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The Ecocity Visions of Richard Register. Or: How to Retrofit Your Downtown for True Sustainability

By Jesse Fox /
Dec 4, 2012
5.0 ·
The Ecocity Visions of Richard Register. Or: How to Retrofit Your Downtown for True Sustainability

For those of you who are curious exactly how Richard Register's ideas would work in practice, here's what it could look like if Americans ever decided to retrofit their downtowns for true sustainability.

We know how to build the ecocity. It's easy if you want to: up-zone for more density and diversity in the centers and withdraw from sprawl. We are replete with tools.

The starting point is any downtown in America. Most likely, this will be a central place, dominated by the automobile. Buildings include malls, big boxes and parking garages, with wide, congested streets and generous parking lagoons nearby. Nothing is built with the pedestrian in mind, very little thought is given to accommodating natural flora and fauna, and smog is a common phenomenon.

Now rebuild it: reconceptualize the buildings while recycling building materials, uncover buried natural waterways, provide pedestrian infrastructure and mixed land uses so that every important need is within walking distance.

The end result: an ecocity downtown with waterways restored, bridges between buildings, pedestrian streets, solar active and passive energy technology and design, rooftop access to elevated "streets" and bridges between buildings. Streets are lined with fruit trees, energy demand is way down and space is saved for agricultural and natural areas outside the city. Don't be shocked when suburbanites and developers flock back to the city.


Who is Rigard Register?

Author, theorist and philosopher Richard Register is one of the pioneers of the ecocity movement, with 35 years of experience advocating for cities that facilitate humanity's "creative and compassionate evolution" while contributing to the health of the planet. Richard is the author of several books, including Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature, and the founder of two nonprofits - Ecocity Builders and Urban Ecology.

TreeHugger: Richard, you are a 35 year veteran in the still-evolving field of ecocity building. What led you to formulate your philosophy on the subject?

Richard Register: Growing up as a young artist (drawing and sculpture) with an architect father in beautiful country (near Santa Fe, New Mexico) with the end of the world perched on the mountain across the Rio Grande Valley, namely Los Alamos - where they designed the atomic bomb. Probably the other biggest influence was running into Paolo Soleri at 21 years of age and seeing his enormous positive energy, commitment to building and clear conceptualization of the problem: two-dimensions bad, three-dimensions good in complex systems such as higher organisms and the city.

Putting the city into context with evolution, given my appreciation and enjoyment of nature in a beautiful place like the US Southwest, was a natural for me and wanting to rescue ourselves from the insanity of war too, inclusive of the war of humans against nature - the shock troops being cities. That Santa Fe was originally a pedestrian city and the best parts of it still are... that probably was of some "ecocity" influence too. They are proud of their solar energy accomplishments in the Santa Fe region, but their history of compact pueblo architecture nearby and the pedestrian origins of the whole thing, the whole city, are far more important than even that. Of course, the two fit intimately with one another and in a very healthy manner — ecocity and solar — and both make sense there in Santa Fe, which is one of the saddest places in the world for me to visit these days. That's because it has spread out into the usual far flung, car-dependent sprawl that infects the present and threatens the future now virtually everywhere.

TreeHugger: How would you define an ecocity?

RR: An ecocity is an ecologically healthy city. That also means the city design is strongly informed by knowledge of ecology and its design principles. The "anatomy analogy" is very instructional in the enterprise of trying to build ecologically healthy cities. As in living organisms with different functions arranged close to one another in an appropriate spatial relationship, so too for cities.

TreeHugger: Do any existing cities fit this definition?

RR: Only pieces exist, though some like Curitiba, Brazil and Portland, Oregon have a fair number of the pieces assembled. Ancient cities have "mixed uses" and spatial relationships based on human dimensions and needs for cultural and creative opportunity, such as Kathmandu, Nepal in its older sections, Indian pueblos, old European city cores and so on. On larger scale and getting into recent times, energy systems like solar and transportation systems like bicycle paths and streetcars enter the formula.

TreeHugger: How does your conception of ecological cities compare with the New Urbanism or Smart Growth movements?

RR: New Urbanism is a small step in the right direction refusing to go further over the "bridge" it claims to be a "strategy" to... to what?! They never say. I say: the ecocity. New Urbanism's proponents' slavish commitment to cars and the cheap energy system, that make cars possible, in denial of the fact that cheap energy is going away forever soon have turned them into urban planning fossils. They speak out of both sides of their mouth saying transit, especially rail is great (it is), and cars have to be accommodated too (they don't).

That's a big contradiction there that needs to be straightened out. "This town (planet) ain't big enough for the two of us!" heard in old western movies is more like it: "cars or car-free cities. Choose."

The New Urbanists' four-story height limit makes no sense in an overpopulated world and shows no love of flamboyant architecture with rooftop gardens, terraces, bridges between buildings, buildings that ARE bridges, etc. as in my writing and drawing.

The "Smart Growth" people, in their embracing of higher than New Urbanist densities and building heights is another step toward ecocities, and they may actually get there someday. Their commitment to higher-density mixed-uses and balanced-development is a kind of cold planners' language way of leading into the sort of flamboyant architecture I imagine investing in, instead of parking structures, freeways, gas stations, garages and wide driveways, etc. etc. Their main problem is in embedding themselves in the infinite-growth-in-a-finite-environment capitalistic nonsense, simply by calling their effort "Smart Growth." There is nothing smart about infinite growth of the sort they embrace.

What they want to build physically is on the way to ecocities, if lacking most of the subtleties. How to jettison the economist's bizarrely ecologically ignorant basic assumptions about human economy being real and nature's incidental, and how to get the people with the money — let's face it — to invest in ecocities, I have no idea! I've been trying for years and it isn't working. Ideas anyone? Maybe saying climate change and Peak Oil are coming to get their children will finally get to them, but I don't have that much confidence in that either. The positive alternative I've been putting forward for 35 years certainly has gathered little favor and support. So far.

TreeHugger: Where are the hot spots of ecocity planning and building in the world today? Where will the next wave of ecocity building come from?

RR: The hot spots of ecocity planning and building are in my head and yours and anyone else's willing to entertain these thoughts. It amazes me how few people will even listen, how people can't string more than two links in a "chain" of causes and effects together, how the idea of a network of interconnections can find no purchase in their minds at all, despite wonderful spider webs in everyone's experience. Pull on one strand and all the others move around the whole web. The science like that is called ecology and it's been around a while already — and almost nobody gets it.

As far as geographic locations, Chicago and London have a lot of good things going. Car-free cities like Venice, Italy and Gulongyu, China have structures that go way back to pedestrian roots in physically constricted island locations and though they are not consciously developing in an ecocity direction, they have a lot to exemplify. Arcosanti, Arizona and Auroville, India are heroic attempts by still starving young city experiments, young as cities go, ignored like the insane panhandler down the street, but in this case real geniuses nobody pays any attention to. Solar and wind technologists are making hardware to harmoniously provide energy for such cities and organic farmers raising their food. But does anybody put all these pieces together? Not yet.

"Part of the new New Orleans rebuilt above the floods on 20 feet of elevated fill . A good solution that's possible with pedestrian compactness and streetcars and bikes, but not possible as a scattered car infrastructure which would require far too much fill."

TreeHugger: Will these ecocities be affordable to the average person, or will they turn into gated communities for the rich?

RR: In capitalism as it is trying to grow and extend itself into the future: gated communities for the rich. In a system that I'll call tax the rich and build for future people, plants and animals on a healthy Earth - which is very different from industrial socialism - not just the average person but the low-income person too.

I have been vilified by some "social justice" people for ignoring the poor. I have to say categorically that this is a lie and that furthermore I've generally been far lower-income than my accusers! I like low-income people - I am one! The raw beginning of the advantage of ecocities for low-income people is that the city becomes accessible, at least physically, to everyone without the requirement to invest $10,000 a year in a car and its support systems.

That's helpful but it doesn't solve all problems. Racial, religious, ethnic and other divisions sew seeds of poison so bad that even in the best designed cities you could well have jerks swilling martinis behind guard walls and security forces with guns one foot of concrete and steel away from starving untouchables. Can't solve everything I'm talking about here, though a lot has to do with the city and its design and functioning. Oddly, some people believe city design could solve everything. I for one make no such claims.

In fact I'll say this at this juncture: aside from design of the built environment, the other two big ones are over-consumption and over-population, probably followed by eating too much meat. Those are the big four assaulting the planet. None of those stand alone, but then none of them, if ever largely solved, implies the others will be solved because of that as well.

TreeHugger: When I read your book Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature only a couple of years ago, the ideas you put forth seemed visionary, yet way ahead of their time. It was difficult to imagine their application on a large scale. Yet, today, these issues seem to have entered mainstream discourse almost overnight. How has this affected your work? How do you see the ecocity concept evolving and developing as awareness of our environmental predicament continues to grow?

RR: First of all, "green building" is all the rage, but a green building is easy compared to a green city. There are many supposedly wonderful examples of great buildings getting the limelight — but to drive out to them completely destroys whatever "sustainability" they were supposed to embody in the energy and pollution involved in the drive. Other green buildings are in the right place, in a mixed-use city, and that's a good step.

But beyond the coincidence of a green building appearing in a healthy relationship to the rest of the city, interest in sustainable cities, green cities and even ecocities, such as the purported "World's first ecocity, Dongtan, China" has been growing for sure. Some of this is real and some is smoke screen, or more up to date: green screen. As long as these places have lots of cars, they are far from what they claim to be, and all of them but Venice and Gulongyu have lots of cars or lots of cars planned, even if somewhat de-emphasized.

My work has picked up pace only very little — with constant efforts to raise money and spend time trying to convince people to listen. I'm spending far more time doing that than writing and drawing pictures to illustrate what I think would be healthy and happy. This is largely my fault because I'm self-consciously fighting a battle against a rapidly rising tide of climate change, "Peak Oil," species extinctions and misconceptions about ways to solve those problems with palliatives. I'm probably acting desperate instead of thoughtfully reasonable and strategic. Only one foundation has come to me with significant help in the last five years. Otherwise I've been beating the bushes furiously! Three individual patrons and Kirstin Miller, who is my co-conspirator in this work and has been for several years now, have been extraordinarily important. A handful of others who have been friends to this effort for years are still on board. But for sure there has been no breakthrough.

I suspect that after our conference, the Seventh International Ecocity Conference in San Francisco in April, people will catch on more easily and the ironic result might well be me getting much more "successful" after 65 years of age, hired to do this and that planning workshop and seminar, pontificate about ecocity principles and reminisce about the early days of ecocity theory and practice. Some of my drawings might even lead to a built project or two. But maybe all that will be too late to have helped stem the tide of climate change and the beginning of the age of no cheap energy, which is likely to be a most unpleasant time. It may well — right now — be too late to build the foundation that could have been built if myself, Soleri and some of the other earlier proponents of ecocity development had been given the chance to thrive 35 years ago.

We've burned up about half the world's oil without building the foundation in physical structures and energy systems for future ecocities. Most of that last half of the oil is likely to be used resentfully trying to secure the last dregs, Dick Chaney style, and keep out the neighbors, Idaho Survivalist style. But we may salvage something of civilization yet if we immediately stop expanding highways and shift the money over to ecocity mixed use building and transit and bikes.

"A possible downtown San Francisco -­ biologically, as well as economically and culturally, intensely alive. This is a highly mixed use community with no cars. Streets, alleys, hallways and bridges link pedestrians efficiently through the whole structure. Runs on one tenth the energy of conventional car-dependent cities."

TreeHugger: On that note, many people are predicting that the next administration in Washington DC will have to follow a completely different path than the current one regarding to its outlook on the environment and ecological, planning and economic issues. Do you expect a completely new set of rules when someone else takes the helm, or will the playing field remain more or less as it is?

RR: If the slide into resentment from power shortages that are likely to start in two to four years, of the sort we are seeing in South Africa right now, is slow, things will stay pretty much the same as far as government structure, rules and habits go. The cartoon characters of greed and violence that have been the administration of this country for the last two terms are leaving an almost incomprehensible mess for those who follow. It's truly challenging to figure out how to repair their damage, much less move in a creative and compassionate direction. Maybe there will be some hopeful surprises. I'm trying to lend my efforts in that direction, of course.

If we enter a free fall collapse — which has happened to many head-strong societies in the past — our disappearing act will define the coming of a new geological and ecological age, one that paleontologists say we just started anyway in the "extinction spasm" we are still furiously engaged in. The extinction species de jure is the horseshoe crab right now and last year about this time the last River Dolphin expired in the Yangtze River.

You have to remember that on December 18, the United States Congress voted in an insane energy policy, insane relative to our energy and biological realities on this finite planet. Both parties voted not to help wind and solar energy and to give major further support to oil, coal and nukes. The one renewable source they did favor — biofuels — is the one that puts the last of the agricultural land and last of the biodiversity in forests and grasslands into your car's gas tank. Utterly insane! There are hungry people out there and extinctions are spreading like ink through blotter paper and they want to do that?! And, repeat, both parties are for it.

How much money will go into Amtrak as versus private car supports such as highway building? The ratio is about one to fifty. Again, that's insane. Amtrak works with ecocities and the freeway system supports cities suffocating the planet.

TreeHugger: City building is an almost monumental task, and is usually carried out by a complex web of competing interests and ideologies, most of which can seem completely inaccessible to the average person. How can people who are not involved with these official processes affect positive change in the built environments in which they live?

RR: That's a serious misconception. Everyday NIMBY's the world around are as sophisticated and engaged as any of the best trained planners in city governments and almost all of them are working to keep the same system that makes them comfortable in their owner-occupied neighborhoods and secure in their well-paid jobs. They are busy shaping cities and they know that "complex web" of applications, approvals, hearings and so on inside and out. That's what the first group does as a self-defense avocation and the second professionally. And anybody can join them in the work but take a different direction.

The notion that it is hard to change the city is a notion the NIMBY's and professional planners promulgate to their own benefit like the dark ages Catholic priests speaking Latin among themselves and being as mysteriously obscure as possible to conceal the scam of their indulgences from the impressionable masses left out in the dark.

We know how to build the ecocity. It's easy if you want to: up-zone for more density and diversity in the centers and withdraw from sprawl. We are replete with tools. We are also in denial about their use and spinning all sorts of excuses for not getting on with the only thing that can possibly be strong enough to save our asses!

All illustrations by Richard Register.

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