Smart Forest City: A New Frontier of Urban Sustainability

The Milanese architecture firm “Stefano Boeri Architetti”, who projected the Vertical Forest in Milan, designed the plan for the first Smart Forestry City that will be based in Cancun, Mexico. It is expected to host up to 130.000 inhabitants, by replacing the project of a shopping center. The city will be built on a 5.57 km2, currently employed as a “sand quarry for hotels” (Endel 2019)[1] and 4 km2 will be reserved for green spaces. There will be about 7.500.000 plants in the project and 260.000 will be trees. With a ratio of 2.3 trees per inhabitant, the Smart Forest City “will absorb 116.000 tons of carbon dioxide with 5.800 tons of CO2 stocked per year” (Endel 2019). Public parks, private gardens, green roofs, and green facades will help create a balance within the built environment.

The city has also been imagined to be completely food and energy self-sufficient. Indeed, it will be surrounded by solar panels and agricultural fields. Water will be gathered at the entrance of the city, next to the desalination tower and dispensed by a system of navigable channels in the whole settlement up to the agricultural fields that surround the urban area[2]. Within the city, people will circulate via internal electric and semi-automatic mobility, leaving their cars outside of the city.

The Smart Forest City will also hold “a center for advanced research that could host all worldwide university departments, international organizations, and companies that deal with very important sustainability issues and the future of the planet” (Endel 2019). 

The Smart Forest City definitely promotes the idea of sustainable city. In fact, the project seems to create a perfect habitat where human beings can live in total harmony with nature within the urban space. Apparently, this sounds like a perfect solution in a scenario where urbanization is expected to rise in the next years and climate change needs to be handled with innovative solutions. Indeed, this project not only seems to support the idea of reducing urban sprawl by creating dense and compact settlements, but it also seems to avoid one of the main challenges that urban density can bring, which is the lack of green space on urban footprints. Thus, one of the main critiques to the urban density discourse has been the idea that if land is consumed for increasing urban development, areas devoted to green will be necessarily reduced. However, the Smart forest city represents an anti-sprawl and densification project able to reduce urban expansion while increasing the quantity of green within the built city. “A model that connects to the policies for reforestation and naturalization of the edges of large urban and metropolitan areas” (Kucherova and Narvaez 2018: 5)[3]. In fact, as the Stefano Boeri Architetti firm’s manifesto states[4], the reforestation of the urban environment can be an extraordinary help to improve the quality of health and life in a city. Indeed, forests and trees absorb nearly 40% of fossil fuel emissions largely produced by cities every year.

However, there are some challenges which are not self-evident when looking at these projects. First, instead of building sustainable cities or eco-cities out of nowhere, believing that higher densities are necessarily good, planners may better consider that urban design is not enough to make cities more sustainable. As Laurence Crot highlighted, Masdar City (a planned city project initiated in 2006 in the United Arab Emirates) portrayed as the world first sustainable city and the example of Abu Dhabi’s new urban vision, has soon renounced to some of its most ambitious sustainability goals (2012: 2809)[1] such as its car-free mission. Masdar City has been recently rebranded as a carbon neutral project and its previous zero-carbon commitment soon disappeared from the policy agenda. Indeed, eco-cities projects instead of representing the panacea for main environmental and urban challenges seem just able to bring a new label to neoliberal urban development plans, since they rarely innovate and seldom keep their promises of sustainability (Cugurullo 2018: 74)[2]. Another weakness associated with these brand-new urban solutions relates the issue of who could really afford to live in eco-cities or smart forestry city. In fact, density increases the price of land and in turn increases the price of housing. Moreover, reforestation means bringing new amenities in the built environment which represents a new source of housing unaffordability.

Though a project as the Smart Forest City represents a perfect solution to reduce urban sprawl and pollution by increasing green space in cities at the same time; cities are more than their urban form. So, bringing urban design solutions to make cities more sustainable will not work alone, it can only be part of the answer. In fact, as Neuman pointed out, instead of asking ourselves if urban form can produce sustainability, we should question whether the processes of building cities, living, consuming and producing in cities are actually sustainable[7].


FOOTNOTES

[1]Edel, D. (2019), Smart Forest City Cancun Design Is First 100% Renewable Circular Economy City, Available from: https://www-intelligentliving-co.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.intelligentliving.co/amp/smart-forest-city-cancun-first-renewable-circular-economy-city

[2] Stefano Boeri Architetti (2019), Smart Forest City Cancun, Press release available from: https://www.stefanoboeriarchitetti.net/en/urban-forestry/

[3]Kucherova, A. and Narvaez, H. (2018), Urban Forest Revolution, E3S Web of Conferences 33, 01013, pp. 1-11. 

[4]Stefano Boeri Architetti (2019), Smart Forest City Cancun, Press release available from: https://www.stefanoboeriarchitetti.net/en/urban-forestry/

[5]Crot, L. (2012), Planning for Sustainability in Non-democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City, Urban Studies 50(13), pp. 2809–2825. 

[6]Cugurullo, F. (2018), Exposing smart cities and eco-cities: Frankenstein urbanism and the sustainability challenges of the experimental city, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 2018, Vol. 50(1), pp. 73–92.

[7]Neuman, M. (2005), The Compact City Fallacy, Journal of Planning Education and Research 25, pp. 11-26