By Richard Register, founder, Ecocity Builders
His name is Wang Rusong, last name first in China, and Wang pronounced “Wong” – much softer in sound, as befits this wonderful man.
At five minutes after midnight on November 28 in a Beijing hospital my friend Wang Rusong died. I got the message only a few short hours later, California time, from my friend and ecocity architect Paul Downton in Australia. Rusong was one of the kindest, gentlest, most hard working, insightful, original, dedicated and effective, humble and important people I’ve even met. Stuffing so much positive into one person is quite remarkable. Well, that was Rusong. You could almost not notice him until you realized what he was up to, capable of, of the kindest heart yet with a determination of steel.
It was friendship at first sight – or rather sound. It was 1990 and the First International Ecocity Conference had ended the day before. I was at the empty office contemplating the chaos that took place there four days earlier as everyone dropped everything and evacuated for the heart of Berkeley where the real action was. We’d rented or commandeered seven locations for the conference in downtown and promptly forgot all about the command center that was to be the office. Now I looked around the scramble of random things left about from the hasty departure – papers, pens, calendar, posters, reminder notes taped to the wall…
The phone rang.
A soft but urgent voice came on the line, slight Chinese accent, slight musical lilt. It would sound the same for the next 24 years. Right off it said, “Is the conference still happening?”
“I’m afraid not. Yesterday was the last day. I dropped by the office just to clean up a little.”
“Oh no. I feel so lonely.”
“Lonely, why lonely?”
“I thought I was the only one and there’s this whole conference of people working on ecological cities.”
Rusong was 700 miles north doing post-doctoral research as a Visiting Professor in mathematics at Washington State University. He explained that for the last several years he had found no one of enthusiasm to listen to his thoughts about reshaping cities based on principles from ecology. I learned about all that later through wandering conversation – he never “bragged” about his accomplishments or pursuits. For example, as a leading ecologist in the country he had been selected by China’s national planners to evaluate the site for the proposed Three Gorges Dam in the early 1980s. He had come back with his usual broad perspective that took into account the communities there and recommended that the dam should not be built. It would displace two million people, saturate soils and destabilize steep slopes causing hundreds of landslides, muck up the river-come-300-mile-long-lake with silt and scum from erosion and upstream industrial and agricultural waste, and drive native species to extinction. All that happened of course. (Including the end on this planet, and anywhere else in the universe for that matter, for the Yangtze River dolphin, last seen or even “thought” seen around 2006.) But all that he accomplished – and dreamed of – was to be revealed to me in bits and pieces.
On the phone that day after the conference we learned a little about each other. I suggested, “Why don’t you come down here to Berkeley some time soon and we can spend some time together. I’ll give you a tour around and you can meet some of us. We’ll put you up in a little hotel…” He zipped on down less than two weeks later.
Thus began our twenty-four year friendship. Rusong visited Berkeley two times in the next six months or so before returning to China. On one trip seven or eight of us went to look over Village Homes, the suburban paradise just west of Davis, California for suburbanites in love with their fruits, vegetables and bicycles. It’s definitely the greenest suburb development I’d ever seen, with its meandering back yard-linking bicycle and foot paths, absolute minimum city regulation width streets, solar greenhouse on almost every house, sandy bioswales in low spots for collecting storm water run off to slowly recharge the water table… We picked and ate scrumptious mulberries from an enormous tree, leaving every hand bright purple for the rest of the trip.
Our little two-car tour also visited architect Peter Calthorpe’s New Urbanist project south of Sacramento called Laguna West. Bill Mastin mentioned that the New Urbanist doctrine suggested highly mixed-use features such as at the community center of Laguna West should be within about a quarter mile of most of the housing. Access by proximity, a short walk away. But at Laguna West, he noted, artificial canals had been constructed and lake-like water features surrounded the community center instead of homes. Bridges connecting the housing to the center and stretching to low-density development around the meandering streets were easily bikeable but not so easily walkable routes to the otherwise useful commercial and cultural core. Mostly, everyone would be driving. Rusong, standing at water’s edge in Laguna West took one look and said, as he must have thought in the Three Gorges Valley around 1982, “Standing water not good feng shui. Flowing water much better.”
Many, many conferences
Rusong missed the First International Ecocity Conference but made it to Adelaide, Australia in 1992 for the second. Just before we were about to meet in the village of Yoff outside Dakar, Senegal, for Ecocity 3, the US Congress Republicans fought off Bill Clinton’s new budget, temporarily shutting down the government. The cut in customs staffing at US international terminals meant Rusong suddenly couldn’t exercise his through-US ticket. He never made it to join us and was quite upset once again. But he himself with his crew from the Chinese Academy of Science hosted Ecocity 5 in Shenzhen, China in 2002. Rusong made it to Bangalore, India, 2006 and San Francisco 2008 and Istanbul, Turkey 18 months later in 2009. Then he started having bouts of illness – stomach cancer – and missed the next two, Montreal and Nantes. But every time I saw him, which was more than once a year average since then, he constantly said he was getting better.
Rusong was one of the founding officers of the Ecological Society of China (President or Vice President – I don’t remember for sure). Partially in that capacity, and through his position as Director of the Center for Ecological and Environmental Research at the Chinese Academy of Science, he was the driving force behind a series of ecology conferences to which he invited a small cluster of foreigners including myself. Eleven times he did this for me from 2000 to 2013, all expenses paid.
My stay at the Academy got me into trouble once when I talked about the virtues of the very spare but comfortable and graceful Science Academy’s Guest House where he hosted me once. The room was about twice as wide as the narrow bed but had a small bathroom, nice desk, chair, shelf, lamp and efficient layout with a balcony with one chair outside for the fresh air. Every morning I’d open your door to the hall and there would be a very large thermos of tea with cup. Propped against the wall was an issue of the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper supported by the government, which vice versa, the newspaper supported. Quite naturally it had very interesting articles you’d never find in The West. Some were answers to previously unanswered questions, some were new questions – also without locally supplied answers.
The way I got in trouble was that I touted the virtues of the humble but more than adequate accommodations during talk in Tianjin some years later. The subject of the preceding panel had been all about luxurious “green” hotels with enormous rooms and sumptuous, 90% unused trappings, with enough space for a badminton court. I said these designs had no notion of “enough” and the Chinese Academy of Science Guest House should be a much more serious model for genuinely “green” facilities. Silence. I wasn’t invited back.
Efforts to build
Rusong was dedicated not just to studying math, his first specialty. He researched ecology, cities, Chinese ancient philosophy, and ecocity theory while running a research facility and teaching graduate ecology and planning students, organizing conferences, and writing dozens of published scientific papers. He also worked hard to get things built. He became involved in four cities, two of which I’ll mention: Xiamen and Huaibei.
I was on a one month tour of China when Rusong called my host and said I had to leave a little early from Chongqing and rush to a special meeting in Xiamen. OK, I guess I’ll find out why when I get there. A beautiful Chinese woman met me at the airport with the largest bouquet I’d even seen. She handed me a note in the taxi and I said to myself, “Uh-oh. What’s this?” It requested me to please have a ten minute talk ready when I arrive at the luncheon. They were giving a prize to a really big developer. Well I’ll trust Rusong to find a good one.
I arrived on stage with everyone already eating and things started off immediately, no time for Rusong to further brief me. My talk was general but as usual unkind to sprawl development. What I didn’t know was that the audience was an assembly of about 200 people who had bought plots in a supposedly greener than usual suburban… sprawl. The audience clapped a little diffidently but Rusong got them cheerful again. Then he handed me the prize to hand to the developer, all in Chinese, which I don’t speak. All smiles at that point.
What was that all about, I asked Rusong at first opportunity. He explained he’d been having a hard time finding a developer with a really great completed project whose work he wanted to encourage. He was trying to support one that seemed to have a few good ideas in advance of the development so that they’d try harder and get a better development. At the post-luncheon reception for Rusong, myself, the developer and his senior staff, the developer shook my hand and said in Chinese (I was told) “Thanks for the prize.” It took me a little by surprise. I just smiled and executed one of those small bows used for such occasions in China. I could only hope the translation of my talk had been as diplomatic as possible. Apparently no feathers ruffled too much. Maybe some in that audience who looked a combination of puzzled and thoughtful might have had a few interesting ideas gestating in their heads.
I tell this story largely because I want to show you a picture. It’s of Rusong with three of his friends in the location just outside of Xiamen that was to become the developers’ project. The place could have been a slightly wetter, mountainous, rocky Arizona landscape. Rusong had put on some weight and had just had a “hard attack.” He was to lose that weight pretty fast. I told him, “Please don’t work so hard. We want you around a long time. We need you.”
The other city, Huaibei, I visited four times with Rusong. He added Kirstin Miller and Paul Downton, co-host with Cherie Hoyle of Ecocity 2 in Adelaide, to some of our entourages. We met with industrial diamond maker David Hall there who is interested both in mining technology and has a range of ideas for ecocities. We all gathered with the Mayor of Huaibei, his staff and his planning department who was to all appearances excited at the potential of ecocity projects in his city. We went on a tour of the local diamond making and coal mining industries. We were there largely to help think through a transition away from coal, which, said our hosts, they would start running out of in five to ten years. I was suggesting building a new section of town that would be a powerful model for energy conservation, a leadership position and hence a means to establish a kind of Curitiba-like energy in that location. It would be a go-to destination for pilgrims of the next generation cities, the sustainable, the “eco” cities of the future. Dream on. But I insist it is possible.
Then there in Huaibei came another Rusong surprise. We were touring one of the most intense facilities for manufacture I’d even seen. Standing, flaming, pumping, throbbing machines, literally ground-shaking machines larger than three or four story buildings sheltered inside a dark, brooding hangar that could house not just a 747 but a dirigible or two. Rusong said quite casually, “I worked here for six years as a shop floor foreman making these machines.” What! Rusong in the coal industry? “I was trying to make enough money to go back to school and get my doctorate,” he explained.
What came of the effort in Hauibei? I drew up my idea in a series of drawings for a small ecocity on the edge of one of their lakes and sent it in. Paul Downton actually got paid some and had a little back and forth with the Mayor’s office. Then more silence. Two years later I asked Rusong what happened. Our friend the mayor had lost the next election. The new mayor wanted to forget the last one so he could more easily build his own legacy.
What I owe to him in my work
Owing something to Rusong would be a strange idea. You don’t owe Rusong because he’s as far from a reciprocating investment as can be found. He simply gives. But in the usual way of helping others, I “owe” him a lot. Rusong was well established by the time I met him, solidly ensconced in the Chinese Academy of Science and a leading member of many societies around China. His material basics seemed to be well covered and I’m close to certain there was nothing he wanted from others other than to be part of a community of people trying to help improve things.
On some earnest friends suggestions Rusong ran for the Chinese Peoples Congress and became one of its 1,200 members. He mentioned this to me casually over a year after the fact. Something oblique made a political connection in the conversation and an, “Oh by the way” popped up. He seemed rather surprised and delighted. I didn’t think he was in the Communist Party, though by then I’d worked with quite a few people who were and had their business cards among my many. No, he was in an ecology party he said, something akin to the German Greens. The Congress, he said quite unselfconsciously, was advisor to the Party and the Central Government, but of more influence every year.
Rusong enjoyed the work. But then he was drafted for one job that was important but decidedly not enjoyable. The Great Szechuan Earthquake of 2008 killed 29,200 people and left 18,200 missing, presumed buried in the landslides and swept away in lake outburst floods. Rusong was rushed to the site to help plan the recovery efforts. Through tears he spoke of the shoddily constructed schools that had collapsed, killing hundreds of young students. What he had seen with his eyes…
I don’t just “owe” him for the 11 trips to important conferences in China plus dozens of introductions to all sorts of people all over the country; for risking the hosting – conferences are always tricky mustangs to ride – of one of our larger conferences: about 500 participants in Shenzhen. There, by the way, when Maurice Strong canceled due to heart surgery and several high ranking Chinese officials bailed, the City of Shenzhen reneged on a $20,000 payment they had pledged to the conference saying Rusong had not delivered as promised. So he fronted the money himself by tightening his center’s budget at the Academy of Science over the next couple years.
Not only all that, and for being utterly true to the cause, Rusong decided my book “Ecocities” needed to be published to help the movement in China. He got some of his most fluent grad students to translate it and moved it right through to publishing. Now it is probably my most important asset in getting me talks and consultancies in China.
In all my experience I can think of no other person who has so openly and generously just given and given and given. And with such a bright-eyed and ever so kind smile.
When I heard Rusong had died I seemed to fall suddenly into a great dark vacuum. “Oh no,” I said to myself, “I feel so lonely.”
Richard can be reached at email@example.com
Colombia architects conference and permaculture
Climate change is in the news today as I write and as the United Nations meets in New York City on the subject. Three-hundred thousand pro-future demonstrators in the street greeted the delegates. Down in Bogota, Colombia four weeks earlier it was also a major topic at the Universidad Piloto where the Architecture Program hosted their Tenth Annual International Conference entitled “Designing Nature, Humanity, and Culture: Permaculture for the Sustainable Development of Urban Habitat.” This was the second largest audience I’d ever faced, about 2,000 students and public guests. My largest speaking audience was 3,000 at a conference on design – not just sustainable but in general – in Seoul, Korea. Wonderful audiences in both cases, those enthusiastic, bright, young faces. The street in front of the large downtown theater was stuffed with eager audience when we speakers arrived, forcing us through the backstage door like some sort of star entertainers, which of course felt ego-gratifying. We made our way down dark hallways to back stage facing out on a cavernous empty space. Half an hour later even the balcony was almost completely filled.
The main speakers were from Colombia, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Brazil. From the United States came myself and Tony Brown, Director/Founder of the Icosa Institute in Prescott, Arizona. In the 1970s and 1980s Tony spent 13 years deeply involved in Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, most of that time as director of construction on site. I hadn’t known him well when I lived there in 1976-77, but much enjoyed getting to know him better in Bogota. At Icosa he and a bevy of faculty teach design and architecture from theory based in ecology to hands on workshops and tours to visit Arcosanti about 35 miles away.
The subjects covered were fascinating and the group of speakers and organizers as pleasurable as any ever to host one of my ecocity talks. There was a strong emphasis on permaculture, the study and discipline of a permanent agriculture based on similar principles to our own ecocity thinking in Ecocity Builders, but mainly focused on organic agriculture in a wholes systems context. Permaculture also addresses the built environment of the single homestead and small village to sometimes, though not often, the whole city. The conference also placed a strong emphasis on working with long-term indigenous village communities there in Colombia’s swampy Pacific coast where almost all buildings stand on posts in water, with boats and elevated paths, mostly wooden plank paths, uniting the villages. Also featured: rural areas in Mexico, favelas in Brazil, and in my show, from everyday urban living – BIG traffic jams – to ecocity initiatives in China. The talk on Cuba was especially interesting with urban agriculture and village development as subjects wedged between a number of comments on the effect of the United States’ embargo of the island. That looked a little perverse from their perspective, given that the United States’ largest trading partner and biggest banker is the largely Communist country of China.
The lead off speaker was Holger Hieronimi from Germany, now a longtime resident of Mexico, a practicing builder and farmer in the permaculture method. I enjoyed numerous roving discussions with him on our tours and at meals during which he introduced me to an impressive book I bought as soon as I returned to Oakland. If you were wondering if I’d ever get back to climate change, here is where everything collides: “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.” Holger recommended it forcefully with a serious determined look on his Werner Herzog face. If there’s a reason we are sinking into a morass of world wide problems, with climate change perhaps the reason with the most consequential implications is: everything. And that everything’s key physical source is extraction of minerals – by a slightly expanded definition.
“Extracted” – No joke, collapse is coming. How bad?…
There are the metals of various purities, through non-metallic mineral deposits such as borax, potash and salts, on down to raw gravel and sand for construction and landscaping. These are all extracted. Included in the book are soils, minded for living plants and the animals that graze. Then there are the fossil fuels: coal, oil, gas and various mediums from sandstones to sands permeated with fossil organic compounds called hydrocarbons. Mining those shales and tar sands gives us the energy to mine everything else we mine, plus run the machines of building and fertilizing crops of, killing pests of, and preserving and transporting and keeping cool and more or less fresh our foods. Plus the energy from extracted fossil fuels represents most of the energy for building our cities, towns and villages and running around in our transportation systems.
Climate change comes in as one of the gigantic multi-source outcomes from the multi-source problems of such extraction, plus associated life-style elements such as deciding to be small or large consumers, drivers in our vehicles of one type or another, weapons makers for real security or enhancing danger, injustice and violence in the world, and so on. Climate was not a big emphasis of the 1972 book “Limits to Growth” that made the Club of Rome famous. But the overall “bell curve” pattern that can be represented on a graph for human collective consumption of mineable materials represents the aggregated overall pattern leading to societal collapse. Ugo Bardi, author of “Extracted,” is a present-day member of the Club of Rome. As you will see, he defends the earlier book in his of copyright 2014.
By 1973, people were in a panic about “Limits to Growth.” Rather than think about strategic methods to change the course of history, human security and even evolution of life on Earth in a positive direction, people went not just into denial but attack mode. I’ll show here in this newsletter a chart from “Extracted” what those long-term trends looked like according to the 1972 data. A reminder first, though: the study that led to “Limits to Growth” was accomplished by dozens of the best scientists in the relevant fields and vetted by other scientists not involved in the study or resulting book. Just to put it in the text here, the growth curves that climbed, topped out then collapsed in a bell shaped curve were 1) industrial output, 2) food production, 3) population and, lagging a little, 4) pollution. The planet’s resource base in geological strata and soils – to be mined according to our expanded definition of mining – moves in a gently downward curve from the left side of the graph where we have abundance, dropping ever faster until most of our economically viable resources are gone, then leveling out at a level best called scarcity.
I’ll add a quote here from research in my present writing project, my book called “World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build.” Yes, some things, unlike the fossil hydrocarbons that are burned, can be recycled. But even when resources are tied up in our various products, there is an attrition rate headed toward no available virgin resources, which I call the Rust Factor. This is the most concise and dramatic comment I’ve heard on that subject, from the college text book “Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities” by Fellmann, Getis and Getis. They say the following.
The extractive industries depend on the exploitation of minerals unevenly distributed in amounts and concentrations determined by past geologic events, not by contemporary market demand. In physically workable and economically usable deposits, minerals constitute only a tiny fraction of the earth’s crust – far less than 1%. That industrialization has proceeded so rapidly and so cheaply is the direct result of an earlier ready availability of rich and accessible deposits of the requisite materials. Economies grew fat by skimming the cream. It has been suggested that should some catastrophe occur to return human cultural levels to a pre-agricultural state, it would be extremely unlikely that humankind ever again could move along the road of industrialization with the resources available for its use.
Most people not tuned in to environmental activism and also concerned for resources have heard a bizarrely twisted version of what the “Limits to Growth” actually said. Those wanting to see their wealth, or in many more cases probably, their simple comforts grow, closed their doors of perception and turned off their internal reasoning processes almost just upon hearing anyone say growth couldn’t just go on forever. GDP growth still remains the Bible and fighting Koran of the mainstream economists’ religion too. This has to lead to collapse. It’s no joke.
But what Ugo Bardi has to say about the denial, the assault of misrepresentation and outright lies is this:
The story of “Limits” is so drenched in urban legends that it would take an entire chapter to unravel it, or even a whole book (which has been written). Here, we can just mention the fact that almost all the legends still told today on the subject are just that: legends. It is not true that “Limits” predicted that the world would run out of some specific resources before the end of the 20th century. It is not true that it predicted imminent famines. It is not true that the study didn’t use historic data as the basis for its models. It is not true that it was the result of an evil plot by multinational companies to exterminate inferior races and take over world government. In short, the study was not wrong.
Now please refer to the first graph reproduced here. Pretty discouraging. It looks like sometime in the early 21st century, give or take a decade, we are going to hit one or more of the tops of the bell curve graph trajectories.
But now for my point to differ with the authors of “Limits” and with Ugo Bardi. The graph may feature some inexorable truths about our planet’s resources. But the 1972 authors and Mr. Bardi too, were not looking at all the mega conditions on the planet. The first of the two main ones, I’d maintain, is the absolutely enormous flood of solar energy that alights half the planet at any given time. The second is the stunning invention by life itself called chlorophyll in plants that takes that solar energy and captures it for use in the entire biosphere. This is not only all us living things on earth but the fossil hydrocarbons in soil and mineral deposits as well. So these need to be added to the graph for an even more realistic notion of what our future may hold.
The Club of Rome and Bardi have been looking at the dire coming circumstances as a glass half empty and going down. I’m offering the idea that at a steady rate the sun and biosphere are constantly streaming energy and biological matter into the glass, too. So what I’ve added, in the second graph, is a strong horizontal line representing what I call the “solar constant” and a line representing biomass, meaning the quantum of living matter using that solar energy source and working hard to get the planet back up to both maximum biomass and biodiversity – for such is the most basic tendency of life, the most basic pattern of evolution on Earth. So mine is not exactly a full-glass vision, but one that integrates both the bad news and the good gifts of nature on the planet.
You will notice in my amended projections that I think we are going to have some really bad times coming, with population collapse being probably the most elemental symptom. I mean collapse by neglect of overpopulation, not calm reduction to sane levels by human intention and design. We also face political chaos resulting from the compounding problems represented by the bell curves on the graph and the resources curve headed downward.
But as humanity learns the lessons of unsustainable demand, the depths of bad news need not be as bad or total in collapse as “Limits” projected and Bardi expounded for sometime this 21st century. But learning is the key. Maybe there could be permanent recovery, rejoining the other life forms in patterns of normal to healthy evolution. We would then see some version of what I’ve plotted as the beginnings of that post-collapse resource recovery.
Why did so many people reject “Limits” so violently? Maybe, as I originally thought, because of greed and desire for un-hassled comforts. But part of it was the “fault” of the authors in the first place by not considering the enormous two resources I’ve cited here: massive solar energy income and staggering biological power for life on Earth in its full richness.
There are two other “failures” too, though we could call them innocent oversights given the preoccupations of everyday life and overwhelming political problems that seem to be always with us. The first is an accurate sense of how long things take to mature, so to speak, and the final one for this essay, has to do with ecocities.
The last time I saw Ernest Callenbach, “Chick” Callenbach to his friends, I didn’t know he had very recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I thought it would be fun to travel with him to Martinez, California to see the famous beaver dams right there in the middle of the small city. I was eager to spend time with my friend, author of “Ecotopia,” the 1975 novel about an imaginary country ruled by society’s laws in turn ruled mainly by nature’s laws. The trip with Chick was 45 minutes each way on the train, which I always enjoy, trundling along the shoreline of the beautiful San Francisco Bay. After staking out the beaver dams we enjoyed a long wandering conversation lunch at a very good Mexican restaurant. But what I remembered most was a comment Chick made on the train about his book and the predictions it implied.
“Ecotopia” was a fantasy about Northern California, Oregon and Washington seceding from the US and setting up an ecologically informed civilization – from farming methods right up to city design, inclusive, of course, of the cultural proclivities of Ecotopians and courting and mating rituals of the locals. It was written in the early 1970s and finally made print when Chick gathered a few friends to invest in it and self-publish. Later it became a counter culture classic with several more mainstream publishers in the deal.
“Ecotopia” imagined changes coming on strong in the 1980s and 1990s. Those didn’t happen. His famous last words on that train ride that ring down to me through the years are “Things take longer than one thinks.” But if there ever was a hopeful vision, in many ways he got that right, if too fast for the way things usually work out. Of course Ecotopia may never happen. But we can try – unlike some version of the “Limits” graph that approaches relentlessly.
The other thing missing from both “Limits” and “Extracted” is the ecocity. It is not missing from “Ecotopia” however, even if Chick’s version and mine have some minor differences. The principles are basically the same. One might ask how could people miss that existing cities exemplify radically different impacts on resources and nature depending on the way they are organized and function? Why not pay attention to that? With old European city cores, that started as pedestrian designs, using on the order of a third as much energy and land per person as sprawling American car cities, we are looking at around a 66% reduction in demand for both land and energy. Are we really seeking solutions to climate change problems? 66% right off the top is what’s known as real money. As I’m writing this article, everyone who cares about climate change is clamoring for renewable energy sources, mainly solar and wind. But I search the newspapers in vain for “urban design” or “city layout,” or “the big demand side solution is far better city design, cities being the largest creations of our species.”
Does “Extracted” have anything to say about cities? Searching for the answer to that question is one of the two main reasons that I read the book immediately – and carefully – upon learning about it and arriving home. The answer: absolutely not. Amazing. On and on it goes.
Bardi’s book is 347 pages and the only things that could be considered even tangential to saying something is wrong with city design and layout we find on just two pages. Again, keeping in mind that cities are the largest creations of our species, here is his list under the topic “simplifying lifestyles”: “…eating less energy intensive foods, using public transportation instead of cars [ecocity design connected but not explicit], avoiding plane travel and long-distance vacations, Sharing large equipment (like cars) [a statement tending to accept cars, that is, actually antagonistic toward the notions at the core of reshaping cities for sustainability]…, and “focusing social and business interests in a relatively small local area.” That last one again hints at but doesn’t hone in on the target. On the next page he does ask, “Why not move closer to where you need to go and walk there?” Good opening question showing there is something of an insight lurking about, but the answer is that the vast majority of us can’t do that until we design and reshape cities so we actually can.
You can reach Richard Register at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities, Tenth Edition, Fellmann, Getis and Getis, Mc Graw-Hill, 2008, p.282
 Ugo Bardi, Extraction – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet, Chelsea Green, White River Junction,Vermont, p. 168
 Ugo Bardi, Ibid., p. 232
Twenty years ago, toward the end of September 1994, work started on the liberation of Codornices Creek. This creek, comprised of four healthy tributaries becoming one stream near the base of the Berkeley Hills, is the second largest in the Berkeley area. For 50 years it was buried under asphalt between 8th and 9th Street on the Berkeley/Albany border. About eight feet above the forlorn lightless waters in their concrete box culvert were parked oil-dripping cars and a vacant lot covered in 8-foot high fennel. Couldn’t see into the fennel forest, or once in it, out of it; a real dry-land jungle. Savory, if you like licorice flavor or smell.
This time the bulldozers were on our side. In fact the operator who dug the rough trench to create the small valley the creek now flows through was so delighted to be “building” a creek that for the first time in his life he worked for half pay.
Let’s see, to do the math, I’ve been there most Saturdays in the first couple years and Sundays after that, averaging about 35 times a year puttering about watering orchard trees, thinning the natives for maximum biodiversity, planting native trees, bushes and flowers, raking the path, often with company, sometimes without. What’s missing are weeks when I was traveling or when there was a nice steady rain. A very heavy rain and I hurried over to see the rushing water. Twice I found the stream leaping and flooding into the streets of University Village where dwell 4,000 UC Berkeley students, their spouses and children, most of them from foreign countries. At 35 times a year that’s 20 times 35 equals approximately 700 trips to the creek. My home away from home.
The history of Codornices’ rejuvenation goes way back to 1980 when several of us woke up to the wonders of urban creek “daylighting” – bringing buried creeks back to the world of the sun and moon, native species and the children who always love creeks – another native species. In 1980 our founders crew was engaged in trying to convince the city of Berkeley to open Strawberry Creek, Berkeley’s central and largest creek. It was a battle, but a speedy one by today’s standards. Santa Fe Rail Road had donated their old right of way to the city – what to do with it? The creek ran in a thick arch concrete culvert right underneath.
After a few reputation-enhancing creek clean up events and a number of city hearings in rapid succession, in one year we’d secured from City Council instructions for the city’s “Design Section” (I believe it was called) of the City Public Works Department to provide drawings for two conceptual schemes, one with an open creek, one with a closed version. Also desired were basketball courts, some small children’s playground equipment, and a linear landscaped park where the tracks were to be pulled up.
The decision came at a public meeting I attended with the other first activists including Carole Schemmerling, who went on to found the national organization based in Berkeley called Urban Creeks Council. Anne Riley, who was recently brought on to the staff at the State of California Water Resources Department, was there as was a long time creek fan named Dimitri Stepenoff. Dimitri had introduced me to an article from several years earlier called, “Fly Fishermen of the Berkeley Hills.” Really?! I still have a copy. Once, the ever-so-true story goes, there were salmon spawning on the UC campus and on up Strawberry Creek Canyon. Also at the meeting were the two enthusiastic creek-loving landscape architects working for the Design Section: Gary Mason and Doug Wolfe. The most famous attendee was Berkeley’s Dave Brower, saver of millions of acres of wilderness throughout the US, being his usual impassioned, elegant, poetic self.
It wasn’t going to be a slam-dunk. Some people were convinced their children would drown if creeks were opened—never mind streets with hurtling cars covering 1,500 times as much of the city (thirty-three years out and no one has drowned yet). Others were convinced the open stretch would become a garbage dump. The representative from Public Works kept saying creeks were a high maintenance item.
But the decision was positive for the creek. I think because an alert woman living on Shattuck Avenue stood up to speak: “You know [looking at the man from Public Works] I’ve lived for many years now at Live Oak Park right next to Codornices Creek there, and I’ve seen workers form Public Works trimming the trees and bushes, mowing the grass, picking up litter… But I have never seen them ever doing anything down around the creek.” All eyes turned to the Public Works representative as he cleared his throat and said, “Well I’ve been under the impression creeks are a high maintenance item,” at which point a sly smile spread through the assembled creek fans. The national movement for creek daylighting was off and running. (I wish I’d thought to get her name. If you know her please notify me.)
As far as we know, the opening of Strawberry Creek in 1981 was the first liberation of a once buried urban creek in the US. Now there are hundreds.
So the vote went our way, money was allocated and within a year the deed was done. Things moved as fast then as urbanization in China today. Now we have a happily flowing, nobody drowning, clean and sparkling lovely little creek named after the wild strawberries that used to grow on its banks (maybe still do somewhere) right in the middle of town.
Fourteen long years later Carole activated again and negotiated with all relevant authorities from Berkeley, Albany, the Corps of Engineers, State Fish and Game and I don’t even remember the others, and with a property owner wanting to build a small office building right next to a buried section of Codornices Creek. With support of Urban Creeks Council and Ecocity Builders it all went through to approval. The owner/builder rearranged his plans moving the parking lot off the creek and 20 years ago today, even maybe exactly as I write, we started work. I was in charge of the “construction” project and worked eventually with over 375 other volunteers. Now I go back to do a little maintenance work for fun, watching the seasons and wildlife come and go. This year a red tailed hawk took up residence in a big tree there and the largest steelhead trout I’d seen at about two feet – enormous – chose to end its ocean-going life there in one of the deeper pools.
It’s beautiful. I love it. Come visit. But if you do, write or call up because I am often traveling these days. email@example.com or 510 444-4508. Show up one Sunday between 11:00am and 1:00pm and I’ll give you a tour. But beware: I might put you to work with some clippers and a rake, gloves provided.
Life’s a bit hectic for me right now but I’m sure that in spring with the wildflowers blooming and fruit trees budding we will have a proper birthday party.
by Richard Register
To begin with, a conclusion: China could be the first country to model a “complete” ecocity project. Despite the adoption in bits and pieces of the ecocity model, nowhere have I seen a complete ecocity development project or what we sometimes call an “ecocity fractal” or “integral project” up and running.
I’ve been drawing models of these projects for years. They are places from about the physical footprint of two city blocks (with pedestrian street and plaza) on up in scale that are fully functional, full-on ecological/economic synergistic communities. That is, they have housing, commerce, offices, education, food growing, and rooftop amenities with the best local views of nature and town. They have some product-making, proper response to local sun angles, seasons and weather and are connected with foot, bicycle and rail, powered by renewable energy and replete with best, cleanest building materials. They conserve water while contributing next to zero to air pollution, recycling assiduously and building soils and biodiversity. All that to be three-dimensionally organized and car-free, that is, designed around the human being, not the money, advertizing and lobbying of the auto and oil industries.
How remarkable it would be to finally see a full realization of this. Who will be ready to lead the world and take that last step?
The City 7 highly mixed use project in Changwon, South Korea does get about 75% of the way there. China, too, looks to be in the running for first-ever integral project.
Why am I betting on China? China has the largest population in the world, is urbanizing like crazy and is the only government to be promoting ecocities by name, even using the word ecocity in new cities’ official names. Promising connections are starting with Wang Rusong, friend since 1990, of the Chinese Academy of Science, organizer and host of the Fifth International Ecocity Conference. Wang is the fellow who got my book, “Ecocities,” published in China. Connections are continuing with Fan Bin, President, and my other friends at C&P Architecture in Beijing and Qiu Baoxing, recently retired Vice Minister of Housing and Urban Rural Development, now Vice Chairman, Committee on Population, Resources and Environment, Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference and President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies.
I’ll start there at the end of spring, traveling to the ENN energy company with Ruby Yangxue, my general assistant for most of my travels for talks and consulting in China. With us too is Jai Ma, my translator. Both Ruby and Jai Ma were found for me by C&P Architecture of Beijing. I did a three-hour presentation for ENN Group, including an hour of discussion with chief engineering and executive staff, plus lunch. At lunch I asked ENN Vice Chairman, Gan Zongxue, where he had heard of me such that he’d invite me there to Langfang for the meeting. He’d read my book, “Ecocities.” How’d he find out about that, I asked. He said, sitting on the other side of me, it was from his Chief Information Director, Wei You Shuang. I turned to my right and asked that man. “Well, I was browsing in a book store and found the book. It looked interesting so I bought it,” he said. “That would never happen in the US!” I replied.
ENN produces fuel gasses and liquids from underground coal in-situ, in other words, without removing the coal to above ground. They use the coal to generate energy and provide transportation fuels. When powering various factory processes the company bubbles the “waste” CO2 through water to feed algae that in turn produce biofuels, getting two uses out of the same carbon. The carbon does enter the atmosphere but only after two uses, greatly upping system efficiency. ENN is also moving rapidly into solar electric panels sold in China, Western Europe and the US. With their profits they have moved into creating hotels and a tour cruise line. I suggested they could build small ecocity towns around such hotels. We are following up with some communications but whether we get there or not, we shall see.
With a little help from our friends at Novatek in Utah (inventor and industrialist David Hall) and the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation in Laguna Beach, California (philanthropist Ron Chilcote), Ecocity Builders hosted Latha Chhetri, Chief Urban Planner for the country of Bhutan. Over three weeks she and I traveled to visit David in Salt Lake City and Provo, to Los Angeles for considerable touring including with a visit to nearly car free Avalon on the island of Catalina. In our Oakland office she gave a full-capacity talk to around 55 of us that inspired all present: Bhutan, home of Gross National Happiness and possible long strides forward for ecocities. At Los Angeles Ecovillage she also presented to a capacity house of fascinated urban ecovillagers and their guests.
In Salt Lake City we paid a visit with David to the enormous conference center of the Church of Later Day Saints, of which he is a member. The horizontal expanse of the 21,000 seat interior with relatively low ceiling and skylight illumination was stunning. More so yet, there was an artificial creek system popping up in ponds and fountains on the roof graced by native plants that ran from upstream to down with plantings to reflect the mountain ecology to the east and the plains to the west. There reflected on the break in the city topography between the steeper slopes and gradual plane of the grass, shrub and desert landscape slopping to the Great Salt Lake. Even more stunning, a waterfall plunged from the roof to a pond that then became a creak running through City Creek Center, a shopping center evoking the original now long-buried creek. In ecocity style, that commercial district featured multi-level linked architecture, bridging over streets and creek (admittedly artificial on a bronze plaque celebrating its construction). Not mixed use, but structurally complex and featuring a very natural looking creek system with native fish included.
At David’s Novatek laboratories and factory he and his chief architect, Ben Jensen, gave us a tour and presentation on their ecocity ideas – urban centers car free and including high production agriculture. They have imagined an enormous number of innovative design twists such as multiple use of the same structures as whole sections of a room lift into a space reserved in the ceiling, which opens up like the doors to the wheel wells of an airplane, while other room divider walls, furniture and appliances descend into the same space. A highlight was to see, sparkling under a low power microscope, the very first industrial diamonds, which were invented by David’s father, Tracy Hall, in 1954. David himself makes industrial diamonds and drilling equipment and has over 300 US patents and a staff of patent lawyers trying to keep up with his (applied) imagination.
Latha got a serious lesson in American car dependent sprawl when we went shopping for a tomato and an avocado to make a nice couple of sandwiches. We wandered suburban Provo, Utah where Novatek’s guest house was located, and spent two and a half hours before achieving our goal. I admit we started about almost 5:00pm on a Sunday evening, but still it took that long? Then we had to remember our way home in the dark.
Then off to Avalon on Catalina Island and an appointment with the chief planner there. Latha and I and the regional guide for our trip, Paula Berlin, friend from Arcosanti, conferred with perhaps the least curious government official I’ve ever met. That is, more or less “conferred.” Over an hour in her office and she never asked a single question of Latha, head of urban planning for a whole country, and much less the fascinating and beautiful Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the mouse that roared about happiness over mass production and consumption, perhaps the most consequential concept of the century. She didn’t ask me a question either and perhaps I’m no slouch for ideas and experience some city planners might find a little more than a bore. To avoid embarrassment I won’t mention her name. But, we learned quite a bit about Avalon and Catalina, the only community in all of California that gets to decide its own car policy. Otherwise the state and car interests dictate.
Fortunately our host, Kathleen Carlisle at the Old Turner Inn was full of information and questions that led all over the place, literally. She was a born and raised there, expert in the history of town and island and volunteered to drive us in her electric golf cart around most of the city and out to the city recycling and landfill site a few miles down the coast. Later we traveled to the southeast, to water sources and to our delight, to a natural history museum up the valley west of town. We went to the in-city museum the day before but were disappointed to find only movie star trivia there: Charlie Chaplain and Elvis frequented the place and Natalie Wood apparently fell, jumped or was pushed and drowned in a drunken haze with two men vying for her attentions there. Hmmmm…. How the people, rattle snakes and ironwood trees got there interested me more, with info at the nature museum ready and waiting. The answer: during the Ice Ages (which ones or one I don’t know) when the ocean was hundreds of feet lower, by slithering, maybe walking if there soon enough, and by way of birds and wind carrying seeds.
Absolutely stunning to learn was that Native Americans with no metals and only stone tools could build boats of planks from the local ironwood (which is so hard and dense it sinks, not floats, on water) to make the storied “Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea” (The Four Preps’ song, 1957) to the distant mainland. I could barely see the distant mountains beyond Los Angeles through the salt haze that hovered over the choppy waves. The Native peoples caulked the planks with stiff petroleum globs washed up on the beach, I learned from Kathleen and the museum. The planks must have wracked and twisted with the pitch and roll of heaving swells while the ancient mariners paddled furiously all day and night. How on Earth could they do that? What sort of courage was demanded to trade with the mainlanders? But they did, as archeology tells us from products found from both sides made the trip. Just amazing.
The other observation gets us back to the near total absence of cars on the island and in Avalon. They simply decided the town was so cozy and nice, cars would wreck it and the tourism that employes most of the locals. From the head city planner we learned that if you lived there and put your name on a list that took 12 years to get around to you, maybe you were eccentric enough to be one of the few allowed to drive one of the things. Otherwise there were only a rare few ancients among the golf cart-sized vehicles, plus some service vehicles like small pick ups and some somewhat larger trucks for hauling, and a couple of ancient futuristic looking streamlined buses for tours. I actually didn’t see a single conventional car.
But my biggest impression took me back to Beijing of all places. Just two weeks before I’d been in the narrow streets of the old town and it seemed from just one year to the next the place had gone almost silent, except for human voices. Most of the motor bicycles, small carts and small cars had suddenly gone electric. They were moving slowly, weaving in and out of people walking and bicycling and progressing ever so quietly between the old walls re-missioned as new cafes, small hotels and businesses, residential units, arts galleries and small plazas. I saw a wedding procession for what looked like two young office workers with everyone on flower bedecked bicycles. I recalled the quiet of the Beijing streets because many of the Avalon golf cart-sized vehicles were a nasty, loud pain in the ears, and late at night too. We have a vehicle size lesson to learn from Avalon and Avalon has an electrification lesson to learn from Beijing. And that’s some of my peculiar impressions from that part of the visit.
Why did Latha, chief urban planner for Bhutan, visit on her way back home from a professional enhancement study fellowship for planners at MIT? Because last year I spent almost a month in Bhutan working under Ms. Chhetri and urban designer Tshering Dorji as a semi-independent consultant. During my time in Bhutan I provided, drawings, maps, plans and policies I think might be helpful there, and hence, “there” being powerfully unique with their GNH program (Gross National Happiness). Perhaps there is another opportunity to bolster the ecocity movement around the world. China and Bhutan could hardly be two such different countries, China with 2,000 times as many people rapidly urbanizing and Bhutan with barely as many as San Francisco’s population, a country almost paranoid about growing too fast. To me it’s a fascinating race which country will stride out in the lead.
And so… back to China barely four weeks after the last trip there. Once more C&P Architecture took me on the rounds, and this time the tour was paid for mostly by Urban Environment Design Magazine, better known as UED. I visited four cities and gave talks in all of them. Beijing and Shenzhen I’d been to before. New to me was Changchun, about 175 miles north of North Korea, with unforgiving cold winters, and Xi’an, famous in the central far West for the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor. Population is 8 million for Changchun and 6.5 million people for Xi’an.
In Changchun the chief city planner for the City’s Institute for Urban Planning and Design, named Fang Fei, had read not just my “Ecocities (2006)” but also “Ecocity Berkeley (1987).” What a surprise! He gave me and my traveling companions a one hour talk and another hour went by in lively discussion. He tantalized me some saying they have locations where they would like to try several small ecocity suburbs connected to the main city by rail, bicycle and walking paths, inviting me to become involved there. Exciting! We shall see. Interesting tidbit: driving down a random street I noticed a large complex with the sign over the entrance: “Air Force College.” I asked about it. “That’s where the Chinese astronauts who went into orbit studied,” said our local guide.
In Xi’an I did no tourism, missed the low-fired warriors exhumed from their mass grave beneath the farming sod, buried for 2,200 years and uncovered to an astonished world in 1974. But I did visit the offices of the semi-governmental, semi-business firm called China Architecture Design and Research Group. Hard to conceive, my guide there said most of the public buildings in the whole country are designed in the Research Group’s facilities. The hundreds of photos on the wall, almost all of them in the strange architect’s perspective in which the vertical lines, if extended, run parallel rather than converging toward a point high above. You might be familiar with that: buildings with flat roofs create an impression of the closest corner rising to a sharp point. Why this is preferable to just regular photos I don’t know. What I do know is with so many large modern buildings displayed on the hallway walls I was dizzy before I got to the lecture hall for my talk.
My Shenzhen meetings were even more stunning in their possibilities. I learned that China Vanke was the largest builder of residential property in China, at 200 million square meters a year.
Excuse me? 200 million square meters?
That would be approximately 2 billion square feet. The two World Trade Center towers that went down on 9/11/2001 totaled “only” 11 million square feet of developed floor space. Are we seriously talking about this company building 182 times that floor area every year? I was assured that was correct. Double checking on the internet, everyone agreed it is the largest development outfit in China. So I sat down to discuss ecocities with my friends from C&P and UED and Alex Qian, Director of China Vanke’s Urban Research Institute, with a sense of the responsibility to make a few suggestions. About twelve of us, including several from his office dug into why ecocities are important and the many things they can deliver all at once, like a healthy future. This requires follow up! (This I did one week after returning. Now to see what happens next.)
I skipped mentioning my first meeting, in Beijing. Ruby picked me up at the airport, we dropped off my bags at a hotel, then went straight to a meeting with Qiu Baoxing. I started off saying, “I hear you retired from your position as Vice Minister for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development. What are you up to now?” (I noticed he was still in the same office as last time I went to his work place, in a large national government building.) He smiled and said, oh, he’ll retire in maybe ten years. Meantime, said his new business card, he’s now Vice Chairman of the Committee on Population, Resources and Environment of the CPPCC, the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, adjunct to the congress of the country, and President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies. To make a one hour conversation short, he reiterated his pledge to help get my next books in print in China in both Chinese and English, and when I asked him if he had some sort of think tank for policy and design for ecocities in China, he said, well, yes in fact, and its funded by the European Union and called the Europe China Eco-cities Link Project Task Force – “Want to join it? Here, I’ll introduce you to Li Hailong. He’s director.” He leaned over, grabbed the phone and in less than two minutes was introducing us. And now, as said, to make a one-hour conversation short, Mr. Li has just confirmed by e-mail that I’m “International Consultant to the Eco-Cities Planning and Construction Center of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies,” Qiu Baoxing, President.
New Mexico to California, then Colombia… then Korea… then China again…
What to think of all that? Well then I just had to take a vacation to New Mexico to visit my son, Aldie, his wife Miranda and my 9 year old granddaughter, Stella. Following our visit I returned via a cross country road trip back to California where my granddaughter is totally in love with the beach. Ah to relax like that and next, in two days, be off to Colombia, where the adventures go on with a talk at the Universidad Piloto de Colombia in Bogota for the Tenth International Architecture Seminar: Design for Nature, Humanity and Culture. In September, I will depart for two weeks on Jeju Island, South Korea for actual site-specific designs and plans for an ecocity there. Then it’s back to China in October to speak at the Qingdao International Eco-city and Green Roof Conference.
In the meantime I labor to polish up my “good manuscript” for my next book, “World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build…” Pretty busy these days. Wish me luck.
By Richard Register, Founder and President
About 90% of the way through Lester Brown’s autobiography, Breaking Ground (W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2013), he confesses, “I’m way beyond my comfort zone writing an autobiography.” A few friends have suggested I write one too. “You’ve lead a very interesting life,” they’ve said. I’ve replied, “Well, I suppose some people would find it interesting…”
But I’ve had a problem expounding on various ideas I’ve had or adopted over the years and decades, always thinking I was missing some of the ambition, even interest, of those “wanting to be writers,” a little too impatient to intensively study and “master the craft.” I always wanted to get down to doing something. Instead of seeing myself as a writer of any sort I have seen myself as the maker of “things,” including those ephemeral sometimes real sometimes ghosts called “ideas.” Some such products of my thinking have been pretty novel, even “firsts” as far as I can tell.
I also see myself as a democratic kind of guy, an impresario of sorts gathering together others I think have inspiring, original or just plain beautiful thoughts and ideas. This is partially because it’s fun and partially because it’s a serious investment in learning something, investing in the future, something of serious help. I do this “gathering together” in the form of setting up meetings, tours, seminars, conferences, once-upon-a-time quite a few just common parties. Sometimes it’s simple as individually posing people for photographs because an aspect of certain faces, bodies, and even clothes reveals something of the worlds they live in, their thoughts, feelings and inner being—our inner being.
So as follows, an overview of some of the ideas I’m most proud of, what I might consider “firsts.”
A Confluence of Independent realizations?
I can’t say it doesn’t frustrate me somewhat that much that I’ve been doing for decades is now just getting the limelight, to the benefit of others just catching on. Yet history is full of these cases of forgotten originators. So it is in a long line of frustrations that I see my ecocity mapping system I represented in the early 1980s is now on the back cover of the great 2009 volume Mannahatta – a Natural History of New York City (by Eric W. Sanderson, Abrams, New York, 2009) with no mention of my work.
The Manahatta map shows low-density automobile dependent development replaced by a pattern of centers-focused development. Most of the paved surface is replaced by farms and what looks like some areas of natural landscapes and water features. The same for my imagery, which appeared in 1987 in my book Ecocity Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, about four years after I started making such maps.
But in addition, my offering illustrated a methodology by which the resulting centers-oriented, open-space-liberating could come about.
- First, look into the past maps of your town and learn something of the natural environment and ecology that is/was present there. Note something of the cultural and development history. We will never get back to the “natural” state or preserve the past like a somehow living fossil, but we can learn a great deal about how life can thrive in this particular geography.
- Then identify the most vital downtowns, district centers and neighborhood centers on the map of you town, city or metropolitan area. In these places increase both density and variety of land use. In other words, imagine placing residences, commercial, office, food availability, schools, etc. close together, mostly in walking and bicycling distances from one another. Radically reduce the need for long distance commuting.
This kind of planning, based on what might be called future-oriented mapping, is antithetical to planning for cars. Automobiles are too large and fast, take up vastly too much space, and cost too much energy, money and time. Ecocity mapping is about planning for us human beings, not cars. Infrastructure needs to be built to our scale, our speed of normal movement and the eternal, fluctuating needs of our cultural creativity and care.
We can proceed with this mapping exercise in a way that respects “human scale,” that celebrates views and sun angels for heating buildings, that provides accessibility to places that feel comfortable, even inspiring. That means accessibility to pleasant environments, native planting and gardens on terraces and rooftops and, in the more dense areas, bridges linking some of those terraces and rooftops with pedestrian bridges.
ILLUSTRATION #1. About here: ECOCITY MAP OF BERKELEY
Several decades later, and ecocity ideas are just becoming popular, with little credit to the “old guard” of my generation’s movement. Still, a genuinely good idea stays a good idea. Perhaps the dynamic of history is simply that a good idea emerges from a context getting ever more obvious. In this case, it’s that sprawl is a disaster and we need to reverse the pattern. But maybe here was the rub and why the project of adopting that mapping for ecocity transformation was postponed 26 years until 2009, Mannahatta’s publishing date – or still 31 years to 2014, to today. When I made the first such centers-identifying maps and proposed a system for slowly withdrawing from scattered habitation, people would immediately look for their house on the map and panic. “You mean you want to demolish my house?!” Or conversely, “You mean you want to put an apartment house and office building on my block?!”
I’d explain the small-scale details were crucial; the process could be by “willing seller deals” and not by eminent domain and condemnation. The process of reshaping would also be expected to take decades and the city and its environs would be constantly improving in both types of development: new open spaces, expanding room for nature, farming, recreation, sports, playgrounds, etc. “Think of the serious problems solved: climate change, biodiversity destruction, local pollution, remoteness of nature and associated alienation and loss of educational potential for children, think about nature and food production… Plus there is real flexibility in ownership and renting in the city: you can always move to another neighborhood or sell your home and buy another one. Almost all of us do move once in a while,” I explained.
But back in the 1980s my first ecocity maps provoked panic. With very rare exception, once the people of Berkeley had found their house on the map, down came the local iron curtain of the imagination and all positive thought evaporated. Never mind that by the time most of the projects came due they would not even be there any more. They’d have moved or be dead and gone from the planet entirely. Maybe such a thought – having to move, to uproot – or just the thought that they might not even be alive any more at some point, compounded the problem. The future thinking maps kindled the imagined personal danger into flaming imminent threat—that is, totally freaked them out.
In any case here we are in 2014 and the idea is as solid and helpful as ever. The author of Manahatta recognized the powerful idea he was illustrating whether he knew anything about my work or not. The idea is as well founded and useful as ever. A good basic idea is, like a diamond, forever. And like a diamond can be easily lost, in the case of ideas, if not communicated and applied. Fortunately it can also be rediscovered.
“Ecocity” aka “Eco-city” and the used almost nowhere “EcoCity”
How about the term “ecocity?” One of my firsts? Maybe… My friends in China say I coined the term and I don’t protest as they go about trying to build some version of the concept. Wang Rusong of the Chinese Academy of Science and Qiu Baoxing Vice Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development have joined the ecocity effort, Rusong in 1990 (actually under other names and related activities going back to the early 1980s) and Baoxing in the early 2000s. Then there are Lin Xuefeng, Victor Liu and Tong Yen Ho busy building Tianjin Eco-city. This is an actual city for 350,000 people rapidly a-building about 100 miles east of Beijing on the Bohai Bay, the first in the world with the word ecocity in the official city name.
I entered the scene after the Garden City movement, perhaps the first “Green” thinking among serious urban planners. These discussions of the best term for ecologically healthy cities that I participated in took place in the 1960s when Paolo Soleri coined the term “arcology” for the fusion of architecture and ecology. At the time a number of us aware of his work were discussing his notion of compact pedestrian, single-structure cities. But we thought “arcology” wasn’t quite the right word because we were not talking about just the architecture of buildings but clusters of them, plus streets, rails, open spaces of special design, energy systems to fit, and restoration of associated lands and waterscapes. The term ecocity must certainly have been offered by one of us in such discussions. It very likely was myself. I definitely started using and promoting the word consistently by the mid or late 1970s while fleshing out a good deal more about its meaning.
A word I did make up for sure was “ecotropolis.” I even know exactly when and where: on the second day of the 9th International Ecocity Conference on (August 23, 2011) in Montreal, Canada walking along the second floor north corridor of the Palais des Congres, the big civic conference center there. I was thinking about the fact that in many parts of the world fairly closely scattered towns and cities grew outward with the increase of population – but mostly because of car-induced sprawl – until they all grew together and merged into a whole urban agglomeration called a metropolis, megalopolis or metropolitan area. The infrastructure replacing this sprawl should have a name too. Why not ecotropolis?
My adaptations and general catch up
I represent a number of ideas I didn’t make up. Bridges between buildings, for example. Downtown San Francisco has a whole district of 16 blocks of housing, offices, shops and even three large rooftop parks linked by bridges at the third and fourth story level over the streets. It’s called Embarcadero Center and these days taken quite for granted. It should be considered a powerful and early ecocity manifestation.
Some urban features I highlight for something in them of special “ecocity” meaning or purpose, such as exterior glass elevators for the exciting cheap thrills of sweeping up and down as if flying over your city as well as for the convenience of vertical transportation. Sometimes I try out names for such features, too. Probably my favorite is the rare feature I call a “keyhole plaza” or “view plaza.” Imagine your typical plaza but instead of the open “hard space” for people to gather being surrounded exclusively by buildings, there is an opening to a view to a special natural or perhaps agricultural feature nearby. That is, a corner or a side of the plaza is missing to provide an opening to such a view. Don’t build anything in the way of this view. The cultural product in the form of surrounding buildings frames a view to, say, a mountain, or perhaps a river, or looks up a beautiful coastline. You could even imagine a keyhole plaza in the flat relentless plains of Kansas or steppes of Russia or savannas. In these cases horizontal lines in the view-surrounding buildings designed to emphasize the character of the infinite horizon so strong as the natural environment there.
I called this a “keyhole plaza” for many years. I was thinking of the plan of such a plaza viewed from above looking something like the hole for the key shaft in the old style lock. Later I started using the more generic term for what it provides – a “view” plaza.
ILLUSTRATION # 2. KEYHOLE PLAZA
Jackson Square in New Orleans is such a plaza. Unfortunately it lost its view to the Mississippi River as the silt and the river rose up over the years due to sand and mud deposition. This has forced the raising of an artificial levee to protect the whole city. The levee now presents a blank slope instead of a river view to Jackson Square.
San Marcos Plaza in Venice, Italy is such a plaza too, though its view focuses more on buildings across the lagoon than the lagoon itself or the open Adriatic Sea. Piran, Slovenia too, though the notch in the wall of buildings, opens to a view of the Adriatic. The opening should probably be quite a bit wider for the effect to be really felt.
Among the ideas that certainly are not mine but ones that facilitate ecocity progress, ideas I’ve been advocating for decades, are ones such as creating pedestrian and bicycle streets and paths, making and expanding car-free areas, simply making mixed use places even more “mixed use” and “balanced” in terms of complementary facilities close together and investing in and making these places more popular so that people can enjoy their “vitality centers” more. This is exactly what was portrayed in our prescriptive ecocity mapping since the early 1980s.
Of course waterway, shoreline and ridgeline preservation and restoration fits too and gradually over the decades their acceptance is expanding. My friend Sylvia McLaughlin, 97 years old, still emeritus on our Ecocity Builders’ Board of Directors, saved the Bay with her two associates, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulich founding the Save San Francisco Bay Association in 1960 – which not only saved the 85% of the bay that was in the planning pipeline for fill and development, but established rules for the entire state that provided shoreline access for the public as well as preservation of waterways and shorelines – and proved a model for the country and whole world after.
Solar, wind and other renewables fit here as the energy base for the energy conserving ecocity, providing the supply for the reduced demand of the redesigned and rebuilt city that could be an ecocity or ecotropolis. My interest in solar goes back to Farrington Daniels who wrote a book published in 1962 entitled The Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy. Solar energy is clean and so ample as to constitute 99.97% of all energy arriving daily in the film of life on Earth called the biosphere. Plus, in geologic time, solar energy, converted by the chlorophyll of plants, provides the planet’s fossil fuels. For direct application, sunshine needs some concentration to be utilized for most human purposes other than simply “passively” warming our constructed environments of buildings and clusters thereof. Daniels – plus nature herself – seemed to make immaculate good sense so I looked for, found and wrote about early solar energy pioneers for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine getting my early article on the subject published in the magazine, then known as West Magazine, September 27, 1972. Solar fits beautifully with ecocity design.
Back to some “originals”
One idea of mine that I was promoting, as early as 1976 in Berkeley, has just in the last year seen application in San Bernardino, California and Tampa, Florida: the planting of “fruit parks” in public places. The Alliance for Community Trees reports just this year (in the April 12, 2014 issue of their internet newsletter) on these initiatives in which fruit trees are being planted – at last! – in public parks. My original effort was designed to appropriate some of the $100,000 (more like $400,000 today according to Oregon State University’s inflation conversion factors chart) allocated to my neighborhood in West Berkeley at the time in Block Grant funding for purposes the neighborhoods themselves would decide upon. Our idea was to have an urban orchardist help plant trees in front of people’s houses and in small portions of parks in the neighborhood, involving the interested neighbors in planting, pruning, harvesting, canning and otherwise preparing the produce. The proposal supported the purchase of trees and hiring of an orchardist/coordinator for the program for one year of a pilot project. The problem was that the administrator of the grant working for the City told us there was no money for the orchardist/coordinator – sorry. Capital projects only. I discovered a year after the decision was made for spending the money that the City’s administrator of the grant was either mistaken or actually lying to keep things simple.
In the meantime what did get funded? New asphalt for a few blocks of one of the streets. But now maybe people are realizing that the city trims and cares for trees all over town anyway. Why not a systematic approach to tree food production involving those who might be interested? You will note also that the ecocity mapping approach helps coordinate and arrange not only new development and open space in best places but gives order and pattern to projects such as expanding parks and community gardens as part of an overall sensible system shaping a better city.
ILLUSTRATION #3. FREEWAY UNDER ORCHARD
Another idea. Between centers as defined in the ecocity mapping exercise and in special other places: bury highways. Already railroads and highway burrow through mountains – the Alps and some other mountain ranges are riddled with tunnels – and subway systems in cities around the world keep the most intense infrastructure of the transportation system out of the way of surface movement while radically reducing congestion, pollution and noise. Around 1983 I drew up, pretty much as a flight of fancy, an image of a freeway under an orchard, which was printed in my book Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Healthy Future in 1987. I’ll include this picture as one of this article’s illustrations. Then on a trip to Europe <the following year> that included Vienna I was shocked and delighted to see that is exactly what the Viennese did along two and a half miles of the Danube, down to an almost identical design of ventilations boxes about eight feet high. They had built what I had imagined, a wall to keep people from accidently falling into the tunnel. The way the tunnel was built was to simply bridge over the freeway with a roof and create a park on top. I’ll include another picture here too, coincidentally from the April 24, San Francisco Chronicle – that is exactly what is planned for replacing what used to be Doyle Drive in the city’s Presidio district just south and east of the Golden Gate Bridge.
ILLUSTRATION #4. DOYLE DR. PUT UNDERGROUND
Another idea: why not elevate bicycle paths? Unlike elevated freeways and the elevated rail lines much more common and noisy in the past but still in frequent use and noisy enough to bother most people anywhere with in a few blocks, elevated cycle ways would be narrow, quite – approaching completely silent – and allow much more light to pass around and down to the ground. I drew such imagery – another picture featured here – in the early 1980s, also in Ecocity Berkeley, which only did I discover in Wikipedia two years ago, was preceded by about 85 years by the real thing: the California Cycleway. That was an elevated wooden bicycle path that set out from downtown Pasadena toward downtown Los Angeles. It was opened in the unfortunate year of 1900, 40 years before the opening of the country’s first freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, that took almost exactly the same route between town centers. “Unfortunate” I say because the automobile was just then beginning to come on strong. The California Cycleway only made it about one third of the way from Pasadena toward its southwest destination. People were switching to cars so fast and in general pushing cyclists around so obnoxiously that cycling began to experience a rapid decline. The cycleway was only open for a few months, then closed.
ILLUSTRATION #5. ELEVATE CYCLE WAY BY RR
A piece of “happy face” history
An idea still earlier and even more remote from ecocities – and this one seems so unlikely I very seldom even mention it, is this: the happy face, alias smiley face. That was spring of 1965. Around 1968 someone told me someone else came up with that now universal symbol of happiness in 1963, an advertising agency man from Seattle. He didn’t make it into Wikipedia, but then neither did I. So there is some ambiguity. But an interesting story traces at least my “creative process.” It was definitely original in my experience. The story according to Wikipedia is…
1953 the movie “Lili” featured advertisements utilizing “happy faces” that shows up on the advertising poster for “Lili.”
1958 the movie “Gigi” – exact same story.
1962 New York radio Station WMCA produced a sweatshirt with the happy face with their current slogan underneath: “WMCA good guys”. This also is pictured in Wikipedia.
1963 or 1964 depending on sources, commercial artist Harvey Ball created the black on yellow version with corners on the mouth for State Mutual Life Insurance, again as a commercial promotion. Paid $45 – equal to $340 in today’s dollars. Unlike the others above and mine below, this happy face was standardized in black on yellow with corners of the mouth added.
1965 – my part of the story isn’t featured there.
1969 and the fad goes mainstream with the grinning yellow one on a Time Magazine cover I remember but can’t find on the Internet.
1972 I find myself in Stockholm around midnight during the first of the United Nations Environment conferences – I’m out in the cold – staring at a stylish downtown window displaying floor mats, toilet seat covers, wall paper, lamp shades, plates, cups, saucers table cloths and clothing all with smiley faces, all in black on yellow.
1972 a little later, a journalist at the Detroit Free Press decides to do some research and discovers I’m in there with an interesting thread in the tapestry, writes the only story I know – outside of Los Angeles where I was actively promoting No War Toys – about that follows – that dug into my part in that particular history. About that shortly.
1980 a popular bumper sticker appeared with an exact replication of my first and most utilized design – I’ll provide a photo here for you to compare with one of my early buttons.
ILLUSTRATION #6. BUTTON AND BUMPER STICKER
OK, now my story… The Vietnam War (actually the American War in Vietnam) was raging and growing rapidly in 1965 when I decided there was something unhealthy about giving toy weapons to young boys to encourage them to pretend to kill one another … for fun. What’s that all about?! Could it be the first, the indirect and most subtle first start for conditioning society to accept and glorify war, making it seem heroic, exciting, natural and even inevitable – might as well give up on peace and not give it a chance. I decided to cultivate the debate and started my first non-profit organization and called it No War Toys. Four <For> about six years it was mostly what I was up to.
Almost from the very beginning in the spring of 1965 I decided I needed a logo – push “a brand” as is said by the “in” PR theorists and persuasion spinners these days. But what to use for such a symbol? Methodically I pored over possibilities. I ruled out geometric shapes like stars, hexagons, silhouettes of plants, animals and tools and boring collections of letters. NWT would be a loser. Why not a face drawn by children quite early, regularly, naturally and pretty much universally? Just look around homes, nursery schools and kindergartens and there it was: among the first and happiest of creative activities undertaken by children. Creative and happy at the same time – great! I thought. The only problem was, from my point of view and my effort to find a simple and strong graphic <was this>: was the nose best represented by one dot for the prominence or two dots for the dark punctuating nostrils? Why not just dispense with the nose altogether? That was the same stroke – maybe a little short – of genius I shared with my unknown predecessor publicists for “Lili,” “Gigi,” Station WMCA and so on. The kids all used a dot so maybe us adults were a little off, but it worked and it spread.
First I’d need a newsletter to get the No War Toys ideas confronted directly in relation to propaganda for war and looking into the deeper possible functions of both the creative and destructive, symbolism and actual habit-inducing mental and physical action in children’s play. Next the lapel buttons, balloons and T-shirts. The idea seemed simple enough and off I went to the balloon company to order a couple thousand, white paper and sharp black making pen in hand.
My shock was that it was so hard to draw an intelligent looking happy face. I must have drawn between 30 and 50 versions before one said to me, “I’m smart, happy, competent and confident, without the slightest snide or condescending nuances of glance or look of stupidity or blandness.” It amazed me how many expressions could come through with a drawing so simple. But I eventually liked one of the images and used it for the next six or seven years – on all sorts of colors, not just yellow. I also encouraged children coming to our tree house-building projects in back yards and giant sandcastle (actually sand city) building projects on beaches to bring their own versions of happy faces on flags and banners, and in classrooms and at fairs and festivals, to draw any version they liked.
Now I look back and remember the commercial aspects of the other promotions, but it should also be said I used the happy face in a similar way myself: commercial with a cause, you might say. Sales of the buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers provided most of the money for all my “activist” efforts in the years of my peace movement contribution. At the height, there were approximately 30 “offices,” meaning kitchen and dining room tables around the country, distribution centers for our newsletter and paraphernalia, and for meetings planning demonstrations tacked on to larger peace demonstrations, picketing toy stores, appearances on television, at PTA meeting and the like. My pride was that the “smiley face” or “happy face” might have helped some in deepening thought about war propaganda and the perhaps much more subtle differences between creative and destructive “pre-tend.” Happily it represented for me also creativity.
By the way, I was never for deceiving children that war has not happened and continues, if hopefully less so into the future; some among my friends considering themselves liberals thought I was cultivating deception. To them I said their boys should play war realistically. Maybe they will have to defend their country some day but they shouldn’t think war is fun. The next morning when little Howard wants to play with Sammy, “Sorry, you can’t seem him anymore. Remember? You killed him playing war yesterday.” “But that was just play.” “That’s right but for it to be a bit more truthful, you need to understand what it’s really like. We are going to play Veterans Administration Hospital now…” “But I don’t want to play hospital. I want to pretend to kill my friends.” “Sorry. Today we pretend to lie in bed and try to recover, realizing we won’t… ever.”
Why mention all this about firsts?
For three reasons. First to give some thought to the process by which new ideas or a least new syntheses of older ideas come about. Perhaps a need exists – such as making less damaging, or even actively healthy, cities. Or, second, perhaps it is simply a pleasure like playing, done for self-satisfaction and/or entertainment, for self, friends and children, worthy ends in themselves. At the very least, understanding the dynamics around “firsts” is to understand a little more about the mysteries of creativity and to further the notion that just maybe creativity can be cultivated – to the betterment of practically all aspects of life.
The third reason, perhaps hoping for more than likely satisfied, is that others will recognize such creative capacity and reward it some, thinking the chances of future invention and progress of some sort might in the future materialize. That is, creative people tend to come up with more creative ideas and products as time goes on. Some burn out but a lot keep going. We should help them. The self-serving sub-text here is that there should be more support for people like me! I could get a lot more good projects accomplished with a little of that.
Regarding the first reason, some techniques for cultivating creativity are almost mechanical and not so inspired and exclusively the property of “gifted” people as some creative people would claim – in an effort to romanticize or cast in magical glow what they do to facilitate, they hope, their own legend as special people. And if it is true that there are ways to encourage creativity, as I thought likely then in my happy face days, promoting war toys was at the very least a big waste of time that could be much better used developing the opposite of destructivity, namely creativity. Some creativity is innate no doubt, but I also believed – and still do – that a fair capacity for creativity can be actually taught.
These mechanical approaches to creative action include simply looking at things from another perspective: what happens when we look at something upside down? Or backwards? Or in reverse chronological order? Do we see something new and interesting appearing? What if we methodically search for a basic principle that might be hidden in something we are looking at that appears ordinary at first glance but might mean something else just under the surface? Looking at the everyday map of a metropolitan area is something like that, revealing to the mind that looks beyond the evident smudge of gray and sees the centers of vitality that could become the ecotropolis of the future, a cluster of ecocities, ecotowns, ecovillage and enfolding farms and natural landscapes.
Another technique of methodical application is to simply not fear embarrassment, people trying to make fun of you, to blame you for trying something strange and different. Think that they should be embarrassed, not you. Probably the most entertaining case of this in my experience goes back to the days when I was making sculpture. At the time I was busy enjoying the ever entertaining and lively world of the artist, in my case, in Venice, California most of that time. But that work didn’t bring in enough money to survive so I had a one day a week job making silver and gold peace symbol necklace pendants and pins for a Los Angeles Jeweler capitalizing on the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the time. Not to make him sound greedy – he was also adamantly against the war and a Quaker – but more basically a compassionate thinking man. He’d asked me permission to make happy face jewelry since in those days in the peace movement I was, as the kids would say, the happy face man. I saved up and bought a gold one that I made – the gold belonged originally to the jeweler – and pinned it on my sweater. But when low on money once, I unfortunately sold it.
The job entailed holding a rough cast peace symbol or happy face to a coarse grinding wheel to flatten the surface and smooth the outside edge, then progress on to a fine grinding wheel then polish on a spinning cloth buffer wheel. The metal object would vibrate with a hard tingling feel, heat up almost burning the fingers. Then I’d plunge the amulet, pin or ring into cold water to cool it down and proceed to the next step until a descent looking shiny item was produced.
One morning I was taking a shower in my apartment thinking about making the metal adornments, adjusting the water temperature, thinking of the peace symbols heating, then cooling, vibrating from the grinding wheel, my fingers getting hot, drying out some then plunging into water to get cold and wet again, over and over. I thought, “Why don’t people make sculptures to explore that?” meaning the full range of what we can feel with the several tactile senses. This struck me as very interesting indeed. Almost immediately (after toweling down and drying out) I set to work buying up and assembling in various arrangements vibrators, heaters, coolers and freezers, foggers and misters, foam rubber, fur, velvet and corduroy and I was off and running making tactile sculpture while part of that time overlapping with my No War Toys work.
ILLUSTRATION #7 – A TACTILE SCULPTURE BY RR
But then what was entertaining about this somewhat long story? And what was revealing about the creative process – and the process of subverting it?
I was at yet another more or less cocktail party with loads of artist types, maybe a few real ones, plus ordinary mortals, as the artists might see it, and a man says in the usual way, “…and what do you do?” So I said, “I make tactile sculptures.” He said, “What do you mean?” I explained I built things to be felt with your hands, sometimes with your whole body as when a moist cool breeze descends from an overhead fogger and gentle fan, something like an on coming rain storm. If a thunderstorm, you might throw in a negative ion generator (like a friend of mine was making a living selling about then).
He scrunched his brow together and said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” He looked almost angry. “You can’t do that. I’ve never heard of anything like that.” “Well all I can say is that’s what I do” and decided to talk to someone else.
Conclusion, if any
Another methodical creative process is just sticking with it. Sticking with it and trying out variations on its theme long enough to see if something unpredictable comes out the far end of all that repletion. Often it does and not only does an end product of quite curious and sometime helpful nature appear, but usually the basic reason or principle behind the process becomes evident too, guiding kindred such processes into the future. Think of the first person to whip up some whip cream, maybe saying to herself, “if I just keep doing this maybe there will be ever more and more bubbles and smaller ones until something really different appears,” or maybe she just doggedly whipped on for ornery refusal to quit once started. Water – it wouldn’t have worked and eventually the experiment would end in just a little information. But whipped cream? OK! A discovery.
In fact, this is one of the tried and true approaches to scientific discovery and its application often thus transforms a vague “theme” into a very powerful and dependable “principle.” One could say sticking with the ecocity venture long enough has revealed – even guaranteed – that the core ideas do in fact reveal themselves as basic principles and produce some pretty amazing and healthy results including some designs guaranteed to satisfy both human beings and the welfare of the planet.
One such principle revealed through relentless focus on the ecocity subject – remember that it took me almost 30 years from ecocity to ecotropolis – is the pattern within for regions larger than mere cities. Another basic principle is the essential three-dimensionality of the built habitat dramatically identified by Paolo Soleri, as compared to two-dimensional sprawl, the principle also known in my world as the “anatomy analogy” as so many things in city arrangement compare very educationally “like” three-dimensional the organization of complex living organisms, and if that concludes or perhaps better yet opens up my line of reasoning here, that is, as in many other considerations in ecocity design – and life itself – up to you.
Infinite growth is impossible
Our newsletter readers all know that infinite growth in a limited environment is impossible so I’ll mention here, without trying to prove the case, an interesting fact: life depends on energy, 99.97% of which arrives in the thin zone of life on Earth from the sun. Only .025% oozes up from the crust as geothermal energy and the thin slice of .005% comes from tidal energy, cosmic rays, meteor friction with the air and most interestingly I think, residual heat from the originally birth of the planet in accumulating bombardments from asteroids, comets and space dust.
Life, of course, also depends on climate, local or regional soils and/or waters and the interaction between living organisms. Carrying capacity in the case of human presence on Earth has components that multiply one another in a manner similar to that identified by Paul Ehrlich in his famous formula: I = PAT, meaning Impact (on the environment and everything in it) is equal to Population multiplied times Affluence (or consumption) times particular Technology. One technology may be almost totally benign, solar energy for example, and another definitely risky, such as nuclear with its unsolved waste problems and necessity for massive insurance and investment subsidies. READ MORE
Brief Note from Richard leaving China
I’m on my way back from China reflecting on some of the best opportunities and heaviest responsibilities I’ve gotten myself into since starting ecocity work almost 50 years ago. I first gave a plenary talk at the Tenth International Green Building and Technology Conference and Expo in Beijing. Then I spoke to university audiences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Tongji University, Shanghai; Tianjin University in Tianjin and Southeast University in Nanjing. How my hosts at C&P Architecture in Beijing, especially Mr. Bin Fan, President of C&P, and Ruby Yangxue, my translator, guide and general assistant, pulled it all together is quite amazing—and at very short notice too.
The story is long and my space here short, but two photos and two short observations, one something of a confession, are in order.
Confessions first, so, as usual with confessions, I can then move on more relaxed.
In my slide presentations I frequently feature images of the two big towers in Shanghai. I took the picture six years. I make the comment that super tall buildings are linear development. They are not integrated into the community in the three-dimensional arrangement of complex living organisms obeying the rule of internal and external “access by proximity.” One has to be relatively close to things in the environment (external), both natural and built, to have easy, efficient, healthy access to the benefits of the environment. So too for the organism itself (internally). An organisms internal functions work best with organs close together in a 3-D, not flat (2-D) or linear (1-D), arrangement. READ MORE
by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders
First, it’s helpful to understand that we live in a capital system, not a capitalist system. That system is a subsystem of an economic system made up of the total system of natural economics and human economics entwined in the ecological realities of solar energy, the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. For better elucidation here I’ll call that the total economic system or total economics, italicizing the terms I want to emphasize so we can hone in on the ideas behind the terms as we go.
As the Gaia theorists have amply demonstrated with little if anything to counter their assertions, life plays a role of regulating the entire natural economy plus human economy on Earth, the total economics. Life forms in their billions of species through time and their mind boggling number of individuals, through various negative feedback loops, have regulated oxygen in the atmosphere at levels supportive of life and salinity in the oceans within limits, also amenable to life. It is hard to see this pattern on something as gigantic as the Earth with its towering mountains and endless plains and oceans but that’s mainly because we can’t easily grasp the enormity of time involved in the total evolutionary process. Simply this: given enough time, little things add up – especially if their numbers are as staggering as the time over which they work. READ MORE
I suggested the title of this article as the overall theme for the 11th International Ecocity Conference in Abu Dhabi, which will be convening next October 2015. This will be the first Ecocity Summit to be held in the Arab region. The official theme is still being discussed and debated, with the hosts leaning towards a regional theme with an emphasis on ecocity adaptations for hot climate conditions.
They in Abu Dhabi do have real expertise on this subject to be sure, and it is deeply rooted in their history. Examples of city planning and design that meet the challenges of such an extreme environment of sun and sand date back hundreds of years. High-density towns like Shaban in Yemen, with their heavy building materials of sun-dried earthen bricks – nine stories high in Shaban – and their narrow streets create a pedestrian environment pleasant in temperature and conveniently “mixed use” in the way of complete communities with lively economics and culture.
We have a lot to learn from such examples in the Arab Islamic world. Another car-free model, also ancient, is the Medina of Fez, Morocco. While larger in population than the world’s other substantially car-free city – Venice, Italy – Medina shares with that Italian city a plan of narrow, shaded and “passively” cooled streets and buildings. In addition, Abu Dhabi is home to one of the most interesting modern ecocity projects I know of: the car-free, once again compact, pedestrian-oriented town of Masdar. Masdar is partially built and has the potential to exert powerful influence around the world in the realm of planning, especially if it pushes boldly in ecocity directions. READ MORE
by Richard Register
I’ve lately struck up an e-mail correspondence with Shin-pei Tsay, friend and colleague of Deborah Gordon author of Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability, co-authored by Daniel Sperling with introduction by Arnold Schwarzenegger, my very own former governor who I met at a breakfast place in 1971 on Venice Beach a couple hundred feet from “Muscle Beach” where he was working out at the time, pre-movie star days. Shin-pei is presently Director of Research and Development for a start-up nonprofit in New York City called TransitCenter, Inc. that deals with public transportation related issues. We had been talking about major changes in cities and habits and attitudes toward them. She signed off a couple days ago like this: “Let me know if you have any breakthroughs from the 70s through the 80s.” That got me thinking and I came up with some from ecocity perspectives, but leading into other “breakthroughs” sliding into more modern times, post 2000. But first…
There are the changes, not exactly breakthroughs, but good signs nonetheless and it’s educational to think about them some, cheer ourselves up some after thinking about climate change, species dying out, economic and social problem, the Middle East, etc. and on and on. I’ll come up with some of those, illustrated, the assess what I think, if not breakthrough, are important steps or stones – milestones – along a way toward ecocity improvement.
Mariposa Grove De-paving
Many of you know that “depaving” has been a preferred activity of Ecocity Builders from the start. My own first depaving project was for the San Diego Ecology Centre in 1973 when the group hired me to organize Earth Day events of a wide variety. That first depaving project was at the Campus Lutheran Center, hosted by the enthusiastic and imaginative Jim Nessheim, still there in San Diego. The project tore up about six parking places he courageously donated to the cause and put in a Native American food garden featuring corn, beans and squash: corn as a pole for the beans to climb, beans for fixing nitrogen in the soil and all three including the squash soaking up the nutrients providing a pretty balanced set of vegetables, plus it got stunning coverage in the local media. READ MORE