“Firsts” — Observing our Ecocity influence unfolding

By Richard Register, Founder and President

About 90% of the way through Lester Brown’s autobiography, Breaking Ground (W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2013), he confesses, “I’m way beyond my comfort zone writing an autobiography.” A few friends have suggested I write one too. “You’ve lead a very interesting life,” they’ve said. I’ve replied, “Well, I suppose some people would find it interesting…”

But I’ve had a problem expounding on various ideas I’ve had or adopted over the years and decades, always thinking I was missing some of the ambition, even interest, of those “wanting to be writers,” a little too impatient to intensively study and “master the craft.” I always wanted to get down to doing something. Instead of seeing myself as a writer of any sort I have seen myself as the maker of “things,” including those ephemeral sometimes real sometimes ghosts called “ideas.” Some such products of my thinking have been pretty novel, even “firsts” as far as I can tell.

I also see myself as a democratic kind of guy, an impresario of sorts gathering together others I think have inspiring, original or just plain beautiful thoughts and ideas. This is partially because it’s fun and partially because it’s a serious investment in learning something, investing in the future, something of serious help. I do this “gathering together” in the form of setting up meetings, tours, seminars, conferences, once-upon-a-time quite a few just common parties. Sometimes it’s simple as individually posing people for photographs because an aspect of certain faces, bodies, and even clothes reveals something of the worlds they live in, their thoughts, feelings and inner being—our inner being.

So as follows, an overview of some of the ideas I’m most proud of, what I might consider “firsts.”

A Confluence of Independent realizations?

I can’t say it doesn’t frustrate me somewhat that much that I’ve been doing for decades is now just getting the limelight, to the benefit of others just catching on. Yet history is full of these cases of forgotten originators. So it is in a long line of frustrations that I see my ecocity mapping system I represented in the early 1980s is now on the back cover of the great 2009 volume Mannahatta – a Natural History of New York City (by Eric W. Sanderson, Abrams, New York, 2009) with no mention of my work.

The Manahatta map shows low-density automobile dependent development replaced by a pattern of centers-focused development. Most of the paved surface is replaced by farms and what looks like some areas of natural landscapes and water features. The same for my imagery, which appeared in 1987 in my book Ecocity Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, about four years after I started making such maps.

But in addition, my offering illustrated a methodology by which the resulting centers-oriented, open-space-liberating could come about.

  1. First, look into the past maps of your town and learn something of the natural environment and ecology that is/was present there. Note something of the cultural and development history. We will never get back to the “natural” state or preserve the past like a somehow living fossil, but we can learn a great deal about how life can thrive in this particular geography.
  1. Then identify the most vital downtowns, district centers and neighborhood centers on the map of you town, city or metropolitan area. In these places increase both density and variety of land use. In other words, imagine placing residences, commercial, office, food availability, schools, etc. close together, mostly in walking and bicycling distances from one another. Radically reduce the need for long distance commuting.

This kind of planning, based on what might be called future-oriented mapping, is antithetical to planning for cars. Automobiles are too large and fast, take up vastly too much space, and cost too much energy, money and time. Ecocity mapping is about planning for us human beings, not cars. Infrastructure needs to be built to our scale, our speed of normal movement and the eternal, fluctuating needs of our cultural creativity and care.

We can proceed with this mapping exercise in a way that respects “human scale,” that celebrates views and sun angels for heating buildings, that provides accessibility to places that feel comfortable, even inspiring. That means accessibility to pleasant environments, native planting and gardens on terraces and rooftops and, in the more dense areas, bridges linking some of those terraces and rooftops with pedestrian bridges.


Ecocity map for Berkeley, California, about 1983. This was imagined guiding a development shift for “density and diversity” moving toward “vitality centers” while landscapes and waterways were opening up for nature and farming. A sequence of changes guided by the map is followed over the decades in Richard’s Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for A healthy Future, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1987.

Ecocity map for Berkeley, California, about 1983. This was imagined guiding a development shift for “density and diversity” moving toward “vitality centers” while landscapes and waterways were opening up for nature and farming. A sequence of changes guided by the map is followed over the decades in Richard’s Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for A healthy Future, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1987.


Several decades later, and ecocity ideas are just becoming popular, with little credit to the “old guard” of my generation’s movement. Still, a genuinely good idea stays a good idea. Perhaps the dynamic of history is simply that a good idea emerges from a context getting ever more obvious. In this case, it’s that sprawl is a disaster and we need to reverse the pattern. But maybe here was the rub and why the project of adopting that mapping for ecocity transformation was postponed 26 years until 2009, Mannahatta’s publishing date – or still 31 years to 2014, to today. When I made the first such centers-identifying maps and proposed a system for slowly withdrawing from scattered habitation, people would immediately look for their house on the map and panic. “You mean you want to demolish my house?!” Or conversely, “You mean you want to put an apartment house and office building on my block?!”

I’d explain the small-scale details were crucial; the process could be by “willing seller deals” and not by eminent domain and condemnation. The process of reshaping would also be expected to take decades and the city and its environs would be constantly improving in both types of development: new open spaces, expanding room for nature, farming, recreation, sports, playgrounds, etc. “Think of the serious problems solved: climate change, biodiversity destruction, local pollution, remoteness of nature and associated alienation and loss of educational potential for children, think about nature and food production… Plus there is real flexibility in ownership and renting in the city: you can always move to another neighborhood or sell your home and buy another one. Almost all of us do move once in a while,” I explained.

But back in the 1980s my first ecocity maps provoked panic. With very rare exception, once the people of Berkeley had found their house on the map, down came the local iron curtain of the imagination and all positive thought evaporated. Never mind that by the time most of the projects came due they would not even be there any more. They’d have moved or be dead and gone from the planet entirely. Maybe such a thought – having to move, to uproot – or just the thought that they might not even be alive any more at some point, compounded the problem. The future thinking maps kindled the imagined personal danger into flaming imminent threat—that is, totally freaked them out.

In any case here we are in 2014 and the idea is as solid and helpful as ever. The author of Manahatta recognized the powerful idea he was illustrating whether he knew anything about my work or not. The idea is as well founded and useful as ever. A good basic idea is, like a diamond, forever. And like a diamond can be easily lost, in the case of ideas, if not communicated and applied. Fortunately it can also be rediscovered.


“Ecocity” aka “Eco-city” and the used almost nowhere “EcoCity”

How about the term “ecocity?” One of my firsts? Maybe… My friends in China say I coined the term and I don’t protest as they go about trying to build some version of the concept. Wang Rusong of the Chinese Academy of Science and Qiu Baoxing Vice Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development have joined the ecocity effort, Rusong in 1990 (actually under other names and related activities going back to the early 1980s) and Baoxing in the early 2000s. Then there are Lin Xuefeng, Victor Liu and Tong Yen Ho busy building Tianjin Eco-city. This is an actual city for 350,000 people rapidly a-building about 100 miles east of Beijing on the Bohai Bay, the first in the world with the word ecocity in the official city name.

I entered the scene after the Garden City movement, perhaps the first “Green” thinking among serious urban planners. These discussions of the best term for ecologically healthy cities that I participated in took place in the 1960s when Paolo Soleri coined the term “arcology” for the fusion of architecture and ecology. At the time a number of us aware of his work were discussing his notion of compact pedestrian, single-structure cities. But we thought “arcology” wasn’t quite the right word because we were not talking about just the architecture of buildings but clusters of them, plus streets, rails, open spaces of special design, energy systems to fit, and restoration of associated lands and waterscapes. The term ecocity must certainly have been offered by one of us in such discussions. It very likely was myself. I definitely started using and promoting the word consistently by the mid or late 1970s while fleshing out a good deal more about its meaning.

A word I did make up for sure was “ecotropolis.” I even know exactly when and where: on the second day of the 9th International Ecocity Conference on (August 23, 2011) in Montreal, Canada walking along the second floor north corridor of the Palais des Congres, the big civic conference center there. I was thinking about the fact that in many parts of the world fairly closely scattered towns and cities grew outward with the increase of population – but mostly because of car-induced sprawl – until they all grew together and merged into a whole urban agglomeration called a metropolis, megalopolis or metropolitan area. The infrastructure replacing this sprawl should have a name too. Why not ecotropolis?


My adaptations and general catch up

I represent a number of ideas I didn’t make up. Bridges between buildings, for example. Downtown San Francisco has a whole district of 16 blocks of housing, offices, shops and even three large rooftop parks linked by bridges at the third and fourth story level over the streets. It’s called Embarcadero Center and these days taken quite for granted. It should be considered a powerful and early ecocity manifestation.

Some urban features I highlight for something in them of special “ecocity” meaning or purpose, such as exterior glass elevators for the exciting cheap thrills of sweeping up and down as if flying over your city as well as for the convenience of vertical transportation. Sometimes I try out names for such features, too. Probably my favorite is the rare feature I call a “keyhole plaza” or “view plaza.” Imagine your typical plaza but instead of the open “hard space” for people to gather being surrounded exclusively by buildings, there is an opening to a view to a special natural or perhaps agricultural feature nearby. That is, a corner or a side of the plaza is missing to provide an opening to such a view. Don’t build anything in the way of this view. The cultural product in the form of surrounding buildings frames a view to, say, a mountain, or perhaps a river, or looks up a beautiful coastline. You could even imagine a keyhole plaza in the flat relentless plains of Kansas or steppes of Russia or savannas. In these cases horizontal lines in the view-surrounding buildings designed to emphasize the character of the infinite horizon so strong as the natural environment there.

I called this a “keyhole plaza” for many years. I was thinking of the plan of such a plaza viewed from above looking something like the hole for the key shaft in the old style lock. Later I started using the more generic term for what it provides – a “view” plaza.


Keyhole (or “view”) plaza. Surround or “frame” a special view to nature or agriculture – something very important in the environment – with the cultural product of some of the town’s best buildings, thereby celebrating both nature and culture very conspicuously and appreciatively. (p.6)

Keyhole (or “view”) plaza. Surround or “frame” a special view to nature or agriculture – something very important in the environment – with the cultural product of some of the town’s best buildings, thereby celebrating both nature and culture very conspicuously and appreciatively.


Jackson Square in New Orleans is such a plaza. Unfortunately it lost its view to the Mississippi River as the silt and the river rose up over the years due to sand and mud deposition. This has forced the raising of an artificial levee to protect the whole city. The levee now presents a blank slope instead of a river view to Jackson Square.

San Marcos Plaza in Venice, Italy is such a plaza too, though its view focuses more on buildings across the lagoon than the lagoon itself or the open Adriatic Sea. Piran, Slovenia too, though the notch in the wall of buildings, opens to a view of the Adriatic. The opening should probably be quite a bit wider for the effect to be really felt.

Among the ideas that certainly are not mine but ones that facilitate ecocity progress, ideas I’ve been advocating for decades, are ones such as creating pedestrian and bicycle streets and paths, making and expanding car-free areas, simply making mixed use places even more “mixed use” and “balanced” in terms of complementary facilities close together and investing in and making these places more popular so that people can enjoy their “vitality centers” more. This is exactly what was portrayed in our prescriptive ecocity mapping since the early 1980s.

Of course waterway, shoreline and ridgeline preservation and restoration fits too and gradually over the decades their acceptance is expanding. My friend Sylvia McLaughlin, 97 years old, still emeritus on our Ecocity Builders’ Board of Directors, saved the Bay with her two associates, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulich founding the Save San Francisco Bay Association in 1960 – which not only saved the 85% of the bay that was in the planning pipeline for fill and development, but established rules for the entire state that provided shoreline access for the public as well as preservation of waterways and shorelines – and proved a model for the country and whole world after.

Solar, wind and other renewables fit here as the energy base for the energy conserving ecocity, providing the supply for the reduced demand of the redesigned and rebuilt city that could be an ecocity or ecotropolis. My interest in solar goes back to Farrington Daniels who wrote a book published in 1962 entitled The Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy. Solar energy is clean and so ample as to constitute 99.97% of all energy arriving daily in the film of life on Earth called the biosphere. Plus, in geologic time, solar energy, converted by the chlorophyll of plants, provides the planet’s fossil fuels. For direct application, sunshine needs some concentration to be utilized for most human purposes other than simply “passively” warming our constructed environments of buildings and clusters thereof. Daniels – plus nature herself – seemed to make immaculate good sense so I looked for, found and wrote about early solar energy pioneers for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine getting my early article on the subject published in the magazine, then known as West Magazine, September 27, 1972. Solar fits beautifully with ecocity design.


Back to some “originals”

One idea of mine that I was promoting, as early as 1976 in Berkeley, has just in the last year seen application in San Bernardino, California and Tampa, Florida: the planting of “fruit parks” in public places. The Alliance for Community Trees reports just this year (in the April 12, 2014 issue of their internet newsletter) on these initiatives in which fruit trees are being planted – at last! – in public parks. My original effort was designed to appropriate some of the $100,000 (more like $400,000 today according to Oregon State University’s inflation conversion factors chart) allocated to my neighborhood in West Berkeley at the time in Block Grant funding for purposes the neighborhoods themselves would decide upon. Our idea was to have an urban orchardist help plant trees in front of people’s houses and in small portions of parks in the neighborhood, involving the interested neighbors in planting, pruning, harvesting, canning and otherwise preparing the produce. The proposal supported the purchase of trees and hiring of an orchardist/coordinator for the program for one year of a pilot project. The problem was that the administrator of the grant working for the City told us there was no money for the orchardist/coordinator – sorry. Capital projects only. I discovered a year after the decision was made for spending the money that the City’s administrator of the grant was either mistaken or actually lying to keep things simple.

In the meantime what did get funded? New asphalt for a few blocks of one of the streets. But now maybe people are realizing that the city trims and cares for trees all over town anyway. Why not a systematic approach to tree food production involving those who might be interested? You will note also that the ecocity mapping approach helps coordinate and arrange not only new development and open space in best places but gives order and pattern to projects such as expanding parks and community gardens as part of an overall sensible system shaping a better city.


A good place for freeways. For the damage they do, a deserved place for car drivers! That was something of a joke to me in the early 1980s but I discovered such places were being created shortly after. (p. 8)

A good place for freeways. For the damage they do, a deserved place for car drivers! That was something of a joke to me in the early 1980s but I discovered such places were being created shortly after. (p. 8)


Another idea. Between centers as defined in the ecocity mapping exercise and in special other places: bury highways. Already railroads and highway burrow through mountains – the Alps and some other mountain ranges are riddled with tunnels – and subway systems in cities around the world keep the most intense infrastructure of the transportation system out of the way of surface movement while radically reducing congestion, pollution and noise. Around 1983 I drew up, pretty much as a flight of fancy, an image of a freeway under an orchard, which was printed in my book Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Healthy Future in 1987. I’ll include this picture as one of this article’s illustrations. Then on a trip to Europe <the following year> that included Vienna I was shocked and delighted to see that is exactly what the Viennese did along two and a half miles of the Danube, down to an almost identical design of ventilations boxes about eight feet high. They had built what I had imagined, a wall to keep people from accidently falling into the tunnel. The way the tunnel was built was to simply bridge over the freeway with a roof and create a park on top. I’ll include another picture here too, coincidentally from the April 24, San Francisco Chronicle – that is exactly what is planned for replacing what used to be Doyle Drive in the city’s Presidio district just south and east of the Golden Gate Bridge.


The new Doyle Drive plunges under landscapes soon to be designed and built in San Francisco’s Presidio as seen in this artist’s illustration just above the Rotunda dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. Image provided by the Presidio Trust. Website: presidio.gov  (p. 8)

The new Doyle Drive plunges under landscapes soon to be designed and built in San Francisco’s Presidio as seen in this artist’s illustration just above the Rotunda dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. Image provided by the Presidio Trust. Website: presidio.gov


Another idea: why not elevate bicycle paths? Unlike elevated freeways and the elevated rail lines much more common and noisy in the past but still in frequent use and noisy enough to bother most people anywhere with in a few blocks, elevated cycle ways would be narrow, quite – approaching completely silent – and allow much more light to pass around and down to the ground. I drew such imagery – another picture featured here – in the early 1980s, also in Ecocity Berkeley, which only did I discover in Wikipedia two years ago, was preceded by about 85 years by the real thing: the California Cycleway. That was an elevated wooden bicycle path that set out from downtown Pasadena toward downtown Los Angeles. It was opened in the unfortunate year of 1900, 40 years before the opening of the country’s first freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, that took almost exactly the same route between town centers. “Unfortunate” I say because the automobile was just then beginning to come on strong. The California Cycleway only made it about one third of the way from Pasadena toward its southwest destination. People were switching to cars so fast and in general pushing cyclists around so obnoxiously that cycling began to experience a rapid decline. The cycleway was only open for a few months, then closed.


Various designs for an elevated cycleway, circa 1983. Added idea: the low upward arch drains to supporting posts where soil is provided for plants watered only by rain and snow melt, native plants that thrive in the area where soils are more moist. (p. 9)

Various designs for an elevated cycleway, circa 1983. Added idea: the low upward arch drains to supporting posts where soil is provided for plants watered only by rain and snow melt, native plants that thrive in the area where soils are more moist.


A piece of “happy face” history

An idea still earlier and even more remote from ecocities – and this one seems so unlikely I very seldom even mention it, is this: the happy face, alias smiley face. That was spring of 1965. Around 1968 someone told me someone else came up with that now universal symbol of happiness in 1963, an advertising agency man from Seattle. He didn’t make it into Wikipedia, but then neither did I. So there is some ambiguity. But an interesting story traces at least my “creative process.” It was definitely original in my experience. The story according to Wikipedia is…

1953 the movie “Lili” featured advertisements utilizing “happy faces” that shows up on the advertising poster for “Lili.”

1958 the movie “Gigi” – exact same story.

1962 New York radio Station WMCA produced a sweatshirt with the happy face with their current slogan underneath: “WMCA good guys”. This also is pictured in Wikipedia.

1963 or 1964 depending on sources, commercial artist Harvey Ball created the black on yellow version with corners on the mouth for State Mutual Life Insurance, again as a commercial promotion. Paid $45 – equal to $340 in today’s dollars. Unlike the others above and mine below, this happy face was standardized in black on yellow with corners of the mouth added.

1965 – my part of the story isn’t featured there.

1969 and the fad goes mainstream with the grinning yellow one on a Time Magazine cover I remember but can’t find on the Internet.

1972 I find myself in Stockholm around midnight during the first of the United Nations Environment conferences – I’m out in the cold – staring at a stylish downtown window displaying floor mats, toilet seat covers, wall paper, lamp shades, plates, cups, saucers table cloths and clothing all with smiley faces, all in black on yellow.

1972 a little later, a journalist at the Detroit Free Press decides to do some research and discovers I’m in there with an interesting thread in the tapestry, writes the only story I know – outside of Los Angeles where I was actively promoting No War Toys – about that follows – that dug into my part in that particular history. About that shortly.

1980 a popular bumper sticker appeared with an exact replication of my first and most utilized design – I’ll provide a photo here for you to compare with one of my early buttons.


One of the first happy face buttons from 1965, orange, pinned to a 1980s bumper sticker picking up on the drawing, a regular feature in the peace movement during and for a while after the Vietnam War. (p. 10)

One of the first happy face buttons from 1965, orange, pinned to a 1980s bumper sticker picking up on the drawing, a regular feature in the peace movement during and for a while after the Vietnam War.


OK, now my story… The Vietnam War (actually the American War in Vietnam) was raging and growing rapidly in 1965 when I decided there was something unhealthy about giving toy weapons to young boys to encourage them to pretend to kill one another … for fun. What’s that all about?! Could it be the first, the indirect and most subtle first start for conditioning society to accept and glorify war, making it seem heroic, exciting, natural and even inevitable – might as well give up on peace and not give it a chance. I decided to cultivate the debate and started my first non-profit organization and called it No War Toys. Four <For> about six years it was mostly what I was up to.

Almost from the very beginning in the spring of 1965 I decided I needed a logo – push “a brand” as is said by the “in” PR theorists and persuasion spinners these days. But what to use for such a symbol? Methodically I pored over possibilities. I ruled out geometric shapes like stars, hexagons, silhouettes of plants, animals and tools and boring collections of letters. NWT would be a loser. Why not a face drawn by children quite early, regularly, naturally and pretty much universally? Just look around homes, nursery schools and kindergartens and there it was: among the first and happiest of creative activities undertaken by children. Creative and happy at the same time – great! I thought. The only problem was, from my point of view and my effort to find a simple and strong graphic <was this>: was the nose best represented by one dot for the prominence or two dots for the dark punctuating nostrils? Why not just dispense with the nose altogether? That was the same stroke – maybe a little short – of genius I shared with my unknown predecessor publicists for “Lili,” “Gigi,” Station WMCA and so on. The kids all used a dot so maybe us adults were a little off, but it worked and it spread.

First I’d need a newsletter to get the No War Toys ideas confronted directly in relation to propaganda for war and looking into the deeper possible functions of both the creative and destructive, symbolism and actual habit-inducing mental and physical action in children’s play. Next the lapel buttons, balloons and T-shirts. The idea seemed simple enough and off I went to the balloon company to order a couple thousand, white paper and sharp black making pen in hand.

My shock was that it was so hard to draw an intelligent looking happy face. I must have drawn between 30 and 50 versions before one said to me, “I’m smart, happy, competent and confident, without the slightest snide or condescending nuances of glance or look of stupidity or blandness.” It amazed me how many expressions could come through with a drawing so simple. But I eventually liked one of the images and used it for the next six or seven years – on all sorts of colors, not just yellow. I also encouraged children coming to our tree house-building projects in back yards and giant sandcastle (actually sand city) building projects on beaches to bring their own versions of happy faces on flags and banners, and in classrooms and at fairs and festivals, to draw any version they liked.

Now I look back and remember the commercial aspects of the other promotions, but it should also be said I used the happy face in a similar way myself: commercial with a cause, you might say. Sales of the buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers provided most of the money for all my “activist” efforts in the years of my peace movement contribution. At the height, there were approximately 30 “offices,” meaning kitchen and dining room tables around the country, distribution centers for our newsletter and paraphernalia, and for meetings planning demonstrations tacked on to larger peace demonstrations, picketing toy stores, appearances on television, at PTA meeting and the like. My pride was that the “smiley face” or “happy face” might have helped some in deepening thought about war propaganda and the perhaps much more subtle differences between creative and destructive “pre-tend.” Happily it represented for me also creativity.

By the way, I was never for deceiving children that war has not happened and continues, if hopefully less so into the future; some among my friends considering themselves liberals thought I was cultivating deception. To them I said their boys should play war realistically. Maybe they will have to defend their country some day but they shouldn’t think war is fun. The next morning when little Howard wants to play with Sammy, “Sorry, you can’t seem him anymore. Remember? You killed him playing war yesterday.” “But that was just play.” “That’s right but for it to be a bit more truthful, you need to understand what it’s really like. We are going to play Veterans Administration Hospital now…” “But I don’t want to play hospital. I want to pretend to kill my friends.” “Sorry. Today we pretend to lie in bed and try to recover, realizing we won’t… ever.”


Why mention all this about firsts?

For three reasons. First to give some thought to the process by which new ideas or a least new syntheses of older ideas come about. Perhaps a need exists – such as making less damaging, or even actively healthy, cities. Or, second, perhaps it is simply a pleasure like playing, done for self-satisfaction and/or entertainment, for self, friends and children, worthy ends in themselves. At the very least, understanding the dynamics around “firsts” is to understand a little more about the mysteries of creativity and to further the notion that just maybe creativity can be cultivated – to the betterment of practically all aspects of life.

The third reason, perhaps hoping for more than likely satisfied, is that others will recognize such creative capacity and reward it some, thinking the chances of future invention and progress of some sort might in the future materialize. That is, creative people tend to come up with more creative ideas and products as time goes on. Some burn out but a lot keep going. We should help them. The self-serving sub-text here is that there should be more support for people like me! I could get a lot more good projects accomplished with a little of that.

Regarding the first reason, some techniques for cultivating creativity are almost mechanical and not so inspired and exclusively the property of “gifted” people as some creative people would claim – in an effort to romanticize or cast in magical glow what they do to facilitate, they hope, their own legend as special people. And if it is true that there are ways to encourage creativity, as I thought likely then in my happy face days, promoting war toys was at the very least a big waste of time that could be much better used developing the opposite of destructivity, namely creativity. Some creativity is innate no doubt, but I also believed – and still do – that a fair capacity for creativity can be actually taught.

These mechanical approaches to creative action include simply looking at things from another perspective: what happens when we look at something upside down? Or backwards? Or in reverse chronological order? Do we see something new and interesting appearing? What if we methodically search for a basic principle that might be hidden in something we are looking at that appears ordinary at first glance but might mean something else just under the surface? Looking at the everyday map of a metropolitan area is something like that, revealing to the mind that looks beyond the evident smudge of gray and sees the centers of vitality that could become the ecotropolis of the future, a cluster of ecocities, ecotowns, ecovillage and enfolding farms and natural landscapes.

Another technique of methodical application is to simply not fear embarrassment, people trying to make fun of you, to blame you for trying something strange and different. Think that they should be embarrassed, not you. Probably the most entertaining case of this in my experience goes back to the days when I was making sculpture. At the time I was busy enjoying the ever entertaining and lively world of the artist, in my case, in Venice, California most of that time. But that work didn’t bring in enough money to survive so I had a one day a week job making silver and gold peace symbol necklace pendants and pins for a Los Angeles Jeweler capitalizing on the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the time. Not to make him sound greedy – he was also adamantly against the war and a Quaker – but more basically a compassionate thinking man. He’d asked me permission to make happy face jewelry since in those days in the peace movement I was, as the kids would say, the happy face man. I saved up and bought a gold one that I made – the gold belonged originally to the jeweler – and pinned it on my sweater. But when low on money once, I unfortunately sold it.

The job entailed holding a rough cast peace symbol or happy face to a coarse grinding wheel to flatten the surface and smooth the outside edge, then progress on to a fine grinding wheel then polish on a spinning cloth buffer wheel. The metal object would vibrate with a hard tingling feel, heat up almost burning the fingers. Then I’d plunge the amulet, pin or ring into cold water to cool it down and proceed to the next step until a descent looking shiny item was produced.

One morning I was taking a shower in my apartment thinking about making the metal adornments, adjusting the water temperature, thinking of the peace symbols heating, then cooling, vibrating from the grinding wheel, my fingers getting hot, drying out some then plunging into water to get cold and wet again, over and over. I thought, “Why don’t people make sculptures to explore that?” meaning the full range of what we can feel with the several tactile senses. This struck me as very interesting indeed. Almost immediately (after toweling down and drying out) I set to work buying up and assembling in various arrangements vibrators, heaters, coolers and freezers, foggers and misters, foam rubber, fur, velvet and corduroy and I was off and running making tactile sculpture while part of that time overlapping with my No War Toys work.


One of Richard’s tactile sculptures at San Francisco’s Exploratorium from 1974 through 1994. He was the first in the institution’s Artists in Residence program.

One of Richard’s tactile sculptures at San Francisco’s Exploratorium from 1974 through 1994. He was the first in the institution’s Artists in Residence program.


But then what was entertaining about this somewhat long story? And what was revealing about the creative process – and the process of subverting it?

I was at yet another more or less cocktail party with loads of artist types, maybe a few real ones, plus ordinary mortals, as the artists might see it, and a man says in the usual way, “…and what do you do?” So I said, “I make tactile sculptures.” He said, “What do you mean?” I explained I built things to be felt with your hands, sometimes with your whole body as when a moist cool breeze descends from an overhead fogger and gentle fan, something like an on coming rain storm. If a thunderstorm, you might throw in a negative ion generator (like a friend of mine was making a living selling about then).

He scrunched his brow together and said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” He looked almost angry. “You can’t do that. I’ve never heard of anything like that.” “Well all I can say is that’s what I do” and decided to talk to someone else.


Conclusion, if any

Another methodical creative process is just sticking with it. Sticking with it and trying out variations on its theme long enough to see if something unpredictable comes out the far end of all that repletion. Often it does and not only does an end product of quite curious and sometime helpful nature appear, but usually the basic reason or principle behind the process becomes evident too, guiding kindred such processes into the future. Think of the first person to whip up some whip cream, maybe saying to herself, “if I just keep doing this maybe there will be ever more and more bubbles and smaller ones until something really different appears,” or maybe she just doggedly whipped on for ornery refusal to quit once started. Water – it wouldn’t have worked and eventually the experiment would end in just a little information. But whipped cream? OK! A discovery.

In fact, this is one of the tried and true approaches to scientific discovery and its application often thus transforms a vague “theme” into a very powerful and dependable “principle.” One could say sticking with the ecocity venture long enough has revealed – even guaranteed – that the core ideas do in fact reveal themselves as basic principles and produce some pretty amazing and healthy results including some designs guaranteed to satisfy both human beings and the welfare of the planet.

One such principle revealed through relentless focus on the ecocity subject – remember that it took me almost 30 years from ecocity to ecotropolis – is the pattern within for regions larger than mere cities. Another basic principle is the essential three-dimensionality of the built habitat dramatically identified by Paolo Soleri, as compared to two-dimensional sprawl, the principle also known in my world as the “anatomy analogy” as so many things in city arrangement compare very educationally “like” three-dimensional the organization of complex living organisms, and if that concludes or perhaps better yet opens up my line of reasoning here, that is, as in many other considerations in ecocity design – and life itself – up to you.


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