Taking Stock, Spring 2013

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

Seems like a long time. The last time I seriously thought we might make a breakthrough for ecocities was back in the mid 1970s. Other than that it’s been gradualism, long hard slogging along, one advance at a time, mixed with occasional reversals. But back then Jerry Brown had been elected Governor of California and instituted the Office of Appropriate Technology and people I actually knew were running it, like Sim Van Der Ryn, then newly appointed State Architect and Ty Cashman, in charge of studying and promoting wind energy in OAT. Huey Johnson, founder of Trust for Public Land was appointed State Secretary of Resources. Ty even put on his wall in his Sacramento office a copy of the “Integral Neighborhood” poster you see here above that I drew in 1977 and printed up as a poster almost two by three feet in 1978.

My drawing for an Integral Neighborhood in 1977 for an actual site in West Berkeley. Bridges between buildings, rooftop uses including two gardens and a large restaurant and interior small pedestrian street on the right are evident in the drawing.


The “Integral House” had been built, or more accurately, radically remodeled, by Sim and Bill and Helga Olkowski. Next step up toward an ecocity – with integral parts based on what I call these days “the anatomy analogy” – would be the “integral neighborhood.” If the integral house had an attached solar greenhouse and solar hot water system, Clivus Multrum composting toilet and kitchen waste system, organic food garden, food fish pond and bee hive for honey, plus first rate recycling, the integral neighborhood would have in addition living, working, commercial, big gardening both private and community, an internal to the block pedestrian street system like a narrow European lane, café/restaurant, small shops, use of elevated terraces, brides between blocks of buildings and so on, as in the illustration, at the neighborhood scale. As some immediately caught on and said, “It would be like a whole village in the city.” Plus, I’d add, “But also in a new ecologically integrated design.”

Then next up would be the “integral city,” or ecocity, one version of which would be the sort of single interlaced structures Paolo Soleri was advocating building at the time – still is – that he called “arcology” a word joining architecture and ecology.

Deja Vu

I mention all this now because many threads of the whole ecocity fabric are weaving together as people are beginning to comprehend the vitality possible in city centers and are moving back from sprawl, as architectural features that have been part of the ecocity movement for three or four decades are finally being built ever more all around the world, as people are catching on to the problems with cars, and as people are finally, after being warned for more than 30 years by atmospheric and space scientists like Stephen Schneider and James Hansen, beginning to get worried about climate change for the whole planet.

I thought then it would be, say, educational, to look over that list of positive steps in the right direction and to mull over our opportunities as once seemed auspicious to do back in the 1970s. Oddly enough here in California Jerry Brown is governor for the third time and maybe that could help.

Changes in the larger environment

  • Compact centers are gaining population and becoming more “in” every day. People are discovering it can be damned pleasant to live close to everything and not have to pay and extra $10,000 a year for car expenses and spend all that time in, working for and worrying about a car – or two or even three in some households. (When I was a teenager living a few miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico I had a car, so did my father and my mother had two cars and needless to say none of us could get anything done without driving into town.)

Architect, co-founder of Urban Ecology Australia and co-host with Cherie Hoyle for the Second International Ecocity Conference held in Adelaide, Australia. Here he is on his rooftop garden for native plants, insects and birds – and people of course – with his town’s downtown in the background. (Photo Richard Register)


  • Cars are becoming ever less popular in the US, Canada, Europe. Either they become high status symbols you have to have to prove yourself – BMWs Mercedes Benz, etc. – and are part of the success climbing ladder or they are a dire necessity because you’ve bought into sprawl development and, as my family was, completely isolated for community socializing and bsiness. To me it’s telling also that cars are no longer the happy rainbow pallet of colors they once were in the ‘50s and ‘60s but instead, 90% of them run from white to black through shades of gray with slight tones of brown, sometimes also with a slight metallic sheen. There are a few red, very few blue and the almost unheard of any more green, orange, yellow and purple. Plus where’d the young guy working on his hot rod go? Open the hood and look at all the “components” instead of parts and you see replaceable modular units. Local talent has been substituted out by the manufacturers’ engineers, computer experts and the advertisers’ and distributors’ cleaver salesmanship.
  • Ecocity land use arrangements and architectural features are beginning to come on strong. We are now seeing pedestrian features such as Times Square and the High Line in New York City. In Kathmandu where motor bicycles, motorcycles and cars gradually built up to swamp the city, they are starting to keep cars out of plazas and pedestrian areas there and in cities around the world more and more every year. Rooftop uses including gardens and bridges between buildings above ground level, which I’ve featured in my own drawings since the early 1970s, are coming into more “futuristic” design and being built, plus buildings that are bridges, all these creating a much more vital pedestrian accessibility. Cities are becoming more and more like every day complex living organisms; people are beginning to realize they are complex living organism, down to even reproducing themselves – through their school systems and the interaction between government, developer and citizen in the zoning and planning approval system.

Bridge buildings are becoming more common in many parts of the world. This one is called Linked Hybrid by Steven Holl Architects on an amazingly clear day in Beijing. (Photo Richard Register)

  • More and more cities around the world are initiating restoration of natural areas in and near city limits.
  • Community and food gardens, organic farms nearby and farmers markets are gaining ground steadily.
  • And, on the defensive side, ever more people are beginning to realize the disasters looming with global heating, climate change and raising of the one world ocean – along with other growing ecological disasters: world fisheries collapse, ocean dead zones spreading, soil depletion “progressing” rapidly, aquifers emptying, deserts spreading and forests being cut down faster than growing back, biodiversity constantly eroding, human systems becoming more stressed by overpopulation, political hostility, religious intolerance and many other problems always with “civilization” but now approach planetary limits: you just can’t grow forever on a limited planet, even if it is impressively large.

View of Great City from a distance, Smith and Gill Architects.

So the above are a few of the larger signs things are changing and in many ways toward the positive, including the positive of beginning to wake up to just how bad things could get if we don’t get more positive faster.

Interior of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects plan for a new city of 80,000 called Great City, China, almost completely pedestrian oriented and in early stages of construction. It is located outside of Kunming, China, complete with bridges, elevated planting and other ecocity features. The city is also placed in a large reserve greenbelt.


Could happen. Will it?

With all the positive signs, do they add up to enough for a breakthrough? The times feel auspicious because of the above changes, more than I’ve seen since the 1970s in California. But the opposition, if I don’t read things wrongly, is still far more powerful. “If I can’t have a car” said a Chinese man sitting next to me in a Beijing taxi cab as we discussed the problems of cars in cities, “how can I get a wife?”

Back in the 1970s when I was trying to launch an ecocity coordinated strategy for ecologically healthy cities with a few other fellow travelers we had naively draw up the sort of graph showing the anticipated – or at lease hoped for – growth of the effort. We’d imagined we would gather a fair number of people and we did have a core of about a dozen people by 1974. Then we’d have an office. Then a building. Then a neighborhood project – the integral neighborhood mentioned above. Then we’d go for changing some policies on the local and state level to facilitate more major full city changes. Then we’d expand our positive ideas and influence outward until we were actually making positive changes for cities everywhere.

The only problem was, instead of each step of the way building on the one before reaching ever higher, we’d move to the right and up the graph a way and suddenly suffer a major reverse, then fall to near the bottom of the graph and start up all over again. We’d advance again only to suffer another setback. And so on for year after year. The graphs looked like a carnivore’s lower jaw with teeth instead of Al Gore’s hockey stick from “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Slowly we did seem to move forward and upward with our jagged line, but only very slowly.

Meantime, despite our warnings and positive examples of better ways to build, progress has been painfully slow in the world around our organization too, but it has been real progress. An additional problem for our organization has turned out to be that though we’ve been first in the field in a number of ways and as conference organizers scrupulously give credit to real pioneers and feature as many of them as we can in our conference series, only a small number of people picking up on our ecocity ideas and specific features give us credit or hire us. Enough to survive but not enough to help accelerate our own role in the ecocity movement for really powerful change. On behalf of those who might look like they are stealing ideas without giving credit it has to be said that the situation we have helped create does in fact serve as fertile soil for ideas from others to pop up independently as genuinely creative work, like disconnected and thus new ideas from their perspective.

Saying that I need to make one last point. The problem is that yes we are making gains, both as people everywhere and as our small organization, Ecocity Builders, but along with the advances, China and even the United States and most of the rest of the world, is still building by policy for the automobile and supporting the oil industry and associated automobile manufacture and supply world even as positive changes happen – count in people pouring concrete and asphalt paving, building sprawl development as developers and contractors, legislators lobbied hard and whose campaigns are funded by the many people presently bought into the counter productive way of building cities. Count those as voters stuck in this infrastructure and unable to literally move any time soon – partially because it will take time to reshape the city so that they will actually have an “ecocity” place to move to.

Add up those positives and negatives and what do you have? Nostradamus where are you now that we need you?

Richard Register can be reached at ecocity@igc.org

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