Held in Melbourne in July 2017, the bi-annual EcoCities Conference had it all: a sustainable convention centre, streams of academic, practioner and policy related papers, the Junior Lord Mayor of Melbourne, an environmental cartoonist, leading corporate sector actors, locally sourced food, state representatives, the voices of indigenous and community groups, and of course a climate legend: Al Gore.
From its origins in the 1970s, the organisation behind the conference, Ecocity Builders, has evolved from a local non-profit organisation operating in the San Francisco Bay area to an international advocacy network that promotes a specific form of urban planning and seeks to build the knowledge and practice communities required to mobilise this agenda.
Next to calls for zero carbon, resilient and smart cities, the EcoCities concept can feel anachronistic, naïve even in its attempts to foster principles of localism and living within resource limits. Yet the emphasis on a community-centred, ecological approach to cities may be just the antidote we need.
Across the conference, participants from diverse backgrounds drew our attention to keeping the ecological in mind, with discussion frequently turning to matters of land, water and biodiversity. Everywhere there was evidence of the significance of engaging a range of communities in the making of urban sustainability. The Mountain to Mouth arts installation celebrated walking the songlines of aboriginal culture, infrastructure projects were working with nature to create resilient and species-rich communities, and questions of ethics and justice abound.
Such visions, and the challenges and hopes they embody, sometimes felt out of step with Al Gore and his Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. As over 2000 people were held spellbound by his powerful oratory, we learnt that we must and we can address climate change but that whether we will or not is in our hands. Taking us to the brink of despair, Al Gore pinned our hopes on the potential of economic logics and technical solutions.
Such hopes can get us a long way. There is plenty of evidence of how technological change in renewable energy, the construction of buildings, manufacturing processes and so on can greatly improve our world. Yet the smaller, quieter hopes of cities which can live with their communities, with their ecologies need to be valued too.
Other voices from the main stage encouraged us to follow these hopes. With the kind of spirit NATURVATION seeks to foster, Debra Roberts encouraged us to get away from our own crowds, to be uncomfortable, to stick out – for this is where we can make our greatest contribution. Andy Merrifield asked us to consider the kind of politics being undertaken in cities in the name of climate change and its implications for inequality, while Katherine Gibson took us to the spaces of experimentation taking shape around new practices of commoning and the lessons they provide about the importance of flexibility and modularity for transformation.
Perhaps the most powerful theme of the conference was articulated by Katy Auty: that we are more powerful than we think and we can put that power to do good work. Key to success was demonstrating the possibilities of future cities and being disruptive. In providing difficult alternatives to techno-economic models of urban development, ecocity thinking and practice can inspire. As Al Gore encouraged us, cities need us to #BeInconvenient.
Harriet Bulkeley is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Durham University and Project Co-ordinator for NATURVATION.