Ninth Ecocity World Summit Quebec, Canada- Recap

During August 22-26, over 1,500 delegates from 70+ countries gathered in beautiful Montreal, Quebec, Canada, at Ecocity World Summit, the 9th International Ecocity Conference. We gathered with hope, determination and no lack of talent and creative solutions for ushering in what late cosmologist and philosopher Thomas Berry coined The Ecozoic Era. You can read all about the conference in this edition of Ecocities Emerging.


Along with excitement and enthusiasm, it was also with unexpected sadness that we began the event. Minutes before the opening ceremonies commenced, the news broke across Canada and the world about the untimely passing of Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party and Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada. Jack was becoming legendary in his time for his compassion, enthusiasm and down in the streets activism. When Richard Register met him in 2003 he announced he had bought Richard’s book Ecocity Berkeley around 1990. Richard was about to give him a new copy of “Ecocities” but Jack insisted on paying, and, “Keep the change, looks really good.” He was getting famous for seeking out the best he could find everywhere. As the conference unfolded, we continued to reflect upon Layton’s legacy, as well as contemplate the future of the direction of politics and decision making in Canada and the United States.


The big questions of how to evolve a shared vision of sustainable development and chart a pathway away from the gray towards a green economy will be forefront on the world stage at the upcoming Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 4-6, 2012. The conference will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg as well as the 40th anniversary of the first UN Environment Conference in Stockholm, 1972. It is envisaged as a Conference at the highest possible level, including Heads of State and Government. The Conference will result in a focused political document and will emphasize two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.


It is critical that we figure this out. The pathway taken by urban development over the next few decades will play a crucial role in the trajectory of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource depletion, as well as the fundamental health and well being of the human species and all life on earth. Cities consume 60% to 80% of the world’s energy production and natural resources. With the urban population of the developing world projected to reach more than 5 billion people by 2050, ideas about how to combine urbanization and sustainability are of critical importance.


The Rio+20 Outcome document should focus on the intersection between society, economy and the environment: i.e. cities, towns and villages, their citizens, their economies and the rural areas and ecosystems that sustain our human civilization. We are offering our contribution to this effort: The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) Initiative. Read more about the initiative in this edition of Ecocities Emerging.


At our conference in Montreal and immediately after in Bonn Germany where I traveled to take part in the international conference for planning NGO contribution to Rio+20, we began a conversation with various sectors at the United Nations and will continue to bring forward the IEFS as a potentially powerful means to focus a vision towards the green economy by bringing clarity and accountability to the all important decisions of what to build.


As we build, so shall we live


There is the truism, partial though it is, that we hear at many of our events and those organized by others that Ecocity Builders people participate in, that “the city is the people.” Well it is the people but it is also their arrangement, the buildings and streets, the energy, transport and food systems from adjacent lands, trade terminus points for route linkages, products and traditions, etc. But with conferences it really is the people. Everything is distilled down to the conversations between people, the meetings, the sometimes depressing often exhilarating exchange of experiences, ideas, commitments and often plans for follow through back in the good old infrastructure we call our home towns. In the case of Montreal’s Ecocity World Summit, we the people came from far and near, Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and the Americas with sparkling insights, tales of advance and retreat, success and challenge. There were presentations and debate and meeting one another for future reference, all in service to making cities “healthy for people and other living things,” as the peace movement slogan went in the 1960s. A sampling, then some of the highlights from my personal, limited, not-trying-to-be exhaustive perspective.

Our honorary co-presidents were:

  • Jan Gehl, renown author, architect, commentator on cities, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Janice Perlman, Founder President of the Mega-cities Project, New York and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Just a few of our prominent speakers in the informal California address book style, first name alphabetical:

  • Ahmed Djoghlaf, Exec. Sec., UN Convention of Biological Diversity, UNEP, Algeria
  • Alioune Badiane, Technical Cooperation Division and Director, Regional Office for Africa and Arab States, UN-Habitat
  • Auan Zhang, Planning Office of Shanghai, China
  • Brent Toderian, Planning Director, Vancouver, Canada
  • Carole Després, Universite Laval, Quebec, Canada
  • Chantal-Line Carpentier, Sustaiable Development Officer, Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, New York
  • Chantal Gagnon, City of Montreal, Montreal, Canada
  • Christer Larrson, City Planning Office, Malmo, Sweden
  • Dagmar Blume, Bombardier Transportation, Berlin, Germany
  • Fabienne Giboudeaux, Deputy Mayor of Paris for Green Spaces, Paris, France
  • Fatimata Dia Touré, Institute de L’Energie et de l’Environment de la Francophone, Quebec, Canada
  • Gérald Tremblay, Mayor of Montreal
  • Hans Tippenhauer, Advisor to the President, Pétionville, Hati
  • Hiroaki Suzuki, Eco2 Cities Program, World Bank, Washington, DC
  • Howard Frumkin, Dean, School of Public Health, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
  • Jean-Yves Jason, Mayor, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
  • Jeff Kenworthy, Author and world’s leading urban form and function scholar, Curtin, University, Perth, Australia
  • Jeff Stein, President of the Cosanti Foundation, Arcosanti, Arizona
  • Ki-ho Cho, Vice Mayor of Changwon, South Korea
  • Louise Roy, President, Public Consultation Office, Montreal, Canada
  • Maria Caridad Cruz Hernandez, Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity, Havana, Cuba
  • Nicolas Michelin, architect and urban planner, Paris, France
  • Peter A. Victor, York University, Toronto, Canada
  • Ronan Dantéc, Vice President of the Municipality of Nantes, France,
  • Thorsten Tonndorf, Senate Department for Urban Development, Berlin, Germany
  • Walter Hood, Hood Design, Landscape Architect, Oakland, California
  • Yves Cabannes, University College London, London, UK
Brent Toderian, Director of Planning, City of Vancouver; Kirstin Miller, Executive Director, Ecocity Builders; Marco Vangelisti, Slow Money and Ecocity Builders

Jayne tells me that among the dozens of volunteers that made the event possible our newsletter readers might like to know that the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre Board of Directors was involved and most active among its members in the conference organizing were Raquel Penalosa and Ray Tomalty. Key also were Program committee co-chairs: David Brown – more on David and his amazing rooftop garden later – and Louis Drouin. The core, that is most active, members of the planning group’s executive committee were Geoff Garver, Melissa Giguere and Laurence Bherer.

There were five or six times the number of presenters mentioned above, too, plus tour leaders to urban gardens, including the roof of the enormous four block long, two block wide conference center. That garden high in the sky is where the Urban Ecology Center and several restaurants have food production buzzing along but at that only covering about a third of the available rooftop area. We had a press conference up there with television and local papers, while on the other side of the building, that is underneath it, the main freeway of the downtown hurtles below the building carrying tens of thousands of cars, buses and trucks every day without the slightest noise in the conference center meeting rooms and auditoriums, shops, big tree-punctuated interior atriums and entrance to the city’s metro system. One of the liveliest tours was around the city on the Bixi system (bicycle taxi system – inexpensive commuting) and that brings me to my own favorite impressions, cityscape first.


I hit the streets and bike paths along the canals – clear water, locks to get boats around the rapids on the main reaches of the St. Lawrence River there, noticing some enormous fish swimming wide arcs through deep waving freshwater seaweed, and off to Atwater Market. This in-door/out-door affair approaches as big, varied and tasty as the fabulous city market off the Rambla in Barcelona, Spain, plus local product such as enormous maple leaf-shaped bottles full of maple syrup. Several pedestrian streets, impressed me, including the one with a few authentic upstairs Chinese restaurants in the small China town only a block from the Palais. Then there were the temporarily closed streets in addition, dozens of blocks of them alive with vendors and thousands of people, fire dancers, music, food – like us conferees – from around the world. One evening Jayne, her husband Jim, their two children and a few friends, namely myself, Kirstin, Architect Bill Mastin, photographer Susan Felter, muscian/writer Sven Eberlin and his partner, professional personal organizer (which led to a very interesting conversation) Deb Badhia settled in at the Tibetan restaurant whose tables had moved out onto the street.

Dining in the street on the “plateau”.

Our Conference Honorary Co-Presidents

Back at the conference itself, near and dear to my heart was Honorary Conference Co-President Jan Gehl’s several talks celebrating the pedestrian environment and the ever progressing take over of the streets by actual human beings in a growing number of European cities. His delightfully anti-car talks made the mild manner points that, for example, designing streets for people meant your children were more likely to actually arrive home from school alive. His “five-mile-per-hour architecture,” that is the relationship of “human scale” buildings, generally no more than five stories, to one another around narrow streets scaled for people, were built arrangements such that nothing could move much faster than that. It reminded me of the work Bill Mastin and I did with a few others in the early 1980s in Berkeley in remodeling a street there as a “Slow Street.” That one used street features such as curbs extending into the street a short distance with trees planted in the new land, in a relatively low density neighborhood, thus by design reducing speeds to a moderate bicycle rate. Why not just enact a slower speed limit in California by law? Because the American Automobile Association and Autodrivers Anonymous have a lockdown on a minimum street speed of 25mph, with the only exceptions being short distance postings for schools, hospitals and old folks homes.  In context, along our Slow Street, there were front yards for the children and top speed on the street, 15 miles per hour. Said architect Gehl, design a city for children and everything else will work out – problems of energy, transport, preservation of nature, you name it. I think he’s right and this was one of my chief impressions from the conference, though a little specific guidance, like ecocity mapping and hints from many other ecocity perspectives available at the conference can help greatly.

Jan Gehl, Honorary Conference Co-Chair

Stunning I’d call the career of our other Honorary Co-President of the Conference, Janice Perlman. In fact after her talk about the history of the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which for her started with living there for a year and a half in four of them back in 1968 and 1969, I went to the Exhibition Hall and bought one of her books: “Favela – Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro.” (If you don’t know, a favela is, somewhat imperfectly described, a “shanty town,” a “slum,” an “informal settlement” with little or no official ownership or legal renting of the land by those living on it.) Fevelas, named for a species of bush in Brazil that clings to rough barren slopes, began with the influx of rural poor people into the cities of Brazil in the late 1800s. These people were not as many would assume, the least capable and resourceful people around but rather those from the country curious about the outside world and courageous and imaginative enough to take the plunge and try to build a better more interesting and prosperous life where many more opportunities prevailed, I read much of her book on the airplane home to Oakland and finished it shortly after arrival. Janice’s tale started with the young sociologist’s visit, prior to her arrival as a Rio favela resident, to a fishing village so remote the people there couldn’t believe there was any other language in the world. Tuning up her less than perfect Portuguese at the village got giggles from the children who asked why she spoke like a parrot. Alternately, was she actually a bit retarded to be only able to speak as well as a four year old?

The world of cities has become largely a “Planet of Slums,” as says the title of a book by Mike Davis, and Janice’s bold live-in-and-return studies spanning three generations while sharing her knowledge between meagcities around the world gives us both hope and worry. Hope because the resourcefulness of the people in the Favelas, many working there way up and out of poverty, is inspiring and encouraging as they have not, just because of poverty, but with serious recycling and practical creativity provided insights for all of us contemplating low-impact, small ecological footprint cities for a healthy future. Worry because democracy delivered very little improvement if any over the dictatorship in the lives of the very poor in Brazil, with class distinctions being extraordinarily rigid, and more recently, with drug gang violence and associated corruption and disempowerment achieving levels of fear even terror to replace, and in many places, exceed that of the years of the dictatorship. It isn’t so much that we need to give more to the poor, it’s that we need to take less from them in labor than returned in pay for their contributions. Far from being separate from the city, even if segregated out, the favela residents are the ones commuting into the wealthier areas daily, building and running the city as carpenters, masons, maids and care givers, service providers at the bottom of the list of desirable, “better” meaning higher paid and less actually physically dirty jobs. The solution is largely just to provide good wages for work and a social cultural context that has real respect and fairness at its core. Without that expect not ecocities any time sooner or later. Design for children and making the poor, poor no longer.

Janice Perlman, Honorary Co-Chair, Founder of the Megacities Project

Another insight has to be added here though. Many speakers gave numerous and convincing details of what to actually build to solve multiple intractable problems. That is they showed us what to build. Interestingly this isn’t much of a discussion in society at large. We build more of what’s been built before, and perhaps especially in the “Great Downturn” since the Financial Crisis of 2008, we are seeing “shovel-ready” jobs in building the same old highways, with little sense that rails are far, far better, almost to the degree of some kind of salvation from real disasters. Dig a little deeper and see that the thing to build is not the better car but the city that doesn’t need them, that what to build is not solar to sprawl but solar to the ecocity, and so on. The encapsulated lesson here is that we have to know what to build as a plumber needs to know which pipe to connect to which. Yes we need to be fair to the vulnerable and the victims of past and on-going injustices, but knowing what to build is an equally important theme needing focus and dedication to application of lessons learned there from, the built manifestation being, should it all work out, Ecocities. And here are some details about that.

More speakers

Speaking of rails being far better than streets for cars when it comes to motor transport, Jeff Kenworthy, veteran of four or five earlier International Ecocity Conferences (I’m losing count), demonstrated from massive data from major cities around the world that they work far better than busses on streets as well. Short and medium term bus solutions such as Curitiba’s “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) system can run a close second, but in the long run the added investment if a city can afford it or structure financing to accomplish the task, rail systems work even better.

The two powerful talks looking into the teeth of the dragon were delivered by our friends from Vancouver, David Cadman, Vice Mayor and City Councilor of Vancouver, aka President of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, and Bill Rees, University of British Columbia professor and co-author with Mathis Wackernagle of the book and whole idea of the ecological footprint. David’s talk was an introduction to three other talks by Brent Toderian, Planning Director of Vancouver and Christer Larsson and Thorston Tonndorf both with corresponding positions in Malmo, Sweden and Berlin Germany respectively and Zhjang Quan, Director of the Environmental Protection Bureau, Shanghai, China. David painted a dire picture of sea rise and climate change, so dire in fact – easily three feet with such current rapidly developing commitments as accelerating petroleum production from Canada’s tar sands despite government words of concern for climate change – that the stage was set for really radical proposals. Solid ones followed but I admit some disappointment that none of the talks in that session addressed what to do about the current sprawl development that exists, what, in other words to do about actually removing the damaging infrastructure that even with the addition of good transit oriented development, better recycling, energy conservation etc., careens on as the chief engine of destruction that already exists and is running full speed. Bill Ress on the other hand, as he always does, stressed that sheer consumption levels are so intensely high in the cities of the wealthy countries, and rising rapidly in places like China, India and Brazil, that we need to find much more radical solutions than are presently seen anywhere in the mainstream list of supposed solutions to climate, energy and species extinctions problems. He, like Richard Heinberg, sometimes called the Dark Prince of Peak Oil, a keynote speaker with Jerry Brown at Ecocity Builders’ 2005 World Environment Day conference in Oakland called “Green City Visions”, exudes a kind of weary expectation of impending catastrophe yet renews constantly a battling spirit to warn people – and Bill in addition pins at least some hope on people waking up to ecocities as part of a solution conceived on a scale to match the problem. He is with us not only at our conferences but also as a Core Advisor to the International Ecocity Framework and Standards project that Kirstin Miller is heading up.

International Ecocity Framework and Standards

For the last year Kirstin Miller has led a project hosted by Ecocity Builders developing a framework and set of standards by which to more clearly understand what exactly an ecocity is and how to best get there. In fact in the middle of writing this article for our newsletter, just last night, I gave a talk about the present state of ecocities for the Berkeley Ecology Center. Stephen Kelly, who was at the conference in Montreal, from the audience asked my best strategy idea for bringing ecocity awareness to the public and promoting them into existence as rapidly as possible. I said I wasn’t sure what would work after so many years of only small successes scattered about while the automobile city swelled ever more relentlessly larger and more damaging. Kirstin, there and co-presenting with me, spoke of our best shot: the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS), which she also addressed at the Montreal Conference itself. The notion that ecologically healthy cities could be built has gained a foothold in many places around, she mentioned. But how to tell the difference, how to best promote and educate about, launch and develop? The answer was to develop a set of criteria for conditions any city might create in moving in that direction, as measured in terms of healthy indicators, and to lay out the effort to evolve the city in that direction.

To get to higher levels of ecocity accomplishment the “framework” is organized in four categories where progress toward systematic improvement can be clearly seen.

  • The first is called “Urban Design – Access by Proximity” which if pursued lead to the city designed around the reach of the human rather than the machine, in practice these days, mainly cars and trucks.
  • The second category is called “Bio-Geo-Physical Conditions” and addresses quality air, water, material, food and energy.
  • The third is “Ecological Imperatives” — biodiversity, carrying capacity, ecological integrity
  • And the fourth category is called “Social-Cultural Features” — culture, community capacity, economy, education, well being

At Ecocity 9 in Montreal Kirstin organized a panel of short presentations by members of our international team drafting the IEFS. She introduced the subject as she did again just last night at the Ecology Center, but in addition described the history of the project and progress that has brought us to a point were we now have a solid set of core authors and supporting advisors including Bill McKibben author and major leader in climate change education and policy action, Mathis Wackernagle, co-author of the ecological foot print concept and President of the Global Footprint Network, Warren Karlenzig, President, Current, a city policy consulting company, Rusong Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Member Chinese Peoples Congress and Ecocity 5 Converner, Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank, Ian Douglas President of the International Council on Ecopolis Development and President of the Society of Human Ecology, and other expert advisors. She also laid out the initiatives strategy for involving Early Partner Cities, of which several are on board with commitments to gather data about their own conditions and help refine the strategy to develop a framework and set of standards by which many different kinds of cities in very different circumstances of size, wealth, geography and culture could be assessed and assisted in the journey toward their role in an ecologically healthy, socially just urban world in the future. Kirstin mentioned that among the Early Partner Cities, we are now working with Vancouver and Montreal Canada and Kirtipur, Nepal and in communication with people from and exploring working with enthusiastic potential partners in Pafos, Cypress; Durban, South Africa and Dakar, Senegal.

Several of those in our core committee drafting the IEFS took the stage after Kirstin’s introduction in Montreal.

Marco Vangelisti, artist and financial strategist and investment consultant working on the IEFS with Ecocity Builders out of his hometown of Berkeley, California further elaborated the Early Partner Cities program and what it hopes to accomplish. As one of our delegation to Nepal last fall he was important in developing the connection with the ancient more than 95% car free town of Kirtipur built on a rock outcrop that rises from the Kathmandu valley looking all the way up the Himalaya range from Ganesh Himal (24,350 feet) to Mt Everest (29,029 feet). Rick Smith, working with us from his position as professor at Wane State University in the town of recent vast open spaces called Detroit, Michigan and earlier as a sometimes employee and sometimes volunteer with Ecocity Builders in Oakland, reported on his survey of various sets of standards from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to ICLEI’s STAR Community Sustainability Index that have been designed to measure building energy consumption, city contribution to green house gas reduction and so on. Our idea was to go beyond the existing standards and measures to provide a tool for transforming cities more thoroughly and more rapidly than we are currently seeing.

Bill Rees of the University of British Columbia (UBC), co-author of the ecological footprint concept with Dr. Wackernagle just mentioned above and a part of our team of IEFS co-authors, and Jennie Moore, Director for Sustainability at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver working on her doctorate under Bill at UBC spoke of applying the ecological footprint approach to the ecocity framework and standards to reveal the realities of high consumption that claims to be green – not often true. To have a prosperous life in healthy future our ecological footprint – the impact each of us have on society’s resource base and on other life forms of the planet – has to be factored in in relation to our lives in cities. In fact, Bill and Jennie report that present scholars and researchers working with ecological footprint figures for individuals and aggregated national total impacts have yet to gather and assess data for cities. Thus best figures in terms of impacts that could help us guide ecocity design and development are not as readily available as they should be. To gather and access this information, then, becomes one of the most important missions of the IEFS. Ernest Callenbach, who also wrote the underground classic “Ecotopia” about an ecologically tuned, even fanatically healthy country on the Pacific Coast – Northern California, Oregon and Washington – that secedes from the United States and goes its way building what looks suspiciously like ecocities and restored bioregions, wrote another book called “Living Poor with Style.” The goal of ecological cities might turn out to be understanding how to really prosper, both people and nature, at low consumption levels according to ecological footprint assessments of the cities and towns we live in… in style. Cliché green – big houses with solar heated swimming pools and all-around double glazed panoramic windows for example, with low per-person benefit (few people enjoying whatever sort of prosperity that suggests) – would count against its city’s ecocity ecological footprint in a very different way of assessing “quality of life” and “standard of living” which tends to claim high points for high consumption activities, facilities and habits.

Ray Tomalty, professor at McGill School of Urban Planning, further elaborated on our process and spoke about the “step-wise process” by which cities could be assessed or assess themselves for their position on the road to high ecocity levels of accomplishment. In that session I spoke about an “ecocity toolbox” that could be used to help move cities in an ecocity direction, in theory building from basic principles and land use patterns up, adding particular policies, technologies and practices to attain highest possible ecocity functioning. In particular, to get to the condition of easy access by proximity, we can use the concept of developing vitality centers in our metropolitan areas and by utilizing Ecocity Builder’s tool we call the Ecocity Mapping System, a future-oriented, whole-systems design approach to mapping a city to help guide transition to lively compact, functionally diverse centers with restoration of natural areas and waterways and agricultural landscapes returning to areas now paved over in asphalt, concrete, lawns, tar and gravel and asphaltic shingle roofs and submerged in air pollution with increasing CO2 content.

Really Getting There

One of the delights of a good conference is the new surprise. Mayor of Munster, Germany, Markus Lewe provided one of the best. I was almost stunned how close to our ecocity mapping system maps his city maps for Munster looks like, which is an awkward sentence but says it pretty well anyway.

Ecocity zoning from Munster, Germany

Check out the pattern of development I’ve been suggesting as the destination of the reshaping of an “ecotropolis,” the NASA shot of the San Francisco Bay Area from space and my “ecocity centers” Photoshop rendition based on the NASA photo and the third image that represents those centers and nature and agriculture coming back to replace former sprawl development and you get something dangerously close to what we were seeing projected on the big screen next to mayor Lewe’s lectern. There on his map you will notice the almost circular spots of development that constitute centers surrounded by green, the exact nature we of course don’t know because that would take more detail than a 20 minute presentation can provide. We’d need to be on the ground or have a few hours to explore, essentially interviewing Mr. Lewe. And he mentioned many of the smaller details of life, lifestyle, recycling, conservation, etc. in Munster and “green” policies and initiatives, the usual good stuff of our ecocity conferences. But here in addition we were seeing one of the best patterns of overall urban organization I remember from nine International Ecocity Conferences. Brent Toderian, Planning director of Vancouver showed us a map of the larger Vancouver metropolis and centers of higher density development were identified in a similar pattern of focused spots of built up infrastructure around major transit stations. But surrounding these spots in Vancouver was, rather than green, the gray of thousands of acres of asphalt, concrete and rooftops of buildings one and two stories high.

1. Metropolis Region

Which brings us to the kind of side meetings, often during lunch or dinner, hanging out in the halls or over chatting, often with quite a few laughs and drinks at receptions. I had the opportunity in this manner to sit down with both Brent Toderian and David Cadman – reminder: Planning Director and Vice Mayor of Vancouver respectively. Neither of them could imagine a systematic framework in policy or even in the mind politic of the people there that could continence systematic removal of low-density, car-dependent development in the larger metropolitan area, that is, an area that could transform into an ecologically healthy metropolis, an ecotropolis. The public might be able to tolerate higher density coming along with more services and prosperity but to imagine removing anything, as if placing it there might have been a mistake in the first place – wouldn’t play well in Boston, as they say of new ideas. But it is proving to be exactly that: not just a mistake but one of the worst mistakes of humanity in the 20th century continuing on into the 21st: car and cheap energy dependent sprawl development.

2. Metropolis to Ecotropolis

I actually agreed with Brent and David that the prospects of heading toward something that looked something like Munster’s actual layout or the outcomes of a transformation you could imagine utilizing Ecocity Builders’ Ecocity Mapping System wouldn’t be embraced broadly at this point – no point in polling the people as to whether or not they would like it. The results would be negative. Naturally! They haven’t heard of it before! But we could at least begin developing the language and planting the ideas as multiple wins. Not just win-win, or win-win-win. But “win” many times over: regarding service to people, restoration of nature and agriculture, climate change benefits, species preservation, cleaner air, fresh food locally grown, no threat to your kids getting killed under the tires of 60 mile per hour architecture, the inverse of Jan Gehl’s 5 mile per hour architecture and so on.

3. Final transformation: Ecotropolis with Nature and Agriculture Returned

In the long term though, the climate and resources problems David portrayed powerfully in the session where he set the introductory tone imply that something finally has to be done about the destructive infrastructure itself even if it is 50 or more years in the future. Why fail to think about it now? If there are too many people consuming too many resources, covering too much land, producing too many deleterious effects we have to face up to removing some of that sprawl some day. My theory is that only if people can see the transformation from both sides, what we need to add in some specific places and what we need to subtract from others, will be to understand the whole pattern and be empowered to do something healthy about it.



To look a little more carefully at this getting-over-the-threshold notion, here’s how our thinking went. Kirstin Miller has been trying lately to better understand the relationship of the ecocity to its bioregion and how such understanding could be worked into the framework and standards that are a major focus of her efforts recently. The very sad death of our friend and colleague Peter Berg, pioneer in bioregional thinking, has riveted her attention even more on his powerful conceptualization of that living landscape our cities have to understand far, far better if we are to have a better future. (I met Peter back in 1972 after correspondence even before then and he spoke for us at Ecocity 1 in Berkeley, Ecocity 4 in Curitiba and Ecocity 7 in San Francisco.)

Thinking of our ecocity mapping system Kirstin began seeing the pattern of change we were encouraging to be one of a transforming metropolis, not described so well as a city, but as an almost undifferentiated urban aglomeration like a continuous mattress of streets, freeways, buildings with residuals of green parks and gardens here and there. Transformed into what? An ecologically healthy metropolis.

In this vision, downtowns become more functionally diverse and perhaps yet more dense turning into real pedestrian ecocities in their own right with a very small even tiny physical footprint compared to metropolitan development limits. Major district centers become vital ecotowns of a smaller scale and neighborhood centers become real ecovillages. In between all these centers of vitality of culture and economy, waterways are exhumed from their underground grave yards to flow again under sun, moon and stars, parks and community gardens are expanded, in some cases into serious commercial farmland, and native species return in many areas. The linkages are with foot, bicycle and rail, of which bike enthusiasts and Jeff Kenworthy would be in hearty approval. My thought: Why wait? Why not just call that pattern, that transformation like stars gathering up the thin infrastructure of interstellar gasses to burst into the life of sparkling galaxies, an ecotropolis? Another generic term like ecocity itself. The “sequence” you might say then, like the sequence of different types of stars in a galaxy, would see small ecovillages, ecotowns and ecocities and where they are gathered together in a location like the San Francisco Bay Area or any other metropolitan area today, they would constitute an ecotropolis. And this in turn would be embraced by the living landscape of its bioregion, as Peter Berg would say, or hinterlands as the somewhat more resources-oriented term Jane Jacobs used in her thinking about economic health of cities in their larger geographic context. I think the concept might be a breakthrough.

Well you can’t cover everything in a conference like this in a newsletter, and even the ponderous books that are academic proceedings don’t do justice to conferences for other reasons. This has to be a glancing encounter, like a Jupiter fly by peaking down at a whole lot more action than can be encapsulated in a few paragraphs beamed out through space (and by the way that’s exactly how this newsletter gets to many of you: via actual space satellites), and as said at the outset, I can’t help but miss a lot. Debra Efroymson with her tales of ecocity work in the Asian Subcontinent and Jeff Stein’s report from Paolo Soleri’s earliest to start and still struggling thorough-going ecocity project, Arcosanti, Arizona, launched in 1970 I don’t have time or space to cover. Landscape Architect Walter Hood’s beautiful designs from Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles to Buffalo, Pittsburg, and Atlanta that lay the patterns of utilized space and movement on the natural landscape such that life emerges as if from a deeper layer to create something new and uniquely human and natural simultaneously. Vice Mayor of Changwon, South Korea was there and spoke for his city and expressed an interest in possibly hosting future ecocity conference in his town, and Ronan Dontac, Vice Président of Nantes Métropole (early to be an ecotropolis?) with all due fanfare, accepted the baton and announced that his city would take on organizing our next, the International Ecocity Conference. Tenth International Ecocity Conference, coming up in September of 2013. And so much more happened.

But I would like to end like this. Kirstin and I met with Sharon Christians, a vice president of Bombardier, the maker of streetcars and trains and Chantal Line Carpentier, of the Division for Sustainable Development at the United Nations who is working on “major organizations” participation in the 2012 Rio + 20 environmental conference of the United Nations. (I was there at Rio in 1992 – and at Stockholm at the first in the series in 1972.) The four of us decided we needed to establish a much stronger financial basis for ecological city work and we had to make sure the upcoming UN Conference made ecocities one of it’s primary issues of concern and action.

And something very personal: David Brown invited me and Kirstin to join himself and Ginette Lamontagne for dinner in their rooftop garden. Personal because David had run across my book “Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Healthy Future” back around 1988, found it inspiring and required it for his planning students at McGill University there in Montreal, so inspiring in fact that he just had to try building a staircase, tiny room for relaxing, whatever season, sun or snow, up on the roof, plus garden. Surrounded by flowers four feet high and vines with the brightest pink beans I’ve even seen, he and Ginette served up Kirstin and I, Jayne Engle-Warnick and her two children Max and Ester one wonderful meal exactly where I’d drawn a few pictures in our imaginations on a piece of paper around 1985. It had all come full circle to a beautiful place, high in the sky, he’d made with his own hands.

David Brown’s rooftop garden patio

— Richard Register is President of Ecocity Builders and founder of the International Ecocity Conference Series. He can be reached at:

Post script: Complete listing at under “program” for more detailed information on conference speakers and topics. We’d all – both Ecocity 9 organizers and those of us past ecocity conference conveners on the conference series Relay Committee – like to thank the sponsors who made this even possible with special gratitude to the four principal sponsors, Bombardier, the TD Group, City of Montreal, and Government of Quebec. A full list of sponsors is available on the website.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.