I’m a local. With the exception of a few million migratory folks with their animals and those recently displaced by war, poverty, expanding deserts and flooded valleys, we all are, somewhere.
My local “somewhere” is Oakland, California and north as far as Berkeley and Albany where is located our beautiful Codornices Creek Daylighting, Orchard and Native Species Project. It dug down under and rose up over what used to be a parking lot. It is a one block long dream come true (with a lot of work). It is enjoying, as I write, its 20th anniversary. Yesterday in fact, June 27, the pot luck picnic for the creek was celebrated on site, with the first deer I’ve ever seen there passing through, many close encounters with the resident Anna’s hummingbird, numerous visits by tiger swallowtail and viceroy butterflies all presided over by dozens of trees grown up to be over forty feet high. Then there is the burbling creek where 20 years ago it was buried in a concrete tube under an asphalt slab and deserted dead end of 9th Street.
I’ve been more “international” than local for the last ten or twelve years, however. Somehow I actually get paid “over there” whereas in the US, not so much. Something about the love affair with the automobile and my support for the pedestrian ecocity. Then there is my opposition to the supposedly better car. The actually better car would be the one downsized radically in weight, speed, energy consumed and hazard to life and limb, the bicycle-environment-compatible vehicle usually called the “cart,” electric generally since gasoline ones sound something like a chainsaw held up close to your ear. They have the noisy ones, but shouldn’t, down in the car-free town of Avalon on Catalina Island, Southern California. (Fortunately most are quiet electrics though.) Then, to keep the car companies alive and thriving – we don’t want millions of people to lose their jobs – build lots of those little carts and upsize from “cars” to the efficient, clean, sociable, romantic even, streetcar.
But recently, two new local developments caught my attention all in the same week: an article in the June 5 San Francisco Chronicle headlined “Bay fill may be a defense as sea levels rise.” Shocking! Filling even part of the Bay?
Then there was the story brought to my attention by Oakland artist Susan Felter, same week, about the “Program for Creative Reuse in Civic and Public Art Projects” aka the “Bay Bridge Steel Program” administered by the Oakland Museum of California. They are offering a prize for best artistic reuse of Bay Bridge steel, offered to artists free by the bridge demolition company, in some sort of public art here on the east side of the bay. As everyone in the Bay Area knows, the old eastern section of the Bay Bridge is being dismantled, a victim of the Earthquake of 1989. It has already been replaced by a sleek new span with single towering white spire and dramatically sweeping cables. Someone had the idea to use some of the old steel, otherwise slated for melting down for later construction and industrial uses, for artistic expressions in honor and memory of the bridge itself, opened in 1935.
The old San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge is being dismantled, new one in the background. What might be done with some of the steel to celebrate and remember the history and meaning of the bridge that brought people together… in a certain way for a certain vision of the future? (Image from the announcement for the competition.)
The Bay Bridge Steel Competition
What would I do as a one-time sculptor and now-days advocate for ecocities, as if I were to enter the competition? An interesting thing to mull over for sure. What I’ll be “proposing” is a new “piece of the ecocity” located a short distance from the existing Oakland pedestrian center just south of City Hall. That also puts the new pioneering design in a relatively low-density area a couple blocks north of the present Federal and State buildings. I’d guess it would house and employ about ten thousand people, a kind of ecocity “10 K” project following on Jerry Brown’s first 10 K project by now actualized.
What comes to mind right off is that the Bay Bridge was the wave of the future connecting people in the Bay Area when it was built. In the future the connection – and literally bridges again – will be to augment the highly mixed use higher density pedestrian urban infrastructure, not everywhere, but where population, density and diversity of activity is high and in a highly mixed uses arrangement. That’s the future wave, someday, if we survive into anything like a truly healthy new normal because that’s what the pedestrian world, as compared with the present world built for cars, would look like. We’d also have to match our up-zoned new center with removing some close-in development for nature and urban agriculture for it to be a complete statement. (Artists are always making “statements” and I would too if I were to plunge into this.) (So I’ll make this article you are reading now my statement, though I won’t have time or the promise of success to actually try to build it.) And of course, to connect intimately with the Bay Bridge Steel Project, the old Bay Bridge parts would be integrated into the new pedestrian bridges connecting the buildings in the new 10 K Ecocity project.
In other words, my fantasized submission would be strictly and fully in the ecocity mode. That would mean a project in which we’d see, about three or four stories above ground level, bridges looking something rather like those of the Embarcadero Center in the highest density corner of San Francisco. There, 16 blocks of housing, offices and lots of commerce, restaurants and entertainment are all connected by bridges – including three whole blocks of elevated very green, if not yet food producing parks and gardens at the third story level. A small number of bridges might connect taller buildings, in our Bay Bridge Steel project, as a two-story bridge links the present Federal Building’s two towers at the 10th and 11th floors.
But if what I’m suggesting for an entry in the Bay Bridge Steel competition were to be a complete ecocity project a few things advancing beyond the Embarcadero Center would be needed. You might be guessing, and correctly, that the objective of my submission would be to communicate outward around the world the basic patterns and many integral details of a complete and pioneering example of a built and functioning ecocity “fractal” or “integral project,” a model for changing things everywhere.
First we’d need some new buildings with more balanced highly mixed uses and the (“passive”) sun angles and views taken into consideration for elevated rooftop activities that could be very nice, and I could imagine integrated with higher rooftop mini-parks and plazas linked vertically by exterior glass elevators. Bay Bridge parts would be only the beginning of the recycled materials. We’d need lots of housing and some “human scale” more intimate spaces on the third or fourth level where most of the horizontal elements would come together for most of the activity with mini-parks, hotels and restaurants and various shop entrances. I can imagine lots of very interesting elements on the bridge-linked levels, and the whole project would amount to an “off center center” of the sort I promote in my books, not to supplant a perfectly good and well-loved center but augment it nearby.
Alas you’d probably need just a little use of eminent domain which was fine for millions of acres when the automobile-driven sprawl craze was kicking in but is the kiss of death for proposed projects these days, even with generous compensation to anyone who would be required to move. For the car from the 1940s on into around the late 1960s – hoo-ray! For saving the climate system, ending human-caused extinctions and reversing the trend toward resources exhaustion, and for providing a model to fit a healthy urban future today – you gotta be kidding!
But if an idea to make a difference and link us to the future like the Bay Bridge did in 1933… Perfect! And again bridges would be key, but in this case pedestrian bridges.
I didn’t mention yet, but it only makes sense when you are dealing with tons of old Bay Bridge steel, to win the contest you have to first get a responsible authority like a city council to say they would fund and facilitate the project. No conceptual project accepted of course. So this for the moment is what’s called “conceptual art.”
Such a Bay Bridge Steel Project would be a big undertaking and have almost no chance politically. Conceptually like much of my work I think it makes sense but few would agree as when I entered the Rising Tides Competition sponsored by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) in 2009. I got no mention at all while all the others, not just the winners, were various designs of dikes, which I also featured judiciously in my submission. Where you can’t imagine protecting super high density areas in any other way – think downtown San Francisco – what choice have you? These areas are not about to move and although whole cities grow up, deconstruct themselves building by building, and reconstruct themselves over the many centuries, we are talking decades now, if we want to solve our largest, now simultaneously local and global environmental problems.
What I offered that was different in that competition, and much more important than just reactively throwing up dikes, was the idea of compact ecocity development built in places that have little or no development, such as on the east side of the South Bay and building on elevated fill there like the Sumerians did 4,500 years ago, and the American Indians did up and down the Mississippi Valley 1000 years ago and as almost the whole city of Galveston, Texas did after the 1900 Hurricane. At Galveston they added their concrete sea wall to keep the artificial mound from washing away and they’ve side stepped catastrophe ever since.
Those places never get flooded simply because they are built above the level of the floods. Simple and dependable. In the Sumerian Civilization it was 4,500 years ago when they figured it out, building their cities mostly by hand and without the powerful machines we have at our disposal now. In most places today, where automobile-based infrastructure and habits have deep roots (if only 100 years in the making), including in New Orleans after Katrina, the people just can’t get their minds out of their automobile dominated, sprawl oriented rut, ignoring the building on artificial mounds notion. Once again, the slow moving development there in New Orleans is constructing the same old thing, some of it to novel new appearance, but down below sea level in the car dictated pattern.
The Mesopotamian city of Mari in what is now Syria.
Mari rising above the floods. Built on a platform, a low artificial hill, the floods pass around the city. Nobody hurt, no flood insurance required. When the water goes down the people go back to farming. This solution is 4,500 years old and much worth paying attention to. (Richard Register Photo Shop job based on an illustration by Balage Balough, GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons.)
Submissions to the Rising Tides Competition could be as conceptual and hopefully as educational as you might wish. No short-term construction project was promised to be built based on any entry. And here we weren’t dealing with recycled Bay Bridge Steel but rather redesigning the whole Bay Area.
So when I saw the June 5 Chronicle article and noticed the Chair of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), Zach Wasserman, was openly talking about facing the climate change, sea rise music with some judiciously placed fill, I decided to give him a visit and a copy of my Rising Tides Competition submission, along with a copy of my book “Ecocities.” Hopefully he’d actually read it. Helpfully his office is just a short local walk from my apartment on the lake-side edge of downtown Oakland. Significantly, “Rising Tides” was sponsored by his commission, as you might have noticed.
I started our conversation in his office, there floating in the sky 24 stories over downtown Oakland, commenting on the rightful unpopularity of ideas for filling the bay, even a little of it. Had it not been a battle – and a wonderfully successful one – to stop the filling? But what if we gained five or ten times as much new open water by area as we actually built upon with protective dikes to defend our highest density city centers? It is amazing to actually be contemplating what would only ten or twenty years ago have been considered apocalyptic science fiction scenario writing. The oceans of the whole world rising? But with Earth’s increasing fever and sea level rise already on the move, both meticulously measured, someone has to take the long view. And BCDC is charged with exactly this responsibility. Obviously Wasserman takes it seriously too.
I copied, in color, my competition poster on an 11×14 inches fold out and bound it in with a history of about twelve 8½ x11 pages in pictures starting 4,500 years ago with the Sumerian’s artificial hill towns that rose about 20 feet above their agricultural valley floor. There and in other cities of the early Mesopotamian civilization, come stupendous floods that in some places were almost horizon to horizon, the locals would just cool out on farming for a few days and watch as a whole world of café latte colored waters slipped by harmlessly, their towns seeming to head upstream through the current, Noah’s Arc style.
Noah’s Arc as illustrated by John James Norton. Ironically, though ships are made to float and cities can’t, building ecocities on elevated artificial mounds of earth would help save endangered species by helping prevent the portion of climate change attributable to sprawl development with all its massive output of carbon dioxide.
The American Indians of the Mississippi valley from about 600 CE to 1400 CE knew the answer too. For a remarkable 800 years, a city called Cahokia was growing not far from today’s Saint Louis, Missouri. It was the largest concentration of people in the 1400s north of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec’s Mexico City. Come the great floods, the people would simply walk up a few steps, be patient, and descend a few days or weeks later. The main objective after building the mounds: store enough food to wait it out.
But what is most important to consider in this discussion is that the compact pedestrian designs of ecocities fit perfectly with elevated fill to avoid damage and drowning, and, that’s impossible with car city sprawl. You just simply can’t raise that kind of acreage. Too much fill. Too much money to be invested, and in the wrong thing. Why try elevated fill in the flood prone suburbs when that kind of development is probably the largest contributor to global heating and the rising of seas anyway? Plus, such urban layout and design is similarly destructive in paving agricultural and natural landscapes and responsible, by way of simple displacement of habitat, for causing the extinction of many natural species and depletion of resources at a stunningly large scale. Therefore, the combo of elevated fill as an “adaptation” to the expected rising tides problem and as a means to avoid the problem in the first place makes it a truly profound piece of the total picture for getting a handle on surviving and thriving into humanity’s Earthly future.
Previous page. Cahokia as illustrated by Lloyd K Townsend, courtesy of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois.
An issue that needs particular attention, I suggested to Mr. Wasserman, was the creation of new, formerly paved areas: call it development of the natural and farming kind. Make it not something where removing something with negative impact is emphasized, but rather the gaining of something very positive: natural habitat, good farming land, space for human recreation and education, a chance for normal healthy evolution to return. My drawing, which you can see here at the end of this article, shows that as the sea rises we can leave room for the bay to increase in size while our new ecocity infrastructure is built on low shoreline centers, new villages, towns and a city or two. What is being laid out is not the conventional metropolis such as the bay area megalopolis is right now, all grown together due to the car and low density development, but an ecotropolis of ecocities where the old city centers are located now, ecotowns where the larger district centers are located, and ecovillages where neighborhood centers are. Plus a few new communities at those different scales in new locations.
This comes about while open space with natural, agricultural and recreational functions are being developed. We can imagine incrementally restoring whole creek courses and expanding parks, community food gardens, sports areas and so forth, separating the centers and connecting them to something of nature and our own human sustenance.
I told Zach, who has a smile to put at ease even those disagreeing with him, which wasn’t me, though I suspect he can be the tough lawyer – he is a lawyer – about my experience with the Oil Free Oakland by 2020 Taskforce of which I was a member about eight years ago. Kirstin Miller and I organized a workshop for the Taskforce held in Oakland City Hall that hosted the regional planning groups and several transport agencies including Bay Area Rapid Transit and the East Bay bus system called AC Transit – Alameda Contra Costa County Transit. At the workshop we all presented various ideas and everyone agreed that transit oriented medium to higher density around major transit stations, such as BART’s Fruitvale Village, was a good idea and there were plans all around the bay to help in such developments. I made the point that these newly evolving centers were still surrounded by automobile dominated development. Were there any agencies anywhere in the area planning or engaged in on-going discussion of removing any existing “improvements” like buildings and streets, parking lots, creek culverts etc.? The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) representative looked a little shocked and said oh no! “Definitely NOT on the table.”
Why not was obvious: the car is something of a god still worshipped by a large majority. Fear was immediately recognizable in the eyes of the ABAG delegate. My point was that we’d better wake up to the importance of the kind of “density” shifts that are the only reasonable alternatives leading toward a healthy ecocity future. Are we serious about doing something powerful enough to meet the challenge or not? Mr. Wasserman smiled again. Maybe he’d made some unreasonable comments like this himself from time to time.
Are the times a-changing?
But that was back about 2007. Are things changing? I’ve been a dream weaver my whole life. I grew up in the desert of New Mexico and dreamed of sail ships. (I also love the desert…) My grandmother moved to Bermuda, so from 11 through 13 years of age, there I was in sail boats and swimming (and building underwater cities of chunks of coral) for three wonderful summers. (Interesting how a 100 pound rock weighs only 40 pounds under water. But you do have to hold your breath while working down there among the fish, squid and bottom jellies…) One phase of my life was tactile sculptures in my 20s and early 30s, best represented by my work for the old Exploratorium, the very popular and first-of-its-kind hands-on science-with-arts museum, much beloved of children and curious adults. My work appeared there when the Exploratorium was located in the Palace of Fine Arts next door to San Francisco’s Presidio. Several of my projects got built – came true – long ago, in the early 1970s. The speculations I’m presenting here, ideas for the future or at least meditating on the future, seem “far out” yet many features at the center of ecocity ideas are, in the last five or ten years coming on surprisingly quickly compared to the molasses-slow somnambulating progress from the 1970s through earliest 2000s. Is this a sign that, speculative as my would-be submissions for use of Bay Bridge Steel in new bridges for people instead of for cars might be, and futuristic as my suggested transformations around San Francisco Bay might be, could they actually lurk out there in a possible future after all?
A glance at just a few new-fangled initiatives and beginning habits, some really inspirational, all leading in an ecocity direction:
- In the 1990s bicycles were being outlawed in China cities supposedly because they were said to be blocking up and slowing down cars. Now most new development projects have considerable bicycle infrastructure including hundreds of miles of separated bicycle paths and the largest bicycle sharing program in the world.
- In San Francisco, “parklets” are being built displacing two or three parking spaces for seating for cafes and restaurants making the streets where they are established far more pedestrian friendly and constituting a frontal assault on the idea that streets are for cars and certainly not for people. Some of the designs are intriguing, some fun, a few with a touch of the beautiful, all an added pleasure as the city takes an important both substantial and symbolic step toward ecocities.
- People in the US are driving fewer miles on average every year since 2005, with a tiny up-tick in 2014, but it is a very significant down trend in the world’s capital country of cars.
- Streetcar lines are being built around the world ever more rapidly and high speed rail lines in China and elsewhere are proving to be a major trend.
- Millions of people around the world are beginning to forsake the boring isolation and long, mind numbing commutes of the suburbs – or beginning to wish they could – for city and town centers, so much so that gentrification is a rising problem forcing a confrontation with social justice issues and begging that government become active here in making housing in such popular areas more affordable, thus to accelerate ecocity development.
Ecocity mapping is implicit in all this, understanding in two dimensions on paper or computer screen or on conference stage backdrop that we can portray clearly a shift in densities from thin sprawl to centers of real human and economic vitality while recovering vast areas of natural and agriculturally productive land, restoring waterways and shorelines to public access and natural critters and in this regard there is the wonderful work of Eric Sanderson in his 2009 book “Mannahatta – a Natural History of New York City.” This book presents before and after images, in mapping format, clearly showing the directions we need to go, giving us an easily grasped vision of immense power for transformation.
A 77-unit housing project for Berkeley at Dwight Way and Fulton Street called Garden Village designed by Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects. Eight rectangular floor plan apartment buildings are linked by bridges with real urban farming on the roof planned.
- There are in places like Singapore, and in Chicago at the City Hall Building, and in a new Berkeley, California housing project, where rooftop and terrace gardens, greenwalls, bridges and other ecocity features becoming ever more common.
- Lastly, though there is plenty more that could be added to this list, there is the enormous volume just printed in Chinese and English, in China entitled “Vertical City – a Solution for Sustainable Living.” I’m proud to have 11 pages of interview and six drawings in this 684 page tome celebrating what rises up from small land area roots as compared to covering the earth out flat like a carpet of paving and lawn, asphaltic shingles and tar and gravel roofing.
Just maybe we can accelerate such changes. Dream on! In this, we humans may be adding something unique and important to life on our planet: the animal that can dream, then do based largely on dreams, then dream on again. And remember that not all dreams come true, and that’s just fine, but without some serious conscientious dreaming and some follow up work, expect nightmares.
My illustration for the Rising Tides competition.