by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

“What becomes of civilization in this century will be determined by what happens in urban and suburban environments.” That statement appears in the Paul Hawken’s 2021 book, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. Some of you may recall that Hawken was a keynote speaker at Ecocity World Summit 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Not surprisingly, his new book reaffirms that Ecocity Builders is in the right line of work as seen in our mission statement: Reshaping cities for the long-term health of human and natural systems.

Hawken calls for a “regenerative city” and unpacks that term using examples in seven mini chapters. The one on net zero cities recounts how the oil supply disruptions of the 1970s awakened the world to the need for renewable energy. Unfortunately, the US relapsed into our old bad habits thanks largely to government policies aimed at maintaining our addiction to cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Fortunately, individual cities around the world are demonstrating that it is possible coexist with nature.

According to Regeneration, in over 100 cities around the world, renewables already account for 70 percent or more of the power supply. Copenhagen and other European cities will most likely be first to reach the 100-percent-renewable goal. But even in the US, commitments to achieve 100-percent renewable energy goals have been pledged by over 150 cities that are home to more than 100 million people.

Compact, diverse, multiuse neighborhoods are essential to achieving energy efficiency goals as well as most of the other objectives of our Ecocity Standards. We use the term “access by proximity” to describe a largely car-free community where homes, schools, businesses, and other everyday destinations are close enough to be reached on foot or bicycle. In Regeneration, Hawken gets specific about proximity, advocating the goal of getting almost everything with a fifteen-minute walk. Although it is no easy task to retool car-dependent cities, Hawken reports that the 15-minute-city movement is making progress in many places around the world including in Paris, Madrid, and many Chinese cities.

The Ecocity Standards demonstrate that compact, walkable neighborhoods accommodate eco-mobility by liberating public space now dominating by motor vehicles and converting it to places where people can walk, bike, and connect with one another. Hawken reports that the pandemic has helped many cities realize that replacing parking lanes and motor vehicle lanes with bikeways, transit-only lanes, and wider sidewalks not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but also allows space for outdoor dining, recreation, and a reduced threat from traffic accidents, which are responsible for almost 1.5 million deaths worldwide every year. Post pandemic, many cities are not planning to give this new-found people space back to cars and several are banning cars outright at certain times and in certain places including London, Bogota, Hamburg, Chengdu, and Hyderabad.

Just as the Ecocity Standards promote biodiversity, Regeneration confirms the importance of building nature in our cities. Trees and other vegetation sequester carbon, provide energy-conserving shade, and create habitat for our fellow species. In addition to building green infrastructure, it is important to maintain human contact with the natural world in order to maintain support for the environment as a whole. As Hawken puts it: “People who don’t know don’t care.” Fortunately, many cities have responded to this need. London aims to become the world’s first National Park City by greening half the city by 2050 and building four urban forests. Switzerland’s Great Geneva project envisions a biodiversity metropolis encompassing a region of eleven urban centers, two lakes, and a mountain.

Regeneration and the Ecocity Standards both advocate for growing fresh, healthy food near if not within cities. Although the direct impact on climate change is not huge, Hawken argues that we must help urbanites reengage with agriculture and ideally shift to more planet-friendly diets. All of Cleveland’s food needs could be met by a combination of rooftop gardens and using vacant lots for urban farming.

As in the Ecocity Standards, Regeneration promotes energy-conserving buildings as a way of creating jobs while reducing or eliminating GHG emissions from building materials, construction, and operation. Hawken highlights the Living Building Challenge (LBC) aimed at surpassing zero carbon buildings and constructing net positive structures, meaning buildings that generate more fresh water and clean energy than they consume. Since 2013, LBC certification has been given to over 100 buildings and Hawken reports that 500 more are in the pipeline throughout 14 countries.

Underwhelming climate action on the part of many national governments can sometimes lead to pessimism. Fortunately, Regeneration offers hope in its depictions of cities around the globe that are pursuing the goals of the Ecocity Standards.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.