Historic Ecocity Breakthroughs - Ecocity Builders

Historic Ecocity Breakthroughs

by Richard Register

I’ve lately struck up an e-mail correspondence with Shin-pei Tsay, friend and colleague of Deborah Gordon author of Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability, co-authored by Daniel Sperling with introduction by Arnold Schwarzenegger, my very own former governor who I met at a breakfast place in 1971 on Venice Beach a couple hundred feet from “Muscle Beach” where he was working out at the time, pre-movie star days. Shin-pei is presently Director of Research and Development for a start-up nonprofit in New York City called TransitCenter, Inc. that deals with public transportation related issues. We had been talking about major changes in cities and habits and attitudes toward them. She signed off a couple days ago like this: “Let me know if you have any breakthroughs from the 70s through the 80s.” That got me thinking and I came up with some from ecocity perspectives, but leading into other “breakthroughs” sliding into more modern times, post 2000. But first…

There are the changes, not exactly breakthroughs, but good signs nonetheless and it’s educational to think about them some, cheer ourselves up some after thinking about climate change, species dying out, economic and social problem, the Middle East, etc. and on and on. I’ll come up with some of those, illustrated, the assess what I think, if not breakthrough, are important steps or stones – milestones – along a way toward ecocity improvement.

Mariposa Grove De-paving

Many of you know that “depaving” has been a preferred activity of Ecocity Builders from the start. My own first depaving project was for the San Diego Ecology Centre in 1973 when the group hired me to organize Earth Day events of a wide variety. That first depaving project was at the Campus Lutheran Center, hosted by the enthusiastic and imaginative Jim Nessheim, still there in San Diego. The project tore up about six parking places he courageously donated to the cause and put in a Native American food garden featuring corn, beans and squash: corn as a pole for the beans to climb, beans for fixing nitrogen in the soil and all three including the squash soaking up the nutrients providing a pretty balanced set of vegetables, plus it got stunning coverage in the local media.

In the San Francisco Chronicle this very day I write, November 1, 2013 we learn that, “The final plan for the reconfiguration of parking lots and the restoration of natural and man-made amenities at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias was released Thursday by Yosemite National Park.”(“Mariposa Grove plans released” by Peter Fimrite.) This amounts to a far larger depaving project.

The photo you see here is of the present parking lot – soon to disappear then reappear at another location far, far away. (I know that’s not a complete depaving but replacement parking, but it is in the service of biodiversity and healthy habitats. The new parking will be two miles away from the grove of 484 enormous trees, one of which has a diameter of over 100 feet. These are the largest living things on the planet and only a little shorter than their relatives the California Coastal Redwoods which get up to over 380 feet high, as tall as many 35 story buildings.

When the depaving among the big trees is done and the new parking lot is finished there will be a two mile path for walking with limited shuttle service for the tourists that now park and, most of them, barely leave the parking lot. All this reminds me that rail buff Christopher Swann wrote a book in the 1970s called YV 88 hopefully projecting into the future the best plan for YV (Yosemite Valley) I’ve ever seen. A light rail line would be the only way into the valley, accessed from Merced and perhaps one day, by heavier rail to Merced from Sacramento, Oakland and points beyond. That would amount to a serious depaving plan and a small ecotown of harmonious character near the mouth of the valley itself.

1. The parking lot to go away. (Photo credit: Michael Macor / The Chronicle)

1. The parking lot to go away. (Photo credit: Michael Macor / The Chronicle)

2. How big they really are. (Thanks Wikipedia)

2. How big they really are. (Thanks Wikipedia)

3. How beautiful they really are. (Thanks again Wikipedia)

3. How beautiful they really are. (Thanks again Wikipedia)

De-culverting in Arcata, California

Coincidentally, today while working on this piece for our newsletter Stacy Becker from Arcata sent in the picture we see here and accompany article. That article, and apparently the photographer for that article was also the writer, for such in the assignment for the small town weekly called the Arcata Eye, captures the removal of culverts the buried a creek there that drained through a wetlands called the McDaniel Slough into Humbolt Bay.

4. Night shot of work to remove the old culvert tubes. (Photo credit, KLH / the Eye)

4. Night shot of work to remove the old culvert tubes. (Photo credit, KLH / the Eye)

The title shows a sea change in attitude about the land’s edge with the sea: “When the Natural Environment Was An ‘Eyesore.’” Kevin L. Hoover’s article (also apparently first printed in the Mad River Union) says first culverting goes back to 1892, with expansion of the culvert into the 1940s. Ever more we are seeing restoration of buried waterways, which makes me feel good because when in 1981 we opened Strawberry Creek in central Berkeley – about four of us instigated the project – it was, as far as we knew or anybody else we’ve met since, the first depaving/daylighting project of a small waterway in the US.

Back to the Centers Development

There is a trend in the United States to drive less that actually began shortly before the 2007/2008 economic meltdown. The good news is people are in many places in the USA leaving the suburbs and the car-dependent commute and moving back to city and town centers in increasing number with many giving up their cars altogether. The bad news is the prices for housing going up in those centers, in many places considerably. The “earlier in” owners and landlords like that, but the newly arrives and lower income are having problems. Time for subsidies of some sort or phasing in taxes to mitigate the trend if we think centers oriented development is ecologically and energetically healthy? which it is.

5. The rooftop at the Gaia Building overlooking Berkeley to San Francisco Bay, through the Golden Gate Bridge to the Pacific Ocean. (Photo credit Richard Register)

5. The rooftop at the Gaia Building overlooking Berkeley to San Francisco Bay, through the Golden Gate Bridge to the Pacific Ocean. (Photo credit Richard Register)

To illustrate that, a picture of Ecocity Builders own Gaia Building redesign and mention of the campaign we helped make successful, achieving approvals for this 160 unit residential and mixed use building in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

One interesting sleeper here might be that the Chinese and Indians have and are still following the US in growing number of cars and dependence upon them being built into new more scattered urban infrastructure, if far more dense than in the United State – still ever more automobile dependent in a time of global heating. If we can show we can make good on the ecocity more compact and car free pattern, enjoy it, make it the rage & style, we might have them following again, this time toward a far healthier arrangements.

6. Strata Tower (Image source: assets.inhabitat.com)

6. Strata Tower (Image source: assets.inhabitat.com)

Wind Power meets Architecture

The new Strata Tower in London brings the two together. It is 43 stories with 408 appartments. The debate is that over all the three wind electric turbines are more symbolic than functional providing only “An eco-experiment that’s gone wrong,” said one resident complaining of “greenwashing” and commenting on how infrequently the turbines are turning and how when they do he feels a subtle and a bid disconcerting vibration. Good idea wind power, but maybe not the right placement. Call this working out the bugs in the early stage of a good technology and set of designs being shaken out on our way to ecocities.

7. One average morning two doors from my apartment on Oakland’s 17th street: all gray. (Photo credit, Richard Register)

7. One average morning two doors from my apartment on Oakland’s 17th street: all gray. (Photo credit, Richard Register)

Dismal car colors

Have you ever noticed how bland, almost dismal the color of cars has become? And why would this be a good sign?

8. Cars of the 50s were much more fun. (Credits lost over the 60 years)

8. Cars of the 50s were much more fun. (Credits lost over the 60 years)

Once upon a time, as you can see in the picture

of the cars from the late 1940s to early 1960s, people had fun with their cars. After 50 years they are frankly loosing the spirit. Under the hood the complexities are so daunting, yet simplistically reduced to computerized and electrified components that where do you see the young man having fun tinkering with his “hot rod” any more? This is another symptom that humanity may be finally, where somewhat exhausted by bills, parking tickets, stuck in traffic jams, a bit tired of the damn things. Stuck in the suburbs they are now something of utility an not so much fun any more. Beyond that there are the more serious problems of course, for nature and humanity – and urban conviviality.

9. Self-repairing Redwood at Codornices Creek Depaving Site, the side branch reaching up and becoming the new leader for the whole tree. (Photo credit Richard Register)

9. Self-repairing Redwood at Codornices Creek Depaving Site, the side branch reaching up and becoming the new leader for the whole tree. (Photo credit Richard Register)

The Redwood at Codornices Creek

In a sense this one is also from Stacy Becker in Arcata in that back in 1998 she and I planted this redwood at Ecocity Builder’s (and Urban Creeks Council’s) Codornices Creek depaving and daylighting project. This project is on the border of Albany and Berkeley at the south edge of University Village student housing for married students and their children and mostly on the property of the University of California, by permission.

10. The repair more easily seen. (PhotoShop credit Richard Register)

10. The repair more easily seen. (PhotoShop credit Richard Register)

The tree is quite remarkable for having had its top gnawed off by a squirrel or broken by a very heavy bird – we do have big hawks there at this native plants and urban orchard project, as well as creek daylighting project. One of the side branches beat the others into an upright position, and curving outward as it started then upward and back straight again became the new leader for the whole tree. That’s what they call the top growing point of the tree, “leader.”

The trees in the background, also planted by volunteers are willows and alders. To make the redwood easier to see I’ve used Power Point to blot out the background, revelaing what’s going on with our redwood tree.

Reply to Shin-pei Tsay

At last we are getting back to the “breakthroughs.” Here she is in her own words: “…any breakthroughs from the 70s and 80s that could inform our work!” I answered that I definitely did have some in mind and wrote her back thus:
Organizational breakthrough
With the founding of Arcology Circle, a non-profit California corporation, about a dozen of us interested in Paolo Soleri’s version of ecologically healthy cities “began organizing the longest running organizational effort looking at basic reshaping of cities from… whatever development trend comes down for random technological developments toward cities based on the model of ordinary complex living organisms in a health relationship with the ecological realities we find on this planet. The first organization was called Arcology Circle (Arcology for architecture and ecology, Paolo Soleri’s term), changing its name to Urban Ecology in 1980 and being reformulated as Ecocity Builders in 1992…

Terminology breakthrough
That year I “began using the term “ecocity” aka “eco-city” consistently. Now more common in China and Korea than “green,” “sustainable” or “low-carbon” – and a much better term if I may say so myself since based on ecology – the science of living organisms in their living and inert if often active non-living environment. (That last phrase implies climate change, storms, steady sunshine falling on the planet, cycles of water, oxygen, nitrogen, etc…)

Mapping breakthrough (future-oriented mapping)
1983 or ‘4
I “started drawing up ecocity zoning maps to direct the movement of development from sprawl to compact, high diversity of facilities and functions close together which first appeared in my visuals for my talks, then in my…

Mapping continued
The “book Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Healthy Future in which those maps  are presented (pages 119-130.), along with a lot of other ideas and images.

“Part of that history is that in 2006 Randy Hester’s book “Design for Ecological Democracy” gave full credit to me for that mapping system. Wandering around the architecture department at the University of California in Berkeley in the 1990s made me aware that his students were doing projects based largely on my mapping system which he generously called as such as revealed in the various titles of the wall mounted drawings I saw there and in his book. But he never got in touch with me or asked for presentations to his classes though I lived in Berkeley from 1974 to 2002, and am still in the neighborhood, that is, the East Bay. I did get such invitations from Sim Van Ryn and a few other professors there at the University of California, Berkeley, though.

Mapping continued
“Even more recently Mannahatta was published with a PhotoShoped “after” map based on the same ideas I came up with near the beginning of the 1980s, probably with no sense of the history of the idea itself. It is just logical! I’m talking about the map on the back cover and also on page 241.

New term to augment “ecocity” and complete “suite of terms”: Ecotropolis
“I don’t know why it took me so long but it wasn’t until 2011 at our 9th International Ecocity Conference in Montreal that I decided to start promoting the idea and term based on that mapping system: “ecotropolis.” That’s what you see on the back cover of Mannahatta.

“So Shin-pei, you ask for the ancient breakthroughs in our field. I believe that’s it!
[Not as far back as Garden Cities I acknowledge. This letter to her was in context with her question about the 70s and 80s.] It is such a shame that people take so long to wake up, and even when they do – not much action supporting education about the full uniformity/sprawl to diversity/compact shifting development despite the publishing of books like Randy’s and “Mannahatta” – it remains very hard to get people to understand the importance of that particular idea, the whole ecocity idea in fact.

“In direct answer to your question about not scaring people bought into the automobile system – a very important question indeed! – is what I was telling you about in my last note to you. It’s another breakthrough right in the middle of what I’m writing about directly above and that also came from 2011 when Nissan Motor Company asked me to write an editorial on the future of the car industry and I decided it needed to bifurcate. That idea keeps them in business and takes away some of the fear from those bought into the system, suggesting that if they take ecocity leadership they can design vehicles that fit the ecocity instead of ignoring its enormous positive potential.”

My suggestion was to make very small utilitarian cars that move relatively slowly and mix with, say, faster bicycles and run on a tiny fraction of energy needed by conventional car and to make larger public vehicles like streetcars. The mid range, private owned size, hooked to long range commuting – very bad idea!

“So there are your direct answers! There you have breakthroughs ready to happen.  But they won’t happen unless people like me get a little more help communicating. You may be able to find other people with these ideas but I don’t know who they are and I’ve been organizing international conferences on the subject with more than 1,000 speakers by now and don’t know who they would be. Maybe Jaime Lerner if he could get back to the freshness he had in the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe Soleri if he could have spent more time on the city side of his thinking and less on philosophizing – and were still alive! Or Allan Savory if he were to turn his natural carbon sequestration style “holistic management” systems toward the built community. And maybe others…”


These “breakthroughs” need serious support or they… won’t be. But conceptually they are extremely important and progress in various ways is being made. To review,

1.) there was the organizational effort,

2.) then there was the mapping system that clarified the overall pattern of healthy city land uses and “massing with diversity and density understood,

3.) then the terms ecocity and ecotropolis filling the spectrum from Planet and biosphere down to continents and Large Marine Systems areas of the oceans (LMSs for those who study them), to bioregions, to ecotropolises, to ecocities, ecotowns and ecovillages and neighborhoods to… you!

Richard can be reached at ecocity@igc.org.

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