What is an Ecocity?
Ecocities are ecologically healthy cities modeled on the sustainable, resilient structure of natural ecosystems. The ecocity supplies a healthy wealth of renewable resources to its inhabitants without over-consuming the resources it produces. Ecocities never produce more waste than they are can assimilate. Inhabitants reflect eco-friendly lifestyles. Unique geographies, cultures, and politics ensure that each city develops a unique path towards becoming an ecocity; there is no singular formula. Cities that implement emission-reducing measures— from cycle-friendly streets to net-zero buildings— are constructing resilience and leading the charge towards a global golden age of sustainable engineering. The benefits range from population-level health improvements to narrowly avoiding a global climate crisis.
The pandemic offers an opportunity for cities to transform, two wheels at a time
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, cities stood remarkably still— vehicle traffic slowed to a halt, power usage declined, and industrial production dwindled. This led to a sudden drop in carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter emissions. Residents of once-bustling metropolises got a fresh glimpse of wide-open streets and quiet intersections, paving the way for newly established walking and cycling-only areas.
Milan, usually an Italian epicenter of tourism, announced that by the end of 2020 it would transform over 21 miles near the city’s center into cycling-friendly streets. The Colombian city of Bogotá has closed 72 miles of streets to be used as cycling zones, creating such demand that bike shops’ inventories are running low. The pandemic is presenting a unique opportunity for cities to facilitate permanently car-less city centers and enduringly clean air. Will leaders of the world’s finest cities take action?
In 2020 carbon emissions are estimated to drop 5.5. To 5.7%, largely as a byproduct of the pandemic. However, this temporary reprieve in global emissions will be short-lived without the help of infrastructural and systemic change— namely the addition of bike lanes and the encouragement of cycling and walking in major cities rather than car travel. Fluctuations in infection rates throughout 2020 have made public transport a less appealing option, designating transport by bicycle and foot ever more practical.
A beacon of hope: Copenhagen’s commitment to clean transportation
Transitioning from car travel to bicycle commuting is not as radical as it may sound— on both infrastructural and individual levels. After global oil price shocks hit the city hard in 1973, Copenhagen’s residents were incentivized to find alternatives to gas-powered travel. Thus began a major transformation for the once-polluted industrial city. Copenhagen embraced a build-it-and-they-will-come mindset with wide, slightly elevated cycling lanes along city streets, resulting in an era of biking prosperity that thrives to this day. A 2017 Annual Bicycle Report indicated that 62% of Copenhageners choose to bike to work and school.
Readers may recall that Copenhagen has pledged to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025— a pledge supported by Denmark’s heavy gasoline taxes (a formidable $6 per gallon of gas), a 150% excise tax on many new vehicle purchases (meaning that a $20,000 new car comes out to $50,000!), and growing biking infrastructure— Copenhagen bicyclists reduce yearly carbon emissions by 20,000 tons on average.
The city boasts approximately 250 miles of bike paths, in contrast to the 145 miles of bike lanes in Los Angeles (a notably larger—469 square miles versus Copenhagen’s 69 square miles— and more populous city that often has the worst smog in the United States). Biking in the Danish city is increasingly inclusive with the advent of electric bikes and scooters, allowing everyone from lawyers, butchers, bakers, whippersnappers, and senior citizens to enjoy bike paths. Cycle superhighways— or supercykelsti— are another expanding feature that facilitates biking from outer suburbs with higher-speed, traffic-light-free paths.
Biking promotes healthier cities and people
Physical activity is declining worldwide. Environmental factors that discourage physical activity and active commuting in urban areas include high-density traffic, low air quality, and a lack of parks, sidewalks, and recreation facilities. Yet, active commuting works wonders for human health; in a study with 263,450 participants from various parts of the UK, active commuting was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all causes of mortality.
In Copenhagen, residents who cycle regularly request 1.1 million fewer sick days at work— a testament to the health and productivity benefits that regular exercise provides. When cities make cycling a safe and attractive option, residents will respond. Cycling can be conveniently built into everyday commutes, dramatically improving the health of residents who will likely forget that their commute is even a form of exercise. Dutch people, for example, are not inherent exercise fanatics; they simply have loads of biking infrastructure which contributes to high bicycle use and consequent population-level health benefits.
Cycling utopias with flawless, expansive biking infrastructure aside, emptier streets of the pandemic era have enabled increased bike use on main thoroughfares in cities such as Beijing, New York, and Philadelphia. Pop-up bike lanes are cropping up from Berlin to Dublin to Mexico City, while governments from New Zealand to Scotland are funding temporary cycle lanes. The pandemic caught us off guard and brings with it an onslaught of challenges, but it also offers a glimpse into a less polluted world fueled partially by pedaling legs rather than gas-guzzling cars.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the vehicle industry will also transform, especially as states like California pledge to ban sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. At least 15 countries have already announced similar pledges in favor of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Predictions state that by 2030, Electric Vehicle (EV) sales will grow from 2.5 million in 2020 to 31.1 million, while EVs will account for 32% of the total market share for new car sales. Unless you are one of those rare people who enjoys the smell of gasoline, the vehicle industry is moving in an electrifying direction.
In a future where humans are not simply surviving, but are living in blissful accordance with the sustainable, resilient structure of natural ecosystems, changes will need to be made to our city and transportation structures. Implementing bike lanes is, for many cities, a key component of the sustainably engineered ecocities of tomorrow.