January 24, 2008


Back in July, on my old blog, I wrote about this BBC article about the less rosy side of the much-hyped Dongtan 'ecocity'. It's been back in the news recently following Gordon Brown's trip to China as an example of British expertise helping the Chinese address environmental issues, and I was surprised, listening to the Today programme the other day, that a critical perspective on the project seems to have disappeared again.

Another person expressing untempered optimism about Dongtan (though he has the sense to ask whether a few projects like this can really save the planet) is Hugh Pearman here. Not only Dongtan, but Foster's huge square 'ecocity' in Abu Dhabi, the huge 'zero-carbon' Pearl River Tower and Rem Koolhaas in the Gulf are held up as exemplars. But where is the sustainability in an eco-suburb for the wealthy, the creation of any new city in a desert region, no matter how it then powers itself, or an expensive skyscraper whose hi-tech component parts will have huge amounts of energy embodied in their prototyping, construction and transportation?

I have a tendency to question altogether the prevailing eco-wisdom that dense urban living is more sustainable than a revisited ruralism. At the present it is true that Western-style rural life is often car-dependent and energy-intensive, while dense and walkable urban areas are certainly better than sprawling suburbs. But visit countries such as India and the boundaries between rural and urban become blurred and perhaps point towards alternative visions; and even here, in Essex, to see the amount of enterprise that occurs in the villages and farms around us is staggering. The big sticking point is transportation but in terms of food miles, energy generation and water conservation to name but three areas, country life has definite advantages.

Ultimately, country and city will have to exist in balance, but this doesn't mean focusing all our energies on visions of urban futures. I've spent some time looking at potential models for new rural development but we need both policy and the private sector to put more energy into ex-urban areas. This is a theme we will be returning to again and again, as we look out from HAT HQ onto fields, and talk to our neighbouring rural entrepreneurs...


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