Most visions for Auckland's waterfront involve more apartments, cafes and public open space. More of the Viaduct Basin, in other words. If this opinion prevails, it will be a big mistake.

There are far better options for the redevelopment of this unique real estate. These do not entirely exclude residential and recreation but are led by the idea of a working waterfront. We need development driven by production, not consumption.

Before any major decisions are made, we must appreciate what is unique about this site. The waterfront is far more than just another attractive location for housing. This artificially created land is all about the city's reason for being - the harbour and the port.

In a more generic sense, it is where Auckland conducts its vitally important physical (goods, commodities) and symbolic (information, messages) interaction with the world. At the onset of the age of information, image, travel and telecommunications, we should be particularly concerned with the communication of particular messages.

In this context, the waterfront is first and foremost our facade, showcase and shop-window. Its potential to act as a display for the city, the region and the nation is priceless. This is the place to exhibit our best goods and our most important messages.

The America's Cup demonstrated the power of the site to showcase some of our best and most important skills, products and values. The cup has gone but we can still pose the question any intelligent shopkeeper would pose - what is the best stuff I have to exhibit in my shop window?

The answer has to do not only with living in an age of information and global communication but living in an age of ecology and global environmental crisis.

Consequently, there should be three strategic decisions for the waterfront. First, commit the site to our support for the global consensus on ecologically sustainable development. Second, show here what sustainable development really looks like. Many people like the idea but are confused about what it means in concrete terms. Third, do it all by our own means.

In other words, the Auckland waterfront would be used to show in tangible terms what sustainable development is all about, particularly in urban circumstances.

Turn the key sites on the waterfront - the Tank Farm, America's Cup village, Queens Wharf - into a permanent laboratory and a standing exhibition of cutting-edge clean, green design, technology, engineering and architecture. A one-to-one scale model of the world's urban future. A model in constant change and consistently 10 to 30 years ahead of standard contemporary practice in architecture and engineering worldwide. And all that conceived and made here.

The emphasis on the urban is particularly important. Cities are now recognised as the chief aggregate cause of global climate change. Cities also drive other aspects of the environmental crisis - loss of biodiversity, desertification and sea and freshwater pollution.

It is now widely accepted that a crucial element in any strategy to prevent the breakdown of the global ecosystem is a complete overhaul of the way our cities operate and are built. This means radically changing their design.

Redesigning, redeveloping and retrofitting the world's existing cities, as well as planning, designing and constructing vast new cities in ways that will make four billion city dwellers a bearable burden on the Earth's ecosphere, is obviously a huge task. It is also a huge business, probably the biggest business of all time. Does New Zealand want to be a part of it?

The best indication that the business deal of the 21st century has begun is the case of environmental technologies. These involve renewable energy production, energy efficiency and conservation, water supply, waste and stormwater management and waste treatment. They are now the fastest-growing sector of the global economy. Their annual gross value is conservatively estimated at US$1 trillion.

Environmental technologies are just the technical core of a wider wave of global design revolution and the rising demand for sustainable communities, eco-cities, green buildings, and eco-design. The trend, still in its early stages but robust, has the characteristic of a global movement, known as green urbanism.

Here we should think of green urbanism as a broadly defined package of services and products, encompassing environmental technologies but going beyond the original energy-water-waste innovation cluster. The green urbanism sector spans from legislation, policy and technical know-how to the entire development and construction industry, to an array of manufacturers who deliver smart and green products.

We already have more of this than we realise. We just need to grasp the full range of competitive advantages we possess: our green image; our internationally praised environmental legislation; our good political and trade links with South, East and South-east Asia and the Pacific; and the Government's policies ranging from encouraging a knowledge-based economy and creative industries to tackling climate change and energy efficiency, to sustainable development and better urban design.

Both the domestic and the international scene is sending the same message: sustainable urban development is no more a fantasy of architects, planners and social activists, it is becoming a huge business.

Potential customers number hundreds of millions of city-dwellers in Asia and the rest of the world. But to convince these customers that we can deliver clean, green urbanism we must first demonstrate it in our own cities. There is no better place to attempt this and to showcase the results than the Auckland waterfront.

The segment of the waterfront most suited to a large-scale demonstration of new urban architecture and supporting green infrastructure is the Tank Farm. A series of visionary, ecologically designed and technologically advanced architectural and infrastructural projects could accommodate a targeted mix of land uses.

The uses could range from research and development and marketing departments of companies in eco-technology and eco-building innovation (some of which would borrow ideas from the local maritime industry), to unconventional, experimental and self-sufficient housing, surrounded by landscapes constructed to demonstrate zero-impact urban infrastructure.

Looking beyond the waterfront, a similar development on an even larger scale could take place on the Hobsonville peninsula. It is only logical that our pre-eminent eco-city, Waitakere, enters a partnership with Auckland City in this search for viable models of green urbanism. Later, North Shore City could join the party when the time comes to redevelop the naval base land in Devonport.

There is a huge potential in this for both Aucklanders' quality of life and the city's regional economy. The prototypes of green urban development tried out on the three waterfront locations would both present solutions for Auckland's own future and enable the production lines and exports of the regional eco-tech industry.

In the long term, greater Auckland would simultaneously become one of the world's most environmentally friendly cities, as well as one of the world's premier sites of expertise and industrial capacity to deliver such cities elsewhere.

Before this can happen we must realise that more Viaduct Basin-type urbanism on the waterfront would be a wrong step. It would take us straight back to the 20th century, instead of putting us in a position to lead the world into the 21st.

* Dushko Bogunovich is an associate professor of urban design at Unitec.