Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs – updated

Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley wrote

Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs (Island Press, 2015, 262 pp., paperback $52.00)

Jonathan Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Practice in City & Regional Planning and former Director of the Urban Design Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Larry Beasley is retired Co-Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver, now Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning at the University of British Columbia.

This is a work chock-full of ideas, copiously illustrated by photographs, of how urban environments can be made more livable while adapting to and mitigating climate change.  Almost all illustrations are of actual applications, many from Vancouver but also many from other cities in North America and around the world.

The authors presented their work at an NCC Urbanism Lab on October 1, 2015.

A slide show of the NCC event.  An interview with Larry Beasley. A press release on the web site of UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning (June 23, 2015).

The chapters, with snippets about each:

  1. Ecodesign: Changing the Urban Growth Model

…we describe basic axioms of ecodesign that should inform every project that affects the built or natural , and we consider the philosophical and ethical basis of ecodesign.

2. Adapting to Climate Change and Limiting Global Warming

Adapting development to already inevitable climate changes while protecting the environment for the future.

3. Balancing Cars and other Transportation

Balancing transportation modes to relieve traffic congestion while supporting more compact and better-organized places: Innovative ideas…

4. Making Cities More Livable and Environmentally Compatible

Replacing outmoded development regulations and government incentives that continue to steer urban growth in the wrong directions … history … difficulties … viable alternative … consumer trends [that] drive change…

5. Designing and Managing the Public Realm

Reshaping streets, public places, and public buildings to make a livable environment available to all, rather than just affluent people … directions to shape the public realm for environmental, social and economic benefits.

6. Implementing Ecodesign

…how to tap new financing resources, how to use new forms of regulations, how to decide [priorities].

Below are some definitions and excerpts that seem most applicable to the National Capital Area and its greenspace.

The authors define ecodesign as

a way of looking at cities and their hinterlands that integrates considerations of environmental soundness and resilience with human health and well-being. (p7)

In this they hark back to the seminal work of Ian McHarg (Design with Nature, 1969; also Philip Lewis, Tomorrow by Design, 1995).  They write:

The best examples of livable and responsible development continue to be exceptions. We need to find a way to turn promising exceptions into everyday practice. We need to integrate the practice of planning and urban design with environmental conservation and change the design of our built environment to adapt to climate change and create more desirable places. (p7)

The Six Axioms of Ecodesign (pp. 10-13):

  • Embrace and manage complexity
  • Make population and economic growth sustainable
  • Make all designs interdisciplinary
  • Always require public involvement
  • Respect both the natural and the built context
  • Draw on many design methods

About respecting watersheds and reducing floods and erosion (pp. 51-54):

… it is much less expensive, and should be equally effective, to apply many small devices to retain stormwater rather than the very expensive engineering solutions, like completely separating stormwater and sanitary sewer systems or building holding tanks at the treatment plant… (p52)

About shaping Green Streets (pp. 54-56):

Parking lots, in which acres of land are covered with an impervious surface, can … be fitted with planting beds between each isle of parked cars so that water drains into the plantings, is filtered, and then seeps into the ground. (p55)

They accept that “The Car is Here to Stay” (pp. 65-67).

About Bus Rapid Transit (BRT, pp. 70-72):

BRT is a way of using buses to move people at speeds and in numbers that are comparable to light-rail transit, at a far lower capital cost. (p70)

They emphasize the need for an Experiential Perspective (p. 100):

…the city [must deliver] feelings, sensations, and interactions that are meaningful and memorable for the most number of people, with an opportunity for all to participate, as well as providing the basics of health and safety for all citizens. (p100)

About  relating Development Regulations to Nature (pp. 104-107): GIS maps should be adopted as the zoning base maps, making it easier to incorporate detailed information about both the environmental and the development context into the regulation and approval process.  Specifically on stormwater management:

A typical objective for regulating property within a watershed is that the amount of stormwater leaving the property and flowing downstream should be as close as possible after development to the rate of flow that would have taken place before.  Implementing this objective often requires detention areas in places where the natural retention characteristics of the landscape have been altered by development.  The most effective retention systems need to be designed to serve clusters of properties so as to apportion the requirements among property owners, and conform to the boundaries of the natural drainage system, rather than property lines.  The complex interactions of all these factors clearly require discretionary approvals within predetermined limits. (p106-7)

Chapter 5 discusses “Structural Principles for the Public Realm” (pp. 168-178):

Emphasizing Small Blocks.  Maintaining Connectivity.  Preferring Two-Way Streets.  Making Multiuse Streets.  Defining Public Space with Buildings.  Highlighting Landmarks and Wayfinding.

The chapter also pays much attention to Danish architect Jan Gehl’s axiom that “life takes place on foot.”  (Ref. Cities for People, Island Press, 2014.)  That leads to examples, some well-known, of “putting walking and public space ahead of cars.”  A section on several aspects of “bringing city design into harmony with nature” introduces examples of better siting of buildings, spaces and utilities; managing  hydrology; naturalizing the public landscape; and harvesting food.

In the final chapter, the authors advise:

Whether as a citizen or a private developer or a government official, people need to think about how to apply ecodesign principles from their particular perspective, but that will not be enough.  Making such big changes in the ways cities and suburbs develop will require new levels of public and private collaboration.  Neither side alone can build the livable and environmentally compatible city that we have outlined in this book.  We need a system and processes that can bring these essential combinations together into a workable arrangement. (p210)

Community participation in planning is now standard practice, but it still does not take enough advantage of the kinds of participation made possible by the internet for sharing ideas and developing positions.  There are many organized consumer constituencies that can help start a broad discussion about combining city design practice with environmental preservation, the ecodesign approach for the future of cities and suburbs.  These constituencies include environmental advocacy groups, citizens groups, chambers of commerce, residential communities, agricultural cooperatives, historic preservation organizations, and — perhaps surprisingly to some — real-estate developers and investors.  All these groups have powerful reasons to support ecodesign principles and could make the examples in this book the general rule rather than special situations. (p211-12)

Many techniques must be used to work with citizens, but there must also be an ethic to embrace the results  that come out of the discussions. (p235)

More on the regulatory regime:

Correcting obsolescence in the current regulatory regime is essential to the achievement of ecodesign.  Changes are needed in the structure and intention of regulations and in the process through which regulations come together and are applied on an ongoing basis.  Regulations should not just avoid the worst consequences; they should strongly engender the best results. (p229)

And getting down to dollars and cents:

…the most profound blindness in the regulatory regimes that determine the shape and content of our cities is the blindness about the cause and effect between regulation and land values. (p230)

They then discuss the so-called land-value lift resulting from rezoning:

[a] …windfall sum [that] can be paid to the existing landowner as a one-time gain, or it can represent a second level of profit for the developer. (p231)

This land-value lift

…can be directed so that it can become a source to underwrite a high standard of performance and delivery of public goods. (p232)

The fundamental economic truth of land values underlies a discretionary regulatory system and gives it energy to produce results.  This is the reason that a transactional system is necessary because to calibrate land-value increments with development performance takes a subtlety of understanding and negotiations. (p233)

A Final Word (pp. 240-241):

Local government has to be prepared to make dramatic and genuine reforms for better environmental and living performance and for a more equitable and inclusive society, both to hold up its own responsibilities and to offer a model for other people and institutions in society to follow.  The same can be said for the development community.  Citizens, as individuals and interest groups, have to stay involved and vigilant. (p241)

Comment.  Several components of what the authors advocate are present in Ontario’s planning and approval system.  E.g. Section 37 concessions could, in principle, transfer some of the land-value lift.  The recent commitment to Complete Streets and a few experiments with rain gardens nudge Ottawa in the desired direction.  A proposal to green parking lots came forward in the lead-up to OPA 150 but was later withdrawn, despite our plea to retain it.  And oh yes, development reviews sure are transactional.  The plea for tell-all maps is one the Greenspace Alliance has put repeatedly to the City’s administration; we need to go beyond geoOttawa and incorporate holistic maps into the development review process.

We have argued before that zoning in Ottawa is largely unhelpful when it comes to environmental protection, let alone designing with nature. There is a long way to go here.

What form the involvement of citizens can take in land use issues is currently under active consideration.  A basic thrust of Bill 73 was that public input has to obtain a higher profile.  Regarding one aspect, the formation of a Planning Advisory Committee, members of the Greenspace Alliance and the FCA Executive have put forward a proposal (February 10, 2017).

An identified Priority in this Council’s Term is:

#54 – Improved Public Engagement in Planning Matters

Integrated program to refresh the approach and tactics applied to public engagement in planning matters as a result of the adoption of the new corporate Public Engagement Guidelines initiative and community and political interest in improving the dialogue and outcomes. 

There is room for dialogue, for sure.

Erwin – 11 March 2017

UPDATE – 28 March 2017

The authors are offering a MOOC (massive open online course) out of UBC, based on their book.  It’s a free 6-week course and starts on April 4.  Larry  Beasley writes:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am pleased to announce a new on-line course soon to be offered through the University of British Columbia edX.

The course is called “Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs” taught by Jonathan Barnett and myself.

The attached notice tells the details and provides the link to learn more and to register.

Including a diverse collection of short video lectures with hundreds of pictures, and a selection of interesting and engaging follow-up activities, extending over 6 weeks, the course is free and easily accessible. It is targeted to urbanists all over the world – professionals but also students and active citizens.  It takes a global view, covering topics and using examples in line with our recent book of the same name, published by Island Press in 2015.

What is exciting about the course is that you can participate as fully or as partially as you wish.  For a certificate, you need to participate fully, but for your own interest, you can choose some or all of the lectures and none, some or all of the exercises.

I want to kindly ask your assistance in helping to get the word out about this course.  I hope you will tell friends and colleagues, send the attached notice along to your own contact lists and facilitate it being sent to as many list-serves and professional networks as possible.  This is really the only good way to let people know that the course is happening. Thanks for your help on this.

We have worked hard on this course and we hope that everybody really enjoys it.

I send along my best wishes.


The announcement.    The Course page.

UPDATE — 31 May 2017

The course has now ended but a free self-paced version is available. Register here:


Alex Bozikovic in the Globe & Mail of August 17, 2017 writes about how planners are rethinking stand-alone apartment towers built in the mid-20th century.  Toronto is considering a new “Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning that would loosen restrictions for 500 buildings across the city, allowing the spaces between towers to be used for non-residential purposes.

Amy Fleming in The Guardian of January 15, 2020 writes about ancient technologies that are ‘symbiotic’ with nature and are finding modern applications.