Driverless cars? Bad idea. How about driverless cities?

Driverless cars? Bad idea. How about driverless cities?

Something big is coming up and something important might be neglected and set us way, way back. It is Earth Day 2020, and maybe we will not take advantage of a powerful opportunity to get cities right. This has everything to do with an honest confrontation with the impacts of designing cities for cars instead of people.

On August 5th I had a long lunch with Denis Hayes, organizer of Earth Day in 1970, 20 million participants in the US and at US government offices and military bases around the world. In 1990 Denis headed up an Earth Day effort that went international with approximately 200 million people participating. One week before that Earth Day he was our Keynote Speaker leading off what turned into the International Ecocity Conferences, now with the 12th in planning for Melbourne, Australia. It’s been in ten countries by now on five continents and in that sense of “first big talk,” he led off not only our conference series but that 20th Earth Day set of events. Now Denis is helping organize perhaps into the billions of people with Earth Day 2020, the 50th Anniversary Earth Day. I have no doubt that he will once again succeed. There’s an organization promoting this gigantic invitation to improve the world, with Denis the Godfather of it all. It’s called the Earth Day Network. The only problem is, among its many good features is one destined to undermine all the others: a promotion of electric cars.

I’ve said in possibly all my lectures around the world in the last five years or so that the better car creates the worse city, and that cities being the largest creations of humanity, this becomes a big problem. Promoting the car, any car, just continues that disastrous way of building. Anyone who has seen and heard one of those talks of mine, with lots of imagery Power Point style, will recall my frequent reference back to Los Angeles when I was living there and we solved our smog problem – and 40 years on brought on climate change. The way that played out was this: we fixed the car by affixing the smog device, cleaned up the offending machine and proved the automobile was cool after all, friend of the young, lean and hungry for freedom to roam. I enjoyed that freedom myself, and appreciated the nice and perhaps too much mobility the automobile provided in my steamier courting years. And thus the city redesigned by the car melted out as if dissolved in a pair of fluids – gasoline and water – pouring out all over the landscape in gas tanks on wheels and in a spider web of underground pipes eventually penetrating millions of square miles of soils around the world, creating a kind of elephantiasis of city form called sprawl.

LA back then, when I was living there for seven years right in the middle of the energetic and successful application of smog devices, proved to the world that the insane polluter and at the time killer of over 50,000 Americans a year – the automobile – was actually your friend after all. So the whole world followed. And now we have climate change in exchange for Los Angeles cleaning up its “LA Basin” atmospheric act. My then home town was truly a leader, but in a surprise to us all, including myself, the automobile by way of reshaping the cities of the world to fit cars and thereby become radically dependent on them, led us all into the massively wasteful way of building that is arguably the largest single cause of the inefficiencies delivering an atmosphere stuffed with CO2 and heating up, as I write and you read.

So now I commence my latest attack on cars – of a special type purported to be a far safer and a vastly improved model: one in which we don’t even drive but become lounge lizards while we let our handy better-never-fail technology replace our eyes, brains and hands with computers, cameras and radar. Retire from the scene while hurtling through space and gobbling up time. Scramble and wire up those technologies. Floor it for us, machines, and let’s all just drift off in whatever dreams we just happen to desire at the time, turning over our responsibility to yet one more thing, a machine not ourselves, while hurtling down the highway into more surprises, perhaps worse than what the better smog device car eventually delivered when I was living in LA.

(By the way, I’ve been sometimes criticized by some readers for my feature-length articles as too long for Internet media, and praised by others who like to sink their teeth into a little illuminating detail. I for one never “get it” unless I can see something clearly, which means for me a lot of pixels for high res, or letters of the alphabet for clear focus via evocative words, that is, some good examples in detail. Yet I sympathize with my negative critics, resenting spending too much time already in front of this machine I’m writing with now, one version of which might drive your car one day while you just sit there. So with that somewhat twisted introductory comment, I might suggest you read this in two sittings or maybe – heavens! – waste some paper, print it out, both sides of each sheet of course, and read some at your favorite café, leafing through instead of turning your face blue in a sociable place facing yet one more screen. This is a little long even for my feature articles in the maybe vain hope to have an important essay here that not only makes an important point but in the way of such essays as Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” and William James’ “Moral Equivalent of War” becomes something of a touchstone. It’s worth a try anyway.)

1. Denis Hayes at Ecocity 1, 1990

Denis Hayes leading of the First International Ecocity Conference, Berkeley, California, 1990. I’m on the left, our Mayor at the time, Loni Hancock on the right. Photo by Randi Baird

2. Denis Hayes in a recent photo

Denis in a recent image from the Internet

The human sacrifice that serves us a warning

With the first driverless car death and the announcement that a major Silicon Valley firm wants to design future cities for us, life therein connected for us by driverless cars, these two pieces of news coming only two days apart, we should be fairly warned that our transportation and city design future could soon go way off track. Not to sound superstitious or anything but… The gods that alert humanity to coming disaster, by linking driverless cars to city design in this little coincidence of timing, are doing us a service. Wake up folks. City form and transportation are intimately connected: cars fit sprawl and vice versa. Pedestrians – that is people – fit compact well-arranged cities. And compact cities can be ecologically healthy cities, or “ecocities,” healthy for everyone else as well as people. I’m including the plants and animals too. My point: driverless cities are the wave of the healthy future and driverless cars are a dangerous detour helping perpetuate sprawl, massive energy and land consumption, paving agricultural and natural landscapes, and contributing greatly to climate change, death and injury in our transport system and many other harms.

On June 28, the Silicon Valley firm Y Combinator announced their intent to build a city of the future. My local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, dutifully ran the story that day under the headline, “Silicon Valley’s latest startup offering: a whole city.” Two days later, on June 30, Tesla announced the fatal May 7 crash of a Tesla 2015 Model S on autopilot, and so did the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – 54 days after the accident. That’s a long time as “interesting” news items go. Why the delay? Why the coordination between regulated and regulator? Intentional suppression of news? Driverless cars elicit a peculiar, powerful and uncomfortable interest verging on panic in anyone who has careened down a highway or been standing close to a speeding chunk of steel, glass and rubber called an automobile – while imagining that there is no driver in control, no conscience, no instinctual revulsion for the possibility of killing a human being you haven’t been trained to hate. The first deadly driverless car accident would normally very naturally attract journalists and editors like porch lights on summer nights attract moths. But on June 18, 11 days after the accident, with no news of the crash in print, Tesla and Elon Musk sold $2 billion in stock in the company. They knew about the accident practically immediately after the fact, but kept it quiet. To make more money? They said no way! Chalk it all up to various coincidences. The company would rebound soon enough anyway; it would make no difference. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. To the past tense driver who lost his head – literally – looking down from maybe Heaven, that comment might seem a little unsympathetic.

But this is not an expose on corporate and personal greed, malfeasance or fiduciary responsibility to investors’ maximum gain. It is also not about media soft pedaling what should be more honesty about consequences, though the Chronicle article said the Tesla “driven” by Tesla fan Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio in the Florida crash (who that drives the expensive electric isn’t a fan?), hit the truck with its windshield. What? You don’t just have a fatal accident bumping your windshield against a truck. It might seem unseemly gruesome but what happened to Joshua Brown’s head?

Not to overdo the graphic details by suggesting it’s educational to imagine what happened to Mr. Brown very literally, but it’s worth reminding everyone that horrendous accidents like this are typical, not that rare, and the world annual death rate is approximately 1,260,000 a year (2015), and around 36,000 per year (last five year average) in the US. But that too – sensationalist or just the facts ma’am info – is not what this article is about, though the reminder of the stark sharp edge and blunt force of car culture is something that might be a bit of a wake up call as we fantasize a future of driverless cars or driverless cities – choose.

I went looking for photos and maps and even found the exact place of the accident on Google Earth 5.9 miles west northwest of Williston, Florida on US Highway Alternate 27. (That would be 29º 24’ 38.25” north by 82º 32’ 32.25” west.) The news photos of the post crash car show that the windshield and everything above the edge of the doors was sheered off. Mr. Brown’s sporty car shot under the trailer of the big 18 wheel semi. The Tesla S was on autopilot at 74 miles an hour, 9 miles per hour over the speed limit, reported the National Transportation Safety Board more than two months after the crash. The Tesla autopilot was operating and neither the machine nor the man applied the breaks. (If it was on autopilot why was it cruising at well above the speed limit?) Downplaying the crash Tesla pointed out that both sky and trailer were about the same brightness of white, hence the one in a million chance something would go wrong – and did. What they didn’t also say was that the truck was coming toward the car and made a left turn in quite the normal way some distance down the highway. While the truck was progressing thru its turn from front on to angling over to broadside in relation to the approaching car, it should have been easily seen by any human driver even one going a bit too fast.

The truck driver in some of the more than dozen articles I read on the Internet said the Tesla shot under his trailer at a terrific speed, rolled off the road and came to a stop about a hundred yards from the crash. The truck driver also reported the Tesla “driver” was watching a Harry Potter movie at the time of the accident. How’d he know? The journalists left that to us readers to figure out. It must have been that the laptop, iPad or whatever playing the Harry Potter video made it through the crash below the swath taken off by the semi’s trailer. The truck driver must have discovered it still turned on and dutifully reeling through Harry Potter’s magic violence. That’s my guess but only a guess.

3. 2016 Tesla S

A 2015 Tesla models, from the Internet

4. Joshua Brown's Tesla S after crash

Joshua Brown’s Tesla after the crash on autopilot, from the Internet


The psychology of it all is something I’d like to emphasize. For the last three or four years, Google, Tesla and a number of other automakers around the world as well have been portraying driverless cars as the wave of the future, treating the coming of these big robots as if it’s a done deal, get used to it. (But remember: once the Supersonic Transport, the SST, was a done deal in the minds of its promoters too. Get use to bad dreams occasionally not coming true.)

“Silicon Valley financiers and entrepreneurs are digging into artificial intelligence with remarkable exuberance,” reports another San Francisco Chronicle article, July 21, 2016. “The region,” dependably a home team booster, “now has at least 19 companies designing cars and trucks, up from a hand full five years ago.” These companies have even convinced governmental bodies to allow testing on the public streets and highways, with, as they say in the industry, technology “in beta-mode” while the boosterism refrain has only gotten stronger and stronger. The level of public acceptance, or it might be called capitulation while being snowed, has been getting higher and higher too – until now. Maybe trends will change. Maybe not.

Psychologically speaking, taking your hands off the wheel of a 4,600 pound Tesla, with 1,600 pounds of batteries on board, hurtling down a public highway – and keeping hands off the wheel – is initially a terrifying thing, and for good reason based in instinct and normal logic both. When I read about the crash I immediately scanned the Internet for a little detail and found a video selfie of the man who in other circumstances would be called the driver, Joshua Brown, in his own Tesla he affectionately called Tessy, describing his experience while (not) driving the car (it was driving itself). I could have sworn that he said that when he first took his hands off the wheel it was a genuinely terrifying experience. That’s really something for this guy, though, because he was no ordinary mortal, no coddled commuter, teenage show off in courting display or soccer dad retrieving his child from an afternoon match. He was a former daring-do Navy SEAL who after duty entertained himself jumping out of airplanes with a parachute, known as a speed demon driver among his friends, a serious macho risk taker and to do all that without early demise, it takes something of a control freak. One might call him some brand of courageous. For him to admit he was terrified was quite a statement, and clairvoyant in that it turned out he had extremely good reason to be terrified. Then ending his video he almost whimsically guessed people could get used to it… he had.

Later, I decided I wanted to write something about all this and went back to search for the video and an exact quote or two. After a frustrating hour or more I was wondering if someone thought it was too sensitive, maybe damaging to the autonomous auto industrial planners’ visions – or me going crazy wondering if I made up the whole vivid video in my devious little unconscious mind. Anyone out there know for sure? Did someone hack his blog site? Is the auto industry NSA industrial complex powerful and devious enough to hire a hacker in its perceived self-defense? Have I slipped of the cliff into conspiracy theory?

Another dimension of this driver/vehicle psychological matrix: isn’t anyone insulted and a little ashamed to be totally incompetent to parallel park or even drive generally forward, steering and somewhat skillfully adjusting direction and speed? Instead we are all expected to place trust not in oneself and our fellow citizens we can actually conceivable “have a beer with,” but in remote, anonymous autonomous automobile engineers and IT designers? Is this another case of removing social trust, replacing it with confidence in unseen strangers, politicians and fund managers investing in maximum return and purchasable politicians and the gullibility of the public? I spend a lot of time thinking through car-free pedestrian designs and see cars as something to boycott as much as possible. Yet I’ve been somewhat proud to be a good, even fairly skilled driver. I keep my driver’s license current. To give up these abilities and even response-abilities and let your wheels take the wheel, to have the car drive you instead of vice versa, seems even a bit embarrassing to me. To nobody else?

Embarrassment might be an even more interesting problem than danger and harder to overcome than danger itself, as demonstrated in attempts to get smokers to quit, with many of them more fearful of looking uncool in a social context than worried about cancer and heart attacks. A bigger threat to the habit than early death: bad breath.

That brings up an interesting question: if people aren’t really interested in being drivers any more and turning the job over to a machine, while more in the US are wanting to move to the centers where the face-to-face action is, where transit is good and bicycling easy, why an interest in the car at all? Unless you are stuck in a city layout that makes life impossible without a car why not go for the walkable life with bike and transit assist? Save thousands of dollars and… par – tee!

In other words it may be that people giving up the skill and responsibility for driving and turning it over to a car may be good news for someone like myself interested in future healthy cities, and maybe it’s another symptom that people are generally, rather vaguely, losing interest in cars, per se. The trend for people, especially young ones, wanting to get back to the lively centers where people are bouncing around face to face, mano a mano, chest to breast is underlined by such sentiment and may mean there’s a sleeper in the interest in driverless cars, which is a deeper, more fundamental lack of interest in cars. They just don’t fit a happy future, as well as they don’t fit a healthy future and quite a few people are just beginning to grasp that. So we can just sit in them without thinking about them at all, letting them drive themselves and us into the trance of oblivion – while perpetuating the city spread out by, yet stuffed with, cars.

Some supporters of driverless cars have told me, “Yes but they can be rental cars, shared by everyone, no personal ownership of diversions down the dead end of ego gratification, and therefore many fewer of them to push people off land occupied by parking lots, parking structures, streets, driveways, on and off ramps and so on.” Talking with Denis Hayes about this he said something to the effect of, “Yes but… For the person with a little money who likes the ego connection with the car and can afford ownership, the car can drive him to work, drop him off and drive back home empty to wait out the day there. Then the empty car can drive back into the city to pick him up at the end of the day, doubling the commute distance.” My guess is it would average out to about the same car influence we see in cities today continuing to maintain the infrastructure much better suited to the car body than the human body, the needs of the car over the needs of the human.

Los Angeles fixed the car, not the city

First a little clarification about what I mean by “driverless cities.” Of course there will be drivers of buses; streetcar operators don’t drive in the usual sense of the word, directed as they are by the track of the tracks. I’m talking about cities in which there are no private car drivers and for that matter, a city in which there are no computers doing the driving either. Such would be a city that rates highest priority to 1.) pedestrian infrastructure, then 2.) bicycles, then 3.) elevators, escalators and possibly in highest density areas, pedestrian conveyor belts, then 4.) rails with their vehicles, then 5.) specialty cars that fit with pedestrians and bicycles – meaning generally very small moving at relatively slow bicycle speeds – taxis, small buses with police cars and fire equipment moving more slowly than today’s emergency vehicles but covering far less distance in the more compact city. Last: conventional cars, number 6.), would be lowest priority, to be avoided assiduously and relegated to small fringe parking lots, OK for country work and travels not covered by rail between cities, towns and country destinations.

This is aspirational of course, but we do have some car-free cities like Venice in Italy, Zermatt in Switzerland, the various medinas of Islam, Gulongyu in China, Lamu in Kenya, Avalon on Catalina Island just off the coast from Los Angeles of all places. If car-free cities exist, they are possible. Plus, they were the only cities that existed for 4,400 years, until about 110 years ago, about the time cars slipped in and took over in large numbers. Plus, there are car-free zones in many cities and growing in number – a very good sign heading in the right direction.

Next, as related above, I lived in Los Angeles – Venice, actually, on the Pacific edge of LA. Let me delve some into my own story just a little more. I was then a citizen of the once-upon-a-time “City of the Future” that was seen as such as the marvelous city of highest mobility as if mobility equated with the meaning of life . That would be Los Angeles in the 1960s into the early 1970s. The smog was diabolically bad with something like 1,200 “excess” deaths per year recorded from air pollution related diseases. If you were one of the victims you’d hardly feel like “excess” but that’s what the statisticians called you. The forests were gradually dying away up on the peaks and ridges of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains to the northeast of town defining the edge of the Los Angeles Basin. I remember driving toward LA east of Barstow – beautiful clear blue skies, if insufferably hot in summer months. The high mountain ramparts stood like a distant wall perched on the desert horizon. A looming whiskey yellow-brown to dark gray miasma kind of pulsated above and beyond that surrealistic landscape. Driving closer the smog rose up slow motion, flowed like the Glob, in the movie by that name (Steve McQueen’s first leading role), over the wall of rock and trees and then rather suddenly, I’d descend into the acrid shadow enveloping Los Angeles, eyes watering, throat stinging. I lived there because it was culturally an alive place friendly to my artwork at the time and, with my storefront sculpture studio in Venice, I was upwind by the Pacific and out of the worst of it, enjoying fairly frequent gentle sea breezes and watching sunsets over the Pacific through palm trees.

The city and regional parents of the day did what they thought was the rational thing, studying the problem, making all sorts of measurements, writing guidelines and setting targets for clearing the air of this deadly tourism-limiting menace and… they attached the “smog device” to the car instead of whole systems thinking to the city. They failed to see the intimate connection between the transportation vehicle and the form and function of the city itself. Heavy involvement with the car: have sprawl. Have sprawl: near complete dependence on the car. To escape the very real circumstantial addiction there, you could either quickly leave or hunker down for a couple generations and change the city into one designed for people on feet, not in cars. But, they figured, we will just do the reflexive techno-fix and not bother to look at the whole system, not try to get rid of the car that I admit was a lot of fun in various ways at the time, not the least of which was impressing the lovely California bathing beauties. To notice the whole system and how the parts interrelated would be the ecological approach that sees the connection between things, and not just how transport links to urban form, but urban form in relation also to nature, agriculture, energy sources, public health and on. So the road of ecological awareness was the road not taken. That all seemed rather an obscure tangent to the good times rolling on rubber tires.

Everyone agreed: it worked magnificently, and in a way it did. Leaders gave themselves prizes for their wisdom and public service. Probably 90% or more of the smog was eliminated – and in exchange we got climate change as the world’s cities followed Los Angeles into what gave me a hernia in a smog attack in Beijing in 2011 literally coughing my guts out. Yuk! One $36,000 operation and I was back into normal operating condition. Cities around the world were by then enveloped in smog because they had followed Los Angeles’ lead and had been reshaped for cars.

That brings us logically and relentlessly to the tech and auto companies claiming the driverless car is a life saving miracle technology. Fewer lives will be lost, the argument goes, with “smart” machines because people are the source of more “human error,” that is, not so smart as the cars.

What about the human error in not assessing the effects of the auto/sprawl city? Replacing car cities with pedestrian cities – zero chance of car crashes there, being no cars around. How does zero compare with over a million deaths a year annually world-wide? Our human error to date has been in getting involved far too deeply with the automobile, so deeply the vast majority can’t see their way out of the hole at all. It has dawned on almost no one, and as in the Los Angeles smog fix syndrome, society in general has failed to understand or even look at such “ecological” connections. Now, our continuing failure misses the enormous role of the automobile as a problem even as large as climate change.

Tesla’s Elon Musk tries playing the moralist card saying autopilot cars are “already significantly safer than a person driving themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability,” quoted in my local Chronicle again. (His grammar is off but his intent is clear.)

But two can play that card. Is it morally reprehensible to promote any cars at all if we can build our cities, towns and villages without the little killers? How about sanctimoniously promoting a growing automobile fleet, of electric and/or self-driving cars when, if we step back and take a good look we could notice they are not necessary at all? What about saving lives by simply not driving so much or not at all? What about encouraging cities to get rid of cars as quickly as possible? Think of the lives saved in that way. What about the moral position – Musk’s position – that maintains car dependency promoting sprawl that paves agricultural land and natural habitat while perpetuating extreme demand for energy contributing to accelerating climate change with all its destructive effects on the whole tapestry of life on the planet? What about street lamps for cars covering vast landscapes driving the stars out of our nights? Recent reports inform that over one third of humanity can no longer see the Milky Way: streetlights for cars plus glare of light-reflecting air pollution from cars.

Involved also is the problem that short-term solutions can seem to solve problems since proximate causes are obvious. But from deeper much more powerful sources, real and numerous problems – and solutions – come cascading down from more basic understanding. It seems we as a species average out to be not yet smart enough to evaluate the larger pattern with more steps in cause and effect and more networks of cross influence: we are not often able to act in a way to handle the whole situation. We tend to lack what’s called whole systems awareness and sensibility, foresight, vision. We are tuned to the short term from millions of years of our evolutionary history. Why? For example, to step on the poisonous snake or aggravate the lion gets instant results to be avoided. For self-preservation reasons, immediate dangers hold our attention much more prominently than more basic causes. Immediate survival get’s priority over more positive possibilities somewhere out in the future. But evolution has also given us planning-capable brains – so why not use those gifts too? There is nothing wrong with reacting to proximate problems, but in all other times not in present emergency mode, we can avoid future emergencies and build a better world if we can better understand more basic causes of both problems and solutions.

Specifically, Tesla crashes into truck: fix the autopilot to see farther down the road. But trace the problem up-stream to a systems problem solution and you notice that not only does the interrelation of a certain urban form and type of vehicle give us a crash – in fact many millions of them a year – but also the other disasters I just mentioned are caused impacting climate, agriculture, public health even species extinctions. In systems solutions it is normal, in fact, to solve many more problems than the one we start looking to solve. We might discover, in this case, that the compact, pedestrian “ecocity” is actually one of those rare “silver bullets.”

5. a sliver bullet

Silver bullet: a single solution to countless problems

On the bright side now

What’s a silver bullet? Well no one believes they really exist, a single thing or initiative that solves almost endless problems all at once. Some actually do exist but they are rare. Partially that’s because whole systems are made up of many parts, for example our human bodies are one for each of us but comprised of approximately one trillion cells each and many dozens of bones, organs and types of tissues and fluids. And many systems aren’t so healthy either, hardly a silver bullet, like for example Dwight Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” stressed as something to be carefully regarded, limited and controlled, he lectured the country in his farewell speech leaving the Presidency. But a positive example: relative economic equality is a silver bullet solving many problems at once: the societies that have a high degree of income similarity between the, say, the upper 20% and the lower 20%, a comparison frequently used by demographers, score much better in terms of human health and education, crime and sense of well being, proportion of suicides, unwanted children, incarceration rates, affordable quality health care, self-assessed levels of happiness and so on. In Japan and Norway, the top 20% makes about four times as much as the bottom 20% per person, while in the US, the top 20% makes more like nine times what the lower 20% makes and in the US the health and well being measures are almost all much worse than in the countries with more financial equality.

Considering the city for people, now, the driverless city, not the city for driverless cars, it looks multiply positive, a real surprise for most people missed only for not looking at the connections in the whole picture, for missing the connection-seeking ecological approach. You discover high and humanly gratifying scores for land, material and energy conservation, low pollution, high biodiversity, easy, inexpensive public access by walking, bicycling and public transport, higher levels of health from more exercise and less pollution and so on with ecological city design.

As to a definition? What is the “ecocity,” the driverless city that stands poles apart from the city for cars? The term simply means ecologically healthy city. It is the compact pedestrian city as I’ve said here before, but much better comprehended if we also understand that cities could be like a complex living organism. I call the idea the “anatomy analogy.” It happens that complex living organisms – ourselves for example – are basically three-dimensional, not flat like a tortilla or a sprawling suburb. All complex living organisms take on a three-dimensional form, not flat two-dimensional form. Another way of looking at it: in a three-dimensional arrangement all parts are much closer together for very high efficiency in moving things about, making connections easily with little energy be it blood in veins and signals traveling through the nervous system or people moving easily on foot or bicycle in the streets and shaking hands, hugging hello and talking face to face. You could think of this as “access by proximity,” a powerful design principle. It’s said “the fastest route from point A to point B is a straight line.” Not so. It is moving the points closer together. That’s how compact, more 3-D design beats 2-D sprawl many times over. It’s a design solution that get’s it right in the first place, not a “solution” that tries to make up for a problem of bad design after the fact.

Another positive for ecocities: it is possible for cities to build soils and restore biodiversity. They can assiduously recycle physical matter and run on renewable energy. They are especially efficient if their demand for land and energy is low due to compact arrangements in which things have their appropriate places. In what can be called the “anatomy analogy” – cities like complex living organisms – we can easily understand that our eyes are high above the ground and face forward for long distance parallax viewing and not on, say, our knees. Very obvious.

Similarly in city design and layout, south sunshine in the temperate north can be collected easily to warm buildings while indirect north light is good for interior activities like drafting and holding meetings in friendly spaces. For hotter climates, shade structures like overhanging roofs and screens that allow breezes but not bugs to flow through interiors are proper very low energy, cheap and easy air conditioning arrangements. Cool storage naturally works well in basements for wines, potatoes and other things, and breezes and sunshine up high are good for many kinds of rooftop gardens and socializing where views of the natural and urban environment can be enjoyed. An apartment building I helped design in Berkeley, California has such a pleasant environment on the roof with a spectacular view to San Francisco’s skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific beyond that people get married ten stories high up there. Ecocity design detailing can be on the scale of the “massing” of buildings defining skylines and include the design of parks and plazas to delight the populace. Somewhat finer features include bridges between buildings with terraces and rooftop accessibility creating a pedestrian-permeable whole environment, a three-dimensional version of “human scale” missing from buildings that look like big blank tall boxes or stand alone “towers in a park” as some modernist architects call it.

One of my favorite ecocity features is in the mid range scale, smaller than skyline overall design and larger than lively sidewalk café street scenes festooned with native flowering plants attracting native birds and butterflies as well as latte sippers. That’s the kind of plaza that I call a “view plaza” or a “keyhole plaza.” On the edge of town, build a plaza with a corner or side missing toward a locally appreciated view, a view celebrated by being framed by some of the town’s best architecture. Maybe that would be a view looking up a coastline or bend in a river, toward a distant mountain or, perhaps, just with powerful horizontal lines in the buildings framing the view, it would be the locally powerful horizon in a Kansas-like flatlands that would be honored. The public plaza where the people gather is then connected by sight lines to something cherished in nature, a reminder that nature and culture must be connected and a built embodiment of how that physical whole can be arranged. In a similar way, opening small waterways through cities – most cities buried them a long time ago – celebrates nature and brings the liveliness and at least a smattering of biodiversity and natural processes right into town along with educational value for all, but especially for children: native plants attracting humming birds and dragonflies, fish and frogs and so on.

6. Huaibei keyhole plaza

A keyhole plaza from a conceptual drawing looking outward toward a lake near Huaibei, China. Drawing by Richard Register for the Mayor of Huaibei.

In building soils, something of a bottom line for sustainability, cities produce kitchen, restaurant, garden and landscaping organic and human bodily “wastes” that can be composted into rich, productive soil. Pathogens can be knocked out of these byproducts of cities in solar batch Pasteurization units, that is, cooked to death, reduced chemically to soil fertilizing nutrients.

Cities can also make modest efforts and a surprising amount of wildlife can return. By far the closest I’ve ever come to a wild hawk was in New York’s Central Park. I was walking over one of those rather narrow high-arching pedestrian bridges, crossing over a pedestrian path beneath me, when suddenly a magnificent red-tailed hawk sailed about five feet under and in front of my feet. Window boxes, rooftop gardens, public and private parks and gardens can bring significant nature and food production right into town. My window box flowers and tomatoes are pollinated by local humming birds and bees, for example, while not too far from my apartment in Oakland, California I harvest fruit at a local combination public orchard and creek restoration project that supports native fish and bird species along the Berkeley/Albany border. The city that not only reduces negative impacts on practically everything, but also actually contributes to further healthy ecology and evolution can be easily designed if we just put our minds to it and do it. We haven’t yet because we keep trying to tune up a dysfunctional whole system, and in supporting the “better car,” be it hybrid, electric, driverless or just a well tuned and efficient gasoline driven type, we are doing just that: perpetuating and encouraging a pathological urban arrangement. Bottom line: you don’t want to make a disease healthier. You want to get involved with something healthy. More to the point, you need to ultimately banish the car from town.

Here are a few places you save a whole lot more lives than assuming we will keep driving all over the landscape forever and cut back on some deaths with all that traffic because self-driving cars are safer (maybe, once they are perfected and deployed in vast numbers throughout our cities and suburbs) than human driven cars. Whose lives are saved in the driverless city?

• The lives of people who don’t drive cars at all – or don’t get hit by them.

• The ones who don’t get sick like I did from pollution, and some maladies, like lung and heart diseases are really deadly. I got off easy.

• Or suffer “enhanced” droughts, wildfires, storm fury, floods, local species die off as temperature changes and other harms of climate change or associated neglect from degenerate government as witnessed during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

• And those whose real estate is destroyed by rising seas, or even before that, reduced in value such that the owner goes broke in retirement and can’t pay bills and therefore dies desperate and early.

• Or the poor who can’t afford insurance and die for lack of medical services after a wreck, which is common in the poorer countries.

• How about worse health leading to a modest increment in mortality because almost no healthy food can be grown close to the consumers when sprawl covers the best agricultural land.

• Then there are the other victims such as all the species we run over on the roads and whose land we occupy driving them out literally driving, which includes development in exurban as well as suburban locations.

• And so on.

My point is that climate change and all the above will kill far more than just drivers saved, in theory, by assuming cars will dominate forever but whose hazards will be mitigated by expensive radar, cameras and computers. And by the way, what about the extra costs of a driverless car as compared to a similar car that doesn’t have that technology? I must have read two or three-dozen articles on driverless cars and I’ve never seen one with comparative prices for the added technology. It is as if the driverless car providers don’t want us to think about that any time soon and our media is playing on their side, not ours the people’s. With the expense of my formidable desktop computer, back up hard drive and associated software, replacements due to obsolescence and the crashes and “bombing out” of older age, adding expenses for occasional consulting services, it must add up to a lot more for driverless cars with their much more complex systems with redundancies to prevent disasters like Joshua Brown’s.

If the assumption is that people will simply feel they have to fork over lots of money for the privilege of letting their cars do the driving, doesn’t that leave out the poor who have to buy a car, even if barely running, to realistically get from home to a far away job? Many, many millions of people who as usual, being poor suffer without much notice or help, and are not among those whose lives will have supposedly been made safer by driverless cars, probably won’t be able to afford the added technology. According to the World Health Organization annually there are 13 deaths for every 100,000 cars in the US, but 104 in China, 130 in India and 1020 in Bangladesh. That’s because of poverty, poor roads and limited hospital facilities but with the proximate cause being driving cars that most of those killed can barely afford. (Or they are bystanders on foot or on bike killed by the drivers.) As someone who travels the world talking about ecologically healthy cities, I can tell you people having a hard time making ends meet in the poorer countries scratch their heads when first they hear about cars driven by computers, cameras, radar, sonar and whatever else it takes. They think, “Oh those rich, spoiled people and the things they have the money to goof off with. Extravagant. Not attainable for people like me.”

The ecocity impulse

But back to the bright side… Ironically sprawl was the first modern attempt to have the ecocity. In the old smoky industrial city with the smell of un-picked-up garbage and horse poop and pee and flies everywhere, around the end decades of the 19th century and the beginning years of the 20th, there was the desire to get out of the worst of the city’s contradictions. By contradictions I mean the city – and the town and village – are all physical structures that render multiple community benefits and pleasures to citizens, and visitors too for that matter, the pull towards (positive services) and the push away (unhealthy conditions) contradicting. City and town services are economic, social, cultural and health related and quite substantial like jobs and friends near by, clean water and air, sewerage and waste disposal or recycling and fire and police protection.

On the pull toward the country itself, there is the dream of relaxing some in a country-like environment, quieter, cleaner, more under personal control, and with higher status in most cases. Likely most basic is the relationship with the open fields and edge zones that naturalist Edward O. Wilson writes about where human proclivities were shaped by good hunting on open savannas edged by wooded environments that provided opportunities for shelter from predators. These field and forest edges appear to be human-shaping places in our evolutionary history for around two million years during which we refined forward-oriented parallax vision, upright posture and precise dexterity of our hands with opposable thumbs.

And why not homes near nature, where friends and associates are not far away? Villages in natural environments, old European and Asian towns with a sharp edge on farms not surrounded by sprawled out habitation, homes near Central Park, or in E. O. Wilson’s growing up, near his beloved Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC exist and are greatly enjoyed by those living there. Wilson’s “biophilia” – the fascination with and impulse to associate closely with other creatures and find comfort in both open spaces and sheltering foliage – seems like one of the most powerful influences in our sustenance, protection and enjoyment of nature and our development as environmentalists. Where that joins with “sociophilia” – love of being part of a physical, social, cultural and economic community – we have one of the main impulses driving the urge to an “edge with nature” urban experience. The only problems is, we tried to get that with a 3,500 pound chunk of high speed machinery and millions of acres of asphalt and rather blank and symbolic lawn – hardly the wide open spaces or the woods. (That weight is closer to the average than the Tesla’s 4,600 pounds.) At least we get a few robins and other human-tolerant birds visiting and actual dirt for things to grow in and children to play on. And of course one can plant natives as well as simply ornamental trees, bushes and flowers. Plus even a vegetable garden to convince ourselves we are rural. But we are not.

In such places we are sub-urban, surrounded and pinned down by the very things we historically thought liberated us, that is, surrounded by asphalt, the vehicles of escape and the need to feed massive amounts of energy into the system to accelerate and decelerate those 3,500 pounds (or 4,600) along with our bodies at a very small fraction of the weight of the car. And what about the new suburbs where two and three story houses are crammed together with almost no yard at all and yet thought of as “suburban” living as if there was some town center nearby as in the streetcar suburb? The worst of both worlds, neither urban nor rural, and far from the pleasures and virtues of both, and nothing like the hominess and modestly mixed-uses of the streetcar suburb, which I’ll mention next.

I think of the initial impulse toward suburban living as the “ecocity impulse,” and it’s a very good impulse, “impulse” being a kind of sudden intuitive insight, maybe a mini-epiphany. It was part of the pattern that saw Europeans with money made in town living outside of town, of the appearance of streetcar suburbs that had the feel of country villages just a ride of 10 to 20 minutes from work and culture, all very workable, with the streetcar suburb and the city working neighborhood both very walkable.

But when the car came along and multiplied the distances, it enticed vastly more people to move far from work. Then the suburbanite had to drive, drive, drive or sit stuck in traffic jams or waiting for repairs or working to pay for the car – but got used to it, as Joshua Brown was getting used to his Tesla 2015 model S on autopilot. Historically the car reshaped the city, flattened it out and scattered it over vastly larger areas. The goal impulse was eventually – and massively – contradicted by using the wrong technology and means to try to achieve the elusive ends desired, which would not have been elusive if guided by ecological and anatomical whole systems style thinking.

But those good ends the ecocity insight glimpsed as nature and city harmoniously close together need not be so far away. With the compact city for pedestrians designed in awareness of models of organisms in healthy ecological relationship, we can have it all (more or less) with the silver bullet of ecocity design.


A further clarification of healthy built environment comes with looking down from high above and observing metropolitan areas like maps spread out across the landscape. These metropolises have generally come about historically by a city or two near to each other and other nearby towns and villages growing outward and fusing together into a sheet of transportation networks, parking lots and low to moderate density development with centers of greater intensity such as central business districts – downtowns – and industrial and other districts, such as university campuses, medical services districts, shopping centers and cultural magnets like arts and multiplex entertainment districts.

But first picture the older compact pedestrian towns of Europe and compare them to the more car-dependent agglomerations of the United States. Some such European towns operate on easily one-third the land area and consume one-third the energy of the scattered US version at comparable levels of prosperity. For those interested in solving the climate change problem that’s a 66% head start improvement in our chances for solving most of the problem. In some circles, especially those trimming one or two percentage points for one sort of improvement or another here and there, a 66% improvement as a base start in the right direction is what’s called “a significant number.” Why not think that one through? If we do, cars, and not just gasoline powered ones driven by actual humans, would be seen as a serious problem. Land consuming sprawl and high-energy consumption are directly related to cars: generally it’s the more of the latter, the more of the other former two, and vice versa.

If we do think it through we can imagine the splayed out metropolis downtowns transforming into ecocities, the major districts turning into ecotowns and neighborhood centers becoming ecovillages. Think back cover of Mannahatta – a Natural History of New York City, the magnificent big thick book by Eric Sanderson. There you will find a good representation of the general idea for such an ecotropolis laid out as a metamorphosed image of the city from a satellite in space. Nature corridors are created, open spaces greatly increased, farming moves in as colorful patches in shades of green and compact areas become more “mixed-use” with consciousness of “access by proximity” as the guide. The transition can be made through simple zoning shifts that augment the more dense areas with more balanced development. For example: more housing in business districts. Underground waterways can be opened up with ordinances that encourage removing buildings when they get worn out, burned down, seriously damaged in earthquake or infested with termites and dry rot. Rather than being replaced with more of the same kind of development, buildings in lower density areas and special places of particularly high ecological potential, these buildings can be replaced by restored waterways and ridgelines with scenic views that also are good views. When buildings are worn out on the edges of parks and playgrounds, expand the open space and in some of it, add food production and in gardens and orchards, plant native foliage to bring back real naturally functioning environments. Lost density in such locations can be replaced by increasing density and functional diversity in more vitally active areas of much smaller land area. Small towns can be locations for satellite office centers linked electronically to other offices, providing jobs to villages gaining in population and real cultural vitality yet still remaining relatively small.


Back cover of the Book Mannahatta – a Natural History of New York City by Eric Sanderson after an ecotropolis transformation of all boroughs and the New Jersey shore on the Hudson River. Map illustration by Markley Boyer.

For removing buildings, execute “willing seller deals” with funding from storm water abatement moneys and using other open space enhancing taxes and bonds. The private sector including foundations and businesses can contribute to raising funds for these projects as they are already doing in a more piecemeal way in many parts of the world for kindred reasons. Seeing the system in it and instituting on ecocity mapping for the transition can clarify and accelerate this important transition. The removal of over 150 houses and restoration of more than 250 acres with willing seller deals over more than two decades along Johnson Creek in Portland, Oregon is a good model. Houses purchased only when owners wanted to sell for all their various reasons were replaced with native plants attracting native animal species and a pedestrian and bicycle path was built that stretches approximately 17 miles through an eastern Portland neighborhood, a municipality called Milwaukie, almost to downtown. Acquiring real estate for this creek environment, often purchased for removing built structures and restoring natural features, is currently funded by some of the money represented by water utility bills in the vicinity of the creek.


“Utopias” have a bad rep among “realists.” So, though nothing exactly like any written utopia – or dystopia for that matter – has ever been accomplished more than say 70%, and are thus said to be impractical guides. Though when you think about it 70% isn’t too bad for such attempts. This genera, unlike so-called science fiction, which posits some leaps of faith based on imagined but almost assuredly impossible technology like anti-gravity machines, or humans morphing into some kind of weird alien animal, or beaming up, or space ships hitting warp speed so that screen writers can get out of tough scrapes, tries to look at what seems to be physically quite possible. Ecotopia, a 1975 novel by my good friend who died a few years ago, Ernest Callenbach, imagined Northern California, Oregon and Washington seceding from the United States at a time the country was in a deep financial downturn and heavily invested in foreign wars. They got away with it without a disastrous war, just a desultory little one, and went their own ecological way.

The device of a story line is so much more satisfying for most of us than a long description of conditions of change. I might say we need zoning like this, technologies for renewable energy like that, policies for restoring natural landscapes, recycling better, education like this, etc. but nothing to make the blood boil and tears drip. How much more we can personally identify with actual characters, their conflicts, tribulations and little victories within the world described. Of course Callenbach’s reporter, first to officially visit the country of Ecotopia in the 20 years since secession, falls in love with an Ecotopian woman, and though a New Yorker rather condescending and cynical about Ecotopia before travelling there… Well you can guess the ending…


Cover art for one of the printings of Ernest Callenbach’s book Ecotopia with bridges between towers in San Francisco in the distance.

His book was a kind of underground classic among the back-to-the-landers and people trying to go healthy by city design and country living in tune with nature. So many of the more practical among us wanted to have him tell us more about the transition phase, the revolution that led to the new country.

So he wrote another book called Ecotopia Emerging that Callenbach called his “prequel.” In that story the leader whose party inspired and organized the revolutionaries, was a woman with warm, approachable personality but shrewd strategic mind whose reasonableness seemed unassailable. While building political muscle to tune in, drop out and take over, she had her population tune in to her “fireside chats,” literally to a television show inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s radio heart-to-heart talks by the same title from back in the 1930s.

One of her shows started out like this: “Hello, I’m Vera Allwen, and I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time, I have heard, there was a country entirely made up of lazy people. At first they were just ordinary lazy. If they had the chance they would always sit down rather than stand up.” She goes on to describe slouching before television for long hours, the TV dinners. They never got exercise and got quite fat. “In time,” she went on, “a brilliant lazy inventor contrived the ultimate machine for lazy people. It was a large egg-shaped wheeled vehicle, just big enough to hold one person, made out of clear plastic. It had a slump-shaped seat in it, and it was called a ‘char’ because it was half chair and half car.” This vehicle/slouch-chair came equipped with a built in television, a small microwave oven to fit TV dinners, and of course a small motor for propulsion. Also it had a potty underneath, dischargeable at electric recharge stations. People hardly touched each other anymore so their population started declining with their degenerating bodies.

“Just to the north of the lazy people’s country lived a barbarian people who survived mostly on nuts and berries and wild game. They spent most of the time outdoors and were tough and strong. They passed many hours singing, and dancing, and making love, and playing rough games with their children.” But a time came when they noticed the Lazies to the south. “In a clumsy but friendly way, the barbarians tried to drag a few of the lazy people out of their chars, but they fell over helplessly as soon as they were on their feet, and protested loudly, and tried to creep back into their chars where they felt safe. The barbarians laughed at this spectacle, and since they were not called barbarians for nothing, they began to push the chars off cliffs and into rivers just for the fun of it…”

She closes for the evening: “This story happened a long time ago, in the old days. But there are new lazy people now, and new barbarians. What we need to do is learn from history, so we do not repeat it… I’m Vera Allwen. Goodbye until our next visit, next week.”



 In the Pixar film, the trash compactor named WALL-E, top middle, hurtles through the urban world with two Lazies, watching projected visuals while letting their char-like vehicle chair navigate for them.



 A citizen Lazy feels generous and offers a sip of his drink to WALL-E, loses balance and ends up groveling on the ground like the char riders of Vera Allwen’s story.

This will all look familiar to those who saw the Pixar movie, WALL-E, released 27 years after Ecocity Emerging was published. In the WALL-E case the chars are magnetically or anti-gravity levitated and don’t need a shell because life of the former Earthlings in their new urban planet – after consuming the Earth to death – is thoroughly interior. Otherwise their chars are similarly equipped with projected visuals and when the former Earthlings fall over and grovel about, a special squad of robots, that look something like the ones just released this year into American grocery stores to replace inventory workers, come to cart the squirming victims off to some sort of hospital for recovery, as much as one “recovers” in such circumstances.

The self-driving Google car is rather different than the more or less flashy, speedy Tesla, looking much like a slightly larger version of Callenbach’s chars, with a kind of candy gumdrop-shaped small dome housing a set of sensors glued on top. It is something of an ambiguous vehicle, though, verging on not a car but a cart. Maybe you could combine “car” and “cart” and call it a “c-cart” – like you were stuttering. (You too can buy a Google c-cart!) Going just a tad slower it could theoretically mix beautifully with bicycles. A little smaller and it would be fabulously energy saving. But if you could drive that thing – or rather have it drive you – why not ride a bike, get a little exercise, tune up and attractivize your body and enjoy better health? For the disabled… c-carts would be pretty good.


 Google’s self-driving gumdrop-topped autonomous c-cart. Why not a just plain steerable cart – or bicycle to get a little good exercise?

And so we come back to this: the city for people is already here with its “mixed uses,” bicycles and transit but puffed out to absurd and wildly destructive proportions by conventional cars and innovative ones alike. Do we really want to keep heading toward higher states of personal incompetence wherein us Lazies have the machines do everything for us? Is there really room on the planet for multiplying our already immense population by adding massive numbers of robots, robot cars, inventory takers with their AI (artificial “intelligence”) and some new versions of TV dinners? Do we really want to render everyone but primary producers in third world and “developing countries” to welfare recipient status and IT designers and machine maintenance people? Why not drones to deliver your dinner at nice restaurants instead of pretty waitresses and guys in snazzy outfits?

But instead, why not just try to build cities for people – active people in good shape physically and mentally, capable of lifting things, making things and moving and navigating about on their own hard bones and proud muscles and educating themselves for doing genuinely productive services for people, plants and animals all using their inborn mind/body coordination?

What about our innate genius?

Regarding genius, one might think it could deliver either driverless cars or driverless cities, so another quote from Dwight Eisenhower where the word pops up as important guidance: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of it laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” This thought for the ages was in a speech one month after America’s archenemy Joseph Stalin had died. As the world was wondering what his death might mean for the future, eyes turned to the President of the United States. Further arms race with the Soviet Union? New steps toward peace? The talk was called “The Chance for Peace” delivered to a meeting of the Society of Newspaper Editors. It presented, among other comparisons, “The cost of one heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities… We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people…” For that I love this guy, Ike. For overthrowing the democratic government of Iran and destabilizing the Middle East with violent reverberations all the way down to the present, I also hate him. But so it is with politicians that politics makes strange bedfellows, even within the two sides of the same person.

I mention Eisenhower’s other truly presidential speech here because the dominant thinking process then and now, and the difficulty of healthy, creative genius to thrive also today, seems to stand between us and that thriving, maybe even just surviving what could be a world in collapse. As we need a particular kind of city to help usher in a human-built environment to protect “the environment,” we need a particular kind of genius at this point, one that can think in whole systems and actually create a healthier world, both made by and for us humans and saved for nature – healthy ecology and evolution – too.

When I started writing this article, Elon Musk struck me as a particularly creative thinker and notably amazing business innovator, but one riveted on particulars, one technology at a time, missing whole systems perspectives. But what I read about him and his electric cars on autopilot, his purchase of Solar City and launch of Space X was ever more intriguing and tantalizing than first impressions would have hinted. He must in fact be a highly accomplished systems thinker if selectively partial, stopping frustratingly short of the most efficient and healthy of infrastructure/energy/transportation/information whole systems thinking, meaning ecocity thinking. I liked his homey, colorful and expressive use of words (if sometimes a bit loose and sloppy) and the way he seems to be honest about his failures as well as successes. Working with non-profits trying to impress foundations while seeking grants, presenting nothing but rosy successes, I much prefer just the truth, as if honesty about the difficulties of life were right up there with the successes: we often learn even more from failures than successes so the larger scope approach seemed logical as well as honest. I liked Musk’s use of failures as well as successes and dreams as well as plans all mixed together.

His strategy for building cities in which electric cars tie in with solar energy from flat roofs and land based batteries to store electricity from small to gigantic that he calls Powerwalls does integrate infrastructure, energy and transport. But so also does the almost happenstance, piecemeal and reactive pattern of building cities for cars. That too has attained a whole systems reality in auto-sprawl syndrome, which I sometimes call ASS. Though it is extraordinarily dysfunctional in terms of health of human and natural systems, the city of cars and sprawl is an integrated whole system cut and pasted together by cars, gasoline and asphalt. Musk’s scheme describes a carefully thought out whole system of enormous scale. In fact a scale far larger in terms of infrastructure of material, energy and human-built information complexity than the “ecocity” vision I’m suggesting as an alternative. That alternative, which looks to efficiencies in natural ecosystems and organisms as healthy models, is in important senses, miniaturized. Musk’s is expansive on the surface of the planet and very big, literally likely to be an even larger commitment to construction than the existing city of, for and (indirectly) by cars. Musk’s vision of adding vast landscapes of solar panels on rooftops with batteries hung on walls of garages idealizes scattered flat development, two-dimensional development ignorant of the anatomy analogy and the percept: build for people, not cars, provide access by proximity rather than far flung transport. Some solar on roofs is probably just fine as we transition away from lots of low-density flat roof landscapes, a kind of retreating army stop gap strategy, but a very bad idea as an ideal, as a guidance, as a built reality.

Meantime Musk also drifts toward imagining electric buses and trucks, and especially in realizing they could be more efficient if smaller. To better fit the city itself, which he believes is a good idea, in this particular he’s getting closer to an ecocity insight that can actually define a healthy way of urban living into the deep future. But he has not yet sufficiently assessed the structure of the city itself in relation to transport and energy. When he calls his rooftop solar panels “beautiful,” even “stunning” and shows us some imagery of those future designs I look at them and say to myself, “Who on Earth does he think he’s fooling?” They are just plain everyday slabs on scattered roofs, a truly boring architectural esthetic tacked on to the banal miasma of today’s hyper bland suburbs.

That we need renewable energy is unassailable from pollution and climate perspectives, and congratulations to him for recognizing that and the importance of getting away from fossil fuels and deep into solar technologies. Congratulations also for taking all the risk of business investment in that direction and investing in and organizing an impressive set of new innovations. But it is a real problem that he hasn’t learned the lesson of Los Angeles fixing the smog problem and in that particular manner hastening rapid climate change by perpetuating and expanding car-based urban sprawl world-wide. He understands the value of solar energy but is hooking it to a severely deformed non-genuinely-urban infrastructure.

Musk has written a document on his planning to that date, which was July 20, 2016, 74 days after Joshua Brown’s crash. He calls the statement his “Master Plan – Part Deux.” In it he lays out his whole integrated system of transport, buildings and energy systems. The energy part is of course crucial and his solution is putting solar on millions of roofs. That’s what the leaves of plants do, laid out flat under the sun to maximize solar gain. And so too for agriculture. But there are proportions to pay attention to in nature. There is approximately 1,000 times the biomass on Earth in plants as compared to animals and extending out flat over vast landscapes makes sense for them, meaning the plants. But that model comes up against three-dimensionality being far more efficient for the fast action of us animals burning energy concentrated by the plants, capable of automobility ourselves, without recourse to automobiles. We need the food energy from the plants for moving about the surface of the Earth and doing all sorts of good things. But within what inevitable limits of speed, distance, share of the biosphere’s “primary photosynthetic product” collected by chlorophyll in plants, and one might add, for what healthy and meaningful purposes?

In the bargain us animals have provided valuable services to the plants such as enriching soils and fertilizing flowering plants and otherwise contributing with our various organic “wastes” to the plant kingdom, largely by way of decomposition by the fungal kingdom. This kind of proportioning of our energy stream we get from the plants, including the ancient ones that gave us the fossil fuels, should be taken seriously. We should give highest priority to highest efficiency in building cities given their immense impacts, and potential positive contributions to the biosphere. Thus Musk misses entirely, though he seems to be building up toward a higher order of integration, some of the most important factors I’m talking about here. That higher level of integration one could label the “ecocity”.


Gaining a sense of proportion about cars, they take up an enormous amount of room in the sprawling urban pattern. Here we illustrate a rough graphic depicting approximately the area required in a parking lot or parking structure for an individual car, as compared to a person, seen sitting like a car passenger to the left of the car from above. The surface area represented here stands for maneuvering space one car is responsible for in a parking lot or parking structure, sharing the surface with other cars, including traffic lanes, ramps, reserved presently unoccupied space, superfluous corners, elevators and stairs for people and so on. Images by Richard Register.


We have to add in the surface area of the streets for cars, freeways and their shoulders and landscaped buffer zones, freeway interchanges, on and off ramps, gas stations, sales and repair shops for cars and so on. The larger space delineated is the single car’s approximate allotment of the total land area needed.



Individual humans demand space too, so let’s compare a person’s studio apartment with dedicated and shared hallways, elevator footprints and sidewalks to get a rough idea of spatial demands relative to cars. Their space demands are not negligible either but still on the order of only a quarter or less than what the car demands. So how can we design cities for both humans and cars? – a pretty hopeless task from the basic geometry on up. And this needs to be multiplied by the speed of typical operation of the car which is around ten times that of a walking person.



Top line up representing the contrast between the regular average weight of people compared to weight of a car for a sense of the proportions involved. How do you also build cities for both cars and people when, as illustrated, the car weighs as much on average as 30 people. The bottom line of people represents the 40 people to average the weight of an electric Tesla with its heavy batteries.

Another issue: lack of a sense of proportion as seen by Musk’s notions connected with his Space X efforts to facilitate space travel and even the sheer egomania of space tourism for the super rich. It is hard to imagine a plaything more wasteful than accelerating humans and hardware by burning massive amounts of fuel on their way to four times the speed of a rifle bullet, which is what it takes to get into orbit. It is worth noticing that 85% of the weight of the Space Shuttle at launch is fuel; only 15 percent is the space vehicle itself and payload, including its astronauts. The same but more so for sending people to Mars. Maybe a rare few for highly important and scientific exploration, knowledge and, let’s face it, vicarious adventure for all but a miniscule representative fraction of us. But to be popularized in any degree for the excitement of those with money to literally burn up in vast quantities of rocket fuel for bring home some impressive tourist stories… not so healthy. Talk about moral reprehensibility.

Back on Earth we discover that even with the whole systems approach that takes nature’s lessons seriously, as revealed in what we’ve learned of ecology and evolution, we can notice that something as large as our built infrastructure that is our collective home of city, town and village, is not enough for a true grasp of what’s needed for survival and thriving of us people and the rest of life on the planet. Our built infrastructure with it’s subsystems of buildings, transport, energy and information, is in fact another whole system within a larger system that could be understood also as a higher order whole system, perhaps the highest for our survival on a planet of rich biological and cultural diversity. These days it might be popular to say our built infrastructure is “nested” along with several other whole systems in the survival/thrival whole system.

In other words we need to also recognize we humans are vastly overpopulated, with us and our food animals accounting for 97% of the weight of land mammals on the planet, about 31% being simply our bodies, and 66% being the weight of our food mammals and pets. We also need to recognize our agriculture system is far too massive in land use extent and far too dependent on machines and massive use of chemicals and energy. Other than in the physical realm, we also need to recognize that we need something in the mental, psychological, spiritual realm called generosity. It’s time for science to understand healthy limits and for philosophy to recognize “enough,” and for enough to prevail over more. It is time to give back to nature that has given so much in giving us life itself on this planet. Those major whole systems to consider and address with unswerving resolve pretty much completes the major subsystems list we need to give absolute highest priority.

Back to Y Combinator’s announced intention of building a city of the future, perhaps to lead us to health as Los Angeles failed to do in its muddled model for the world’s sprawled cities. It would be interesting to see what the IT community might have to offer if it understood the link between transportation system and urban form. President Sam Altman and new city project leader Adora Cheung at Y Combinator offered an invitation on their blog post to people with “strong interests and bold ideas” to join them. So I wrote to them proposing they think through driverless cities, myself joining with them. It has been five weeks now since I suggested putting their tech genius in service for tuning cities to basic lessons from nature. Did I hear back? You guessed it. Silence.

All this could be heading to an opportunity to make a big difference. Us humans love big events and here comes Earth Day 2020. The Earth Day Network is championing, among many good things, electric cars. They are failing to assess the impacts of cars on city structure – as usual. Can they be persuaded to relent on keeping the whole automobile sprawl syndrome continuing into the future, undermining the potential of humanity’s built infrastructure of cities, towns and villages to help restore thriving ecosystems and even evolution? I was just in China giving a plenary talk at the country’s annual Urban Planning and Development Conference – I’ve spoken at all of the last four in their series, the one that took place one week before finishing this article being the latest. It was the 11th in the series. Also there was a speaker for the China Green Building Council. In his speech he crowed the excellent award of the GBC to a city in China for hosting a big new electric car factory. With no time to speak from the floor – which after all surrounded me with 3,000 other people, I went up to him after and suggested he get wise to the fact that the better car perpetuated a far greater problem than it could ever hope to ameliorate. I hope this can all be straightened out for a clear message by the time the 50th anniversary Earth Day rolls around in 2020.

Since few people seem to be headed down the lines of reasoning I’ve presented here, it is now time for some education, which is, 5.) the other of the mental, psychological, spiritual big systems we need to proportion properly as co-highest in importance along with 4.) generosity, mentioned above. The physical enterprises for surviving and thriving we need to deal with successfully are, to memorialize: 1.) ourselves, that is, population, 2.) our agriculture system that taps into the flow of solar energy through the plants and out to us animals, biomass ratio 1,000 to 1, and 3.) our built infrastructures mostly of cities and their support subsystems. Then with a little fresh thinking about all of that, perhaps the largest of integrated whole system of linked systems on Earth, commanded by humans, with awareness of the nature of what we’ve created so far, with the built environment nested comfortably in with the other crucial living systems, then maybe we can move on to create something inspiring and healthy for the long haul.


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