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SHED_6_Patterning.gifA definition for the purpose of cities is long overdue. To address urgent concerns for sustainability and the health of humans and the biosphere, the purpose of the city must be to generate health and enhance sustainability. This is a major historical shift, but the city has the power and reach to achieve it, as Ian Douglas observed in 1983 “The urban eco-system is the most elaborate geographical control-system or integrated resource-management system in human experience.”

The following article by Paul F Downton is adapted from his forthcoming book ‘Ecopolis – Architecture and Cities for a Changing Climate’ to be published in October 2008 as the first volume in a new multidisciplinary series by Springer Press on ‘Future Cities’.


A definition for the purpose of cities is long overdue. To address urgent concerns for sustainability and the health of humans and the biosphere, the purpose of the city must be to generate health and enhance sustainability. This is a major historical shift, but the city has the power and reach to achieve it, as Ian Douglas observed in 1983 “The urban eco-system is the most elaborate geographical control-system or integrated resource-management system in human experience.”

Urban Fractals

To create such purposeful cities we need testable demonstration projects – small versions of the larger ideal ecological polis. I call these urban fractals. An urban fractal contains the essential characteristics of the larger network of the city. It is a particular type of cultural fractal.

A cultural fractal contains aspects of all the essential characteristics of its culture. Cities present all the strands of cultural activity that create them and are the most complete expressions of society, including its relationships between the rural and urban, the domestic and the wild. The most complete fractal demonstration of the larger whole of a civilisation is urban. To achieve the extent and depth of change necessary to shift civilisation towards ecological health and viability, there can be no better a tool than urban projects which contain and demonstrate the essential characteristics of that desired ecological culture. The concept of Ecopolis is intended to include those essential characteristics in its physical and organisational structure, its ethos, and its process of realisation.

Looked at from the point of view of information theory, an urban fractal is a physical manifestation of a cultural pattern that is sufficiently different from the norm to change the deeper pattern of the city. It is, systemically, sufficiently different to make a difference. An urban fractal acts as a trim tab to the larger society and its patterns of urbanism, turning the direction of development of a part of the city so that the direction of development of the whole city is affected, with the whole city, in turn, redirecting the evolutionary arc of the larger civilisation of which it is part.

Ecopolis is a concept of city-making in which the overarching goal is to design, develop and maintain urban systems consciously integrated into the processes of the biosphere with the intent of maintaining the optimum functioning of the biosphere for human purposes.

A Greek polis was not an abstract entity: a citizen could know it personally. Even if he (sic) had not paced the country from end to end, he should at least be able to see the physical limits of the state to which he owed allegiance. In the clear air he might discern the chain of hills beyond which lay other states that competed with his own . (Tuan 1979 p.175)

Like the original polis of ancient Greece, Ecopolis is about the city and its region being understood by its citizens in order to stimulate productive interaction as living systems within the biosphere. That interaction may be seen in trade, cultural exchange and the relationship of ecotones and biomes.



The Seven Steps of SHED (Sustainable Human Ecological Development) provide a program for putting Ecopolis into action and a framework for cohering the many facets of design, development, community engagement and maintenance necessary to its making. It offers an armature on which can be wound all and any knowledge pertinent to making ecological human settlement. By being configured to accommodate the arts, sciences, humanities, vernacular and popular culture, it seeks to facilitate the embedment of a cultural framework for integrating all and any principles, processes and techniques that can contribute to the design, development and maintenance of ecological cities. It seeks to acknowledge and celebrate all and any ways of knowing or making urban systems that fit the goal of creating Ecopolis. Whilst seeking specificity to place with cultural placing and relevance, it is not bound to any particular culture, and whilst it is a theory of urbanism, it includes the rural.

SHED defines an integrative process that enables planners, ecologists, architects, landscape architects, city managers, politicians, life scientists, citizens, and so on, to each use their knowledge and skills in a framework that facilitates the coordination of their multifarious activities. Oriented to non-specialist and non-expert use, it can be employed as part of conventional professional design practice.

Inspired by the work of Pliny Fisk at Max’s Pot, the icons have been designed with future application in mind as ‘buttons’ for CD-ROM, website and hypertext application. Each icon has been designed for use at a large scale as signage for exhibitions and events, and for extreme reduction as an element for embedding in text.

The Seven Steps – A Basis for Process

Making Ecopolis is about constructing human settlement in a particular place in such a way as to maintain the conditions of that place for human settlement. It starts with understanding a region and results in habitations that reflect that region in their making and occupation. It is about biophysical definition and human cultural definition of place relative to the watershed. Sustainable human ecological development depends, at the most fundamental level, on an understanding of the connections between human and non-human life through the flow of water within ecosystems.

The Seven Steps in the process are all defined by verbs (‘doing words’). The goals for that ‘doing’ are set by the Ecopolis Development Principles, which are also described with verbs because they are about on-going process rather than fixed objectives.

SHED 1 Shedding

Shedding determines the parameters of regional ecosystems on the basis of biogeochemical processes that are mostly contained by, and are dependant upon, the hydrology of the watershed, or watersheds, that relate to the city’s regional context.

Shedding involves identifying the biophysical context and its inherent developmental constraints for city making. It readily makes use of a McHargian ‘design with nature’ methodology as a means of mapping and understanding the region. It involves finding the purlieu – “the bounds or limits within which one ranges”. Shedding requires at least a basic analysis of the carrying capacity of a given regional environment. Ecological footprint analysis can be used to test the demands that a proposed development might have on local biological and resource limits.

At the Shedding stage, account should be taken of accelerated climate change by identifying and conceptually testing potential scenarios, looking particularly at water, i.e. extreme rainfall and potential flooding and the impacts of sea level rise.



SHED 2 Placing

Placing involves exploring cultural and spiritual aspects of the bioregional analysis. It is about putting people in a place and finding the right fit, identifying the ‘genius loci’ and discovering the spirit of place. Geomancy and Feng Shui techniques are relevant. Placing includes seeking out the non-physical structure of place as the basis for maintaining deep continuities, particularly by accessing the knowledge of place held in the customs and stories of indigenous peoples as a means of reaching back into past ecologies.

Integration of the built environment with its place should occur at the aesthetic level but it must occur at the level of ecological function. Buildings need to be integrated in functional harmony with landscaping and vegetation. The important relationship of any building must be with the place it inhabits rather than simply the space it occupies.




SHED 3 Biozoning

Biozoning includes locating food and biological resource sites on the basis of proximity or least energy planning. It includes biome identification and soil analysis and provides for critical application of appropriate integrated land management techniques including Permaculture practice and theory. It is integral to any long-term planning and is about identifying the biological resources and patterns of the region as armatures for fitting city-making in place. Ecotones can be identified at the interface between biozones.  


SHED 4 Lifelining

Lifelining involves identifying and mapping the minimum weave of ecosystem elements in the landscape that are vital to continued ecosystem function. It is about finding living links between the islands of biogeography and establishing ecological corridors – typically along the flow of waterways and creeks.

Ecological restoration depends on identifying such lines of life which can be thought of as the reticulation of natural infrastructure. Lifelining is about the interface between urban occupation of the landscape and its pre-urban ecological structure. Conservation and restoration of lifelines across the landscape are essential to maintaining ecosystem connectivity and functionality. In severely degraded or very artificial landscapes, lifelining can be introduced by way of creating or realigning watercourses, e.g. artificial or modified creeks as a means of stormwater control in urban systems that also create wildlife corridors. Lifelining is the process and idea required to inform human settlement development that fits its place.




SHED 5 Proximating 

Proximating addresses the proposition that the inter-dependent nature of elements in urban ecosystems requires communication and decision-making structures based on mutual aid, which recognises inter-dependency, and direct democracy, which relates decision-making to place. It involves locating cultural, social, economic and community resource centres on the basis of proximity or least energy planning. It includes mapping existing and potential urban centres as the basis for minimising transport energy and resource demands. Proximating is a way of restoring the pre-mechanical template of towns and cities that intrisically recognises the historical patterns of pre-industrial ‘walkable’ urban forms developed on the basis of somatic energy. Efficient planning reduces all energy expenditure to a minimum. In transport this is best achieved by reducing traffic to a minimum and this is best achieved by keeping destinations close together wherever possible. What Richard Register calls ‘proximity planning’ favours pedestrian access with wheeled transport and other mechanical means of moving people or goods used as a last resort.  


SHED 6 Patterning

Patterning recognises neighbourhoods as essential building blocks of the urban system. It identifies the essential patterns necessary for creating urbanity with and for the support of community. Patterning favours the rich and diverse textures of citification rather than the homogenising blanket of urbanisation. Participatory processes are inherent to achieving patterns that have the resilience of traditional urbanism. The pattern language of Alexander et al identifies a number of relevant patterns in the design of spaces, places and built form generally. Patterning also connects to evolving techniques that predict potential patterns of urban growth and morphologies consequent upon the observance of fractal scaling laws (Batty and Longley – Fractal Cities, in Ball p.244). It recognises the value of local codes for built form where they exist (e.g. Islamic precepts for town planning in Arabia), or sets out to identify what they may have been through historical study.  


SHED 7 Architecting 

Architecture and urban design are major components of culture and must be conceptually expanded as part of a life sciences approach to human settlement in its role as an agent of change in the biosphere. Architecting involves designing with the principles of biophilia, biomimicry, Gaean (Gaian) architecture and the Ecopolis Development Principles. It views buildings as ecosystems and making the built environment as a trans-disciplinary activity. It deals with: climate response, energy efficiency, waste elimination, healthy construction, user-responsive design and support for local economies. It includes ecological restoration, catalysation of community, regional responsiveness and ‘cradle to cradle’ production.

Architecting co-supports the habitat of non-human species whilst promoting the health, wellbeing and productivity of the population. It connects human building with the living world.  In architecting, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.



The Ecopolis Development Principles

All urban systems now operate within a planetary environment that is significantly degraded. We need to heal the biosphere – to repair, replenish and support the processes that maintain life – through the evolutionary development of ecological cities. The principles for achieving that goal are set out in the Ecopolis Development Principles. These Principles have been developed and tested in the public domain since 1992. They are organised in two groups of five, one set directly addresses the biophysical environment, and the other addresses the socio-cultural environment.

In order to repair, replenish and support the processes which maintain life, the Ecopolis Development Principles seek to:

Minimise Ecological Footprints (Biophysical)
•    Restore Degraded Land
•    Fit the Bioregion
•    Balance Development
•    Create Compact Cities
•    Optimise Energy and Resource Use

Maximise Human Potential (Human Ecology)
•    Contribute to the Economy
•    Provide Health and Security
•    Encourage Community
•    Promote Social Justice and Equity
•    Enrich History and Culture

Paul F Downton is principal architect and urban ecologist with Ecopolis Architects; e-mail: paul at . More detail about the Ecopolis Development Principles can be found on the Ecopolis website at:

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