From Arsenal of Democracy to Ecocity Launch Site

by Richard Register

Garden Tour, Genesis

What a beautiful day! I’m floating across the vast landscape of Detroit
under bright blue skies with big white clouds billowing up, enormous
distances between. My rental bike from the Wheelhouse downtown by the river
feels like a magic carpet and the air temperature is perfect for a thin
shirt, fresh breeze on the skin. One surprise: the waters of the Detroit
River are deep and clear blue almost like those of the Bahamas and not at
all like the Mississippi and muddy rivers of China, India and Brazil I’ve
visited lately.

Detroit has vast open spaces where tens of thousands of houses
used to be, a staggering number. Thousands of those still standing are
deserted, moldering away, collapsing or burned out shells. Will something
new, different, beautiful rise from the ashes? Some few houses by percentage
stand in lonely open space, some showing considerable care, many with
distant vistas to downtown where formerly, long rows of houses blocked the
view. These, standing singly or in small clusters frequently have stately
large trees rising high over flower gardens, the ensemble looking something
like rural manor houses, if smaller, in a New Age/Old Country landscape. If
you enjoy the quite and don’t mind the fairly long distances to anything
resembling a neighborhood commercial center for various sundries, staples or
social relaxation, and if you have just a little money or one of the scarce
jobs, this, minus the blackened hulks, could be someone’s idea of a suburban

Downtown people mover, towers

Now pedaling along I think of Phoenix. But Phoenix, Arizona rose from the
ashes of a place that was toast to start with – not ugly by any means and I
loved the deserts where I grew up in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, though
their crystalline dry air is long gone to gray white smog and the humidity
of irrigated lawns, swimming pools and golf course water traps. There really
shouldn’t be a big cities in those scorching sands sprawling toward an
inevitable fall. Detroit in comparison grew up on rich soil, plentiful rain
and at a crossroads of trade. Nature and early settlement indicate a pretty
rich country able to support some real population and at the same time a
rich natural environment.

The once and future arsenal of survival?

First the car companies’ disinvestment in their workers – sent the jobs far
over the rolling seas – then in 2008 the Great Downturn. Now, if Detroit’s
“been down so low, gotta be up from here,” there are also reasons in soil,
climate and history that say there’s a lot to work with.

On my first full day in Detroit I lucked into the annual bus tour of the
city’s inspired food gardens hosted by the Detroit Agriculture Network and
Greening of Detroit. At the dinner party for 600 afterward – all dishes
grown in Detroit – I met Jacob Corvidae, WARM Training Center Green Programs
Manager. Very gratifying to me, he had read one of my books and was already
enthusiastic about the ecocity vision. I mentioned something to the effect
that: “If you dare think a little presumptuously, it was once ‘Motor City
Detroit saved the world for democracy’ (by order of Franklin Delano
Roosevelt) and next it could be ‘Eco City Detroit saved the world for the
biosphere.’” The town and, much larger than that, the entire American
economy and industry was remissioned, retooled and retrained for the Second
World War. No more cars for almost two years, from June 1942 well into 1944.
1943 was the year of the iron penny with copper going to the war effort.
Henry Ford, unwillingly at first, built the Willow Run factory cranking out
650 B-24 bombers every month by the end of 1944 and the head of General
Motors, William Knudsen, was put in charge of planning war production at the
National Defense Advisory Commission. Winston Churchill said, “The United
States is like a giant boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is
no limit to the power it can generate.” He was describing Detroit.

After my years of travel around the world talking about fantasized
ecocities, seeking ecocities and finding that we’d have to build them
ourselves if we ever did want to find any – they ain’t there! – a broad
picture seemed to be coming into focus: Detroit led the world in producing
cars. Los Angeles prototyped and popularized the car city of super mobility,
with a little help from its neighborhood called Hollywood pouring auto
dreams into the world’s consciousness. Brasilia, capital city of Brazil,
perhaps manifested the ultimate expression of the city for cars as an ideal,
so completely designed for them that it’s main streets cross over one
another with bizarrely enormously space-consuming cloverleaf intersections
so drivers need not stop from start to destination (except when on the
smaller streets whose surface intersections, despite all efforts at car-city
design, could not be eliminated).

And now the world is going for cars and building car-cities like crazy, lead
by China with it’s massive car promotion and rapidly expanding
infrastructure. India is trying to sell its growing population, accelerated
by its rapidly spreading in vitro clinics, to buy the new light and cheap
Tata Nano. The Russian government is buying up 2.5 million acres of land to
build automobile dependent single-family houses as a means to inculcate
capitalist values. And Brazil is slicing into its forests and agricultural
lands to grow biofuels for cars and desperately drilling deeper in the ocean
floor for oil than any other country to supply gasoline to the steel, glass,
plastic and rubber beasts. Add up those counties’ populations – 2.7 billion
people – and we have nine times as many people, not counting yet more in
other countries, hyped up for cars than all the people – .3 billion – that
live in the United States. Clearly that is unsustainable. From my
perspective, noticing the connection between the kind of cities we are
building, largest creation of our species, and climate change, resource
depletion and biodiversity collapse, it is off the charts insane.

But oddly, there in the scattered, sometimes quite attractive bones of
Detroit, if what happened once could happen again, and an entire economy set
its eyes on something radically different again, the day could be saved.

I tried out the idea on Jacob, that Detroit might harness such a dream and
ride shining armor style into history for a second time, this time putting
the end to the war between people and nature, solving climate change and the
other resource and ecological problems by building the city that builds
soils and restores biodiversity instead of expunging both. He was
surprisingly undaunted. Most people are a little embarrassed to assign such
ambitious presumptions to their own opportunities, much less exhausted in
advance by the hard work implied.

Instead he said (and encapsulated in an e-mail later): “I don’t think it’s
presumptuous to claim that Detroit could lead the world (though many other
people will think so), as I’ve been preaching that exact notion for some
years. What’s amazing is that while many people still find the notion
laughable (literally, I’ve had people laugh out loud when I’ve suggested
it), we’ve actually got many thought leaders in the region discussing that
very notion. I recently was part of a planning consortium with
representatives of several of the local community governments and this idea
was at the center of the conversation. They were bringing it forward and
talking about whether and how we could realize this possibility. The tide
has turned on this notion, and while it still remains to see if we can see
it through to fruition, the possibility seems much more likely right now
than it did years ago when there were just a handful of us suggesting such a

Lester Brown is perhaps the world’s foremost proponent of a massive overhaul
of economics, production and agriculture. His “Plan B” books, subtitled
“Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” call for declaring a change of vision and
strategy to confront our current problems that are beginning to bring
catastrophe to the whole planet – for the species of plants an animals that
are already dead and gone you have to remember the catastrophe is definitely
past tense and for those dying now, present. Ecological Armageddon isn’t in
the future; it’s already begun and is growing larger every day, somewhat
analogous to early days of World War II before the Unites States plunged in.

Abandoned train station from bridge

Brown says we need an all out effort as if preparing for war. He uses the
example of FDR’s order to the automobile industry during the Second World
War. He doesn’t write much about the role of cities in such a strategy, but
he should. Detroit should invite the effort to locate – again – right there
because that’s where the opportunity for new city, new agriculture and
restored nature is numbered in the tens of thousands of acres.

Art scene Venice, California revisited

Heidleburg pokadot house profile

When I arrived at the Detroit Airport I was greeted by landscape
architect masters candidate Fai Foen and her friends Dana and Chris. In half
an hour we were exploring the inspired vision of Tyree Guyton. Watching his
neighborhood on Heidelberg Street disintegrate after the 1967 riots, by 1986
Guyton, his grandfather and his wife launched a project to dress up his own
house and abandoned others in his neighborhood with colors, shapes, recycled
things and thoughts. He started with bright colored dots painted on all the
outside surfaces of his house. Soon he’d commandeered the siding, yards and
sidewalks of half a dozen deserted houses on his block and now, more than 20
years later, his quirky and cheery assembled collection, painted street and
rambling sculpture gardens are the third most visited tourist destination in

One virtue of Detroit is that “friendly” neighbors defending
everyone’s property whether they want such eyes on them or not, keeping
everything on the straight and narrow, are simply not there, or at least
several houses and empty lots down the street. The city government is, like
the Chinese have said of their Emperor for three thousand years, far away
and the mountains are high. In Detroit’s case, the government with abysmal
tax base and busy with economic collapse, degenerating infrastructure, crime
and drugs is far away in the sense of dozens of blocks of desolation to City
Hall, across a landscape abandoned by the car companies when they abandoned
their workers. Shopping carts on the treetops, giant cut outs of women’s
shoes, television screen-shaped bold outline faces on upright sheets of
plywood, junk cars with enormous stuffed animal killer whales and elephants,
the worlds “GOD,” and “New York Taxi” in big letters and the ever present
bright colored dots, some two or three feet across and visible on Google
Earth from 5,000 feet above. What does it mean? A great place to say, “Hey,
let’s do something that says we care about this place, something attracting
happy thoughts and thoughts about all sorts of new possibilities. How can we
turn this problem into a swarm of solutions?” As we walked around the
Heidelberg Project, the setting sun was warming up the painted colors as if
golden butter had been poured over the whole neighborhood.

Heidleburg car planter project created by Code Pink

The following day I was, as said above, pedaling my magic carpet
zero emissions vehicle across town seeing what would come next, thinking
about Phoenix and about Detroit possibilities. Venice kept coming up in my
mind too. What was this sense of possibility, excitement? I hadn’t felt
quite like this in years, decades actually. I realized it was the feeling I
had arriving in Venice, California when I was 21. Almost bizarrely it seems
to me today – I have read little poetry in the last 30 years – I had in
those youthful days, followed the beatnik poets to the near-free rents,
balmy climate, bongos, dark glasses, late night coffeehouses and
intellectual freedom of God bless California. Winter in New Mexico could be
harsh. There in California I wouldn’t even have to buy winter clothes and in
summer I could walk to the beach barefoot – which I did. A
hard-to-get-cheaper ghetto by the sea with lots of interesting people and a
storefront studio for making my sculpture – that was my idea of paradise.

Downtown view from outer area

On my bicycle ride at 10:30 in the morning I could look down five or six
blocks and see only five or six cars moving on Michigan Avenue, supposed to
be one of the main Detroit arterials. There in Detroit pedestrians as a rule
pay little attention to traffic lights. You’d feel ridiculous waiting,
waiting and waiting for a car to arrive. And imagine the millions of them
built there! Really surrealistic.

The feeling that was beginning to rise in me was possibility. Anything might
be possible here, just like Venice long ago. I met another landscape
architecture student, Sarah Pavelko, who just got one of the coveted jobs in
the region. She and her husband had recently bought a house for practically
nothing in a neighborhood where about three quarters of the homes were long
gone. Their present big deal problem was that they had purchased three lots
next door and wanted to do major food growing there but another neighbor,
not an owner of the land, had been thinking of it as his open space for
years. How to make the new arrangement and everything copasetic at the same

Not to ignore the enormous problems there. Someone with almost no resources
and no job prospects can’t make it unless amazingly motivated and
resourceful. But with just a little saving or help from friends, relatives
and gumption, as in Venice when I landed there, you can live very cheaply in
Detroit and make some high leverage small investments. You can imagine and
even build a life of independence, personal and property growth and success.
Artists have traditionally been pioneers in such situations, specialists in
turning their fantasies into realities in a wide variety of environments,
gathering up resources invisible to most others, creating opportunities from
sheer imagination and a little involvement in their community. I was told
the situation prevails there too, with a long history of a community
enthusiastic for its own music and arts patronage from the wealthier that
are still lurking downtown and in nearby more prosperous places. But this
time around there is in addition the long distance connection of the
internet to lend yet more support to designers, writers and others whose
products can be reduced to electrons, beamed up to satellites in cold space
and back down to art and literature centers, even industrial design hubs
around the world to tap into some trickle of that long distance
international monetary flow.
New villages for an ecocity civilization

That particular bicycle trip, randomly targeted across the vast
expanses landed me in a wonderful Mexican Village – they call it that too,
and alternatively, Mexican Town. Minus the town plaza it should have had, it
still really felt like being way down in Mexico. Chance had taken me to a
fabulous juevos rancheros breakfast. The next day, having coffee with John
Gallagher the architecture, development and city planning writer for the
Detroit Free Press, I described my chance encounter with the great food. He
asked me the name of the restaurant. “Lupita’s,” I said. His eyes widened –
“My favorite place!”

But my city planning and future development point here is that
Detroit was laid out in such a scattered manner, powered by civilization’s
one time cache of oil in the cars cranked out so plentifully in Michigan,
that now, rather ironically, with centers forming up, such as Mexican
Village and several others I discovered later, a new urban form could take
shape. Where one mass of metropolitan sprawl once covered hundreds of
thousands of acres in asphalt, lawns and rooftops, now in a place like
Detroit, town cores with real cultural character to can rise around centers
of real vitality. Nature and agriculture can – and is – coming back, in some
cases consolidating the random open spaces of vacant lots into serious food
production and nature restoration.

On the centers side, the areas where it would make the most
sense to see new development, there are places like Hamtramc the Polish
enclave, Eastern Market with its Farmer’s Market and surrounding commercial
area, and special magnets like Avalon Bakery helping enliven a Wayne State
University neighborhood, perhaps becoming the seed for a developed community
center around their good coffees and breads and splendid raspberry bars, as
good in their way as Lupita’s juevos rancheros. Then there are hints of the
future in the Sugar Hill arts center project of Diane Van Buren Jones, with
20 units of work live for artists near neighborhood amenities in the
historic former jazz center complete with outdoor sculpture garden three
blocks from the African American Museum and Detroit Science Center. This
area, close to Woodard Avenue, a main street and future location of a new
metro rail line, could become another center of vitality. Close to the
Heidelberg Project, one could imagine a cluster of neighborhood and some
city-wide destination activities being supported with a new center of
enormous vitality; that could also become the core of a new town
development. As the third most popular tourist destination already, why not
a small hotel with enough supporting places to eat and get introduced to
Detroit that it could strengthen and become the core of a growing artists’
colony? Or new renewable energy and architecture related business incubator?
How about, in such centers rising from the ashes and rich soils, a few
apartment structures made of shipping containers with solar greenhouses
three or four stories high or the usual house designs raised up a story or
two with shops downstairs? Farmers there could step out their door and
within one to three blocks be growing produce for markets around town.

John Gallagher had a number of leads for me for learning more
about Detroit with some hints as to who might be the best to connect with in
pursuit of identifying and helping to support projects furthering ecocity
development. Perhaps his best suggestion was, pleasantly enough, his wife
Sheu-Jane: she was working on establishing greenways through certain
neighborhoods of Detroit, which would require setting aside passage for foot
and bicycle traffic, plus associated open space. Whether these would lead to
permanent easements or not, and how such routes and open spaces would be
coordinated with the new centers that could be shaping up, I didn’t find out
– time was running out. But I did successfully search for her work on the
Internet and found out about a very promising three-day charrette (an
intensive design workshop featuring the making of maps, proposed plans and
drawings) that Ms. Gallagher organized for the Village Community Development
Corporation. Architecture students from Lawrence Technological University,
University of Michigan and the University of Detroit Mercy spent three days
turning out plans and illustrations for a portion of the city that looked
strikingly similar to work accomplished for West Oakland by Ecocity Builders
at about the same time, which was a little more than a years ago. To the
centers I was exploring and the open spaces cast largely for food gardens in
the new mode, her bicycle and pedestrian networks and linked open spaces
filled out much of the total physical picture of an ecological city ready to

What next?

Traveling for Ecocity Builders and hoping to help support
ecocity projects and, perhaps more ambitiously, help launch major changes
that could be contagious in our times, I always bring a few items to
contribute. Besides general reflection from many years of seeking and
studying whatever we might mean by ecologically healthy cities, ecocity
emissaries like myself and our Executive Director Kirstin Miller offer some
particular ideas for what to do. Some say that we have “an agenda” implying
hidden agenda. But it’s anything but hidden being written down in my books
and Kirstin’s newsletters and available wherever we give talks or
interviews. In addition we are learning along the way. But we do propose a
couple of our most powerful tools whenever we get a chance and look forward
to working with communities that want to use them.

They are, first, our ecocity mapping system that finds the centers of
vitality and helps reinforce them with more diversity of activity and more
features of ecocity layout, infrastructure and architecture. The mapping
system gives order to this shifting pattern of development and a means to
“roll back sprawl.” It shows where and hints how to develop new open space
uses such as productive food raising and nature corridors, bicycle trails,
footpaths and pedestrian design that supports the vitality centers and their
transit connections.

The other major tool is the idea of “ecocity fractals,” smaller than whole
city projects, down to a couple blocks in size, a fraction of the whole
where all the essential functions of an ecocity design come together:
housing, jobs, commerce, education, food, nature, design for sun angles,
local weather, respect for views of nature, restoration of natural habitat
and building of soils.

If I’m not a little deluded by my desire to see ecocity projects
happen – call it wishful thinking – the major parts of this shift to a new
urban/rural paradigm based on ecological awareness are young and small but
definitely there in Detroit. I can summarize:

The small centers are beginning to shape up already. Identify
them, stick with them and add to their vitality. Integrate them into a
mapping system dedicated to a new economics to build the ecocity and restore
nature and agriculture and we are well on our way to sprawling Detroit
turning into a galaxy of small cities, towns and villages surrounding the
city core – and agricultural land coming back in, at first as adjuncts to a
network of foot and bicycle paths everywhere and transit lines to the
centers. This defines what’s needed to be built physically which in turn is
the bread and butter basis of the a new economy supporting such cities –
everywhere. They need solar and wind energy along with radically energy
conserving ecocity layout and city design. They need streetcars, bikes,
elevators, farming equipment and all the usual health, education and social
services of any community… This begins defining a whole new economy, one to
make a great deal of difference anywhere it can be implemented, from
individuals’ personal strategies and city governments to the level of state
and national policies.

Start turning some of those centers into places where all the
uses and design elements that define clusters of ecocity buildings can come
together: multi-story solar greenhouses, access to rooftop gardens and
restaurants, promenades and mini parks in the sky. And take advantage of the
already resident arts pioneers. Add small hotels and what I think of as
“serious tourism” to the mix, people who go to Detroit as they now by the
thousands visit Curitiba, Brazil because it is considered a world ecocity
leader. Work the PR, tourism, education, arts, technologies like solar and
wind, streetcars and bicycles into the structure of the city.

I heard on the bus tour of the gardens, and again from John
Gallagher, of an ambitious proposal by John Hantz, an investment broker and
developer. He wants to buy several hundred acres of vacant lots and start a
large farm. The small farmers in the neighborhoods are leery of Mr. Hanzt
idea, worried about the scale of the enterprise and suspicious his motives
are too purely monetary. My thinking is that there are so many thousands of
acres available and that a few large farms would be a good idea. The real
issue is just how ecologically sound would be anyone’s agriculture and where
and how would it relate to the property developed in new and revitalized
higher density and diversity areas?

But I believe people think in pretty simple powerful story
lines: we need the story of digging up a few streets for gardens a.s.a.p.

Around the country most “successful” cities, that is, cities that, like
mainstream economists, think growth is the measure of their success are
these days thinking new development is appropriate around transit centers:
transit oriented development. And it is a good step in the right direction.
But these “successful” cities think it is a sign of failure to remove
development anywhere for expanding gardens, natural areas, parks or anything
else. They only add and ferociously oppose anything that looks like
subtraction, anything that looks like acknowledgement of the mistake of
sprawl development even when the worst of it, on the fringes of Las Vegas,
Phoenix and Miami, are turning into real estate wastelands and probably
headed toward the physical manifestation of that economic condition that we
see in Detroit right now. They fail to see the economic growth that often
goes along with actually removing buildings: open space often increasing the
value of adjacent developed real estate more than if that space were
occupied with buildings like the others in the area. Why? Views, fresh air,
pleasure in seeing agriculture or nature in its own right. Add growing food
and you have compounded economic advance.

If Detroit can model the city proud to remove some of its car-dependent
infrastructure from a bygone time, and be courageous enough to take world
leadership toward a completely new way of building, the world awaits its
guidance. Let it start with depaving a street or two celebrated as a great
success. Then expect an explosion of the creativity brewing just under the
surface of Motor City becoming Eco City, production city of the past
transmuting into the rebuilding city of the future, the city that saved the
world for democracy becoming the city that, as Lester Brown calls for now,
mobilizes to save civilization – and the biosphere too.

1 Comment
  • Pingback:Appearing around the net… | Lagomorph
    Posted at 04:21h, 07 January

    […] 1. I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with someone who was a big early influencer of my thoughts on urban sustainable development this past Summer. Richard Register (who literally, in both senses of the word, wrote the book on eco-cities) was in Detroit, and he writes an article about his experience here. […]