Getting Past Growth Towns

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Kangbashi, China, is a strange place. The city, built in just five years on the country’s wind-blown northern plains, has nearly all the features of a modern metropolis: highways, museums, parks, condos, sprawling subdivisions. All except people — the place is a virtual ghost town. Why would anyone rush to build a city for no one? One reason might be economic growth: Building a city means calling in droves of workers, manufacturing tons of steel, pouring rivers of concrete. It means a lot of investment and dollar flow. And all that means China can add a few more notches to their annual GDP numbers.

Weird. But that appears to be the story of Kangbashi, at least as reported here in Foreign Policy magazine, and in the video below from Al Jazeera (it’s only 4 mins. long and worth watching):

Building cities for no one is clearly ridiculous — not to mention wildly unsustainable. It also underscores the increasing inability of GDP, or raw economic growth, to approximate actual progress (and in China’s case, it should be noted, population and state-run, large-scale relocations of people are probably at work too).

But if Kangbashi is where the GDP rabbit-hole might ultimately lead us, what’s the post growth alternative? One group working hard to answer that question is EcoCity Builders. Richard Register, president of EcoCity Builders, recently estimated that a post growth city should be able to run on 1/10th the energy and 1/5th the land of today’s average city. Many features of such a place aren’t new to anyone familiar with what New Urbanists, Smart Growth advocates, and others have been discussing for years: Compactness and walkability, a diverse transportation infrastructure, a strong local food system, and green buildings seem to be universally-key design elements. I’d also add another, less concrete but increasingly crucial element: intelligent sources of open data about the physical places around us. More on that later.

Of course, all of what Register and others are proposing has to sit in a context of getting everything else right. A steady state economy (and all that that implies), a serious and effective attempt at addressing the nexus of poverty, population growth, and sustainable development in the global South, and a shifting culture around what it means to be wealthy here in the North being foremost in my mind. (Interestingly, in this blog post, Register describes coming away from a recent conference on “degrowth” disappointed with the lack of serious discussion about cities and the built environment.)

What else would you add to the list of ecocity principles? Is anything happening along these lines in your city? How can post growth ideas engage with the green urbanism movement?

Image credit: EcoCity Builders.

Published by Scott Gast

Scott walks, bikes, reads, and lives in rural western Massachusetts. His day jobs have included stints at YES! Magazine, the City of Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, and The Nature Conservancy. He is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College, and Special Projects Assistant at Orion Magazine.

4 replies on “Getting Past Growth Towns”

  1. Richard Register is an amazing visionary. I started to volunteer with his non-profit in Berkeley in 1982; returning there, I heard him speak a few times in 1988– he was far ahead of anyone I heard speaking publicly in the SF Bay area back then. He has kept the light burning for a strong eco-vision when others were willing to let it blow out.

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