Remembering my friend Rusong

By Richard Register, founder, Ecocity Builders

His name is Wang Rusong, last name first in China, and Wang pronounced “Wong” – much softer in sound, as befits this wonderful man.

At five minutes after midnight on November 28 in a Beijing hospital my friend Wang Rusong died. I got the message only a few short hours later, California time, from my friend and ecocity architect Paul Downton in Australia. Rusong was one of the kindest, gentlest, most hard working, insightful, original, dedicated and effective, humble and important people I’ve even met. Stuffing so much positive into one person is quite remarkable. Well, that was Rusong. You could almost not notice him until you realized what he was up to, capable of, of the kindest heart yet with a determination of steel.

It was friendship at first sight – or rather sound. It was 1990 and the First International Ecocity Conference had ended the day before. I was at the empty office contemplating the chaos that took place there four days earlier as everyone dropped everything and evacuated for the heart of Berkeley where the real action was. We’d rented or commandeered seven locations for the conference in downtown and promptly forgot all about the command center that was to be the office. Now I looked around the scramble of random things left about from the hasty departure – papers, pens, calendar, posters, reminder notes taped to the wall…

The phone rang.


A soft but urgent voice came on the line, slight Chinese accent, slight musical lilt. It would sound the same for the next 24 years. Right off it said, “Is the conference still happening?”

“I’m afraid not. Yesterday was the last day. I dropped by the office just to clean up a little.”

“Oh no. I feel so lonely.”

“Lonely, why lonely?”

“I thought I was the only one and there’s this whole conference of people working on ecological cities.”

Rusong was 700 miles north doing post-doctoral research as a Visiting Professor in mathematics at Washington State University. He explained that for the last several years he had found no one of enthusiasm to listen to his thoughts about reshaping cities based on principles from ecology. I learned about all that later through wandering conversation – he never “bragged” about his accomplishments or pursuits. For example, as a leading ecologist in the country he had been selected by China’s national planners to evaluate the site for the proposed Three Gorges Dam in the early 1980s. He had come back with his usual broad perspective that took into account the communities there and recommended that the dam should not be built. It would displace two million people, saturate soils and destabilize steep slopes causing hundreds of landslides, muck up the river-come-300-mile-long-lake with silt and scum from erosion and upstream industrial and agricultural waste, and drive native species to extinction. All that happened of course. (Including the end on this planet, and anywhere else in the universe for that matter, for the Yangtze River dolphin, last seen or even “thought” seen around 2006.) But all that he accomplished – and dreamed of – was to be revealed to me in bits and pieces.

On the phone that day after the conference we learned a little about each other. I suggested, “Why don’t you come down here to Berkeley some time soon and we can spend some time together. I’ll give you a tour around and you can meet some of us. We’ll put you up in a little hotel…” He zipped on down less than two weeks later.

Thus began our twenty-four year friendship. Rusong visited Berkeley two times in the next six months or so before returning to China. On one trip seven or eight of us went to look over Village Homes, the suburban paradise just west of Davis, California for suburbanites in love with their fruits, vegetables and bicycles. It’s definitely the greenest suburb development I’d ever seen, with its meandering back yard-linking bicycle and foot paths, absolute minimum city regulation width streets, solar greenhouse on almost every house, sandy bioswales in low spots for collecting storm water run off to slowly recharge the water table… We picked and ate scrumptious mulberries from an enormous tree, leaving every hand bright purple for the rest of the trip.

Our little two-car tour also visited architect Peter Calthorpe’s New Urbanist project south of Sacramento called Laguna West. Bill Mastin mentioned that the New Urbanist doctrine suggested highly mixed-use features such as at the community center of Laguna West should be within about a quarter mile of most of the housing. Access by proximity, a short walk away. But at Laguna West, he noted, artificial canals had been constructed and lake-like water features surrounded the community center instead of homes. Bridges connecting the housing to the center and stretching to low-density development around the meandering streets were easily bikeable but not so easily walkable routes to the otherwise useful commercial and cultural core. Mostly, everyone would be driving. Rusong, standing at water’s edge in Laguna West took one look and said, as he must have thought in the Three Gorges Valley around 1982, “Standing water not good feng shui. Flowing water much better.”

Many, many conferences

Rusong missed the First International Ecocity Conference but made it to Adelaide, Australia in 1992 for the second. Just before we were about to meet in the village of Yoff outside Dakar, Senegal, for Ecocity 3, the US Congress Republicans fought off Bill Clinton’s new budget, temporarily shutting down the government. The cut in customs staffing at US international terminals meant Rusong suddenly couldn’t exercise his through-US ticket. He never made it to join us and was quite upset once again. But he himself with his crew from the Chinese Academy of Science hosted Ecocity 5 in Shenzhen, China in 2002. Rusong made it to Bangalore, India, 2006 and San Francisco 2008 and Istanbul, Turkey 18 months later in 2009. Then he started having bouts of illness – stomach cancer – and missed the next two, Montreal and Nantes. But every time I saw him, which was more than once a year average since then, he constantly said he was getting better.

Rusong and Maria Rosales, Pubic Information Officer of Curitiba, having a good time at the Dameisha Beach east of Shenzhen in 2002 during a respite tour from the Fifth International Ecocity Conference.

What the Dameisha Beach looks like on a good day with a sharper focus camera than my replacement throw-a-way.

Rusong was one of the founding officers of the Ecological Society of China (President or Vice President – I don’t remember for sure). Partially in that capacity, and through his position as Director of the Center for Ecological and Environmental Research at the Chinese Academy of Science, he was the driving force behind a series of ecology conferences to which he invited a small cluster of foreigners including myself. Eleven times he did this for me from 2000 to 2013, all expenses paid.

My stay at the Academy got me into trouble once when I talked about the virtues of the very spare but comfortable and graceful Science Academy’s Guest House where he hosted me once. The room was about twice as wide as the narrow bed but had a small bathroom, nice desk, chair, shelf, lamp and efficient layout with a balcony with one chair outside for the fresh air. Every morning I’d open your door to the hall and there would be a very large thermos of tea with cup. Propped against the wall was an issue of the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper supported by the government, which vice versa, the newspaper supported. Quite naturally it had very interesting articles you’d never find in The West. Some were answers to previously unanswered questions, some were new questions – also without locally supplied answers.

The way I got in trouble was that I touted the virtues of the humble but more than adequate accommodations during talk in Tianjin some years later. The subject of the preceding panel had been all about luxurious “green” hotels with enormous rooms and sumptuous, 90% unused trappings, with enough space for a badminton court. I said these designs had no notion of “enough” and the Chinese Academy of Science Guest House should be a much more serious model for genuinely “green” facilities. Silence. I wasn’t invited back.

Efforts to build

Rusong was dedicated not just to studying math, his first specialty. He researched ecology, cities, Chinese ancient philosophy, and ecocity theory while running a research facility and teaching graduate ecology and planning students, organizing conferences, and writing dozens of published scientific papers. He also worked hard to get things built. He became involved in four cities, two of which I’ll mention: Xiamen and Huaibei.

I was on a one month tour of China when Rusong called my host and said I had to leave a little early from Chongqing and rush to a special meeting in Xiamen. OK, I guess I’ll find out why when I get there. A beautiful Chinese woman met me at the airport with the largest bouquet I’d even seen. She handed me a note in the taxi and I said to myself, “Uh-oh. What’s this?” It requested me to please have a ten minute talk ready when I arrive at the luncheon. They were giving a prize to a really big developer. Well I’ll trust Rusong to find a good one.

I arrived on stage with everyone already eating and things started off immediately, no time for Rusong to further brief me. My talk was general but as usual unkind to sprawl development. What I didn’t know was that the audience was an assembly of about 200 people who had bought plots in a supposedly greener than usual suburban… sprawl. The audience clapped a little diffidently but Rusong got them cheerful again. Then he handed me the prize to hand to the developer, all in Chinese, which I don’t speak. All smiles at that point.

What was that all about, I asked Rusong at first opportunity. He explained he’d been having a hard time finding a developer with a really great completed project whose work he wanted to encourage. He was trying to support one that seemed to have a few good ideas in advance of the development so that they’d try harder and get a better development. At the post-luncheon reception for Rusong, myself, the developer and his senior staff, the developer shook my hand and said in Chinese (I was told) “Thanks for the prize.” It took me a little by surprise. I just smiled and executed one of those small bows used for such occasions in China. I could only hope the translation of my talk had been as diplomatic as possible. Apparently no feathers ruffled too much. Maybe some in that audience who looked a combination of puzzled and thoughtful might have had a few interesting ideas gestating in their heads.

I tell this story largely because I want to show you a picture. It’s of Rusong with three of his friends in the location just outside of Xiamen that was to become the developers’ project. The place could have been a slightly wetter, mountainous, rocky Arizona landscape. Rusong had put on some weight and had just had a “hard attack.” He was to lose that weight pretty fast. I told him, “Please don’t work so hard. We want you around a long time. We need you.”

The other city, Huaibei, I visited four times with Rusong. He added Kirstin Miller and Paul Downton, co-host with Cherie Hoyle of Ecocity 2 in Adelaide, to some of our entourages. We met with industrial diamond maker David Hall there who is interested both in mining technology and has a range of ideas for ecocities. We all gathered with the Mayor of Huaibei, his staff and his planning department who was to all appearances excited at the potential of ecocity projects in his city. We went on a tour of the local diamond making and coal mining industries. We were there largely to help think through a transition away from coal, which, said our hosts, they would start running out of in five to ten years. I was suggesting building a new section of town that would be a powerful model for energy conservation, a leadership position and hence a means to establish a kind of Curitiba-like energy in that location. It would be a go-to destination for pilgrims of the next generation cities, the sustainable, the “eco” cities of the future. Dream on. But I insist it is possible.

Then there in Huaibei came another Rusong surprise. We were touring one of the most intense facilities for manufacture I’d even seen. Standing, flaming, pumping, throbbing machines, literally ground-shaking machines larger than three or four story buildings sheltered inside a dark, brooding hangar that could house not just a 747 but a dirigible or two. Rusong said quite casually, “I worked here for six years as a shop floor foreman making these machines.” What! Rusong in the coal industry? “I was trying to make enough money to go back to school and get my doctorate,” he explained.

What came of the effort in Hauibei? I drew up my idea in a series of drawings for a small ecocity on the edge of one of their lakes and sent it in. Paul Downton actually got paid some and had a little back and forth with the Mayor’s office. Then more silence. Two years later I asked Rusong what happened. Our friend the mayor had lost the next election. The new mayor wanted to forget the last one so he could more easily build his own legacy.

What I owe to him in my work

Owing something to Rusong would be a strange idea. You don’t owe Rusong because he’s as far from a reciprocating investment as can be found. He simply gives. But in the usual way of helping others, I “owe” him a lot. Rusong was well established by the time I met him, solidly ensconced in the Chinese Academy of Science and a leading member of many societies around China. His material basics seemed to be well covered and I’m close to certain there was nothing he wanted from others other than to be part of a community of people trying to help improve things.

On some earnest friends suggestions Rusong ran for the Chinese Peoples Congress and became one of its 1,200 members. He mentioned this to me casually over a year after the fact. Something oblique made a political connection in the conversation and an, “Oh by the way” popped up. He seemed rather surprised and delighted. I didn’t think he was in the Communist Party, though by then I’d worked with quite a few people who were and had their business cards among my many. No, he was in an ecology party he said, something akin to the German Greens. The Congress, he said quite unselfconsciously, was advisor to the Party and the Central Government, but of more influence every year.

Rusong enjoyed the work. But then he was drafted for one job that was important but decidedly not enjoyable. The Great Szechuan Earthquake of 2008 killed 29,200 people and left 18,200 missing, presumed buried in the landslides and swept away in lake outburst floods. Rusong was rushed to the site to help plan the recovery efforts. Through tears he spoke of the shoddily constructed schools that had collapsed, killing hundreds of young students. What he had seen with his eyes…

I don’t just “owe” him for the 11 trips to important conferences in China plus dozens of introductions to all sorts of people all over the country; for risking the hosting – conferences are always tricky mustangs to ride – of one of our larger conferences: about 500 participants in Shenzhen. There, by the way, when Maurice Strong canceled due to heart surgery and several high ranking Chinese officials bailed, the City of Shenzhen reneged on a $20,000 payment they had pledged to the conference saying Rusong had not delivered as promised. So he fronted the money himself by tightening his center’s budget at the Academy of Science over the next couple years.

Not only all that, and for being utterly true to the cause, Rusong decided my book “Ecocities” needed to be published to help the movement in China. He got some of his most fluent grad students to translate it and moved it right through to publishing. Now it is probably my most important asset in getting me talks and consultancies in China.

In all my experience I can think of no other person who has so openly and generously just given and given and given. And with such a bright-eyed and ever so kind smile.

When I heard Rusong had died I seemed to fall suddenly into a great dark vacuum. “Oh no,” I said to myself, “I feel so lonely.”

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