The eco city feasibly reconsidered

Image: Scott Webb

Building the perfect city is slow when you do it by hand. Construction in Arcosanti first began in 1970. Today, it’s an odd selection of experimental buildings: it includes an amphitheatre, a swimming pool and spaces for music. There’s a large vault structure which provides shade; it’s cool, curved concrete is painted in quiet Tuscan browns, yellows, golds and reds. Both ends are left open, allowing Arizona’s Yavapai Country to pour itself into the space.

It was the Italian architect Paolo Soleri who dreamt up the city and its proposed lifestyle, but the construction itself is carried out by a small collective of volunteers. To finance this project, the workers also manufacture and sell wind bells designed by Soleri. They’re bronze-cast, and capture the organic feel of the place. Despite Soleri passing away in 2013, Arcosanti still continues, and the wind bells sell for between $30 and $3000.

It’s very easy to deride this collection of curious structures, yet Soleri’s elemental ideas on the future city are profound. He believed the entire city should be walkable, with inhabitants neatly concentrated into large complexes. These structures would produce no waste, and they would be nestled amongst a rural landscape which could also be used for agriculture.

In 2015, when we draw up plans for ‘eco cities’, they are based on much the same ideas. Our visions for entirely new cities are projected as computer-generated models, typically as a tree canopy punctuated by glass towers. It’s a different return to a more natural way of life: plant life is used as a design feature, and the environment is shaped around our modern lives.

I believe both of these approaches to be fundamentally wrong. Designing the cities of the future is about making the best of what we already have. In a time of growing climate concerns, the eco city needs to be removed from the dreamy abstract and quickly cast into the concrete. There are a group of practical-minded pioneers who do exactly this.

‘Urban agriculture’ proposes how we can implement farming within our current cities. Back gardens or community allotments can be converted into productive farming space, but you don’t necessarily need land of your own; through services such as Shared Earth, individual landowners and growers can work together.

The movement isn’t just community gardening though. A project called The Plant in Chicago is based inside an old industrial building; multiple farming companies operate within the space, using technologies such as aquaponics to grow food indoors, compactly arranged on different stories of the building.

The advantages of urban farming are obvious. Fresh food is produced, and less transport is required to get that food to the consumer. The Advocates for urban agriculture make a detailed case: they point out urban farming can also take in the large amount of food and garden waste, and then re-use it to cleanse polluted soil.

Lower-density cities are typically the worst environmentally performing, as suburban expansion increases dependency on the car. It’s a big problem, though Portland, Oregon has a solution. Cycling paths are integral threads of the city’s fabric, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation aims for over 25 per cent of journeys to be carried out on bicycle by 2030.

Using the ORcycle app, bikers can also point out areas of required improvement in the cycling network. This means that the maintenance of the system can be more targeted.

There’s a beauty to Arcosanti and an excitement to the renderings of 2050’s glimmering buildings. These feelings can never be replicated by multi-story farming or an iPhone app. Yet, the principles of the eco city are realisable within the current frameworks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s feasible – and necessary.

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