; sustainable water use and re-use of treated sewage; enhancement of biodiversity and preservation of natural habitats; valued authentic cultural diversity, community and citizen participation; equity and fair trade at all levels; health, well-being, and soulfulness (Swilling 2006).


Definitions of a ‘smart city’ vary widely, ranging from the use of discrete new information technology applications to make urban areas more energy efficient and less demanding of resources to a more holistic conception of intelligent, integrated working that is closely linked to the quality of: industry, education, participation, technical infrastructure, the culture of innovation and good, participatory government. In some planning and local government circles, the term smart growth is used and refers broadly to the use of urban design and planning techniques to reduce the impact of urbanization on ecosystems and the environment generally (Douglas and James 2015).


A healthy city is one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential. Being a healthy city depends not on current health infrastructure, rather upon a commitment to improve a city’s environs and a willingness to forge the necessary connections in political, economic, and social arenas (www.who.int/healthy_settmgs/types/cities/en/).


Resilience is the capacity to cope. It involves having infrastructure networks with the capacity to withstand external shocks and having alternative paths of provision, while also being designed to recover quickly and cheaply. Resilience might also include recovery in ways that increase the capacity to withstand future shocks and better alternative paths for provision. Urban resilience implies consideration of shocks to the food supplies, medical services, social integration, municipal services and ecosystem services on which city dwellers depend (Satterthwaite and Dodman 2013).


Biophilic cities put nature at the heart of their decision-making They contain abundant nature: green infrastructure for the people of the city, making close contact with plants and animals a part of daily life. Such a city cares about and seeks to protect, restore, and grow this nature. In a biophilic city, nature is not something optional, but absolutely essential to living a happy, healthy, and meaningful life (Beatley Chapter 7 this volume).


A city based on the principle of living within the means of the environment. The ultimate goal of many eco-cities is to eliminate all carbon waste, to produce energy entirely through renewable sources, and to incorporate the environment into the city; however, eco-cities also have the intentions of stimulating economic growth, reducing poverty, organizing cities to have higher population densities, and therefore higher efficiency, and improving health. An alternative view is that eco-cities, for the most part, are a means of mitigating threats to the natural environment while creating urban living capacity, by combining low carbon and resource-efficient development with the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to manage complex urban systems better (Douglas and James 2015).

Paths to sustainable urban futures, through newly built settlements or greatly improved existing settlements

Figure 80.1 Paths to sustainable urban futures, through newly built settlements or greatly improved existing settlements

Source: Diagram developed by Ian Douglas and drawn by Graham Bowden; from Douglas and James (2015)

2010, 2011), shown on the new build pathway in Figure 80.1. We pointed out that the concept of ‘ecopolis’ differs from more traditional concepts of urban sustainability that tend to focus on resource conservation (Downton 2009). For example, in relation to the biosphere, urban sustainability aims to have a ‘mostly harmless’ relationship with the biosphere, while ecopolis specifically aims at producing urban areas that are harmoniously integrated into biosphere processes to optimize their functioning for human purposes.

The ecopolis concept sees city evolution as an adaptive process of the interaction between man and nature. All of its natural subsystem, economic sub-system, and social subsystem are in a co-evolution process, having both positive and negative effects on ecosystem services and human well-being. Adaptive ecopolis development includes the adaptation to, or learning from, physical environmental change, technological innovation, economic fluctuation, institutional fragmentation, demographical mobility, patterns of behavior, and the consequences of inadequate, or unreliable, information. On the other hand, the local natural ecosystem under the urbanization stress has also responded to human society by changing its physical and biological structure, function, and process in response to human disturbance. To adapt to different conditions of varying levels of urban socio-economic conditions, from less developed, fast transition to highly developed, ecopolis development involves focusing on some or all of a set of evolutionary goals: ecological sanitation; ecological security; ecological industry; ecological landscape; and eco-culture (Wang et al. 2011). Ecopolis lays a rigorous theoretical foundation

Table 80.2 Main focal issues of the work of UN Environment on cities

Resource efficient cities

Resource augmentation

Promotion of principles of the Circular economy and 3 Rs approach (reduce, re-use, and recycle)

Material and energy intensity management

Development of life cycle analyses

Smart and intelligent cities

Promotion of resource efficient smart city solutions

Clean cities

Pollution and waste prevention

Promotion of sustainable consumption and production practices to prevent unsustainable accumulation of pollution and wastes

Pollution and waste management

Promotion of the polluter pays principle and extended polluter responsibility schemes

Green and healthy cities

Land-use planning for urban ecosystems

Measuring and analyzing resource use in cities

Mobility management

Promotion of transport planning aims to improve mobility, while reducing social and environmental impacts

Socio-economic equity

Social cents, economic parity, affordability to pay

Source: UN Environment (2019)

for ecologically sound urban development, then it assumes the challenge of applying the theory in real communities with significant stakeholder involvement. Ecopolis is not primarily concerned with ecology in the city, but with the ecology of the city and ecology for the city (Wang etal. 2011).

Ecopolis resounds with Richard Registers concept of the eco-city (Table 80.3): a human habitat with green buildings, open plazas and parks, networks of streets and utility infrastructure, green and blue infrastructure, all organized as a total system for living, which can evolve intimately with urban nature, as a living ecosystem (Register 2006, 2016). Building eco-cities became fashionable around 2010 and many considered it to be an opportunity for seriously applying the lessons urban ecology has taught us. However, another concept intervened: the idea of the smart, networked cities. Being able to have remote controls on things like air conditioning, traffic flows, and energy consumption was attractive to utility companies and the electronics industry but they almost totally ignored things that were controlled directly by the sun and the weather: nature in the city. Thus, the eco-cities at Tianjin (China) and Masdar (Abu Dhabi) are far more concerned with traffic and people movement than harmony with nature. This leaves an unfulfilled challenge for urban ecology: to really build cities designed with, and for, nature that are accessible to all, and not just the well-off elites who occupied the suburbs designed by people like Olmsted and McHarg (Douglas 2019). Perhaps some of the social housing of 1920s European suburbs, in cities such as Brussels. Belgium, or the 1960s new town areas of Warrington, England where landscape planners allocated generous green areas and restored wetland nature reserves, would be good examples of urban ecology for all the people of the city.

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