By Tina Perinotto

The ambitious and potentially world-transforming website made its debut on the global stage just two weeks ago.  Its aim? No less than to measure the sustainability of the world’s cities and predict their likely survival rate as environmental conditions turn nasty.

In a radical and very savvy way, this website wants to unleash the competitive dragon from the clutches of its carbon masters. Its data will be available to citizens so that that leaders can be pressured to compete with other cities on scores for sustainability instead of financial strength or ephemeral “lifestyle” indices.

The brainchild of award-winning Australian landscape architect Adrian McGregor, biocitystudio.redefines cities as ecosystems. At the same time it cleverly capitalises on the instinct of city leaders worldwide  to compete by revealing how well each city is scoring on a range of 12 critical systems that add up to a healthy city,  thereby empowering citizens to put pressure on leaders to rectify what is lacking.

For instance, McGregor says citizens might say, “‘We use more water than anybody else’ and demand to know what government policies will be put in place to counter this.

“It will provide tools for citizens to use to empower themselves to have a dialogue with governments, because cities are competitive and nations are competitive.

“There is power in data.”

McGregor already has an international perspective. With his long-term associate Philip Coxall, McGregor won the prestigious Topos Award in Reykjavik, Iceland, announced on 26 June, in recognition of the pair’s international contribution to landscape architecture. The two firms recently joined forces to create McGregor+Coxall.

In a keynote speech to the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ (AILA) national conference in Melbourne on 8 May this year, McGregor outlined the philosophy behind biocities. [see our story here]

The key to the biocity concept is that each of the 12 systems (shown in the diagram) [] —  are connected with the others and no one system —  such as the economy —   can be allowed to dominate to the exclusion of others.

The 12 key systems are: biodiversity, built form, culture/education, economy, energy, food, governance, health, pollution, transport, waste and water.

The biocity concept is based on “biomimicry”, the website says, and is an “urban planning model arising from landscape architecture and biological theory that proposes cities be reconceptualised as ‘urban biotopes’ that are supported by a myriad of interconnected ecosystems.”

Its purpose is to “shift critical debate in city planning away from fossil fuel led decision-making to secure a better future for urban areas under climate change impacts.”

As McGregor says in his AILA address, biocitystudio will provide an alternative to the general paradigm whereby cities that “consume environmental matter at the highest rates sustain a high GDP per capita and are said to be advanced, while those that consume less are defined as developing”.
McGregor says information for the site will be open source Wiki-style and there will be collaborations with universities, in the first instance with the University of NSW.

To kick-start the project, biocitystudio mined the database on cities held by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), one of the best caches of information of that type in the world, says McGregor. It’s not particularly focused on sustainability, but that information will be now progressively added, he says.

“We will also make it a home base for internationally significant projects, policies and initiatives;  government models.

“Eventually we aim to publish a biocity health index — a true representation, rather than a development index or a lifestyle index, or a financial index. It will be a broadly based set of metrics.”

Right now McGregor is on the lookout for 12 PhD students to find “ways of crunching numbers to give us a metric to score cities across the 12 systems.

“We need to determine the criteria …it’s a big undertaking but we think it’s important. It’s the seed of something.”

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