Bigger Bay Ecotropolis

Bigger Bay Ecotropolis

I think one of the most promising ideas for the Bay Area and cities everywhere would be a vision that weds the simple concept of 1.) building on artificial mounds of earth in a 2.) ecocity layout, a pattern we could be calling an “ecotropolis.”

“Artificial mounds” could also be called “elevated fill” or “artificial hill.” Some day, if given proper attention, we’ll settle on a term. By whatever word best expresses the idea, it is 4,500 years old and was born at the same time as the first real cities.

For me, I noticed the idea when three months after Hurricane Katrina a friend of Ecocity Builders staked me to a trip to New Orleans to see if I might come up with a helpful idea or two while there. That would be artist and proprietor of Oakopolis Gallery here in Oakland, Joell Jones – she grew up in New Orleans, loved her home town that Tennessee Williams said was one of only three cities in the US: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans, and she wanted to help. She saw promise in Ecocity Builders providing ideas for reconstruction after that heart-wrenching disaster, both political (neglect tinged with racism) and natural (winds at sustained speed of 125 miles per hour with gusts up to 170 miles per hour, plus floods over the tops of one story houses in large areas of town; death toll at least 1,245).

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Hurricane Katrina: Gas water heater is lifted by flood waters, pipe breaks, gas leaks a pilot light starts a fire and fire equipment can’t get there. The results of floods are dramatic and people’s reactions inspiring so I’ll use some images from New Orleans through this article. Now to move from reaction to, as Bucky Fuller used to say, “anticipatory” action…

I didn’t think of it until I’d arrived in New Orleans, but then remembered that Ur, the first city of real size on this planet of ours, of the early Sumerian Civilization, was built on elevated “fill.” The fill – simple dirt to complex soil – gathered up with no help from fossil fuel powered machines, was augmented over the decades by old broken building materials and random detritus – brick, stone, dry mud, last year’s tax tablets, grandmother’s worn out sandals and bones from repasts past – as the site slowly grew higher over the waters, becoming conspicuously safe when the Tigris and Euphrates flooded. It must have been quite a site when the surrounding low agricultural land turned into a sea of café latte colored water sliding by as if the whole of Ur were an old paddle wheel steamer moving gracefully up stream on an even much wider Mississippi, a whole sea flowing by. Big storms in the far away mountains, flood comes a few days later, everybody just takes a break. Nobody hurt. No property damage. Loveliest of all perhaps: no flood insurance payments required.

Up-dating to back in New Orleans, Professor at Tulane, Charles Reith, who was also a permaculture teacher (and probably still is), hosted me at his college class and we shared slide shows. I met with various architects, activists trying to help the hurricane victims, planners, politicians and lawyers trying to sort out what sort of city to rebuild, and volunteers who were flooding in from colleges, churches and non-profits around the country. They all liked the idea of elevated building of compact development in the ecocity mode, as I depicted in several presentations to students and my new friends during my nine days there. But the overwhelming sympathy was to just get back to the same old houses – or where they used to be before floating away or being smashed by waves and wind – and keep it simple. Simple is not what you want but rather well ordered complexity of a sort that should be normal to cities. To remember a major ecocity principle: the city is in many ways like a complex living organism: incredibly complex but also, as all living organisms must be on otherwise pain of death, well ordered (well designed) and complex at the same time. Could be called “the anatomy analogy.”

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Charles Reith with his future permaculture garden in the background.

No takers. But I thought the idea profound, and if too early in history’s waking up to ecological knowledge for city design and building, elevated fill remains a very workable strategic element for the compact pedestrian-oriented ecocity, ecotown and ecovillage. It can’t work with sprawl development because that flat pattern takes up far too much room with the thin population commanding thin financial resources relative to the massive amount of dirt that would be required to elevate that kind of urban (sort of urban) layout. The solution is one for coastal communities in an age of climate change and for inland river flood zones, a solution very relevant for somewhere between one and two billion people.


The ecotropolis idea sees that our car dominated cities can be rearranged for ecological health for us humans and all other creatures, with salubrious results for dynamic climate stability and more normal sea level stasis than we are seeing now with global heating, rising tides and oscillating super-charged floods and draughts. Imagine metropolis areas in which downtowns become ecocities, major district centers become ecotowns and neighborhood centers become ecovillages by adding to their diversity of activities close together and gradually, steadily by zoning code and inspired development initiative, creating an ecologically healthy matrix where before it was a car-dependent gasoline, lawn and asphalt assault on agricultural land, natural life forms and global and local climate.

Build up density at human scale over the decades, by designing for people instead of cars, (Europe a better model that US) but also add appropriate technologies like solar, more bicycle infrastructure, integrative three-dimensionality, etc. At the same time farther from the centers and where especially valuable open spaces could be re-established, remove degenerating infrastructure such as termite, dry rot, fire, earthquake and flood damaged buildings. De-pave and re-save all those valuable recovered spaces of high priority for re-introducing nature and agriculture. Natural features for these initiatives would include creeks and shorelines, ridgelines, noteworthy rock outcroppings and monumental or ancient trees, among other environmental places of respect, veneration and celebration. Opportunity sites for more open spaces for nature and agriculture would include damaged properties next to public parks, adjacent community gardens, schools and playgrounds and along already open waterways and ridgelines. Some of the open space, even in public parks, could be converted to food gardens and orchards for fruits and nuts and even herbs and medicinal plants.

What is extremely helpful in moving in this direction toward an ecotropolis made up of distinct ecocities, ecotowns and ecovillages with nature and agriculture working their ways down creeks and spreading out from already open spaces in areas farther from the centers at all scales, is the “ecocity zoning map” of the sort I started drawing up for communities back in the 1980s. One such map appeared on the wall of then-Mayor Loni Handcock’s office in City Hall. Unfortunately neither she nor later mayors chose to utilize it very much. Such a map helps direct where development, what sort of development, and what sort of new open space makes sense going where.


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Volunteers from around the country helping to prepare the soil for a new garden after Katrina and Rita.

One important thing about the ecocity zoning map is that it needs commitment to holding steady with the transition toward both higher density and diversity in the established centers and lower density – like much lower density meaning open space farther from the centers. At a certain point this approach radically reduces dependence on automobiles, asphalt and massive use of energy for that very inefficient form of transport.

I learned the lesson of rigid infrastructure ironically liberating flexibility of the ecocity and urban life within from the Comprehensive Planning Organization (CPO) of San Diego when I was in charge of Earth Day conferences, an “energy fair” which was a big exhibition at a large shopping center in that city, and on the San Diego State University campus of the time, the time being Earth Days 1973 and 1974. The San Diego Ecology Centre got the job (they thought the “r” before the “e” was a little more classy…) and I got their job of coordinating. The CPO’s exhibit, somewhere between the backyard methane digesters and steam powered cars and the bicycle crazies and solar energy gurus, was promoting rail infrastructure as far superior to busses and worth the much larger investment per mile because it worked far better with efficient and happy city layout in the long run. Cities do last hundreds of years after all. Busses that seem flexible, that is fit the scattered car infrastructure and go where car fates demand, in fact run only partially filled and are a much worse and expensive long range solution for public transit as compared with rails and compact, say again, more European pattern, plus as mentioned, with ecological design tendencies – Chinese like to point out ecological and capitalist “tendencies” for their development offerings…

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This woman, preparing lunch for volunteers, gets the ecocity importance of car free city areas, even whole cities. Her T-shirt says “One Less Car.”

Rising Tides

In 2009 the Bay Conservation and Development Commission hosted an international design competition called Rising Tides. (BCDC is the California authority launched by the initiative of great friend to Ecocity Builders, Sylvia McLaughlin, and her colleagues that joined her in founding the Save San Francisco Bay Association, aka Save the Bay.) Our Executive Director Kirstin Miller alerted me to the competition and encouraged my participation. I spent about a week working out a presentation poster showing how elevated fill could be used to create new areas for compact development and what could happen in terms of the kind of ecotropolis transitions I’ve described above, though it would be three more years before I thought up the term “ecotropolis.” (After having been using “ecocity” since the 1970s I wondered why it took me so long.)

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Who she’s cooking for. The volunteers at lunch.

The habitation pattern would be rearranged, and for more people. And yet waterways and bay wetlands with all their high biodiversity and attraction for aquatic animals and water birds both resident and migratory and the bay itself would expand and get larger with seas rising until we figure out that we have to build ecocities to reverse the directions of our growing climate problem, a very big problem to say the least. From the competition’s 120 entries only two featured buildings on elevated earthen material. All that won the prizes and honorable mentions were various forms of dams, with a number also featuring a kind of rearguard planting of storm wave ameliorating living wetlands with their complex ecologies, sometime called “horizontal levees,” these actually being ever so slightly sloped muddy soils with all sorts of reeds and pickleweeds thriving, great habitat.

Then about ten months ago I read a John King (architecture and planning critic) article in the morning San Francisco Chronicle with the headline: “Bay fill may be a defense as sea levels rise.” In a historic first, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) was taking a long, hard look at what to do if the seas continue to rise at the present rate, but accelerated by the planet’s rising greenhouse gases in the air and associated heating of atmosphere, hydrosphere and even lithosphere. It is becoming incontestably evident that something unpopular – that is that changes things – has to be done in the long range getting ever shorter.

Interestingly, since the sea will be rising the bay will be getting larger. Could this not be an opportunity for ecologically tuned new development on elevated earthen material while getting a larger bay at the same time, a solution both environmentally beneficial and in terms of development healthy at the same time? This is a “touchy issue,” said Elliot Stein, Executive Director of the pro-development group Urban Land Institute in John King’s article. “If there ever was an issue that begged for regional collaboration, this is it,” he said, adding it represents “the kind of planning decisions that need to be made.” They are “daunting,” he said.

In thinking about all the above and our rising tides situation, interesting design issues appeared too, such as, if we were to dredge strategically in certain parts of the bay for the fill used to raise new communities from village to urban scale, we’d be building compact pedestrian communities and also be creating a more complex underwater environment and at the same time. Perhaps we’d be creating deeper under water areas and habitat for more diverse species in the process, similar to planting native trees as part of public parks to attract native birds and insects. A good example of that approach is the modest native plant species forest at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park just north of the city’s Marina. Maybe creating such underwater environments for natural processes would contribute to the health of the estuarine environment and could be accomplished at the same time as building in a way that adapted to rising seas, but even more importantly, showed a way of building – called creating ecocities – that helps in a major way to preventing the climate change and rising seas problem in the first place being so superior to the present machine based and high energy consuming city we are building today.

The opportunities for all sorts of creative healthy solutions seemed very rich in considering the bringing together of elevated fill and ecocities in our unique and pretty threatening time in evolution. I say evolution because our chief evolutionary product as humans at this point in history is the driving of species that took millions of years to evolve into extinction. We are accomplishing this in mere decades or years. And this is largely, if not solely, a product of the sort of city we build. That’s called changing all of evolution for life on the planet – and toward a lonely future: where’d all those beautiful birds go? Those forests, those coral reefs, their inhabitants, those snowy Christmases, those glaciers?

In addition, the times themselves seem to be changing toward much greater acceptance of ecocity solutions than prevailed even just seven years ago when the judges for the Rising Tides Competition couldn’t think through the use of pedestrian ecocity designs on mounds of earth with the waters moving around the new and/or reshaped and elevated communities. All they could see were variations on dams, dams, dams and more and bigger dams. One offering that won a prize: a dam across the whole Golden Gate under the bridge that let flood waters out of the bay only when the ocean was at lowest possible tide. Then what next with just a few more inches of rise of the oceans? BCDC even invited experts in building dikes over from the Netherlands to be prominent among the judges, which skewed the results badly.

Meantime we’ve seen around the world, as consciousness evolves a pace, many ecocity features introduced in architecture such as rooftop gardens and bridges linking buildings, a strong trend. Bicycle culture is growing rapidly, transit is coming on strong, people in suburbs are longing to get out of screen-locked boredom into vital town centers of face-to-face real people, their migration to vitality centers restrained only by the desirability of such places driving costs up higher than elevated fill.

Said Kirstin, in close to these words, looking over our submission in the context of the others, “The judges were probably looking for new ideas and thought the fact that we sited a solution 4,500 years old was… too old.”

My attitude though: a truly good idea is forever. Don’t throw out the baby with the dishwater. Learn to recognize basic principles and apply them. If it worked every time implemented for 4,500 years – and it did – it’s probably pretty good. Etc.

Regarding that last point, not everyone forgot. When the 1900 Hurricane hit Galveston, Texas causing the worst natural disaster in American history in terms of loss of life, between 6,000 and10,000 deaths – it’s hard to know because it was a boom town with many hundreds of transients – the civic parents remembered elevated fill, raised the remaining buildings still salvageable, which were about half of them, on screw jacks and lifted the whole town an average of about 20 feet higher than before. Buildings, sidewalks, streets, side yards… everything went up. Mud and sand was pumped in a slurry from the Gulf and Galveston Bay, the water soaking down and drying out up in to the air. They added a concrete sea wall – looks pretty horrendous with its crude endless tags and unnatural cliff where there was once nice houses, piers, bath houses, though the sunbathers and splash about kids remain. And though there has been wind damage since that colossal storm, never has there been anything close to that catastrophic flood of 1900. By the way, there is a terrific book about the dramatic disaster from the point of view of the head of the regional weather bureau of the time. It’s called Isaac’s StormA man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson. I have a couple spare copies. First one to write in to me: will get a copy free – a reward you get for reading my article!

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My illustration for my entry in the Rising Tides Competition, 2009.

Bigger Bay Ecotropolis

In John King’s article, June 5, 2014 that altered me to an apparent changing attitude at BCDC he quoted Zach Wasserman, BCDC Chair saying, “Some flood protection strategies may require larger amounts of bay fill than BCDC has ever permitted.”

So I called him up and made an appointment. Zach had several good suggestions such as: read the literature coming out of capitalist sources on how people can make money investing in solutions to climate change and some, of course, abusing new opportunities. These include High Tied on Main Street – Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis by John Englander and Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming by McKinzie Funk. He and I were both convinced that some new strategies were required. He was leaning toward some version of dikes himself, such as building a short distance out into the bay with… elevated fill high enough to protect the extreme investment in not just money but past cultural and planning practices that created the higher intensity areas that would have to be protected even if some day way below sea level, such as the downtowns of San Francisco and Oakland. He hadn’t advocated building whole new communities on elevated fill as I was doing in our conversation two weeks after I read the article.

Then I went off to a round of conferences in China, Colombia, Abu Dhabi and Bolivia. Scattered through that time and since I began meeting with people to simply brainstorm what to do about these conjoined insights: elevated fill with ecocity designed development and restoration of expanding bay all guided by ecocity design principles and an overall concept of thinking “ecotropolis.”

I met with design head of SOM’s San Francisco office (the architecture firm Skidmore, Owens and Merrill) Ellen Lou and leading New Urbanist architect and urban designer Peter Calthorpe who both gave inspiring approaching-ever-closer-to-ecocities talks in Guangzhou, China. I met with Robin Grossinger, Senior Scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Jason Mark, Editor of the Sierra Club’s Sierra Magazine and Beth Huning, of the wetlands restoration group San Francisco Bay Area Joint Venture, all three being on the ground, hands on and very political key environmentalists. I met with Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director of SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research and Will Heywood then head of the Sustainability Program for the Urban Land Institute, both of them champions for perspectives of better development. And I traveled to Seattle to visit Denis Hayes who organized the largest human events in history besides national and religious holidays – Earth Day. I’ve know him since 1969. I shared ideas for promulgating Bigger Bay Ecotropolis with him – along with other ecocity ideas and news. He’s presently President of the Bullitt Foundation and in the last two years, finished building “the worlds greenest office building,” the six story headquarters of the Bullitt foundation there in Seattle.

I also have a growing list of others I’m planning on meeting with soon and my rather open ended brainstorming to date is to test the waters and see if society has changed enough to make the investment of serious energy in bringing these ideas together in a project to try to steer long term building in the Bay Area toward ecologically healthy development for human and wild populations. At the moment I’m not sure the support is strong enough to focus sustained and energetic effort on such an enterprise.

For instance, in talking with Gabriel Metcalf at SPUR headquarters in San Francisco, he said, in essence, “Why build on mudflats and the low lands on elevated fill when you we could build on the low hills just a few miles east?” My answer was that it is in the essence of the idea and in the drama and beauty of building along water anywhere in the world, that the concept of elevated fill solves so many problems in association with the compact pedestrian ecocity pattern of development. That combination of crucial factors has the potential for communicating the entire package of ideas that would be powerfully presented to the world. In addition to serving the one to two billion people in areas of coming floods, there’s introducing everyone to ecocities. My attitude was also that it would be fabulous for the San Francisco Bay Area in particular. But still, is society receptive yet to such thinking? I’m not sure. But I’m sure we are getting closer.

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“Bridge of Hope” supporting a conveyor belt bringing elevating fill to the new Rikuzentakata.

Perhaps the most dramatic development as a sign of waking up is taking

place in the development backwash, you might call it, of the Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. In the small city of Rikuzentakata the new infrastructure of most of a whole city is being rebuild on elevated fill in a stunningly ambitious project. 4,045 dwellings were destroyed there. They have built a new bridge to the site, but not for people, cars and trucks. Instead a two-mile long conveyor belt is suspended over land and the Kesen River bringing the equivalent of 4,000 10-ton truckloads of soil and gravel to the site every day. On the resulting mound of earthen material the new town will be built. Could this be one big indication we may be getting ready for the ecocity naissance? It wouldn’t be a renaissance, something earlier born again, but truly a new integration, birth of a new kind of city.

My personal decision as to how much energy to dedicate to the Bigger Bay Ecotropolis is for me difficult. I have two new books, one that has appeared already and one soon to appear, in order: World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build and Ecocities Illustrated, about 40 years of my ecocity drawings. These need some focused promotional attention. But on activating and getting serious on behalf of a Bay Area ecotropolis campaign I’m leaning a bit, as the economists say, bullish.

A few things are tempting me to really launch on in. And I suppose as I present this to our readership of our Ecocity Builders Newsletter I’m testing the waters in this more broad scattershot sense too, to see if there is some reinforcement, some others willing to energetically to join in. One thing tempting and positive is that the project, an attempt to get people thinking about the Bigger Bay Ecotropolis set of ideas and perhaps get some element of planning into local codes, would be local and deal with a landscape I know and love greatly whereas for the last ten years I have been perhaps excessively international, traveling or getting ready to or following up on travel, most of the time. It has been exciting and rewarding but I’ve always enjoyed building, and that’s ultimately very, very local.

After fifteen years largely away from home, I’m wondering if this is the time to once again launch into local activity. Maybe I’ll get some guidance from you readers.

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    Posted at 17:19h, 13 September

    […] The Bigger Bay Ecotropolis The degree to which sea level rise is inevitable Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming How people in Ancient Mesopotamia adapted to flooding with artificial mounds How that concept can be incorporated in the San Francisco Bay Area and Mississippi River Delta How that concept is not adaptable in spread out suburbia Building on elevated terrain in compact pedestrian developments The All Bay Collective Proposals Why damming the Golden Gate is not viable The long term goal of living car free Underground highways Retrofitting suburbs into compact villages surrounded by open space How that model is more sustainable to natural disasters such as wild fires Yv 88: An Eco-Fiction of Tomorrow and its depiction of a car free Yosemite Valley […]