“Much Better than Climate Change Adaptation”

“Much Better than Climate Change Adaptation”

October 27, 2009 and I was getting off Vancouver’s SkyTrain at the Lake City Way Station. With me was my friend Jennie Moore, Director of Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship for the British Columbia Institute of Technology. “There it is,” I said, camera in hand. “I’ve been looking for that poster for my ecological city slide show.” Before me was a sign I’d seen several times flashing by through the window of my moving train. It turned out to be part of a campaign by the Vancouver Aquarium. Featuring an image of a polar bear floating on a slab of ice in an almost open ocean, the copy read:

“Adaptation is not an option. Canada’s Arctic. In the grip of change. Visit the new exhibit to understand the impact.”

The polar bear, on all fours, gazing to the horizon, looked like any you’d expect on a poster, calendar or in a coffee table book… except that it had the black stripes on white of an African zebra. Obviously telling it to adapt was writing it off to extinction. Some changes are exterminating and that’s all there is to it. Working to promote “adaptation” might not be such a good idea. It’s something we should contemplate most seriously.

The New Yorker feature article in the January 7, 2013 issue entitled “Adaptation – how can cities be climate proofed?” took the usual automatic look at solving climate and sea rise problems that is all too ordinary these days. But why start our thinking with adapting to something that disastrous when we could focus our thinking and strategies on preventing it? It is too late to avoid some impacts but the possibilities for worse is more than a little troubling. The positive feedback loops such as the loss of ice on the Arctic Ocean presenting a dark sea to the sky, instead of reflective white ice, absorbs more heat and accelerates heating. The permafrost has begun to melt in Siberia, Alaska and Canada releasing methane from enormous deposits of methane bearing ice, called alternately methane clathrate or hydrate, potentially in immense quantities, a gas with 23 times the heat capturing capacity in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. As the melting permafrost heats the air and ground it releases more methane which heats more, releases more, heats more, releases more and so on around the “positive feedback loop”. The accurate information and good predictions about carbon dioxide some have been in denial about for more than twenty years now was brought to you by the same folks who also warn us about the even more catastrophic potential of methane release in a world with a rising fever. So we don’t know how bad it can get and our efforts at adaptation may be just distraction enough to lose us the opportunity to stop far worse disasters, and maybe even prevent us from figuring out how to reverse the heating trend.

Could we build our cities and towns not only to prevent the problem, but to build the absolute best for human purposes as well? Is it a naïve idea to think cities could actually contribute to nature’s biodiversity and help build soils, tap into the renewable energy flows of sun, wind and water and recycle other resources essentially forever? Or maybe the notion is the foundation for the only approach that makes any sense. Cities are the largest things human beings build, and if we can change the climate of a whole planet and drive most of the other species to collective death, which we are well on our way to accomplishing, it might be cities have a power of prevention that is prevented by the short circuit in our brains of going for adaptation instead of prevention, much less building the very best we can for ourselves and the other species of the planet as strategy number one.

But to get to such a strategy, of thriving not just maintaining in a deteriorating situation, we have to start our thinking there, not in reaction to anything, including, rising seas. Call it the creative instead of “resilient” frame of mind. “Resilient” is OK, but it is still reactive, if in a good way. Better to create something actively good in the first place rather than build dikes around what’s left over. We need cities good enough that they don’t bring on a suite of problems that require resilience simply to cope. Looking at cities in this frame of mind is crucial because the ecologically informed city design coincides with, and is in no way contrary to, the best solutions brought forward by an attempt at adaptation. Together – actions for building cities that solve the climate change problem at the level of the causes of the problem and actions at the level of adaptation to what residuals of the problem remain – opens us to up the full spectrum of tactics for a strategy of thriving into the future.

Basic notion of elevating towns on artificial mounds, for floods and sea level rise – works compact ecocity design perfectly, can’t possibly with sprawl development. – Illustration by Richard Register

To defend cities from storms and rising seas there are quite obviously dikes, dams and barrages, barrages being those moveable walls like gates in the locks of canals but enormously larger. They are designed to keep high tides and storm surges from inundating estuaries and bays. As with the Thames Barrage that opened in 1984, these structures link land masses across reasonably narrow river banks or straights to the sea and are offered as something of a final solution in the adaptation strategy ­– for billions of dollars each. They have nothing to do with prevention of the problem of sea rise and human-amplified storms in the first place. Building on high ground, it becomes evident, is about the only cheap, one might say, un-subsidized solution, but it is too late for much of the existing low-lying coastal cities.

Or is it? Why isn’t the subject of prevention, why isn’t the approach of “whole systems” analysis, why isn’t looking into the deep future and deep past and why isn’t the guidance of ecological principles first priority when trying to solve the climate change and sea rise problems? We were warned about the impending situation more than thirty years ago by the likes of Stephen Schneider, atmospheric scientist who spoke at our Seventh International Ecocity Conference in San Francisco in 2008 and New Yorker James Hansen, Chief, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Spaces Studies. New York itself runs on about 60% the energy per person of the average US city – we can learn something from that compact transit oriented city for starters. Why aren’t these things talked about as first priority instead of barely heard of at all? Why is adaptation with dikes the main, the much talked about strategy – while hoping for the best in terms of what’s coming over the horizon to assault us, and likely, catastrophically?

Let’s start as close to the beginning of this story of rising waters as makes sense. After all, some basic problems were solved a long, long time ago, a long time before information glut was overwhelming and distracting and expertise was compromised by the quest to get the next job whether good answers seemed down that road or not, meaning: pork, seniority, entrenched connections and stiff habits of thinking. When it comes to flooding, why not ask the Sumerians who built the world’s first settlements big and complex enough to be called cities, in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers? 4,500 years ago they were living in the age of basics. They weren’t lost in video games and the latest movie reviews, advertisements for in-style stuff and printed copy bitching endlessly about taxes and lobbyist-hired politicians all competing for brain space with the rising waters. They just looked out their windows with no glass and noticed brown water rising from horizon to horizon in their low, flat farmlands. They raised grains, organized water works for irrigation and faced major flooding about as often as Cubans gets hurricanes, which is a lot. What did they do?

They built on elevated, artificial mounds of earth. Their cities were simply built to rise up over the floods. They adapted gradually – lived there many centuries – augmenting the mounds on which they worked, walked, presumably had some good times, reproduced, brought up many generations… as the cities rose from the flatlands, largely on worn out building materials but in many cases, on purposefully elevated earth. They didn’t just raise their houses higher. They raised the whole city higher, streets and all. When the floods came it must have been an exciting experience to see what looked like a whole ocean sliding by, your city like a large ship moving up stream in a vast current of water. The idea of Noah’s Flood would seem to be close to not just possible but maybe inevitable some day in such a world. To pay attention to the climate scientists today – the Sumerians and writers of the Old Testament had nothing on us, two versions of whole worlds going under water.

But what is most important to notice about all this is that the compact city, the pedestrian city of streets for people, of most everything in walking distance, the city of high population per acre, of higher economic flow through per square foot, fits beautifully with the elevated artificial mounds solution to floods. That’s the solution that simply lets the populace and their property float along high above the deluge, nobody hurt, very inexpensive, lower insurance rates, no crying over drowned children and old folks. The automobile suburbs? No way to elevate that kind of thinly developed enormous acreage. Moving earth, over a fairly long period of time, basket by basket, even before the wheel, carts and draft animals for traction and transport existed the people in many parts of the world were clustered in enough density that they could elevate their towns. But to raise suburbia? Far too massive a project and with counter productive results: the automobile/sprawl-/paving/cheap energy infrastructure is the main engine of climate change and needs to be left behind, primitive as the stone age and vastly more damaging, even if our Pleistocene ancestors did manage to kill of most of the planet’s megafauna. The city designed for cars, not people, is the largest cause of our current problem in the first place.

Mesopotamia isn’t a rare case lost in ancient history either. It responded to an eternal truth, if a seemingly simplistic one: in a flood, get to high ground. If there is no high ground, build it. Now why in these days don’t more people think of that? With bulldozers on our side, it’s several hundred times easier than it was when civilizations were busily cranking up.

Rising above the flood is not “simplistic,” it’s basic. “Basic” is a notion that comes after one does something called sensible proportionalizing: considering the big factors and the important factors – then prioritizing to deal with them first. This is not the “low hanging fruit” approach that procrastinates on the difficult work until too late. The important factors are usually the fundamental physics, chemistry and biology of our world. The case in point: getting to higher ground, natural or artificial, in flood country is a good basic idea. Get that far in your thinking and a whole complex of good ideas flows forth.

I know something about all this from personal experience. Ecocity Builders, the organization I work with, prides itself on “basic thinking” and promotes what we call ecological city, or “ecocity” design and planning.” The term is broadly used in China and Korea if not too common in the United States yet. In any case interest is steadily increasing in the ecocity approach netting me many invitations for talks around the world. After Hurricane Katrina one such invitation took me to the city of New Orleans.

I left for the recently drowned town – four months after – wondering what I might learn and what I might come up with for suggestions from the “ecocity” perspective. I wasn’t thinking Mesopotamia at the time. But when I got there and faced the true shock of what lay before me the Sumerians rose up again after those more than four thousand years, a complete surprise. Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier: rebuild as the ecocity on elevated fill. That lesson from the ancient cities makes sense into the deep future. Why not a compact new development covering very little land, apartments and commerce similar to the French Quarter that is built on a natural levee well above sea level but in the replacement development areas built on elevated mounds of earth? They already love their streetcars there in New Orleans – public transit – and it is an exceptionally flat city perfect for bicycles, so the sustainable transport system to fit compact ecocity design was almost ready to go. Density, the lesson that gives Manhattan considerable liberation from the automobile, would be the key to making a new ecological development pattern practical in New Orleans. And of course you wouldn’t need Manhattan density to gain most of the advantages of living, working, exchanging, recreating in an area where things are close together as many European small cities and city cores demonstrate. Twenty-five or thirty feet above sea level should last a mid range estimate for sea level rise one or two hundred years if we can make serious progress avoiding further global heating as opposed to trying to adapt to it.

Floods are often accompanied by fires from broken gas lines, short circuits and so on. Here a fire in the flood after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

You might have noticed this is not the way reconstruction went in New Orleans. So many people sympathized with desires of the displaced to try to get back to normal that governments simply paid for and built stronger, taller dikes. Now their automobile dependent, low-density way of living below sea level could be attempted all over again. But that was a sad mistake and ignores that the elevated mounds approach works universally. If rebuilt with ecocity design teamed up with elevated fill – compact in centers with the functional diversity of living, working, enjoying life all close together on artificially raised earth ­– New Orleans would have taken the lead to solutions not only for the cities prone to flood but for all cities by demonstrating the power of ecological principles in urban design. Could New York and New Jersey lead after Superstorm Sandy now that New Orleans has dropped that ball?

Building on mounds worked for the American Indians along New Orleans’ very own Mississippi River, and up stream as far as two thousand miles by water, and along the Ohio River too. There were over ten thousand mounds scattered over the central and southeastern area of what is now the United States. They were constructed as early as 5,400 years ago – before the Sumerians – as reported in Charles Mann’s book “1491 – New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.” The earliest is now called the Ouachita Ring, a circle of mounds up to two stories high in North Eastern Louisiana. Around 1000 AD Cahokia, close by today’s Saint Louis, was the largest city north of the Rio Grande at about 15,000 inhabitants until Boston and New York reached that population. It was centered on and partially built as a town and partially as a ceremonial center including a pyramid larger in mass than the Great Pyramid of Giza if you include the elevated base platform 900 feet long and 650 feet wide. Though the people there suffered through many floods, Mann reported, “There is little indication that Cahokia floods killed anyone.” Of course not. The people would simply hunker down up on their mounds. If they were farming the bottomlands when the floods came they would simply take a short walk and up the mounds. The mounds were their vertical bomb shelters from the disasters of flood, not war, though the elevated prospect would undoubtedly help in defense against unkindly people as well as hostile waters.  Villages similar to those near the Mississippi were also built along the Amazon River, also on platforms elevated above the natural banks, among them those of the Marajoara people. Archeologist Anna Roosevelt, Teddy’s great-granddaughter, explored these and they were also reported in Mann’s book, “1491.”

Works for tsunami coastlines too – just rise up twenty-five feet… Beyond that height, immune from 90% of tsunamis, you’re just phenomenally unlucky or in a funnel shaped coastline where nobody should be building at all. – Illustration by Richard Register

Zoom forward in time from ancient native North and South American examples to the worst natural disaster in United States history. After the Hurricane of 1900 that killed an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 people in Galveston, Texas – nobody knows the true figure, the city was growing so fast and had so many transients – most of the city was rebuilt on a raised platform averaging about 20 feet higher and made of pumped sand and mud from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay. The constructed mound was edged on the Gulf side by a concrete sea wall to break the big waves. Some farm villages in Bangladesh have survived the floods on the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra on elevated fill. Then there is Venice, if built on wooden pilings more than earthen fill. The idea is not historically unusual, if usually forgotten probably largely because it requires longer range planning than we are used to in our distracted, hurry-up times. But it works. It’s basic.

A key concept here is proportionality. For example, cars average about 25 or 30 times as heavy as a human being, travel about 10 times as fast in normal operation and consume about 60 times the volume of space when standing still, much more when moving. Designing cities to accommodate both sets of criteria – the “needs” of cars and of people – at the same time and in the same space is a hopeless task if you are hoping for climate change solutions, or even just hoping to create a good environment for people. The attempt, dominant in “developed and developing” societies since the Second World War, that is, in the era of extremely cheap fuel energy, produced sprawl development, paved farms and natural landscapes, drove species to extinction – probably the polar bear eventually – consumed massive amounts of energy for transportation… and still does. That way of building cities also wastes heat and cooling energy from associated single family houses that share the energy with no one else, unlike apartment units with common walls and shared floors and ceilings. Houses loose climate moderating energy to the great out of doors with just one use.

Then there are the full costs of car ownership, not just the money but the time it takes to earn the money plus the time in and repairing and pampering the car itself. If you divide the time into the distance traveled, said Ivan Illich in his great little 1974 book “Energy and Equity,” you are hurtling along at less than five miles per hours. With bigger traffic jams since then, it has only gotten worse. Then there is the associated death rate on the transportation system, private cars having several times the fatalities and injuries of transit modes and airplanes per vehicle mile traveled. Bicycles are much safer – unless hit by cars. And as my daughter said when she was about six years old, “Richard, has anyone ever died in a people accident?” Only extremely rarely do colliding humans end up dead – to say the least. Cities for pedestrians are that much safer than cities designed around the automobile.

The low-density city, the one that can’t be elevated to avoid floods, is a gigantic infrastructure compared to even say, Manhattan, when considered in relation to population served. I first heard this notion from architect/philosopher Paolo Soleri when he was visiting Los Angeles in 1965. He was at the time the earliest and essentially the only strong advocate for ecological city design. At one of his public talks, probably all of them in those days, he said that if you look around at the thinly scattered city it appears to be made mainly of small buildings – the single family homes, one story shopping areas, mostly small office buildings, franchise restaurants, gas stations, parking lots – there weren’t even many multi-story parking structures yet. But in reality that infrastructure was far larger in every way than the compact city mainly accessible by foot, such as the old city cores of many cities in Europe built before the influence of cars, or even streetcars. What we were seeing in Los Angeles was a case of gigantism, a term Soleri used, an enormous expanse of asphalt and concrete, redundant unshared walls serving only one family or one individual, thousands of miles of wire and pipes for electricity, telephone connections, gas, water, sewerage, enormous acreage in sentimental lawns producing no food and eliminating natural habitat. The compact city of larger buildings in mixed-use centers with towering skylines was paradoxically much smaller in material, energy, money and time to build and keep going. Why? Shared infrastructure and shortened linkages of all sorts. I thought he had a terribly important point and it has struck me as true and “basic” to this day.

But the Angelenos paid no heed. When they looked up and noticed murky gray to whiskey colored skies instead of blue and beheld the nights without stars from smog and glare, when they gasped for air with burning throats and cheeks streaked with tears, they decided to solve their air pollution problem by cleaning up the car. They fixed the car by affixing a smog device, stripping out about 90% of the air pollution and proving the car could be your friend. LA became the city of the future in the lead for the automobile cities that followed and have dominated the world ever more so to this very day. They fixed their local air pollution problem and through their leadership in the wrong style – piecemeal, adaptive and not whole systems – severely damaged the atmosphere of a whole planet and gave us climate change.

The lesson here, closely related to getting proportionality right, then prioritizing for the necessary work – no matter how hard – is that we need to recognize that we are dealing with whole systems. We Angelenos fixed the car, not the city. The city is a whole system made up of its buildings, open spaces, networks of transport with their vehicles and supply of material, energy and information, recycling and waste disposal all systems integrally relating to one another as are organs in a complex living organism. Treating the automobile as if it were an independent item without understanding the connections proved a disastrous mistake, and if methane release kicks in for serious, apocalyptic. The system of transport is intrinsically linked to the problems or solutions implied by the design of the whole.

Comparing cities, towns and villages to living organisms, which I call the anatomy analogy, is very helpful. Living organisms of any complexity are very three-dimensional, not flat like a tortilla. That’s largely because, in living organisms, the compact form makes possible short links between physical and electro-chemical connections, for the movement of nutrients and energy fluids and information within and, in the case of animals, the movement of the body through its whole external environment. The flat city battles against that healthy logic of short distances by design, whether by DNA or city design. The distances to be covered in the flat city and the expense of infrastructure and vehicles and fuel to cover them can be truly mind-boggling.

At core is the principle of “access by proximity.” The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, we hear. Not quite. It’s designing those points close together. This applies to biological organisms internally and to cities as well. Compact structure allows efficient, low energy connections throughout the organism be it a product of biological evolution or human construction.

Why are we not proportionalizing in the way I’m suggesting here? My guess is that it takes extra commitment and energy, some risks and it raises the specter that we might need to change some things substantially with the investment of some difficult work. We’d rather pick the a-fore mentioned low hanging fruit. But it is time to leave the low hanging fruit for the children.

With the growing universal agreement that dealing with climate change might be the largest problem world society needs to deal with, with implications on the scale of evolution’s trajectory into forever – impoverished or enriched? – how could the solutions be easy? No one won the day with the battle cry, “Relax! Do something easy first…” I think one of the reasons we have settled for perseverating on the adaptation issues is that those most concerned have not insisted, as I am doing here, on always looking for the effective long-range solutions and not just the easy or short-term changes. Maybe we have to start thinking about designing cities without MY car. Maybe we should entertain the idea of changing MY neighborhood. Maybe to even rethink MY career choices as to whether they fit with the much more pedestrian city, daring to imagine a very different kind of city into the future. Then there is the way I vote, make purchases and even talk in everyday conversation with my friends.

That then becomes an intriguing challenge: if we start thinking in really basic terms we might realize that the city that is best for adaptation adapts least – because in the not too distant future it doesn’t have to. Mild adaptations while giving first priority to reshaping the city in major ways for humans and natural critters alike is radically preferable to stupendous works of defense against “nature” and crossing our fingers blind to the deeper causes, principles and likely futures. Jaime Lerner, the Mayor who launched Curitiba, Brazil into world leadership in ecologically healthy city design reminds us that great changes in any city can happen in as few as two years.

We can begin looking at this contrast between fundamental change and trying to defend what we have now – adaptation – by thinking through some of the recommendations in the New Yorker January 7, 2013 issue.

Klaus Jacob was interviewed for the article. He’s a geophysicist at Columbia University and author of a 2009 study of storm surge risks for New York City whose predictions mostly came true when Superstorm Sandy hit in December 2012. He produced a map to inform the New Yorker article, with blue zones of increasing development in New York City and pink zones of decreasing population and development activity. The blue zones of increase happened to be in the areas on the sea level fringe with water where techniques of new building are more easily exercised than the techniques of convincing people in their already built up neighborhoods to accept new development. The neighborhoods generally safe from flooding are, simply, on higher ground.

What can actually work? As usual everyone turns eyes to the Netherlands. The city of Rotterdam has a “Climate Proof Program” that Eric Klinenberg, author of the New Yorker “Adaptation” article thought was pretty good.

First there was the ever trustworthy and intriguing if not Zen mystic argument that the problem is actually a good thing. In Rotterdam the climate proofing folks rechristened flooding rains “blue gold.” “Before we saw water as a problem,” said the program’s spokesperson. “The most interesting thing is figuring out what’s between these approaches: what to do with the water when it is there.” Why does this sound to me like it’s going nowhere yet gets what is supposed to be serious attention of transcendent revelation? More specifically what is suggested for real change?

The architecture of accommodation is one answer. Rotterdam has built a floating pavilion in the city center supported by three enormous floating silver half spheres complete with tennis courts, exhibition space and water playground. These look to me like specialized expensive public works not in the nature of “floating the city.” Are they good solutions for housing or offices, manufacturing facilities, warehousing and shopping? I would guess in a very wealthy society the people might build like that, floating on the rising seas but building on water is for many reasons, especially corrosive salt water, intrinsically more expensive than on land. Where poorer people live over water, it is generally for lack of other options on crowded land or land being too far from employment or they make their living doing mixed-uses right there: fishing, trading, raising kids on the water. The situation – floating on a moving medium – requires near constant maintenance. Stressing wind, corrosion, action of biological agents in the water, waves and heaving swells and moist conditions twist, turn and gnaw away at the structure with tiny barnacle teeth, which is why boats and ships require more maintenance than buildings that provide housing and work spaces of various sorts on land.

Smart design, meaning information technology to help coordinate physical actions, helps but that too implies higher expense in linking and manipulating the infrastructure. An electronically coordinated Dutch electric power grid is “circular” instead of the radial sort that branches out from one central power source. The idea is that power can come in from several directions depending on availability in case some power sources go down or line are cut, such as when wires are blown down with their poles by hurricanes. This “circular” solution requires redundant wiring, more lines coming in from more directions, more power company information infrastructure, though in some cases it can save on some physical infrastructure. Certainly this is not that difficult but again more expensive in both construction and maintenance, the stuff of ordinary complex energy grids already.

Another solution: place the electrical equipment above highest potential flood level. Only reasonable. Another: bury wires in waterproof pipes. A good practice but more expensive than wiring on poles. Another, this one from Singapore, raise the entrances of your subway system up out of the ground like projecting tubes – walk up a few extra steps to their thresholds then back down to the level of the street and on down into the system. When the waters wash down the street they can’t make it into the underground but you can. Again doable, an adaptation, more expensive but beginning to sound a little bizarre.

Then in the actual emergency situation there is a new “reverse-911 messaging” in which the authorities ring up you the people instead of vice versa, telling you you have a crisis on your hands and you should do such and such in your area. This too is not such a bad idea. What is interesting here is that all these adaptations, like the improvement of the car in Los Angeles, do nothing substantial to reduce the cause of the problem in the first place. But if we were to build the compact ecocity for people, including on artificially elevated land, we would be changing the largest cause of the climate change problem and vastly improving our prospects while also adapting to what’s left of the problem after good moves for prevention.

The best of all possible cities? Is it too idealistic to strive for that? Is the attempt impractical? Or is it just that we haven’t really tried yet and don’t know how possible it really is? Certainly humanity has more knowledge and power than ever before if we could decide what to do with it that’s healthy. It is not too difficult to see that with the intent of recycling urban organic waste into the soil, from kitchen and garden waste to human waste and clippings from public parks and doo from the zoo, by way of best composting and including such systems in the agricultural landscape that feed the people, that there is no reason we can’t build soils. We can sustain biodiversity and even enhance it in and near urban areas – and do in many places already. When I was in Central Park a few years ago I was walking over one of those high arching foot bridges and a hawk flew by no more than fifteen feet from me – in front and below me as it banked under the bridge I was walking over. Then he shot up and off to the right. In a city! We can intentionally create environments to bring back vital biodiversity.

The massive general impact of cities is presently very destructive to nature but there is a thin scattering of ecocity features that everybody senses vaguely but meaningfully is the “green” and “sustainable” city of the future already everywhere around us. There are rooftop gardens, solar passive design buildings, multi-story solar greenhouse that aren’t really recognized as such yet but exist as atriums, foyers and gallerias. There are bridges between buildings in higher density areas including spectacular features like the High Line, bicycle streets and car free areas. There are bountiful community gardens and thriving restoration projects for bringing local species back from the brink in adjacent mangroves and reedy wetlands. There are glass exterior elevators from San Francisco, California to Ningbo, China that make vertical transport something of an adventure. There are moveable awnings and solid sheltered walkways for the pedestrian in rain, snow and blasting sun. A covered walkway in Bologna, Italy called a portico breaks free from the street-side colonnades in the city and marches two miles up the hills and out of town to a famous chapel. It is pleasantly negotiated in heavy rain or merciless sun. There are excellent public transit systems that could get even better, and even the stop-gap sharing of our pedestrian-city’s old arch enemy, the car itself. Various rental companies provide “wheels when you want them” as the catch phrase for Zip Car goes. These can help commuters eventually break free from the car habit altogether as their city and town centers become more dense and mixed in uses.

So the issue is not that the ecocity can’t exist, it already does but only in small bits and pieces presently overwhelmed by the infrastructure of the sprawling city for cars. Those bits and pieces need to proliferate vastly in number and come together in good designs, basic principles everywhere the same, local conditions everywhere different, the universal and the unique united.

Firemen wade toward the Breezy Point Fire that burned 111 houses to the waterline in Superstorm Sandy, New York.

But the seas are in fact rising. Unlike circumstance when entire neighborhoods are destroyed by water as in much of low lying New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and by fire in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens during Super Storm Sandy, parts of cities that are going to be inundated if dikes are not built cannot be easily removed. We can’t easily and economically remove big useful buildings remain anchored firmly to the ground, certainly in the short term anyway. Should we fill their basements with concrete and move the first floor up to the third floor? How to elevate the street too and do the same thing with other buildings in the area? Perhaps we could create such an area a block wide that becomes a ring around the rest of the city that remains at the old street level, in the future well below sea level. This is in fact the solution implemented in Old Sacramento, California where the downtown was frequently flooded by the Sacrament River during springtime mountain snow melt and late spring rain runoff. Visit there and you walk down once story from the waterfront into Old Town.

And, if we do seriously think through our options of “working with nature” – New York to the rescue. In 1961 Gerald Lloyd wrote a paper for the Urban Land Institute calling for a means to transfer development rights from one place to anther so that much more flexibility in city design and development could be planned, approved by the authorities and built. Cities could then be changed more rapidly for any number of good reasons: preservation of an historic landmark, pollution avoidance, building a better cluster of building, opening up a buried waterway, repairing past mistakes or building a piece of the best we can imagine. Lloyd called the notion “transferable density.” “In the midst of this scholarly activity, New York City adopted a new Landmark Preservation Law in 1968,” wrote Rick Pruetz, past Director of Planning for Burbank, California in his book on transfer of development rights or TDR, entitled “Saved by Development.”  The railroad company wanted to build a 55 story office tower on top of Grand Central Terminal. Instead “transfer of development rights” – aka TDR – was created as a legal tool to allow the shifting of rights to develop from one location to another. The innovation was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1978, the terminal building was preserved and TDR became a zoning tool not only in cities to save landmarks but also for saving natural areas and agricultural land all over the United States.

Compact development is excellent for fighting fires in fire country like Southern California and other Mediterranean climates. Have the community covering a small foot print, swimming pools up wind (fire winds almost
always come from the same direction) and gasoline powered water pumps hoses and nozzles… and the community is relatively easy to defend. Illustration by Richard Register

The kind of flexibility provided by tools like TDR, with the support of supportive zoning law and other policies, community fundraising for major projects, appropriate taxes and the like could make possible the gradual withdrawal from areas known to be soon flooded and a transfer of development facilitated to higher ground, some of which might be created as modern day versions of the Indian mounds that once dappled much of the US central and southeastern territories and raised cities in ancient Mesopotamia.

But here is the most important point: we have not yet begun to fight, as John Paul Jones said, but in this case, to reverse climate change. The fact is that the much talked about adaptive strategy, relative to the scale of the problem, does very little to reduce impacts leading to climate change. Planting trees by the millions actually does – by absorbs carbon out of the atmosphere. Grasslands regenerated with the best of grazing techniques can turn millions of acres of degraded soils into deep reservoirs of dead organic carbon matter by the gigatons stripped from the atmosphere.  Rancher Alan Savory has demonstrated what can be done in the grazing lands of Zimbabwe. To accomplish this he has reproduced the clustering effects of large numbers of cattle in a way modeled by the defensive bunching of zebras and wildebeest by lions into tight herds that act like giant self-replicating solar-powered agricultural fertilizing and seed planting machines mixing their fertilizer, earth and seeds with their hooves. Then there are the peat lands, if we could save most of them from cutting, or artificially create more of them, that build up carbon almost magically without the need of soil, sphagnum mosses just growing ever thicker on top of dying and dead moss underneath, laying down ever thicker and thicker layers of stored carbon below.

Solar and wind energy to replace fossil fuels helps greatly on the supply side. Building cities that consume radically less energy in the first place, the alternative called ecocities, pairs beautifully with such renewable energy sources on the demand side radically reducing demand for land and materials as well as energy. Do all of the above and we are well on our way to reversing global heating and obviating the more extreme mitigations and massive walls to keep out the seas that everyone is beginning to talk about as the big guns of adaptation. But even then, that is not enough if population and consumption, one or both, continue to grow putting ever more pressure on natural systems, especially the climate system and the ecological system called the biosphere. And even that will probably not be enough unless we move to a form of agriculture that builds soils organically, recruiting cities for much of the fertilizer ­– in a similar way to what Alan Savory does when he recruits cattle to doo doo as the zebras and wildebeests do, to build the soil in Zimbabwe. The evolving ecocity, in shrinking back from the land car cities have paved over with concrete, asphalt and inedible lawns helps in this way too: millions of new acres of land close in to the city can be liberated for both farming and the return and flourishing of native species. And even that might not be enough if we don’t phase out of our mania for war and expensive weapons systems and phase in much more serious peace efforts.

The lesson of whole systems thinking then, thinking using the anatomy analogy and ecological thinking, is not just that we have to see cities as analogous in profound ways to living organism, or understand their role in the whole system of their ecology and cycles of resource use and recycling, but also that we need to begin imaging how all those large components of solution come together in a plan something like Lester Brown’s long-promoted “Plan B” ideas explore. We need to, in other words, understand what’s needed and literally build a better future. We will need the new ecologically healthy city for people, a far better agriculture and diet system, a strategy to get control of our vast numbers and learn about limits into the future. We will need to be generous in investing in the above three very major areas of physical change, most briefly said as ecocities, organic agriculture, and population moderation. This becomes another “whole system” we need to think about, a whole systems strategy, one commitment to generously sharing the planet with all of us people and the other species that have made life such a rich and varied phenomenon on this planet. Could this be the one thing powerful enough to constitute William James’ notion of the much-needed “moral equivalent of war,” which he wrote about in one of the most influential essays of the early 20th century?

I believe so – and now we might understand better why adaptation to climate change in our cities is a very limited idea. The strategic system needs to be prioritized: work for the best for all first, second for preventing the disaster – then third, mop up as we must with adaptations to our failures of the first two.

Richard Register is founder and president of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at ecocity@igc.org.

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