The Green Village

Eco buildings laid the foundation. Now eco villages are the new kids on the block.
By Craille Maguire Gillies

Published in the April 2007 issue of enRoute

To see the future of the City, take bus number 68 from downtown Helsinki to a neighbourhood bordered by a nature reserve on one side and an expressway on the other. Through the multi-storey windows of the mid-century modern townhouses and the shiny square condominiums, a typical suburban scene unfolds. Parents drop off children at a daycare near the town square, Kevättori, before walking to offices and shops nearby. Some head to work down the block at the University of Helsinki satellite campus. But while Viikki, a few kilometres from downtown, looks like any other Scandi-modern suburb, the technology behind it is anything but typical. This quiet community is a living laboratory for green design. The streets spread out like fingers, with surrounding small gardens and pathways – a design that lends itself to composting and water recycling. Solar panels top the roofs of rowhouses, which operate on 30 percent less water and 25 percent less fossil-fuel energy.

Photo: Arno de la Chapelle

Viikki is a maverick local development in what is becoming an inter- national trend to create self-sustaining ecopolises. The green building has begot the green community, with cities from Shanghai to Victoria, B.C., planning entire neighbourhoods that do everything from generate their own energy to process their own waste. The green neighbourhood is the way of the future, says Peter Busby, a Vancouver architect, co-founder of the Canada Green Building Council and a member of the Order of Canada. “The economies of scale are quite dramatic. We can do at a community level what you can’t do with an individual building.”

Architects are now looking beyond their four walls at how a building works in the neighbourhood. “We’ve spent the last 10 years developing green buildings,” Busby says. “Instead of worrying about solar shading or the size of taps, architects… are looking at local energy systems. Can we create biomass cogens [cogeneration system] that provides all the heat and some of the electricity that we need? What can we do with our sewage grey water to reuse it?” Continuing this litany of scenarios, it’s clear that Busby is the design community’s Al Gore, preaching a gospel of green construction.

Thanks to more affordable technology and mainstream concern about global warming, eco-neighbourhoods will eventually become the norm. Currently, most green communities are demonstration projects: Viikki, with 6,000 residents, is city sponsored. Chicago, in its pursuit to become the world’s greenest city, hired eco-starchitect William McDonough – who designed enviro-friendly offices for Nike and Gap – to draft The Chicago Standard, a kind of eco-constitution. By 2009, Ottawa will have transformed a Canadian Forces base into Rockcliffe Eco-town. In England, London is planning a 1,000-home project by mega-developer Arup. McDonough’s firm is also working in China, where the need for smart urban planning is greatest. “China is like a supernova,” says McDonough. “It’s simultaneously imploding and exploding.” (In a few decades, it’s expected that up to half of the country’s rural residents – about 400 million – will move to cities and that China will become the chief producer of carbon dioxide.) The inconvenient truth is that as populations increase exponentially in cities like Shanghai, sustainable development is becoming a prime concern for urban planners.

But today’s green neighbourhoods are founded more on pragmatic urban development than country-bound idealism, though commune-type neighbourliness is a big part of the appeal – and success – of a sustainable community. “[The buildings] look almost conventional, but it’s the performance that counts,” says Thomas Mueller, president of the Canada Green Building Council. As Mueller puts it, there’s not a geodesic dome in sight. This year, the Canada Green Building Council and its sister organization in the U.S. are launching a pilot study for cities under the LEED certification program – already the gold standard in green building.

Today, it takes between 35 and 100 years to pay off solar power. Give it another five years, and you’ll be able to count on one hand the years the investment will pay you back, Busby predicts.

Victoria, meanwhile, is practically living in the future. This August, people will move into sharp-looking condos in Dockside Green, a one-time industrial wasteland. It will eventually be home to 2,500 people, along with offices and shops like an organic bakery and a microbrewery. Next year, the second phase will open: a suite of high-rise condos by Busby Perkins+Will architects. While double-glazed windows, LEED Canada Platinum certification and low-VOC paints attract homebuyers, the Miele dishwasher, stainless-steel appliances and sleek design don’t hurt. Even with murmurs of a real estate downturn, two-thirds of the condos sold in just a few hours.

Despite their benefits, some critics say such projects are merely symbolic. “It’s so expensive and out of whack with the market that it makes for good copy but not necessarily good policy,” argues Joel Kotkin, a New Suburbanist and author of The City: A Global History. Kotkin admits that green revolutionaries are responsible for the success of, say, solar power, but he wonders: “Are there things you can do in the interim that are more practical and that can be more widely applied?” In fact, some homes in Dockside Green and Sociópolis in Spain are earmarked for low-income buyers, and some of Kotkin’s suggestions, like more live-work spaces, are hallmarks of the new communities. William McDonough is the voice of reason, saying, “Most buildings that we’ll see in our lifetimes have already been built, so cleaning up infrastructure and [improving] efficiency is a critical first step. At the same time, we need to have a practical expression of visionary utopianism.” It seems like most urban planners, architects and critics are on the same side of the double-glazed window – like in Helsinki, where the midnight sun is still shining, and the village green is living up to its name.