Eco-Towns: Are They?

16 September 2008

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.