The Bioregional Approach for Making Sustainable Cities

This article discusses sustainable cities’ foundation in ecology and includes a guide for starting the transition to achieve bioregional sustainability in any city. There is a section with examples from Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. [Originally published in Urban Green Tech, (Tokyo) 2004]


There is an undeniable and urgent new reality concerning the relationship between human beings and our planet. We have become aware that the ways we live are seriously affecting the rest of life. With increasing environmental catastrophes such as worldwide pollution, global warming, extinction of species, over-population, and destruction of natural habitat, it is necessary to actively undertake ecological sustainability in order for our own species and other life forms to survive. At the same time, cities are increasingly becoming the most populous sites where people live, and will become even more numerous and crowded in the future.

The vision of making cities ecologically sustainable should have a foundation in ecology itself. To accomplish this, “greening” must mean much more than just having parks with grass and trees, picking up trash in the streets, or other measures that simply make city life more pleasant. Cities must be seen as intersecting with natural systems in all of the basic functions and activities of urban life. Urban areas must be reconceived so that they can assume a responsible and harmonious position in the actual web of life that is Earth’s biosphere.


The most useful starting place for this transformed view of a city is to recognize the particular bioregion in which it is located. A bioregion is defined by the unique natural characteristics that occur throughout a particular geographic area, such as climate, landforms, watersheds, soils, native plants and animals, and other features. Every bioregion also includes human activities that should be carried out to join with these features in sustainable ways. Human inhabitation should be an interactive part of the ongoing life in a place. Bioregions differ greatly from each other, such as the contrasts between a coast on the ocean, a rain forest, an interior desert, or the Arctic Circle. Because of these vast differences bioregions require different ways for societies and individuals to relate to them in order for life to be sustainable. The way people live in New York, Beijing, Tokyo, or Berlin should reflect the wide bioregional variations that exist between the places where these cities are located.

In order to plan, design, build, or direct human communities in ways that will achieve bioregional sustainability, we must consider the preservation of natural systems that are native to the place to be the basis for successful human inhabitation in it as well. People are ultimately dependent on the life of the place where they live. This isn’t an incidental aspect of human life but instead must be adopted as a central and primary social fact.

The Bioregional Approach

The basic goals of a bioregional approach are as follows:

  • Restore and maintain natural systems,
  • Develop sustainable means for satisfying basic human needs such as food, water, energy, shelter, resource materials, waste handling, and cultural information,
  • Create and support a broad range of activities which make it possible to fit better into the life-place.

These goals need to be attained in all human communities, but cities are especially important because of their large human populations and significantly high consumption level of resources. Restoring and maintaining natural systems in a city’s bioregion is an urgent problem in both industrialized and developing countries and should get a high priority. An example would be rehabilitation of Tokyo Bay by restoring native ecosystems of aquatic plants and animals. Developing sustainable means for supplying human needs will require becoming as bioregionally self-reliant as possible rather than importing necessities of life, and recycling all wastes rather than creating refuse dumps and pollution. Creating and supporting ways to fit into the life-place needs to be done in a great number of ways ranging from encouraging small local businesses that recycle materials to reviving seasonal festivals.

Initiating Bioregional Sustainability

Here is a guide for starting the transition to achieve bioregional sustainability in any city. It covers main areas of human needs and community functions, and lists examples of basic policies and actions which need to be undertaken


  1. Support development of small-scale agriculture by individuals and groups, within the city as well as in surrounding rural and suburban areas. Create open spaces for gardening within city neighborhoods, renovate former manufacturing and storage spaces for growing food, build structures for rooftop and balcony gardens.
  2. Initiate public programs to actively involve adults and school children in growing some of their own food. Provide gardening facilities, tools and equipment for use by all private citizens.


  1. Restore water purity of nearby rivers, creeks, lakes, wells, and any other local means for providing fresh water.
  2. Reuse filtered grey water (used once previously for light purposes such as washing clothes or bathing) a second time for heavy uses including flushing toilets, cleaning buildings, and watering landscapes. Develop dual water piping systems for pure and grey water in offices and homes.


  • Convert garbage collection and disposal into a recycling agency to separate and distribute reused materials.
  • Designate organic material from markets, restaurants, and households to compost facilities that create soil for agriculture.


  • Treat liquid waste by biological means for use in irrigating parks and other public uses.
  • Compost solid wastes to create soil for agriculture, park and garden plants, and individual garden use.


  1. Produce electrical energy locally through non-polluting renewable means including wind, solar, water currents, and so forth.
  2. Construct rooftop solar collectors to provide hot water for office buildings, factories, and residences.
  3. Reconstruct and retrofit all buildings (offices, manufacturing, and residences) to conserve energy through efficiency devices, insulation, and other means.
  4. Renovate building designs to utilize construction features that provide cooling (rather than relying solely on electricity powered air conditioning).

Materials and Production

  1. Mandate use of some portion of locally recycled materials in production of goods and construction projects.
  2. Use low-cost loans, tax reductions, and low rent public facilities to encourage new sustainability oriented companies that use recycled materials (solar collectors, park benches from recycled wood, etc.).
  3. Emphasize use of local, sustainably derived resources and materials whenever possible. Require replacement of natural resources that are consumed (restored fisheries for fish caught, new tree plantings for each tree cut, etc.). Assign precedence for using locally produced goods for public purposes.


  • Convert public and government vehicles to use renewable
    means of energy such as solar-produced electricity.
  • Encourage greater use of alternative energy in private transportation through lower license fees for non-fossil fuel automobiles and trucks. Limit private automobile use to only major highways and streets, and prohibit their use in downtown areas. (Rebuild downtown streets as pedestrian malls.)

Education and Culture

  • Teach bioregional information and sustainability as required subjects at all levels of local schools and universities.
  • Develop public sustainability information for citizens in public places such as agency offices, libraries, bus stops, etc.
  • Create celebrations, public art projects, identification markers for natural features, and other cultural information about natural features.

Parks and Open Spaces

  • Redesign parks and open spaces as habitats for ecosystems of plants and animals using wild places as models. Develop municipal nurseries for growing indigenous plant species. Use local native plants and trees whenever possible in public parks and landscaping
  • Develop corridors between existing parks and open spaces by acquiring land currently occupied by buildings.

Sustainability Planning

  • Adopt sustainability principles and goals as the central purpose for considering land use, construction, zoning, development, and other planning decisions by city and surrounding local governments.
  • Assign a priority status for sustainability goals in all aspects of city management and operation.

Some of these recommendations may seem familiar but they possess a major distinction from typical environmental proposals for urban areas. When measures such as recycling or renewable energy are usually undertaken they are seen as serving only a few purposes. For example, recycling is perceived as a way to reduce landfill fees or other disposal costs, and alternative energy measures are a way to reduce air pollution from fossil fuels. However, from a bioregional perspective these policies and actions are means for providing sustainability for both natural systems and human communities while creating local self-reliance. They can relate to the whole bioregional complex of life.

An Example of the Bioregional Approach to Ecological City Planning

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador is a small-size Pacific coastal city of less than 50,000 population that has initiated a by-law to transform itself into a bioregional Ecological City. The city’s Ecological Plan was developed with a bioregional approach that is rooted in harmonizing with local natural systems. These include Pacific Ocean influences (storms, currents, tides, sea and estuarian life forms, etc.), equatorial seasonal conditions, winter-wet summer-dry climate, the Rio Chone river watershed, clay soil, and dry tropical forest plant and animal ecosystems.

The Recycling Plan was initiated through a project that composts household wastes to make soil for growing gardens and fruit trees for participating residents, and to provide material for public parks and gardens. (In Bahia de Caraquez organic waste of this kind constitutes fifty percent of all garbage collected, a much higher and more significant percentage than in industrial societies.) Begun to serve a small neighborhood, composting of organic household wastes is now being expanded to include the whole city and surrounding communities. The entire plan will eventually include glass, plastic, paper, metals, and all other household and business refuse.

The city was struck by two natural disasters in 1998. Rainfall from a severe El Niño continued throughout the entire year, causing hills to collapse in mudflows, and in the late summer there was a 7.2 Richter Scale earthquake that leveled many buildings over a few stories high. A major part of one of the hardest hit city neighborhoods had sixteen deaths and thirty or so homes completely destroyed by mudflows. To keep this area from eroding in future rains, it was replanted using only native grasses, bushes and trees. Local people were employed in growing seedlings and planting them.

The area next declared a park named Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas (Forest in the Midst of the Ruins) and steps leading into it were built using only recycled materials. Paths were made through the area and markers were installed to identify plants.

A self-guided tour pamphlet was printed for use by both local residents, schools and visitors. Children who live nearby are receiving an environmental education using the park as an example. The neighborhood people have created an association to maintain and guide people through the park. They erected a large sign pointing in its direction and are developing plans for a museum and other instructional means to teach about the ecology of the bioregion.

Since the park was completed revegetation activities to reduce erosion have gotten underway in most other neighborhoods. A much larger project has begun to revegetate hillsides for six kilometers along the river in a suburb leading into the city. It will reduce erosion with native fruit trees that can also be a source of food and economic benefit. The examples of composting garbage and revegetation can be undertaken in any city and show how directly involved people can become with restoring and maintaining natural systems while creating human benefits.

Bahia de Caraquez has plans for a biological sewage treatment system that will use wastes to create habitat for native plants and animals. There is also an extensive renewable energy proposal to construct facilities to provide hot water from solar rooftop collectors and electricity from local renewable sources.


The bioregional approach is intended to simultaneously include many aspects of the natural and human life in a community. It will have a different emphasis depending on the conditions and location of the place. In Japan, the city of Aomori occupies its own bioregion that is separate from that of Osaka in the south even if they are both on Honshu Island. The bioregional approach to ecological planning for these two urban centers should stress the different conditions in each place. Creating a sustainable bioregional city requires active participation by both government agencies and private citizens. Involvement of everyone is necessary for the ecological survival and success of future human communities.