Takeaways from Ecocity 10 – Solutions for the 21st Century

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

I’m just back from France and helping with some planning for the 10th International Ecocity Conference/Ecocity World Summit in Nantes coming up September 25 through 27.


Thinking back over the last nine International Ecocity Conferences to the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990, not to speak of all the conferences in our series hosted by others I’ve participated in, a thought occurred to me. Clarification of what seems to work you might call it. And the notion of “takeaways” came up. (Pronounced “take aways” – the word looks a little peculiar…) There always seems to be a small number of highlights people remember that effect them into the future, often in important ways, a small number of things that lead to some sort of positive change in the real world we all share.  


For Ecocity 10 in Nantes? These three immediately came to mind:

  • The role of elevated fill/artificial hill + ecocity design = best adaptation to climate change and rising waters AND prevention of the problems in the first place.
  • A scheme for “natural carbon sequestration through holistic management” and how ecocities help with that.
  • Linking – finally! – ecocities to the climate change debate and in particular to the next UN Climate Conference: COP 19 in Warsaw, November 11 to 22.


The elevated fill/artificial hill connection


What appears to be a rather small discrete item sometimes turns out to be a powerful point of leverage and the launch of major new alternatives.


Here’s one good take away that fits our times and could be a major objective of Ecocity 10: that the key to both solving problems of flooding from climate change, rising seas and more ferocious storms and the problem of transforming cities from dysfunctional to strikingly healthy might be in something as simple as building ecocity designs on simple mounds of earth. Make these high enough to rise above the floods. Simple.  


Readers of this newsletter and audiences at my talks have heard this at least a couple times from me in the last few years, but it works. That the Sumerian Civilization 4,500 years ago solved the problem of flooding in the Tigris Euphrates Valley by simply rising a few feet over the swollen waters shouldn’t be viewed as a – ho-hum – old, way out of style idea, but as something that actually works to save lives and preserve hard earned property, and given the expected disasters of climate change, massive improvement relative to knowledgeable predictions into the future. What’s new at this time in history is that tying ecocity design to elevated fill/artificial hill solves numerous problems all at once. Far from being old style, ecocities are the space age solutions brought down to Earth, a very new integration into something different and leading.  


Following too is that the transition from the car city to the city for people is already underway as more people in traffic jam-weary, money wasting countries are beginning to head for the lively centers. The only problem there is that such wonderful new living close to jobs, culture, friends, good food, etc. is driving the housing prices up. That problem could be solved but people haven’t yet figured out how to build more development of an ecocity variety in those centers, how to make those places truly delightful. We can show it can be done. But first…


First, no more flooding. You’ve simply risen above the waters. This is no small thing. Approximately a third of all humanity lives close to shorelines on their way up, in zones of hurricanes and in or along inland river flood zones. All can employ elevated community design in a simple strategy to be safe.


Second, ecocity design, in conserving energy in many ways, vastly reduces carbon waste going into the atmosphere and helps solve the problem of climate change and flooding at the level of causes. Get the energy demand down far enough, power your streetcars, metros and between-city rail with solar and wind electricity and why produce hardly any CO2 at all? Lester Brown in this month’s report to his internet list from his Earth Policy Institute points out that with automobile ownership and driving shrinking impressively since 2007 in the United States, again the US is in the lead in the world transportation trend, this time in the right direction. Actually, that’s a point I want to make. His point and that of his research staff was that as solar, wind and biofuels that do not compete with food production rapidly increase their energy production, we can imagine phasing out fossil fuels for both transportation and electricity generation much sooner than earlier realized. Check out “Falling Gasoline Use Means United States Can Just Say No to New Pipelines and Food-to-Fuel” by his policy and technical analyst Janet Larsen at www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2013/highlights38. Janet, by the way, has spoken for the Earth Policy Institute at two or our previous International Ecocity Conferences, #7 in San Francisco and #8 in Istanbul.

If we can find places where we can demonstrate a suite of ecocity features in new or replacement infrastructure on top of elevated fill, we can use the disasters of places like New Orleans in Katrina and Highlands in Sandy to wake people up to the even broader solutions of ecocities and hopefully inspire further exploration of the suite of ecocity features we are always championing which are, along with the shift of people back to the centers, beginning to come on strong. These include rooftop uses from gardens and promenades to restaurants and shops with fabulous views and bridges linking separate buildings’ terraces in higher density areas, solar passive design and best arrangement relative to public open spaces such as plazas, parks and pedestrian streets.

The rare double lighthouse that rises above Highlands, New Jersey on an icy
winter¹s day.

What’s Highlands? I mentioned it above paired with New Orleans. Highlands is a town on the New Jersey shore that has been plagued by flooding for decades. Highlands is too low. The otherwise ironic name comes from the 300 foot high hill that rises behind its downtown. Sandy really slammed the small city’s downtown leaving enormous wreckage and the need to rebuild or replace about 1200 to 1500 structures. What is special about its recovery effort is that the officials there are considering using elevated fill/artificial hill to replace downtown at a higher level: buildings, streets, sidewalks, docks and all.

A professor teaching about air quality and environmental acoustics at Rutgers University who is on the Environmental Commission of the city noticed that Galveston, Texas was rebuilt on elevated fill after the colossal Hurricane of 1900 that destroyed about half that city and killed more people than in any other American natural disaster. An aside here is that there’s a great book on the storm, one of the most exciting weather, and essentially a kind of adventure story, I’ve ever read where weather plays a commanding role. It’s called “Isaac’s Storm,” by Erik Larson (Vintage Books, 1999), about the weatherman on duty when the hurricane arrived with such fury it destroyed his wind gage at well over 100 miles an hour. Larson covers the rebuilding: they raised the salvageable buildings about 20 feet on manual screw jacks, filled in underneath them with mud and sand pumped in a slurry from the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay, let the water drain and evaporate out, built new foundations, graded new streets, also at higher elevation to match, poured a concrete sea wall to break the big waves and have ridden high and more or less dry in all the many hurricanes since. Even a cathedral was lifted and settled back down on a new foundation in an elevated position.  In a chilling note written years before Hurricane Sandy, Larson mentions this: “The Army Corps of Engineers discovered a curious quirk in the New York/New Jersey coastline and proposed, soberly, that even a moderate hurricane on just the right track could drown commuters in the subway tunnels under Lower Manhattan.” (Isaac’s Storm, page 273.) Notice the aqualung diver in the subway system in the accompanying photo.

Flooded subway in New York City.

But back to Highlands. The professor with the elevated fill idea is Steve Szulecki. I ran into his name in a New York Times article on Highland’s dilemma, looked him up at the on-line Rutgers faculty directory, called up out of the blue and he lifted up the receiver. He’s an Ecocity Builders Board of Advisors Member now and the rest will be history, hopefully, if we can help him raise, after razing much of Highlands, in ecocity design, and if he can help us convince the rest of the world, starting at Ecocity 10, of the powerful and very positive potential of elevated fill in ecocity design. It turns out he was already doing good solid ecocity work, having received a grant in 2010 to design an intra-borough bicycle path currently being developed. The town already “get’s it” with basic “green” infrastructure for buildings. Now if we can enhance that by adding some serious ecocity design features as well as helping to convince them to rebuild higher.

Natural carbon sequestration to cool the planet

We’ve all heard by now the high tech idea for pumping carbon dioxide from power plant smokestacks back deep into the rock formations from which coal, oil and gas came. The not yet successful process is estimated to require as much as a third of the energy generated just to take care of the problem.

Meantime there’s what I think of as “natural carbon sequestration.” Remember first that the “pump it back in” solution relates to only newly created CO2 from newly destroyed (burned) molecules of fossil fuels. What about what’s already in the air? No good high tech ideas on that. But simple good old plants do it all the time: grasses, bushes, trees… We have heard many times that cutting the world’s forests releases immense amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and planting forests gathers that CO2 back into its biomass and soil. Up to a certain very large limit anyway.

Then I learned about Allan Savory and his “mob herding” of cattle in a technique he calls “holistic management.” Cowboys in our American West let cattle disperse leaving isolated cow pies stuffed with grass and flower seeds to burn most of those seed with hellof overdone fertilizer intensity while denuded dirt all around just sits there waiting for the next rain. The barren dirt, being grazed over, sends the water running off to cut arroyos and canyons or fill them with eroded sand. But what Alan noticed watching how predators herd hoofed herbivores was that the zebras and wildebeest clustered defensively in large packs, back hooves pointed outward against the lions and hyenas and their enormous muscles for propelling the heavy animals forward ready to strike out at any carnivore foolish enough to try and attack against the consolidated pack. The predators strategy: try to separate out or wait for an old or very young straggler to get separated out from the rest and attack that beast from an oblique angle, preferably around the shoulders and neck.

Allan Savory¹s ranch house porch in Zimbabwe with his herd passing by.

The overall effect, Allan noticed, was that the herbivores in their large closely packed numbers not only fertilized the ground with their manure and pee but they ground the material, well prepared seeds with half-digested shells just ready for sprouting, into a mix of earth and fertilizer perfectly evolved over millions of years to create vast landscapes of extremely high biodiversity: immense numbers of animals famous in Africa nature films on thick, rich savannas. When the animals move on, you’d swear they’d wrecked the place. Hardly a speck of green remains. But like a giant agricultural machine covering many acres and powered for free by the sun the herd in fact prepares the soil for the next rain and when it comes, up bursts a fabulous new and natural crop of plants and all its associated animals. The roots grow down taking diffuse carbon gas out of the air and deposit it concentrated in solid form deep in the soil. Water that used to run off causing both erosion and waterway-burying siltation now soaks in to replenish the water table, and as the water in the soil rises, creeks and ponds reappear supporting a wide diversity of insects, birds, reptiles, mammals.

The grasslands can be managed like this by ranchers who know what they are doing: imitating lions that herd wildebeest in Africa or imitating wolves that used to herd bison in North America. Allan claims millions of square miles world wide could be restored to high biodiversity sucking up much of the CO2 in the atmosphere, contributing the lion’s share (philanthropist predators) to solving the problem of climate change and global heating, rising seas and untold other disasters including malaria outbreaks, etc. etc. Unlike the techno-dreams of building new machines consuming lakes of fuel to squeeze carbon into the geological depths, bunch grazing of cattle could deposit carbon where it is useful in conditioning the soil and enriching the biological system rather than circulating the atmospheric system causing mischief or being uselessly locked (hopefully) in inaccessible depths (rather than burping out later through ruptured fissures).

Allan Savory’s even larger point: this system exemplifies his holistic management system. Note that his herds – and he has herds on his large ranch in Zimbabwe where he has brought back the kinds of grasslands and waters mentioned here above – are not primarily for carbon sequestration, though he probably should seek carbon credit payments – but also for meat and money. Eventually in preparing the land, and in a strategic partnership with nature, his herding could bring back the large natural herds as well, people not taking over everything, but leaving also great tracts for natures management, which also means money, this time for tourism. In fact this is exactly what’s beginning to happen in his part of Africa. All those benefits from his management approach, the approach that sees the interrelations of all the components of the environment in consideration, amount to a holistic approach: understanding how the whole system works, then managing it for healthiest outcomes. The result can enrich soils and biodiversity and create jobs for locals, food for markets, esthetic scenes and valuable education for tourists while reversing global warming. You’ve heard of win-win solutions. Holistic management is a multi-win solution.

Next I wondered about what other landscapes do in terms of carbon natural sequestration. Forests of course figure in and top out at very high carbon holding capacity both in their woody and leafy material and in their soils. Then I learned that bogs, fens and marshes can build carbon storing peat indefinitely. The basic sphagnum mosses and a few reeds that live in such areas can exist on the carbon rich dead material of past generations of roots and stems and chemicals from the air, poop from birds pretending to be farmer’s fertilizer-spreading small aircraft, and so on. They can continue building carbon in peatlands virtually forever with no theoretical limit. And that’s not all, similar processes happen in lakes, bays and oceans. Kirstin Miller found an excellent source on this when she met Stephen

Waterways return to dried out washes when Savory¹s ranch in Zimbabwe after
using his ³holistic management² system for restoring grasslands. Carbon is
taken out of the air and into the soil, water is taken into the soil raising
the water table to the surface and biodiversity is restored in a very high

Crooks, an English scientist working in San Francisco. He starts his report for the World Bank called “Mitigating Climate Change through Restoration and Management of Coastal Wetlands and Near-shore Marine Ecosystems” like this: “Ecosystems in the land-ocean interface are gaining increased attention for the carbon they store in biomass and especially in sediments. This makes them potential sources of significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if disturbed, but also valuable for nature-based approaches to climate change mitigation.” (Copyright World Bank, 2011)

Could humanity learn like Allan did developing his grasslands holistic management of all those living systems? Might we not be bold enough, doing the math that Savory thinks proves grasslands alone could turn the tied on global heating, but applying that math to the whole surface of the planet and come up with what you might think of as holistic management of holistically managed large subsystems covering the whole planet?

But what about the cities, central subject of our International Ecocity Conferences? In shrinking them back from their present massive sprawl, millions of acres of open lands can be restored to the kind of landscapes and waters described above.

Holistic management gets so big, that we have to also seriously consider all contributing factors as if they could be positive instead of environmentally negative, positive links in a whole and healthy system. The kind of agriculture – heavy in meat and run by excessive numbers of machines – needs to be shifted out to a much more carefully thought through organic approach. Savory’s herds are like a kind of surgery before a more healthy healing that phases out some of the cattle herds while phasing back in some of the large natural herds. And also while ecocity building is coming on strong and cities are shrinking back to a much smaller physical footprint and ecological footprint at the same time, we need to notice the sheer force of overpopulation and the spread of humanity across the surface of the earth, mostly for food production and gathering – farming and ranching – that is radically transforming the vast majority of Earthly landscapes, turning them into managed, but poorly managed, water and landscapes with few lonely survivors of the former wildlife ecologies and on the scale of almost the whole planet.

The conclusion for that conference takeaway, is that we might with such an approach begin to think in terms of reversing the trend of global heating while we figure out how best to partner with nature from now on: holistic management to the rescue via natural carbon sequestration.

Linking ecocities to world climate change awareness

A last key takeaway I’ll feature here: going straight from our conference to the United Nations Climate Change conference in Warsaw, Poland for COP 19 to wake people up world wide to the immense role the wrong kind of urban design has played in the many harms of climate change (as well as many other harms too), and the potential role of good ecocity design for solving most of the climate change problem (and many other problems too).

I can be brief about this just in saying there will be many international groups represented there in Nantes including our partner in a couple projects ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. Together we can take the crucial insights we are working with straight to the highest levels of debate, and probably even more importantly, since debate among high representatives depends on the larger cultural mind set closer to the grass roots, to world consciousness through the media and the word of mouth that emanates out from all conferences, in this case the right word, the healthy word.

Richard can be reached at ecocity@igc.org

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.