SE: There's a lot of "ecocity-washing" going on right now. At the same time there isn't a true ecocity on earth yet. How far can a model veer from the true ecocity vision in the name of moving in the right direction?
RR: What you have to keep in mind at all times is a whole systems perspective that recognises the values of ecological principles. What I mean by that is that you have a living organism — the bones, muscles, skin, vital organs, brain, digestive system — and there is a set of rules. You pull the pieces together and you have a whole system. If you go into city design and planning and you want to get it to work in an environmentally healthy way, you have to have that sense of a whole system.
The self-sufficiency system to have an off-grid house in the country actually functions with nature. That's a whole system, it works. But it's not very socially connected. It's only socially responsible for a tiny fraction of people, because you can only have so many people living that way. It takes up too much land. You need the articulation of energy sources to support 7.5 billion people. You have to have whole systems thinking. You have to have ecological principles. You have to have a strategy of backing down from this massive growth — infinite growth in a limited environment as an economic concept obviously can't happen. The capitalist infinite growth idea is totally insane.
SE: Sounds like a challenge and invitation to permaculturists to scale it up, to apply all their great whole systems ideas on a bigger level?
RR: I think a lot of the permaculturists recognise the connection. A lot of them just love working in the dirt as a lifestyle, just like I do. Every Sunday I go to this creek restoration project. It's not entirely permaculture, but sort of. It has an orchard, a creek, and a lot of critters that live in the creek — fish, butterfly, and a brilliant yellow dragonfly with purple black stripes, California's largest. So you can create these urban environments where everything is integrated on a social, cultural, and economic scale.
Some of the permaculturists I know recognise that they could expand in that area:
[editor’s addition] We have a choice for urban areas. Do we continue to live self-sufficient, yet privatised lives or do we attempt to work at larger community projects, perhaps sacrificing the luxury of space we have become accustomed to in the city’s urban sprawl?
For example, Two years ago I was in Barcelona at a permaculture site as part of a de-growth conference. We were talking about city design, and several of them said, "well, sprawl is actually ideal, because everybody gets a big, front, back and side yard." But Barcelona has this large old town, hundreds of blocks sitting on a huge chunk of land, where only six percent of the land is given to motor vehicles. In Los Angeles, for example, where everyone could potentially have a permaculture garden, 66 percent of the land is given to motor vehicles. So you're talking ten times as much asphalt and concrete, and all the time, money, and pollution, just so you can have a permaculture garden in your front and backyard?
SE: So having a permaculture plot outside of a larger whole systems context can actually run counter to ecocity design?
RR: Yes, in that context. If you're in the country it's not a problem. But it's out of touch with a larger social, cultural and environmental conscience to be living like that once you realise that there isn't enough land left on the planet for everybody to live this way.
At some point you have to come to the realisation that whether we like it or not, we have these massive populations, so how can we organise them more efficiently? Whether we like it or not, we need to have energy flows that support them. Meanwhile, people still want some level of prosperity. I like my books. I like my computer. Am I going to give that stuff up? Is anyone else? Well, maybe we can run all that stuff on a lot less energy. And what else can we run on a lot less energy? Perhaps entire cities! We can run them on a third of the energy we run them now if we build them with ecocity design. We might not be able to go instantly from an American model to a European model – which is about a third of the energy per land and person – but we could go to one tenth! Come on, let's do some design here, let's think about this!
Thank you to Richard Register and Sven Eberlein for this interview for Permaculture Magazine.
Pictures are taken from Edible Cities: Urban Permaculture for Gardens, Balconies, Rooftops, and Beyond
Interested in becoming a city planning permaculturist? Have a look at our permaculture course listings to begin your journey.
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