Reflecting on Ecocity Times

Reflecting on Ecocity Times

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

Are these ecocity times? Perhaps I should put a question mark at the end of my title. Putting forward that notion – that we might be at the dawn of ecocity times – might produce some interesting insights, maybe strategies for success.

We are approaching our Tenth International Ecocity Conference to be held in Nantes, France and it is intriguing to notice how much Ecocity Builders and the whole ecocity enterprise going back several decades now has seeped into the unconsciousness of what Tielhard de Chardin called the “noosphere,” aka “noesphere.” By that the Catholic priest, philosopher and evolution theorist meant the total flux of consciousness, unconsciousness and preconsciousness, all that information plus the physical substance housing, remembering, accessing and carrying that information, which is our brains, books, phone wires and microwaves, radio sets, even our schools and cities, and etc. You could even add that the neurological material of all the other animals, their mating calls and displays, warnings of aggression, and even the rudimentary signs of some kind of awareness in plants all participate in wildly various way in the noosphere. You could think of the noosphere in brief as the planetary brain/mind. That planetary noosphere has recently been practicing the design, planning and building, in so many places around the world, bits and pieces of what an ecocity would be if… if all those pieces were drawn together and organized well into a physical new type of city. That’s why I say the ecocity features that are being built now are emerging from an unconscious place rather than a conscious one: it seem impossible for today’s noosphere to quite yet get the overall design of the whole urban system, the largest physical component of the planetary brain going about its citified business. But, ecocity neurological information flux and communications could go live and conscious any time now.


From “Mannahatta – A Natural History of New York City” we see a satellite image of the greater New York metropolitan area taken in 2009. It is pretty much the same today.

Image 1

New York deep in the future, who knows when, also in “Mannahatta.” The city exhibits clustered development around mostly fairly large centers, probably larger than I imagined in my 1982 ecocity mapping system and map I designed for Berkeley, California. But then New York is much, much larger. Noteworthy are the corridors and especially important is the recognition here that we need to remove most low density car dependent development and begin designing for people instead of cars if we are to have a healthy future.

Image 2

My own thinking around 2009 showing two adjusted images of the “ecotropolis” of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the first image we find areas of most vitality and reinforce these with yet higher density and diversity. In the second image modifying the satellite photo we imagine withdrawing from the lowest density areas first and while creating corridors for natural and agricultural vitality too.

Using consistent thinking between my ecotropolis and the larger ecotropolis of Greater New York, we can imagine the gray stuff disappearing – which is mostly streets, parking lots and the rooftops of buildings, mostly one and two stories high – becoming the green of nature and agriculture. In my second Bay Area map I’m imaging about a two foot rise of sea level before we stabilize the situation by mainly reducing demand for land and energy through ecocity density shifting and by switching to renewable energy sources.

Some of us have presumed to known for some time now what that new brain for containing that planetary mind would look like in terms of its urban design and arrangements, even most of its detailing. But this new world is beginning to be built without reference to our prior promotions in Ecocity Builders, and before that in Urban Ecology, and before that in a group we called Arcology Circle, and before that at Arcosanti, Arizona. We might think of these efforts and kindred work such as that of Joan Bokaer’s and Liz Walker’s at Ithaca Ecovillage, Paul Downton and Cherie Hoyle’s, conveners of our Second International Ecocity Conference in Adelaide, Australia and Rusong Wang’s work, convener of our Fifth International Ecocity Conference in Shenzhen, China also as clearly conscious. There are others, as well known as Ian McHarg and Lewis Mumford, as creative and productive as Jaime Lerner and his architct and planner colaborators reshaping Curitiba, Brazil for sustainability ten years before the Bruntland commission popularized the term,  and as powerfully insightful but obscure as Kenneth Schneider and Paul Glover, authors and activists both. Such has been our small ecocity galaxy of people with their ideas and projects leading the way for many decades now. Over the past ten or fifteen years, though, so much has been changing and yet so little awareness of the character of that change is coursing with strong amperage and voltage through our global consciousness circuitry.

That’s why I say it is in the unconscious mind of the planet. The thoughts are there but not well ordered and not easily “brought to mind” then applied. Scattered ecocity ideas have been manifesting in concrete and steel, wood and glass, pedestrian zones and bicycle streets, bridges between buildings like the Highline in New York City and even the future perspective of removing automobile sprawl development seen as the only sane way forward in the magnificent recent book “Mannahatta.” It’s author produces a vision for the Greater New York that looks like the product of my “Ecocity Map” of Berkeley drawn in 1982. The future New York image is on the back cover of “Mannahatta” and also facing a present-day satellite image of the same area on page 241. (“Mannahatta – A Natural History of New York City” by Eric W. Sanderson, illustrated by Markley Boyer, Abrams, New York City, 2009).

Many good ideas are dawning in the realm and planning processes everywhere. All the above ideas and many more, like building out transit lines and transit oriented developments, called by people calling themselves New Urbanists, “TODs”, and supplying the reduced-demand city with energy from wind and solar technologies are being applied every day. All these were grist for our ecocity mill in the ecocity movement starting more than three decades ago and struggling to be heard.

These design ideas backed by many drawings, layout plans and maps came fully clothed in ecocity architectural detailing, nature restoration projects like creek daylighting projects, community and rooftop gardens, vastly improving pedestrian spaces and public plazas and on and on all very consciously created, details ordered well together and promoted in the early and on-going work of the ecocity movement. And now in disconnected bits and pieces all over the world it is starting to be built and might, just might, take over from the world of cars, paving the planet and wrecking the Earth’s climate and biological system. Cities are that big and so are their differences enormous, the car city compared to the ecocity.

Yes, car sales are increasing in general around the world, fracking and acid injection drilling (acidizing) are opening vast areas of geology for “liberating” then burning shale derived oil and gas unavailable before the very recent new technologies came along, making it possible for us to run around in circles over absurdly gigantic and scattered urban infrastructure doing ever more immense damage for some time more yet, driving, driving, driving ourselves to distraction, distraction from what we need to understand and build if we want a healthy future. Meantime positive, ecocity kind of city building is happily happening in practically every country. So it appears to be a race to… what? The finish? The end of civilization on a far from healthy planet? Or the beginning of the ecocity era in which the largest things human beings build – their cities – are actually consciously, not unconsciously, tuned to the needs of this vast but finite and wounded world of ours?

My perspective right now

I spent almost a month in Bhutan this spring where officials in the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement hosted me and took me to the site of what quite of few people in their government would like to see become a full-on ecocity project for their Panbang Valley. The site, four miles from the border with India, is, remarkably, at the confluence of the country’s two largest rivers. There, some of us imagine the confluence of Bhutan’s initiative called Gross National Happiness with ecocities – at the confluence of the rivers. (My report on the proposed project, complete with photos, maps and drawings, is available if you write me and request an e-mail copy: So it may well be that we can take a very serious step in Bhutan to bring together the scattered elements of a genuine small ecocity.

The year before, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city Administrative Committee hired me to write an analysis of their project, which is being rapidly built on the China coast with the Bohai Sea directly east of Beijing. The city will house 350,000 people and is the first in the world using the term I originated in 1979 – which they gracefully acknowledge. In many ways the project is a success but, as my paper (which is also available) says, there could be a number of improvements. These therein I proceeded to suggest.

And coming up next, just before our Tenth International Ecocity Conference, aka these days, World Ecocity Summit at Nantes, I am going to Jeju Island off the tip of South Korea to keynote a conference called the “2013 International Green Island Forum.” My own talk I’m calling “Island Cities can lead the Ecocity Revolution – from ancient solutions to rescuing the future.” And I believe it’s a real possibility – if we can raise into full consciousness the scattered good details unconsciously emerging around the world and weave them into an ecocity whole. The organization hosting the Jeju conference is attempting to forge a cooperating alliance of groups around the world with the common issues of cities on islands. In terms of survival, there are probably two basic kinds of such cities on islands: the flat ones, often on atolls, facing flooding due to rising seas and heightened ferocity of storms and the more hilly or mountainous ones where that problem is less crucial. But both still have to work with the sort of limits, on a small scale, that on the large scale are imposed by the finite if immense size of the Earth itself. (I’m reminded of the last organization Dave Brower founded, Earth Island Institute.)

What I hope for Nantes and Ecocity Ten

I’m suggesting by the above that there could be a wake up in the making and it might be greatly facilitated by events at our conference. Paolo Soleri, pioneer of a number of the most important concepts at the core of ecocity thinking once said, “The best way to make your dream come true it to wake up.” (I was reminded of this quote by the invitation to participate in the Paolo Soleri memorial events at his experimental town, Arcosanti, Arizona. That event is taking place on the 20th through 22nd of September. He died on April 9 of this year. I’ll be flying from Arizona to Nantes, France immediately after the memorial.)

The items below that I hope to see advanced by Ecocity Ten are part of what might be called a strategy of particular specific ideas or physical projects that people might latch on to that open doors to new possibilities. These are something like keys, perhaps something like “seed bombs” in permaculture lore: make a ball of soft clay around a number of native plant seeds and broadcast them into environments where the seeds could sprout with the melting of the clay in the first rain. These ideas and examples that I would like to see get emphasis at our conference could then release any number of seeds to take root and thrive. Without them, maybe not so much action.

Wake up

What I’m suggesting here is that much of that “wake up” could be described as the moving of the awareness that builds scattered not-yet connected pieces of the ecocity to the awareness of whole systems thinking that pulls all those pieces together in good designs. That new integration of thinking and building could be characterized as moving from unconscious – more or less muddling toward more and more discrete good items that could function best in an overall ecocity design – into a consciousness and built environment that has become aware of how all the parts should be assembled optiamally. I should mention when introducing the word “should” that certain design percepts like “build for people rather than for cars” and “build compact essentially three-dimensional cities, not flat scattered ones,” are universal ideas, basic principles everywhere the same. The latter one is suggesting we build cities and towns that learn from the organization of healthy complex living organisms. Many other things to be considered in every ecocity design have to be completely unique to local weather, temperatures, resources, sun angles, soils, cultural history and on and on. The universal and unique can play out in a kind of harmonious dance of whole systems design of ecocities – or they won’t happen.

So at Nantes and Ecocity Ten I’m hoping the Great Wake Up to the ecocity future will happen or be largely prepared for, as in someone jostling someone from a deep dream.

Very specifically this means, if not whole cities being transformed right away by ecocity mapping to begin transitions as illustrated on the back cover of “Mannahatta,” at least what we call ecocity “integral” or “fractal” projects can be designed and built very quickly where people catch on to their value. Those might be built projects on no more than three or four city blocks or equivalent land area in the county, but with all the essential community and economic and social functions provided for in the physical infrastructure: housing, office and shop space, educational facilities, open spaces like plazas and small waterway restorations, networks like pathways for recycling, wires, pipes, rails and best of transit and bicycle facilities all organized in respect to sun angles, views to nature and agriculture, local climate, soils, biology, agriculture and so on. These places can be built anywhere it is reasonable for people to be living. But where land is cheap such as in Detroit, Michigan and the need great (and the history great in that particular place), and where the people are willing and supportive, as appears to be the case in Bhutan, at Tianjin Eco-city and perhaps among the new “green islands,” we may in those locations launch a real revolution.

Elevated fill/artificial hill

This particular will seem strange to most at first glance but it is remarkable what a specific physical particular can sometimes contribute to focusing attention and helping with a wake up. Specifically, if flooding is a recurring problem a very major solution is to simply pile up earth and build at a higher elevation. The idea goes back many thousands of years and seems to have started on beaches and along the edges of occasionally flooding rivers where people threw away shells and bones after settling down to eat the bounty of the sea, lake or river. These small middens frequently grew into shell mounds sometime higher then 20 feet above the flat muddy or sandy landscape of almost everywhere people fished and harvested shellfish. Wherever the source of the idea, and there were obviously several and maybe many places where this idea emerged originally, by 4,500 years ago in the Mesopotamian Valley, the first cities of any size in the world, those of the Sumerian Civilization, were being built on elevated artificial fill, as if building on small hills. When floods came, the water went up, nothing flooded and went down again, nobody hurt, no damage to infrastructure and possessions. They built these hills as foundation to their high and dry cities, it worked beautifully and the citizens of Sumer didn’t even have motorized machinery to help in the process, which of course we these days have in profusion, meaning, it would be easy for us.

But building on constructed high ground is only one fraction of the synergistic whole the other part of which is that ecocities are compact pedestrian environments and as such take up a small enough area that it is quite practical to employ elevated fill in solving the flooding problems of both rivers and rising seas, storms and everyday rising tides. Ecocities synergizing with elevated fill, the two combined together with far greater significance and impact than simply adding up the benefit of one and the other, can become a wake up call to ecocity design and influence cities and towns everywhere.

One of the best advocates for this is Steve Szulecki of Highlands, New Jersey a city right now deep in a planning process to try to avoid the next Super Storm Sandy, the actual one by that name having wrecked about 75% of the small city’s downtown infrastructure, by simply lifting it up on elevated fill. He’s promoting – and making very good progress – the idea of raising his town’s downtown to rise above future floods. Unfortunately Steve won’t be in Nantes but I will be championing his work there and at the 2013 Green Islands Forum in South Korea. If this idea sticks and spreads from Nantes, it could be seen as a major solution for approximate one third of humanity – that many people are potentially threatened with having to migrate from their homes and up slope to escape rising seas by the end of this century. There are many cities like New Orleans that could rebuild compact, small land area communities on elevated fill in real ecocity design. New Orleans failed to pick up on this idea after I went there to promote it after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It’s elegantly simple and simply powerful.

What about the other two thirds of humanity? The ecocity model of compact pedestrian infrastructure, brought into focus in the dramatic way possible when dealing with disasters such as by flooding, could now be more seriously considered for everyone.

One more point needs to be made. With elevated fill and ecocity design, we are now working with not just preparation for riding out the next would be disaster, but we are building in such a way that the problems – climate change, rising seas, worse storms and draughts too, species extinctions, enormous waste of energy and money, death on the transportation system, etc. – don’t happen at all because you’ve built an infrastructure that simply doesn’t produce such results.

Natural carbon sequestration

This has become one of my favorite themes in the last two years since learning about Allan Savory and his work with the grasslands of the world. By herding tight clusters of cattle with ranch hands in the manner that lions herd wildebeest and zebras, the grasslands of the world can be enormously enriched with biodiversity and lay down immense deposits of carbon in the prolifically growing and deep roots of grasses, flowers and small bushes. The roots of these plants die and aerate, sponge up rain, that is moisturize, and turn the soil into a vast carbon sink. The mechanism is that the manure and urine of the mass of animals mixed into the soil by the animal’s hooves creates a perfect mix of seed, soil and fertilizer evolved over millions of years to produce magnificent grasslands, to say nothing of the famous cinematic endless herds of practically every African animal sweeping over the savannahs from horizon to horizon. Savory saw this happening in his native Zimbabwe where he owns a ranch where he has proved the success of what some call “mob grazing.” He compares the herds of tightly space herbivores to vast agricultural machines powered by free solar energy, turning over and folding in earth, fertilizer and seeds. He notes the same system prevailed in North America too in the relationships between the wolves and bison in mid continent from northern Mexico deep into Canada. By employing this method of managing grazing millions of square miles of lands can be recovered for both food – cattle, and again bison on healthy grasslands. With moderation and respect for native species and with implementation on a grand scale, there could be plenty of land shared for the thriving of wild animals, both herds of grazers and packs of predators, as well.

Digging a little deeper into this general notion of “natural carbon sequestration” we find some pretty conventional thinking about the process in keeping forests as healthy and as intact as possible, plus reforesting resolutely. But much less noticed than forests are the peatlands of the world some absolutely gigantic such as the Great Western Siberian Swamp which is almost as big as all of Mexico. They are constantly laying down carbon as sphagnum mosses and other plants that grow and die in very wet soils. These carbon rich soils can build up from dead roots and stems that do not oxidize when they die because of being under still water or en extremely wet soil and can accrue to hundreds of feet in depth if not cut out dried and burned. And there is also the shallow seas and inland waterways that similarly sequester carbon. These could be seen taken collectively as, more or less, the organic alternative to the mechanical notions of scrubbing carbon dioxide out of power plant smoke stacks and forcing it under great pressure into deep geological strata. This largely untried technological “solution” in theory, since it hasn’t been well developed, requires burning even more fuel for energy to force the carbon downward.  But in the case of the plants doing the work powered by the sun and assisted by a little “holistic management” in Savory’s terms, we are seeing the carbon come out of the air itself, the whole atmosphere, that is from all sources. This is a mitigation of the entire problem, not just the fraction that comes from power plant smoke stacks. For example, you can’t plug your cars into pumps to drive their exhaust into Jurassic Park sediments thousands of feet below, nor can the carbon dioxide from cooking on your gas stove be collected in this way and stored. Even our own breathing – all 7.108 billion of us – according to the World Population clock as I write ( produces CO2 that cannot be captured by technology in any realistic way – but the plants do it for free.

Ecocities facilitate natural sequestration by taking up much less land than sprawling landscapes of asphalt, asphaltic shingles and tar and gravel roofing, making such land available for several of the above solutions to move forward with significantly more land area. The area involved is not as large as would be gained by switching from industrial field farming to organic and various companies planting and other intensive  farming, however, which would include urban farming, but the types of imaginative and positive fit of ecocity and natural carbon sequestration is mutually complementary and knits together a whole systems set of solutions that should be taken most seriously largely because they in fact comprise a whole systems way of solving problems and we very badly need models of that.

In that regard the larger lesson on this subject is the awakening through natural sequestration working with ecocities to the importance of what Allan Savory call holistic management. When we begin to see the whole pattern then we begin to truly understand consciously what might have been a bit more unconscious in the use of the words “whole Earth” as in “The Whole Earth Catalog” and the early rather fractured, eclectic and random pattern of good items without much consciousness of the larger potentially well organized patterns all the way up to the best patterns for the largest things we build: cities.

Gross National Happiness

We will have a representative of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness initiatives at the Nantes Ecocity World Summit, Dasho (his honorific title there in Bhutan) Dr. Sonam Tenzin, the Secretary of the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, the branch of government that hosted me there in late May and Early June. The play on words, which spontaneously came to the fourth King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck (pronounced more like Wong-chook) back in 1972. When asked in an interview how his country’s GNP was coming he made a bit of a joke by saying they were much more interested in GNH than GNP: Gross National Happiness. He quickly realized that happiness was a far more laudable goal than ever more production and consumption and there was a serious point to be made there, in a world in many ways suffering on too much. In addition there is the ultimate economic fallacy of the fetish of GNP, more recently morphed into GDP, that constant growth in a finite environment, even at the scale of a whole planet, is not sustainable and ultimate has to lead to what ecologists call overshoot and collapse. Infinite growth in a finite environment is strictly speaking impossible. I you believe as most economists insist that only constant growth is economically healthy you on a long term ride to oblivion. In Bhutan they realize this simple truth and at our conference I am hoping we reinforce this truth further. But especially, in the context of our conference on ecological cities, the uniting of GNH with ecocities is likely a powerful combination, as mentioned above, and hopefully the conference will help advance the ecocities of Bhutan in particular. Such a city, and especially in such a special place, could have vast influence way beyond its actually rather small scale.

Connecting ecocities to the United Nations Climate debate

Finally, my concluding hope for the Tenth International Ecocity Conference is that all the above ideas can infect the proceedings at COP 19 in Warsaw in November. If all goes well the negotiators there, the scientists, environmentalists, sympathetic journalists and the just plain concerned humans in attendance with finally focus clearly and strongly on the contribution ecocities can make in solving the problems they are facing. Wish us luck.

Richard can be reached at


Richard Register
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