The best time to start building an ecocity was twenty years ago. Imagine the transformation of our cities and the steep reduction in emissions that would have ensued if that had been mandated for all new developments and refits.

But that’s water under the climate-induced-extreme-weather-events bridge.

The second best time to make a start is right now.

Resources on this site

Fortunately you don’t have to start from scratch like we did at Urban Ecology. Now you can learn from our experience, and from the experiences of others all around the world through GEN, the Global Ecovillages Network.

Christie Walk construction
Christie Walk construction

Here are the best places to start to learn from our experience:

Invaluable: learn from Dr Paul Downton’s own words

Best of all is to understand the process of developing Christie Walk from the very beginning, through the words of co-founder and architect, Dr Paul Downton, in this interview with Dr Josh Byrne, Research Fellow, Curtin University and the CRC for Low Carbon Living. In 2016, Paul paints a realistic picture of the rollercoaster ride that led to the start of construction in 1999 and eventual completion of construction in 2006, despite many setbacks, financial near-disasters and unexpected gotchas.

Can you start by telling us your name and your role with the Christie Walk project?

My name is Paul Downtown and I was the architect, part of the building company, part of the group that initiated the whole project and I was the convenor of Urban Ecology Australia at the time. I was involved in lots of different ways including a number of years as a resident.

Take us back to before the project began, what was its origin, how did it get underway?

In 1988 the Hawke Government held the greenhouse 88 conference right across Australia, that was about climate change. 1988, it was really good, really intelligent. It was all about attacking the issues, whatever they were. There were conferences running in every city including Adelaide and we ran our bit in Adelaide.

The greenhouse conference in Adelaide we picked up the issue of the built environment because that wasn’t really getting any focus at the time. There were nine sections to do with greenhouse, everyone talked about that along with global warming, the built environment wasn’t there and I thought well it needs to be .. it’s just about the biggest impact we have, through our cities and the way we build things.

We formed a group called the Greenhouse Association Australia, it was probably the first dedicated community or association on climate change in Australia so it formed in 1989, from that we got a lot of interest in this idea of the built environment being key and I talked about eco cities. That got picked up by a number of people.

In 1990 we formed something called Urban Ecology Australia which was a direct spin off from all the interest in the built environment and how it impacted on the rest of the environment. Urban Ecology Australia was all about creating eco cities, now in 1990 if you said eco city people looked at you funny, isn’t that an oxymoron? You can’t have city and eco side by side, we’ve learnt better of course but I guess we were in a sense pioneering some of the ideas there and it got people excited it was a really energy, energising thing. Which was important because one of the things that came out of the 88 conference was concern about negativity, you can really be easily negative, bring people down, walk into a cheerful room start being negative you can bring everybody down, it’s that easy, it’s maybe a little harder to bring everybody up and keep positive.

Climate Change is such a big deal, the impact is so enormous when you think about it, it’s easy to get depressed so it’s about how you can do something positive…our solution was eco cities, let’s build our cities in a way that fits the environment, fits the cycles of nature and provides beautiful and nice places for people to live in, it’s that simple in concept but we ran in 92 the second international eco city conference, people from 21 different countries, it was the beginning of what I still think of as the eco city movement.

The city is the key, maybe a harder one to work on but if we can’t get our cities right – the dense cores of our cities right – then you can kiss goodbye to the rest.

Dr Paul Downton, co-founder Urban Ecology Australia Inc.

Nowadays people are talking about sustainable cities, I prefer the eco city because it describes more of what it is, you’re talking about ecological cities. Sustainable tends to mean whatever everybody wants it to mean which is a bit dangerous.

From that Urban Ecology Australia was committed to the idea of building eco cities. The city council in Adelaide had a depot that they were going to vacate, we learnt that through a friend of ours on council at the time and it was like, well we’re looking for a place to do a little trial, a pilot project somewhere. They said well there’s this whole city block, and we thought well that’ll do and our initial feeling was to take a little bit of the city and try to build a piece of an eco-city. We had about a dozen households or more interested in coming together to do that but it grew like topsy through Urban Ecology Australia and I put up some images and proposals of what could be done to the whole city block.

That seemed to get people fired up, we ended up over a period of 8 years having a centre for Urban Ecology there, which was Halifax Street, which was what the depot was named after and we had hundreds of volunteers over that period and we were all about trying to show what you could really do. On that city block, a piece of what the whole city could be if it pursued the principals of ecological city making.

And those principals were always, always, not just about the solar panels, taking care of the water properly, doing all those things that people fairly quickly come to nowadays, it was more about creating a community, and helping generate the culture needed in the community to drive ecological or sustainable development into the future because it isn’t going to be done by bits and pieces of technology it’s going to happen once there’s a culture that says we want to do this. And I like to think that’s beginning to happen now.

Anyway the Halifax eco city project was a bigger project than was likely to happen with us involved although it nearly did, that’s a whole other story, but one of the spin offs from it was that there were enough people with enough commitment to say well hell let’s do it anyway, let’s find the site somewhere else in the city, cause we were determined to do it in the middle of the city, eco this, eco that. Sustainable always kind of going out to the fringes where there’s room to move, we were following the view that the city is the focus.

The city is the key, maybe a harder one to work on but if we can’t get our cities right, the dense cores of our cities right then you can kiss goodbye to the rest. So, we had enough people to make it possible to think about doing it. It was presented as a bit of a collective self-build. These were people that would have gone and bought a house or built one in the suburbs just outside the city, but they bought into the idea that if we brought all our resources together that we had as individual citizens and families, we could become a defacto developer and we did, and that’s how Christie Walk started.

There’s much more to the story.

You can read the complete interview here:

You’ll also find Paul Downton’s doctoral dissertation here:

and his seminal book here:

Ecopolis: Architecture and Cities for a Changing Climate