Eco-Towns: Are They?

I have been instructed by the director of my office (engineering consultancy) that I must enter the NCE Graduate Awards 2008. In case you’re not a hip civil engineer, the New Civil Engineer (NCE) is a magazine for the Institution of Civil Engineers. (Incidentally, the ICE is the oldest professional institution in the UK: impressive, eh?).

I have a feeling my taking-part is because of the particular entry requirements for this year: a 600 word essay on the Government’s* plans for 10 (ish) new eco-towns. And seeing as our firm is heavily involved in ‘sustainability’ in the UK, and wants to look fashionable, poor bottom-rung me has to enter a competition. So, after a mild bout of panic (it’s due on Friday!), I began my research.

I must admit that my initial feelings on the eco-town concept were moderately positive. That soon changed: now I am almost completely against them. Or at least, against their current evolution. Ignoring for now the likelihood that my research has been quite biased, I discovered many, many reasons for scrapping the plans altogether. The clincher for me was essentially: why build a new city – and more importantly the infrastructure – when there’s a plethora of existing urban environments crying out for regeneration and enhancement?

If the UK is going to move forward in terms of sustainability, then how can building 10 new eco-towns help the rest of us (circa 60 million!)? In addition, I am pretty sure that all the measures and ideas likely to be implemented for these new towns will eventually – necessarily – make their way to the rest of the country. So why not focus our efforts on that end instead?

Even more fundamentally: the new towns will be new-build, most likely on greenfield/farmland, away from major employment areas, and in areas of no existing infrastructure. How is that more sustainable than regenerating, or even adding on to, existing urban centres?

I do realise there will be benefits from the eco-towns; of course there will be be. But are there any that can’t come from more sustainable alternatives? I reckon the only one is the ‘wow-factor’. But with this fickle public, what’s the point?

I admit of course that the UK is in sore need of inspiration; the UK public’s attitude toward environmental issues is poor at best. But even now inspiration is not that far away. While there may not be anything as grand as an eco-town in the UK, there’s certainly enough projects around to make anyone think. And there are some some great examples in Europe (Hammarby). However, I propose that we take a look at China.

But I’ll save that for another post.

*All references to government in this blog pertain to the UK Government.

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3 Responses to Eco-Towns: Are They?

  1. étrangère says:

    And from a gospel perspective – nothing is irredeemable. While ultimately we recognise that all human efforts at regeneration will be subject to frustration, still because that’s the way God works, and his grace is active, we must engage in the renewal of the messed-up rather than trying for the new & snazzy. In fact, to try to build perfect eco-towns suggests a rather-too-positive view of human nature and ability: “Look, we failed miserably and can’t change people’s hearts to want to live in a non-selfish way to steward the earth, but let’s try from the start – if we just build the right structures it’ll work!” Until God renews his creation, all our efforts will be frustrated to some extent by our own selfishness, etc., but because God hasn’t totally condemned us in our failure and is still showing grace on just and unjust, we too aren’t right to abandon the old cities. What d’you think?

  2. mattsj says:

    I agree mainly: we can’t abandon the old cities at all! But while you may be right in what you suggest (that the vision of a perfect eco-town is perhaps a little naive), I’m not sure I can completely dismiss the ideal. Although there’s precious little in our nature that is completely altruistic, I believe that, by God’s grace, there’s still parts of us that want to ‘make things better’. Do you think I am glossing over total depravity?

  3. étrangère says:

    No, wanting to make things better is great, even if people don’t acknowledge that they owe that to God – underpinning a desire to improve things is hope, which is only true to the Christian worldview of new creation in future. That is, if there isn’t a God who redeems stuff, there’s no point ultimately us doing so. Everything under the sun is in vain. But as you say, by his grace people do want to make things better even as they supress the true basis for that desire.

    I think though in the ideal of an eco-town, the government is glossing over total depravity! It looks like a good plan for regeneration on the surface, but it ignores the fact that rules and structures cannot regenerate the inside! Not that we should then not seek plans for temporal improvement, but we shouldn’t hold them up as ideal solutions – we’re only setting up for a huge fall. Does that make sense?

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