Alexandre Seron
Mons 2007
Overturning the classical approaches of the design of the harmonious city, Vincent Callebaut asks the audacious question of the necessity of an ambitious design of the long lasting city. And which is the best theatre for his reflection than future China? The audacity of the visionary architect is so precise: he wonders after the polemic on the « infinite » Chinese growth, the day when Peking welcomes the Olympic Games, the day before the revision of the Kyoto protocol. Because China is in the heart of many polemics and it is worldwide expected that it proves its opening and behaviour change ability But beyond the Chinese case and its numerous paradoxes, the architect invites to something more universal: he put a stress on one of the essential stakes of tomorrow: the worldwide development of the long lasting cities, the desire of «Ecopolis»!

From the emergence of world-cities

Since the end of the 20th Century, the cities are hybrid and split. Between pandemonium buildings and saturated slums. Between middle age pictures and flashy modernity. In 2000, 3 Latin American people out of 4 lived in the city. About half of the worldwide urban population lives in cities of 1 million of inhabitants. 13 out of 21 worldwide megalopolis are Asian. China envisages the creation of 250 new cities of 2 million inhabitants each! Whereas the rural areas dump yearly almost 70 million of migrants looking for a job and prosperity towards the cities, more than the half of the population gathers in true receptacles that are the urban areas. And within 2050, according to demographic projections, 2/3 of the humanity will survive in cities almost in congestion, implosion.

The irresistible ascension of the megalopolis puts major challenges in terms of health, education, housing, mobility, environment… as much in the north as in the south. Without talking about the scandal of the food. Thus, the world is so quick urbanised that we do not know if the planet has enough resources to cope with this irreversible trend: eager of energy, theses contemporary and sprawling cities devour the resources of the earth so quickly rejecting high quantities of waste. As the urban Eldora do concerns especially on the worldwide level the cities that are bad prepared to a so fast evolution, the uncontrolled urban spreading deteriorates the peripheral natural spaces. It overturns the social balance and the new links created by the diversity and the spatial proximity of the people, it reinforces the social inequalities and move away the social groups the ones to the others. It discriminates the access to basic services. It fragments the urban tissue and disintegrates itself from the territorial cohesion. It increases the insecurity and the uprooting. It threats health and environment. It impacts dangerously the budgetary needs of the cities. It oppresses the infrastructures of the space and generates a true growing «slum-urbanisation». Actually, the peripheral quarters of the cities, adding the handicaps, tend to extend, to pauperize and marginalize itself: in 2005, 23% of the worldwide urban population lived in slums that experienced a worrying worldwide growth, constituted true delayed bombs for the humanity and are one of the major political problems ! Peking does not escape from this rule.

The globalisation of the economy favours the polarisation of the activities in these privileged places that are these extensible cities. Actually, the extension of the urban territories appears by the creation of world-cities, network-cities with worldwide dimension, linking of these non contiguous territories, but deeply interconnected and interdependent. The globalisation is thus based on this urban metropolitan archipelago to develop itself: growth, power and wealth are more and more concentrated in a limited number of « global cities » - besides often of capitals, mostly based in the northern countries… - and by pass more and more by their cross-border state, the intermediary areas of the periphery. This phenomenon leads to a triple worldwide crisis: sovereignty crisis (overtaking of the state), territoriality crisis (overtaking of the frontiers) and authority crisis (general overtaking by the current global disorders). Ever since, the cities become political actors: they concentrate potentially more powers which make the question of the decentralisation, sometimes the autonomy, unavoidable and painful. According to ONU-Habitat, the cities of more than 100 million inhabitants will have such powers that they will act as State-cities free of all national or regional interference.

Thus, to the economical growth corresponds an extension of the urban territories. But as the economical growth is not infinite, the urban extension is not infinite neither. Control and planning are thus urgent. The nature of the urban growth/concentration leads to an massive impact on the environment: the cities experience huge problems of space consumption and using of rare resources (water, energy, etc.) and produce also many nuisances (air pollution, waste, noise, etc.). Faced with phenomenon of world metropolization, we assist to a receding of the city’s right, a spreading of the social cohesion for which the city stands security, a true centre/periphery segregation. The questions aroused by the urban mutation, true identity introspection on the future of the city: « such as excessive as a silicon breast, the cities have a misleading nature and are empty inside » - and the necessity to answer the economical social, environmental and cultural challenges of the city have made it an privileged application ground of the long lasting development.

From the economical growth to the long lasting development

The growth is as we know it a quantitative process which is used to measure the variation of the wealthy created by the exchanges. However, when the countries of the OCDE have never been so rich and the progresses so important it becomes unhealthy that the model keep or reinforce the inequalities between rich countries and poor countries, rich population and poor population inside the same country, the same region or the same city which leads to the constitution of a dual worldwide society. As the « credo » of the growth brings intrinsically the social exclusion, the irremediable deterioration of the natural environment and the de-cultivation, our narrow and limited world-society is questioned: it cannot not been designed without taking into account the social progress, the fight against the inequalities, the preservation of the environment and the natural resources, and the respect of the cultural diversity. That is the sense of the questioning that brings to the notion of long lasting development in the 90’s.

From 1992, in the report ordered by the United Nations to a commission presided over by Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland first and then at the Convention of Rio on the environment and the development, the notion of long lasting development has been defined and built. It has been built as being the necessity of a development in the North as in the South compatible with the ecologic preservation of the planet and its resources, and taking into account the next generations and their poorest populations. It has been defined as a development that meets the needs of the present time without compromising the ability of the next generations to answer their needs. The planning for the 21st Century, called planning 21 is ready! 1992 would mark a change of the states in favour of the long lasting development. However, the after-Rio is far to have led to great actions, and even less on the expected scale. Fortunately, the reference to the long lasting development has freed itself from the international spheres! Actually, we owe the persistence of the idea of a long lasting development policy more to the mobilisation of certain territories, communes, districts or regions. Already on the fringe of Rio, then in 1994 in Aalborg, the cities, European first and then worldwide take the opportunity to set up the local planning 21. Opportunity to establish the principles and instruments of long lasting urban management around several fields (natural resources management, urban economy, social field, mobility and accessibility, territory planning, urban regeneration, cultural heritage and tourism). Opportunity to renew the urban approach, open the innovative perspectives and offered a new reading line of accelerated mutations that experience the cities nowadays. Opportunity to stimulate the local action to the realisation of a long term project, inherent to each local entity and guided by a logic of action and planning principles.

From the logic framework of the long lasting development

In conclusion, the long lasting development is understood as the putting in practice of some principles contributing to the improvement of the welfare, to more social justice, to the respect of the ecosystems and cultural identities. To be in a perspective of long lasting development corresponds to working around several skylight ideas:

Open the temporal horizon (on the long time, the one of the future generations) and the spatial horizon (take into account the welfare of everyone, inhabitant of the North or of the South, from a close region, the city or a surrounding district) ;

Lay in a global approach (take into account all the existing relationships/interactions between the systems – or between the elements of the systems -, understand the functioning and act on it) ;

Carry out a transversal approach rather than a sectorial one (i.e. an approach that measures its implications not in a unique field but in all the fields);

Develop an interdisciplinary approach (based on the partnership and the cooperation between different actors, disciplines, sectors and/or grades) ;

Mobilisation and participation of all actors/strengths to the decision process (via a participative and citizen dynamism of the parliamentary democracy) ;

Draw an ethics of responsibility (towards those who do not have access to the decent conditions of life and culture and towards the future generations).

As the long lasting development is an scalable notion, according to the progression of the knowledge and the evolution of the world-society, to follow this logic means also to try to carry out new approaches, methods, reading lines, strategies for a project whose contents have to be define by everyone. There is thus no predestined project of long lasting development – no miracle recipe ! but a shared vision and a common methodology fro the future of the world to build together. Given the quick evolutions and the tensions they experience today, the cities will appear as privileged fields of application of long lasting development principles.

From the global vision to the local action

The long lasting development is a development process that conciliates the economy, the social, the environment and the culture and set up a virtuous circle between these four poles as well as round trips North/South. On the local level, the city is a space suitable for the realisation of this circle and the resolution of the problems of the world. It is clear that the energetic consumption of the cities, their consumption in natural resources, the rejection of waste and contaminants affect the planetary ecosystem but first the local life-space and that it seems judicious to act from the source so as to minimise the impact. Thus, if the cities are part of the problem of climatic heating, they are also part of the solution. It is essential first to demolish the false equation « worldwide expansion = urban extension = economic opulence = human happiness », and then to start from the realities of the ground, well known by the cities, to find acceptable approaches of long lasting development. But besides a local materialisation with variable geometry of the global concept, the challenge of the long lasting development of the cities emphasizes also the challenge of the urban governance. If the art of governing inside the cities is in (r)evolution, the change of the local governance reminds also the necessity to pass the horizon of the electoral dates so as to tend to a policy of the city and a political project of the city that de-compartmentalize the cities and take into account the complexity of the city-system.

The principle of long lasting development is at the origin of a renewal of reflections on the city and a redefinition for the urban future of the world. As the city is a sound box of inequalities inherent to the world-system, the question is direct: how to re-orientate the development? As a growing proportion of the population of the cities is left out of the benefits of the society, dominated by exploitation logics, and out of the decision process that shapes their life, this growth model leads to a impasse where there is no place for shared progress, social justice, for healthy ecosystems, of a hybrid and half-blood cultural identity. It is essential to conduct another approach of development based first on the human developments and welfare. Realise it invites to decline the long lasting development concept in a political ethics integrating the notions of : solidarity (between inhabitants), efficiency (resources management), equality (access universality), responsibility (future), auto-determination (democracy). In terms of urban development, mobility, eco-management of natural resources, energy and waste, socio-economical durability, promotion of traditions and cultures in their identity and diversity, and North-South solidarity. But maybe these challenges can bring to essential questionings about: a) control of the ground and grovelling privatisation of the territories, b) motoring, mobilities and generalised network c) climatic change, ecologic challenges for a long lasting urbanism, d) democracy at all steps, et e) urban culture and hybrid identity . Thus, the urban development supposes difficult arbitrations, cultural, mental evolutions pushing the automatisms of the unique thought. Some actors begin to realise it but the collective consciences remain to be shaken to join this cause. On the local, national and international levels.

Deviation by China…

The cities of the world face today with a multidimensional crisis: demographical and political, social and economical, safe and democratical, sanitary and environmental, identity and culture… but also urban and architectural… This reality make the necessity of the «Ecopolis» emerge. And in China as nowhere else before the Olympic Games 2008. However, the promise of the Chinese government, it is a « ecologic » capital for these Olympic Games! With green hills, clear water, grass, and blue sky. An oriental version of the very occidental « little house on the Prairie ». The reality is that Peking is one of the most polluted cities in the world. First problem: the threshold of 4 million cars reached these days in Peking (3x more than in 1998). The pollution is the main problem of Peking and the most difficult to manage. With infernal traffic jams and smog visible to 30km, the Chinese capital is on the verge of asphyxia! The second problem is the consumption of coal, Chinese main energy source: Peking consumes ten times more gas than in 1998. The third problem is the urbanistic disruptions: every month, a block of houses is replaced by building of thirty floors. Million of housings, thousands of works, hundreds of small factories, as many polluting sources that reject tons of unbreathable particles. Et caetera… As reply, « plaster » solutions : suspend the traffic during the time of the Games, over control of the temporary works and relocation of the polluting factories towards the periphery.

However the situation would be more open today to build modern or even long lasting. Within thirty years, Peking would have been modernised and internationalised. But it is only from 1998 – announcement of the Olympic Games – that the antipollution fight has been intensified, as the internal but also external pressure is strong. We begin to see the results of the efforts made. But we are far from the objective of an « environment friendly » capital and « green Games » promised by Peking. And still very far from the integration of the long lasting development on the global policy of the continent-State. It is also in China a revolutionary project: not far from Shanghaï, on an island located at the mouth of the river Yangtse, the first 100% ecologic city of China – or even of the world -, Dongtan, should emerge. The project witnesses the interest of the Chinese government: China can not ignore anymore the environmental problems it encounters and acts ! This 100% clean city is one of the initiatives dedicated to fight against this problem. There would be besides other similar projects in China! The eye of the architect concerned about the «Ecopolis» would see an opportunity to practice the great principles of the long lasting urbanism : energetic autonomy, isolation of the buildings, vegetable roofs, wind machines, public transports (especially fluvial shuttle) with solar energy or ethanol, recycling of the waste and the used waters, buildings limited to eight floors and built with local materials, extended spaces reserved to pedestrians, limitation of the buildings on 40% of the urban area, direct access to the products from the local organic agriculture… Likewise some « developers » have already experienced it in Europe, from the Londoner eco-district BedZED to the German eco-cities of Fribourg-en-Brigsau. Of course there will always be desolate spirits to outline the artificial nature of the city thus created, the « average-class » of the populations that will live there, the carbon balance certainly better but still superior to the theoretic tenable limit. But maybe can we also see a first step in a resolute direction for this country that houses 20 to 30 megalopolis responsible for the planetary pollution? Maybe… More important maybe, would the local elected members be able to accompany the central urbanisation plans?

From the integration of the «Ecopolis» in the architectural approach

In his approach, Vincent Callebaut invites to a quasi « futurist » view on the contemporary city resolutely focused on a long lasting urban development. Vincent Callebaut proposes an eminently conceptual reflection to build an ideal city, « Ecopolis » where it would be pleasant to live durably. The challenge is certainly to clear the city of the nuisances, pollutions, ghettos districts, but especially to build a proximity network of services, employment, and education. Vincent Callebaut draws his first steps to the concept of a long lasting city from the harmonious coexistence of different ways of life, social classes and indissociable nature/culture couple. His approach is eminently social: the challenge is to rebuild collective spaces, spaces of social inclusion pleasant for all the inhabitants – native or foreign-born, recent or old, young or senior inhabitants. His subject is also eminently political: If there are obstacles to pass (budget constraints of the cities, awareness/knowledge of the challenges of the long lasting development, phenomenon of the NIMBY…) that the architect can more or less, Vincent Callebaut proposes however in this dialectics elected member – citizen to reserve a place to the professionals of the urban planning. Vincent Callebaut puts the professionals of the city in the heart of the challenges such as facilitators of the awareness, projection, and even decision for the application on the ground of the long lasting development in the urban systems. The challenge of their presence is also to understand the terms of efficiency, modernity, reactivity. His reflection is eminently questioning regarding his profession. Will we know how to be ingenious, creative, generous, and able to take into account the new realities of the city? Will we know how to diversify the housing and leave the binary schemes: social housing / accession to ownership, individual housing / collective housing? Will we know how to answer to the new ways of life? Will we know how to invent new urban morphologies? In one word, will we know how to participate to the fight against the bad urban development and propose a long lasting alternative to the future cities and their inhabitants?

At the crossroads of several disciplines, Vincent Callebaut questions the functions, the roles : urban planner, architect, landscape architect, planner, entrepreneur, ecologist that are craftsmen of the city that certainly fascinate but also make the lines of the urban future. Sometimes true urban designers. Sometimes plastic surgeon of the appearance of the cities and lives of their inhabitants. Sometimes experts making a territory diagnostic. Sometimes clever communicators to conquer a elected-member – citizen public. Sometimes interface between several skills and different actors. Of course committed, deeply committed : as drawers of the urban and human horizons, Vincent Callebaut invites them and us to be the pioneers of the « Ecopolis », challenge that is in the heart of the current (r)evolution of the contemporary world. Because the interest raised by the problems of the long lasting development is neither a mode, nor a temporary epiphenomenon. Vincent Callebaut recognises its true dimension, of a transformation in power, in phase and in depth of today’s society. Vincent Callebaut tells us, tells you: build a city more and better in harmony with the world and its challenges is our biggest challenge. To everybody, to us, to you and of course to all who will follow. And especially do not forget the essential: whereas daily the urban expansion is not always the synonym of urban happiness, it is up to us, to you to strive so that tomorrow urban development rhymes in alexandrine with human development!