Grand plans for green design

The first time I visited Bo01, Scandinavia’s showcase eco-district in Malmo, Sweden, it was a freezing day, with the North Sea battering the waterfront. Approaching from the city centre, the hectares of razed brownfield land, together with the empty ship-building docks, looked like a desolate winter landscape, not a place to live. “Nobody believed there would be beautiful, young people moving to such a grey and declining industrial city,” Eva Dalman, the development’s project manager, told me. I could understand why.

But when I stopped by the sustainable development again, 18 months later, its appeal was suddenly obvious. Autumn sunlight glinted off the water in the western harbour; roof gardens were alive with flowers; and still green trees lined the pathways leading to a carefully landscaped lake. The dense mixture of housing blocks, in varying styles and scales and designed by 40 different architects, helped the sense of diversity. And this time the pedestrian-only streets, embedded with broadband cables and fronting on to a still balmy shoreline, were buzzing with life. As Dalman said: “It has exceeded our expectations.”

Bo01 – named for the Swedish word bonollet (meaning “to dwell”) and the year 2001, when it was launched – is the first chapter in Malmo’s 20-year plan to create a sustainable “city of tomorrow” for an estimated 300,000 residents, transforming itself from a Baltic ship-building hub to a high-tech gateway to the region. Buildings on the 140-hectare site will be fuelled entirely with renewable energy, four-fifths of which will come from an underwater geothermal system with the remainder drawn from photovalactic and solar collectors and a single offshore wind turbine. Cars will be left at the district’s edges. And environment-friendly biodiversity – including interior flower gardens and planted areas joined by a water-course system – will be a priority. The second phase, Bo02, is under construction, while the third, Bo03, is on the drawing boards. Stockholm has a similar development, Hammarby Sjostad. And the Swedish government recently announced that it will devote a third of its new Skr1bn (£8bn) “climate action” programme money to other eco-projects around the country.

“We are working on how to mainstream the eco-district concept,” Dalman says.

This is the beginning of a grand experiment. And it is being closely watched, particularly in Europe as government planners, developers and architects look for ways to reduce energy use and revitalise city centres with similar urban eco-districts.

Yvette Cooper, the UK’s minister for housing and planning, who visited Bo01 during Malmo’s 2006 Sustainable Cities conference, referenced it when she launched her 10-year drive for housing with zero net carbon dioxide emissions earlier this year. And the British government’s plan to build 10 new architect-designed eco-towns of up to 100,000 homes in every region of the country – confirmed by Gordon Brown, the prime minister, at the Labour party conference in September – also lifts much from the Swedish developments. As Cooper explained: “The vision would involve a variety of architectural styles and types of building ... the antithesis of the dreary monolithic, identikit aesthetic.”

In other European countries there are already many working examples, albeit on a smaller scale than Bo01 and its followers. These include Eko-Viikki on the eastern edge of Helsinki, Finland, Hanover’s Kronsberg and Freiburg’s Vauban Quarter in Germany and sites in Lyon, France, and in Barcelona, Spain. In Switzerland there is Neuchatel’s Ecoparc, with a mix of housing, government offices and a technical school centred on the local rail station in an effort to promote public transport. And the new Metropolzonen scheme in Copenhagen, Denmark (early plans for which went on public display this summer) could also be included. Further afield, and already in the public eye, is Dongtang, China’s first planned eco-city, which could serve as a template for greening of the country’s rapidly urbanising population.

Though each of the eco-districts has a distinct aesthetic drawn from local climate, geography and national and regional approaches to eco-design, all have important elements in common: high-quality public spaces designed for pedestrians and cyclists; high-density housing close to schools and shops with private outdoor space as well as communal areas; transportation systems that favour walking, buses, trams and trains over cars; little to no space for parking; and community energy supply systems.

One of the most interesting is the Vauban Quarter, a project on the cusp of completion, with 4,800 of the planned 5,500 residents already in situ. Located on the grounds of an old military camp that was vacated after 1989 and handed back to Freiburg’s city council, it is notable for both its community origins and its long-term progress. Andreas Delleske, an early resident, traces its roots to protests against the proposed Wyhl nuclear power station in south-west Germany in the mid-1970s. “Many people at that time asked themselves: ‘What would an eco-city be like without nuclear power?’,” he explains. “From then on many small companies began in the region developing renewable energy such as solar and thermal collectors [and they] grew into larger businesses and academic institutes.”

Freiburg is home to the Institute of Applied Ecology, which opened in 1977, as well as being one of the birthplaces of the PassiveHaus movement, which aims to create ultra-low-energy homes. When, in the early 1990s, city officials identified Vauban as a potential site for sustainable development to boost the local housing supply and stem an exodus of young families, a group of locals formed the Vauban Forum to help set the agenda. In 1997 the first of several community-based developers, Genova, started to build 36 of the more than 400 planned housing units, though individual eco-friendly house-builders have also been encouraged all along.

Today the 38-hectare community centres on a main avenue with wide pavements, a tram line and a long stand of linden trees. There is a mix of building types, primarily four or five storeys, with schools, shops and a farmers’ market standing alongside housing. Bicycles are everywhere.

What most distinguishes Vauban from other eco-districts is how the natural world has been mostly left to its own devices. Visiting this autumn, I marvelled at the avenues of trees with leaves rustling in the breeze, the many open grassy areas between buildings and the children wandering around freely.

“That’s one of the things I appreciate most – my children being able to go off and do what they want and me not being scared about cars and traffic,” says Anne Pult, a mother of three who also moved to Vauban early on. “People look after each other and it is sociable. Where I live, seven families cook lunch together most days, although we have our own spaces.”

She acknowledges that the community can seem homogenous; most residents are well-educated, young and liberal. But she notes that there are also houses where both young and elderly people live together. And children who grew up there are now moving back. “Vauban shows people a structure that works,” she says. Certainly, planners and architects believe in the model, flocking from all across Europe to check it out.

Compared with the large-scale, public-private project in Malmo and the long-lasting, community-inspired Vauban, the urban eco-districts rising in the UK remain insignificant. The one-off Greenwich Millennium village, which went up at the same time as the nearby Millennium Dome, and the frequently cited BedZed (“zed” standing for zero-energy development and “bed” for Beddingham, its south London location) are it. Dalman describes the latter as “an eco-village rather than an eco-district”.

But Pooran Desai, co-founder of sustainable housing developer Bioregional, insists that things are changing quickly. His company is working with Quintain on the Middlehaven in Middlesbrough, England, which will be seven times bigger than BedZed. “I think [that project] could be called an eco-district,” he says. And it goes a step further by “creating a whole sustainable lifestyles,” he adds. “We do as much work on food and waste as transport and energy efficiency, with long-term estate management and green services, from local food deliveries to car clubs, featuring very heavily.”

Peter Clegg, of sustainable architecture practice FeildenCleggBradley, agrees that this is the future of eco-district planning. “What we do have to realise is that buildings can only help with a small proportion of the problem,” he says. “It is not the buildings that are the cause of CO2 emissions but the people that occupy them. Lifestyle changes are needed [as well as] carefully co-ordinated infrastructure design.”

He still regards the Malmo and Freiburg developments as exemplars. But with the UK’s eco-town architectural competition now on the table, he and other British architects will soon have a chance to improve upon them.

Oliver Lowenstein runs Fourth Door Review,

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