Generous City, City of the Future

I suggested the title of this article as the overall theme for the 11th International Ecocity Conference in Abu Dhabi, which will be convening next October 2015. This will be the first Ecocity Summit to be held in the Arab region. The official theme is still being discussed and debated, with the hosts leaning towards a regional theme with an emphasis on ecocity adaptations for hot climate conditions.

They in Abu Dhabi do have real expertise on this subject to be sure, and it is deeply rooted in their history. Examples of city planning and design that meet the challenges of such an extreme environment of sun and sand date back hundreds of years. High-density towns like Shaban in Yemen, with their heavy building materials of sun-dried earthen bricks – nine stories high in Shaban – and their narrow streets create a pedestrian environment pleasant in temperature and conveniently “mixed use” in the way of complete communities with lively economics and culture.

We have a lot to learn from such examples in the Arab Islamic world. Another car-free model, also ancient, is the Medina of Fez, Morocco. While larger in population than the world’s other substantially car-free city – Venice, Italy – Medina shares with that Italian city a plan of narrow, shaded and “passively” cooled streets and buildings. In addition, Abu Dhabi is home to one of the most interesting modern ecocity projects I know of: the car-free, once again compact, pedestrian-oriented town of Masdar. Masdar is partially built and has the potential to exert powerful influence around the world in the realm of planning, especially if it pushes boldly in ecocity directions.

Maybe all this is as it should be. There is something of a responsible perspective in taking on a regional topic like building in a hot, dry climate at that location. And something perhaps overly presumptuous in claiming to have an overall uniting theme that is generic to all cities around the world – if that is even possible.

I think it is, of course, to have a universal theme. But my perspective is decidedly world-oriented. I have been scrunching my mind around what’s most important in this work for ecocity solutions since 1965 when I met Paolo Soleri, who was developing many of the most essential principles of this discipline, art, science or whatever it is. I have concluded that the most important theme of the city is generosity. We need the city to give to the future – future people, future plants and animals, and even investing in reasonable stability of climates on the Earth via a healthy relationship with the atmosphere of the planet. In almost all human affairs it is hard to do better than generosity in helping usher in a better future.

Perhaps I should think of the generous city as the basic theme I have only recently realized for all the International Ecocity Conferences to date and into the future. For the first in the series, the International Ecocity Conference held in Berkeley in 1990, I came up with the slogan “Peace on Earth, peace with Earth.” We made a big banner with those words emblazoned above and behind on our keynote speaker’s proscenium arch. Renowned American environmentalist David Brower, social justice advocate and environmental policy advocate Carl Anthony, Australian eco-architect and co-host for the Second International Ecocity Conference Paul Downton, myself a conference organizer and host, and moon astronaut Edgar Mitchell all spoke under those words. The implication of the slogan was that cities had a lot to do with finding peaceful ways to build and live. We didn’t claim the saying as a theme in our literature; it was just there to think about. Many people commented that it did make them think and generated many good ideas.

But back to generosity. Why “generosity”? Why the futurism angle indicated by “City of the Future”? Why is that such an important theme?

There is no reason, as I’ve been saying ever more often recently, that humans can’t build cities that enrich soils and preserve and restore biodiversity. The challenge is fundamentally a design problem, and of course before that, an educational and political problem to infuse the culture with such a vision. Physically? Of course it is possible. At this point in history it isn’t even a serious technological challenge. Cities produce organic waste that can relatively easily be sowed back into the soil, returning high fertility. This process can all be run on renewable energy, particularly solar. In Central Park, in the most intense city in the United States, we see already how even small genuflections of a small number of people dedicated to helping local species has paid off. Over the last decade a number of native birds and animals have returned, encouraged by just a little patronage from those few people. We could extrapolate this impact to astoundingly happy conclusions if we bothered to try.

Generosity is investing in the future; in the health of towns, localities, regions and the whole banana of the biosphere and its other spheres: litho-, hydro- and atmospheres. Generosity gives people a break, too, in not giving ever more to the car instead of the pedestrian, and of not giving ever more to the wealthy and less to a couple billion people. Presently, some individuals posses staggering wealth while others are just staggering. These things can change with a little more generosity. Much generosity exists already, so some improvement on it in regard to city planning, layout and design doesn’t start from nowhere. But we need a new emphasis and one that claims we will all – as we will – benefit from generosity’s enlargement. We can envision a generous city – we must.

My peculiar international and Space Age slant

In explaining myself I might help explain the idea. Regarding the Space Age angle and “futurism,” my own memory serves me well, or at least I think it does. In the 1950s when I was going from my single-digit to double-digit years, space exploration was all the rage of science fiction. Some of that imagery (minus the green, web-footed humanoids carrying beautiful women in bathing suits) was actually based on real science more than fiction. I loved Willy Ley’s books with Chestley Bonstell’s illustrations of far away planets and the swept back wing rockets that took explorers there. Those illustrations did pay attention to latest physics and technology, and influenced history. No disempowered vision theirs, either. It was only about 15 years later that Edgar Mitchell and others in his crew got to the moon and made it home again safe. The dream had ambition, spirit, and contagious enthusiasm of the new frontier sort. And it came true.

True, the space program had a military angle to create jobs in the defense industry and grist for politicians seeking the glow of exciting projects. Also, space exploration threatened to substantially effect only a very small minority of us and disrupt our habits not at all. The idea of bringing futuristic science fiction down to Earth in sane and healthy cities seems less of an adventure, involving the very homes and rooms we live in. At the same time, such visions promise to challenge our happy habits of complacency, like our glorification of the car. Still, the vision of future cities that actually are exciting places to live in, surrounded by natural beauty and organic farming rather than smog, could be construed as a very creative enterprise. Literally billions of us humans could be happily engaged in bringing a healthy future from this vision to reality. What a nice role for everyone: meaningful employment for city dweller, town dweller, or village dweller.

Regarding my thoughts on the whole Earth perspective: when I was a grade school student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my mother insisted on my mildly successful architect father taking the family on a two-week trip to northern Mexico every year. One year, in the mid 1950s, we even flew down to Acapulco in one of those two engine propeller jobs that, I remember to this day, couldn’t clear the highest mountain peaks. We weaved through the valleys between, banking this way and that, suffering the ups and downs of the active thermals and down drafts at such altitudes.

Then I went to a magnificent high school named Verde Valley. The school was located in the central Arizona country of pink cliffs and rock towers rising many hundreds of feet from burbling desert oasis-like stream courses. Literally, it was a backdrop for Hollywood cowboy movies. Verde Valley had around 135 students the three years I was there, plus about 25 horses. Boy were we privileged, and I knew it and tried to make the best of it. The students were from 30 different countries. It was a wonderful introduction to the whole world. Sunday evening we had “Religious Hour” and Wednesday evening “International Hour.” People from all sorts of religions including the local American Indians shared their ceremonies and rationales. Films and moving talks from adults outside the school, teachers, students, and parents stirred a sense of international connection with… everyone. Make that Everyone – the concept of all humanity. “The Family of Man,” the book that is a portrait of Everyone in photographs edited by Edward Steichen, was one of the much discussed touchstones of our experience at Verde Valley. Driving onto campus one passed a row of 30 flags representing the countries from which students hailed.

A theme for all city conferences

In the last 25 years I’ve spoken in 31 countries and traveled to a few more in search of the best in ecocity ideas. I have enjoyed all sorts of cultures and seen politics and religion, technology and agriculture, serious causes and fun and games from an extremely broad representation.

This is why I believe we need to think in terms of “Generous City, City of the Future.” It may be best if this is an overarching historic theme for all the International Ecocity Conferences, if a little suspect in being something of rewriting of history. The theme didn’t appear in words attached to conference brochures and programs from Berkeley, California or Dakar, Senegal; Adelaide, Australia or Shenzhen, China; Istanbul, Turkey or Curitiba, Brazil, and so on. But it is certainly in the historic spirit of the conferences and a truth of a deeper nature in my own experience. It should be palpable as the experience now shared by around 5,000 people who have attended these events held so far on all continents but Antarctica.

If we can get the powerful idea across that cities can invest in the future and should, we will have changed things to the very core of evolution itself:

generosity + a futurism of cities = a better future.

We will then have a whole toolbox of ready to use solutions to change everything – starting at home in our cities, towns and villages everywhere.

I conclude with a note on the “bringing the generous, futuristic city down to Earth” idea in the two illustrations I’m submitting with this article. Interestingly, about half way between my fascination with space travel and associated technologies and when I headed up the First International Ecocity Conference, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I made an illustration, now lost, for an earlier publication. It was of a space station landed on Earth, with cows wandering around the field where the extraterrestrial town was enjoying the usual anchored life of buildings comprising a city. But it was a space station after all. Not to be taken literally of course, but in the spirit of saying the three-dimensional city of some sort, like ships that sail the seas today, are something like the ecocities of the future in form and “mixed-use” function: residence, workplace, commerce, education, food service and so on. The other illustration tries to communicate how the core of this vision must be the balancing of building ecologically healthy cities with preserving healthy nature. Of course it’s all in our hands. And, as at the end of the cartoon… “That’s all folks!”

Richard Register can be reached at


Space Station Farm

Not to be taken too literally, but rather symbolically: space city comes down to earth as ecocity.

Generous hands

Using an idea for a future possible Arcosanti, Arizona (as illustrated in last month’s issue of Ecocities Emerging) and a photograph I took in Rio de Janeiro, the notion that we need to give generously to balancing the human environment we build by intent with the natural environment we give nature the freedom to do, as much as possible, as it chooses, with minimal human interference. Vive la difference!

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