This is an extract from Ecopolis: Architecture and cities for a changing climate by Dr Paul Downton
Cover of Paul Downton book Ecopolis
Cover of seminal book “Ecopolis” by Dr Paul Downton
(Co-published by Springer Science & Business Media, Netherlands and CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia 2009)

Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Urban Ecology Australia Inc (UEA) was incorporated as a community non-profit educational association in December 1991. It grew to become a national organisation with formal recognition from the federal government as Australia’s peak urban environmental community organisation. Urban Ecology Australia has the following objects and purposes:

(a) To educate, inform and facilitate the exchange of information about the evolution of ecologically integrated human settlement through conferences, lectures, published papers, newsletters, participation in expositions and fairs, maintaining a library, and through other appropriate means;

(b) To sponsor, undertake and encourage research to be carried out in relation to the evolution of ecologically integrated human settlement.

(c) To provide an independent, community-based focus for co-ordinating and advocating action to transform existing human settlements in the direction of ecological integration, health, and social vitality and equity;

(d) To participate in building new ecologically integrated, healthy, socially vital and equitable new human settlements.

(e) To do all such other things as are conducive or incidental to the attainment of any or all of the above.

Before there could be interest in urban environmental issues, there needed to be a shift in perception within and outside the environment movement. The goal of UEA has been to inject eco-city ideas into the mainstream and interest lay people in ecological development. To do that, mainstream media had to be involved and both the critique of present day cities and positive images and ideas for future cities needed to gain popular currency.

The history of Urban Ecology Australia can be traced back to the national Greenhouse ‘88 conference which, in Adelaide, led to the convening of people with an interest in urban environmentalism, including Deborah White, a co-author of an early Australian text on what would now be called sustainable cities (White, et al. 1978). The conference organisers accepted the inclusion of built environment sessions which later inspired the formation of the ‘Greenhouse Association of South Australia’ (GASA). My presentation was developed into the Ecopolis concept presented in Adelaide at the ‘Ecopolitics IV’ conference in 1989. The ‘Greenhouse ‘88’ proceedings (Dendy 1989) led to my attendance at the First International Ecological City Conference, April 1990, in Berkeley (Canfield 1990) which initiated links between Richard Register and Australian urban ecologists, vital to the development of ecocity activism in SA.

After returning to Adelaide from ‘Ecocity 1’, I was invited to mount an exhibition on Ecopolis at Old Parliament House and prepared ten panels illustrating the problems and promise of urban development and its environmental impacts (see 10.3 Exhibitionism: Ecopolis Now!). Launched by John Schumman, the exhibition was well attended and helped familiarise South Australians with ecocity ideas, not least amongst politicians.

Changing the Climate of Opinion

In 1991 GASA held a second national conference, ‘Greenhouse ‘91’, at which Register was keynote speaker, with the theme ‘Changing the Climate of Opinion’ and in December 1991, Urban Ecology Australia Inc (UEA) was formally incorporated, having grown from many of the people and interests that had initially come together through GASA. UEA ran the Second International EcoCity Conference (EcoCity 2) in April of 1992, attracting over 400 delegates from 21 countries. As the formal follow-up to the First International Ecological City conference it helped set the pattern for the series of Ecocity conferences that have taken place since. It did much to introduce the idea of ecological cities to Australia.

The aims of UEA were about moving beyond rhetoric to create practical propositions for ecocity solutions. In support of this goal, UEA announced the Halifax EcoCity Project at EcoCity 2 with an illustration of the project on the conference poster to give the proposal maximum currency. Before reaching this stage, the HEP had undergone a considerable period of gestation and community input (see below).

UEA’s evolving theoretical base said that ecocity development should not simply be dependent on economic forces and that there had to be a culture that wanted such development. A precondition for this was the availability of relevant ideas in the socio-cultural milieu. If ecocity and ecological development words and ideas were not being employed in the media, there could never be enough general interest to sustain even modest proposals for ecocity projects. Between 1988 and 1992 UEA focussed on changing perceptions in order to set up one of the essential preconditions for acceptance of, and eventual support for, ecological cities.

Challenging Negativity

UEA set out to change perceptions in an up-beat way. Inspired partly by a workshop at ‘Greenhouse ‘88’ on combating despair in the face of global crises and the vigorous championing of the positive view from Flinders University Philosophy lecturer, Malcolm Slade, it was decided that the best antidote to negativity was presentation of practical alternatives which demonstrated the route from ‘here and now’ to ‘there and then’.

In public meetings and conferences across Australia and overseas, UEA speakers  repeatedly found that the main source of negativity was not coming from the average suburbanite but people who had battled the system for years and dispiritedly believed that they knew exactly what could not be done.

The task of challenging negativity has not been limited to talks and conferences (which have been overwhelmingly positive), but also in running the organisation itself, particularly in the management of the Centre for Urban Ecology (CUE) which has been totally dependent on volunteerism. UEA’s policy of not tolerating sexism, racism, or pessimism, occasionally led to tensions. But just as a steady drip-drip-drip of negative criticism can undermine individual or collective confidence, so sustained effort to see the positive aspects of a situation can build confidence. Positive energy is self-reinforcing and over several intense years, UEA volunteers have generally reported their experiences with the organisation as empowering and liberating.

UEA has only been able to exist at all because of its volunteers. The human capital of energy, enthusiasm and commitment provided by volunteerism provided it with the capacity for promoting ecocity projects. Since opening the Centre for Urban Ecology in May 1993, UEA has been open to the public and has hosted many researchers and work experience students from schools and the tertiary education sector. UEA has had a website since 1994 and has hosted interns from many countries including Malaysia, Germany, Denmark, Canada, France and the USA. They assisted in the day-to-day running of the CUE and also undertook research projects on behalf of the UEA and, often, educational institutions in their home country. Ecopolis Architects have continued the intern tradition. Setting up a Centre for Urban Ecology led to provision of an information and referral service. A substantial reference library was established and UEA routinely received requests for policy advice from elected representatives at all levels of government.

Being non-authoritarian does not mean being a soft touch, and neither does it mean a lack of structure and purpose. For a deeper look into the theory of non-authoritarian organisation, anarchist theorists remain relevant, especially Kropotkin and Bookchin. The connection between these organisational issues and effective eco-city theory is through community participation processes and theories of citizenship (Bookchin 1991, 1995). That citizenship involves active participation and advocacy in the community. On the basis that ecological cities can only begin to exist when there is a citizenship that wants its cities to be ‘ecological’, UEA has promoted ecocity ideas at the immediate, local level as well as regionally and nationally. Its advocacy has included the promotion of environmental technology and commitment to environmental education but this has always been a part of the overall goal of promoting ecological cities.

Its commitment to demonstrating practical outcomes has been evidenced through involvement in consultancies for private and public sector clients where the goal is ecological responsibility in urban development. UEA’s advocacy of major inner-city, ecological development has been on the basis that the primary means by which developmental and environmental pressures can be reconciled with the restoration of nature is through the massive resource management capacity inherent in the built environment.

Promoting Demonstration Projects

UEA quickly evolved into a genuinely national organisation in the early 1990s and had branches in Victoria and the ACT. It achieved formal recognition from the federal government and contributed to national, state and local governmental panels as well as the life of local communities. But whatever else it has been engaged with, during its history as a formal institution it has maintained the goal of initiating major inner-city redevelopment projects as a key strategy for achieving change. This strategy derives from my proposition that the making of Ecopolis depends on catalytic changes in the urban fabric – a fabric understood to be woven from the threads of social and built form. At the socio-political level, as a cultural intervention, if “a key building can help to switch a city” (Davey 2000a p.47) then so can key developments. Placing the community at the heart of the development process is a necessary, radical program for determining the type and ownership of any such city ‘switching’.

The future of sustainable development has to involve practical partnerships between the industrial, commercial, governmental and community sectors. This was the theme of the ‘Partnerships for Change’ conference convened in Manchester in 1993 where the ‘Sustainable Urban Communities’ workshop noted that “The history of the city is a history of partnership, of people coming together to create the conditions for social, economic and environmental security” and that “The city, in partnership with agriculture in rural areas, has been both a vehicle and catalyst for change.” UEA has always seen ecocity projects as vehicles and catalysts for change, with the community as leading partners in the process.