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Urbanisation cannot be about transplanting community

2015-12-13 11:12:01

Any estrangement with nature comes at the expense of creating viable living spaces

Sir Tim Smit, Special to Gulf News
Flying over Europe at night is extraordinary: an illuminated sea of endless urban infrastructure. More than anywhere, it is here that I get a sense of quite how much we have changed the face of our planet.

Our cultures have become so urban that for many it is unremarkable to hear that over half of humanity now lives in cities. Yet, for 99 per cent of our human existence we managed without them.

I cannot help but feel intoxicated by the great metropolises. Cities at their best offer an intensity of social experience previously unimaginable. They have potentials of scale that can reduce the pressures we place on our environment. But they also pose new challenges for how we interact with the world, and with each other.

I often think of the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson who, to crudely paraphrase, said that humans have Paleolithic emotions, middle-age institutions, and God-like technology. Recent research has shown that our mental well-being requires environmental inputs: even the presence of trees on streets lowers mental illness. We have carried the mental and emotional responses of our savannah ancestors into our new concrete jungles.

We are likewise fundamentally social creatures: our greatest inventions have been the harnessing of fires, and the abstract language to talk around them. While characterising cities as ‘alienating’ does a discredit to many vibrant urban areas, I think we can all empathise with the loneliness often associated with them.


Attempts to create sustainable cities should acknowledge these factors that make us human, rather than pretend that the secret lies with centralised smart technology and algorithms. Cities should not negate the natural, but reimagine it.

Urbanisation should not rip up communities, but facilitate even richer ones emerging. Cities are places, and for all the wonder of our virtual lives, if we forget a city consists of our relationships to each other and the physical spaces we live in, we will be the worse for it.

When we created the Eden Project, we sought to explore the relationship between people and their environments. In nearly all attempts, we found we were most successful when people did so together in groups, usually in celebration, in the process of sharing food and drink.

We set up the Big Lunch based on the simple idea that for one day a year, people would close their roads to traffic and share a meal with their neighbours. We have had over a million take part. I think much of its success lies in giving people an excuse to introduce themselves, dispelling the fear in things and people we don’t know.

It also gives an opportunity for communities to realise quite how much skill and capacity lie within it. Sustainable cities and their communities will need to harness their creativity and resources: foundations built in interaction rather than concrete.

Entering our 15th year, we have just signed a deal to build an Eden Project in the coastal city of Qingdao in China. The original Eden was built in a derelict mine, whereas in Qingdao we will be in the centre of a city with a population ten times the size of the entire population of Cornwall.

It requires a reimagining of what Eden is and how we relate to the surrounding environment. But more than anything I am struck by how relevant and urban our original mission was: the relationship between people and the natural world, and how humans come together to solve the challenges thrown up by this relationship.


This is not to deny the great work of innovative leaders, engineers, and architects: the purveyors of the hard infrastructure. Some of the recent work in green cities and living architecture show hope for a world where cities acknowledge their responsibility to harvest their own food, water and energy, while reimagining the definition and treatment of waste.

In many ways, this is an acknowledgement that our estrangement from nature cannot continue. We can’t keep it out anyway — after all, what else is there? The growing trend to harness nature rather than pretend to have eliminated it from our urban terrains offers exciting new paths to imagine what living in a city could mean- retrofitting it for the tree-loving social animals hidden inside of us.


The writer is Vice-chairman and Co-founder of the Eden Project, a visitor attraction and educational charity containing horticulture and architecture symbolic of human endeavour. He will speaking at the Dubai Sustainable Cities Summit on December 17. (


( courtesy of #Gulfnews )