ECOPOLIS: Urban Ecology & the Architecture of Ecopolis


'My heart is deep in the country. But I live for the city'

-Mick Jagger-

Cities are at the centre of the storm of ecological destruction. Everything in the biosphere is connected and cities are part of the global ecosystem. They embody the values of the civilisation that produced them. Industrial civilisation has exploited the environment and the community to leave us with cities which suck their hinterlands dry. City and country are interdependent and each city's hunger for land to feed, house and fuel its growing population has been exacerbated by industrial colonialism so that cities now spread across the face of the planet like a cancer.

But cities are the human nest - they are where most of us live. They could reflect the values of life-enhancing, health-giving cultures. If cities are central to the problem of the ecological crisis they must be central to its solution. In the last few years a worldwide movement has developed which seeks to create ecological cities, cities in balance with nature.

Planetary medicine

An ecological city is as much about balance within human society as it is about balance between humans and nature. An Ecopolis is a brand of eco-city, a package of concepts, ethics and programs for making cities that are places of ecological restoration. It goes beyond "sustainability" - sustaining what we now have would be like embalming a patient with a terminal illness. An Ecopolis is about healing.

Fit not fight

The difference between an Ecopolis and a "technopolis" is the difference between a mechanical contrivance and a living organism. Technology does not make cities - people make cities. Technopolis is founded on the modernist illusion of economic and technological determinism and is an assault on nature; an Ecopolis is rooted in the real need to fit human settlement within the patterns of nature and its purpose is restoration of the biosphere.

Politically, it is decentralised and democratic taking cues from Kropotkin and Bookchin. Socially and culturally, it reflects the diverse reality of human affairs and the tapestry of life that makes every city work. Economically, it adopts the premise that economics and ecology are both essentially to do with the flow of energy and materials through a system and that "value" is a social construct. It talks the language of economics familiar to Illich, Daly, Max-Neef and Paul Hawkins.

Family tree

The planning principles of an Ecopolis, with its concept of co-evolving cities and regions, branch from the same philosophical tree as Geddes, Mumford and McHarg. Architectural principles stem from Wright and the "organics" but locate most of the architecture in the urban ecosystem. William Morris might recognise the social justice concepts and support for arts and craft and Bruce Goff would probably appreciate the geometry with its eclectic overlays, but the thrust is determinedly urban, with a nod and a wink to Soleri. Ecopolis is opposed to sub-urbanity and sentimental ruralism and promotes a return to the measure of human bodies rather than machines - 10 minutes walk rather than 10 minutes drive.

Though its principles are universal, the architecture and urban form of an Ecopolis is regional, specific to its place. That place is defined bioregionally, in a search for both biogeophysical and cultural limits. Recognising that nature conserves us, its design philosophy embraces the Gaia hypothesis of Lovelock and Margulis and seeks to create architectural and urban entities which display the resilient, self-organising, dynamic balance of living organisms. Adaptation and evolution are keywords. Seeking synthesis, synergy and symbiosis, an Ecopolis uses ecology as metaphor and in practice, closing ecological loops, taking care to complete the water cycle, taking responsibility for sequestering carbon released in its making.


An Ecopolis employs appropriate technology - unrefined mud is a poor semi-conductor, microchips are poor building blocks. An adaptable, low technology "platform" is buildable almost anywhere and can weather changes in the economic or actual climate. Technological sophistication can be added as needed. This strategy can work in "First" and "Third" world environments making technology transfer, in either direction, simple and effective. It is important not to build around inappropriate technological dependencies.


Human society based on exploitation will exploit, rather than nurture, nature. Social equity is essential in an Ecopolis. Social balance depends on appropriate economic foundations. Money does not normally talk ecologically for reasons for that go to the roots of our culture. Building ecological cities also means building a culture and economy based on ethical behaviour, social responsibility and "clean" capital to maintain a non-exploitative relationship with the biosphere. No ecology, no economy - no planet, no profit. Appropriate "invisible" economic and social structures must be laid before the first physical foundations.


Top-down, bureaucratically-driven visions of future cities fail because they do not engage the community in their creation.

The role of the citizen is paramount in the movement towards ecological cities. Just as supportive clients are necessary for innovation in architecture, so ecologically conscious, democratically active citizens are essential for innovation in urbanism. Building eco-cities means building community support for change. The "Ecopolis" proposition is that tension between the imperative for change and the need for security can translate into creativity by promoting community-driven development. This is being demonstrated by the Halifax EcoCity Project.


An Ecopolis provides the means for ordinary people to address the full range of ecological, social and economic issues simply by choosing where they live. Buying or renting a home, office or workshop in an Ecopolis is not just a real estate deal, it means becoming part of a healthy living organism. Financial, management and political structures are dealt with as well as the more obvious environmental trappings associated with energy efficient, climate responsive, non-toxic design.


As Cherie Hoyle, my partner in love, life and work puts it - Architecture is politics. An Ecopolis is about creating a three-dimensional expression for the politics of human-scaled, decentralised, society living in harmony with itself and the world.

Celebrating the gravity of the situation

Nature does not negotiate, a species doesn't get a second chance. Architecture must comply with the biological demands of ecosystems as much as it must respond to the physics of construction and laws of gravity. An Ecopolis celebrates being human within the rigorous limits of our biosphere.

Life is a balance of opposites. An uncomplicated response to this simple, ancient philosophy can create a rich and profoundly satisfying architecture. An Ecopolis balances old with new, order with spontaneity, heavy with light, enclosure with open-ness, high tech with low, regionalism with universality. This cannot be sprung from nothing, it needs a place, people and time. The challenge is to distill the essence of it all for workable schemes in our industrial, consumer civilisation. The goal of an urban organic architecture is a glittering prize.
Paul F Downton