Our hosts included Dr. Sudarshan Tiwari and Anusuya Joshi representing Shanta Lall Mulmi since unfortunately Shanta’s father ended up at exactly that time in a medical crisis and emergency operation to save his life, a successful operation as of the time we left Kathmandu. In the course of the five days of events we saw some of the temples that demarked the corners of ancient Kathmandu and the other towns and their pedestrian streets and plazas, in some cases among the most pleasant, quiet, artistically intriguing and lively urban environments I’ve ever enjoyed, and at other times, torture chamber environments of automobile and motorcycle induced cacophony and fear in the narrow streets built for people, not cars. By night, the dread was exacerbated by the glare of on coming headlights and opportunity to get squashed or at least knocked over, hurt and humiliated.
Other places visited: Kathmandu’s refuse transfer station and informal recycling camps along the Bishnumati River carrying its load of sewerage and random scraps of plastic, paper, foil, bone, and skin. Much is recycled, but the Germany-donated transfer station equipment sends much that isn’t to land fills we didn’t see. We visited a sewerage/water treatment plant that shuts down frequently during electricity outages – we experienced two or three at our hotel – making thorough treatment spotty.
In Patan, across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu, we started our tour at the city gates facing toward the river and the nearby 24,400 foot Ganesh Himla peaks beyond Kathmandu itself, and just inside the gates, where a bicycle repair and rental shop welcomes the people arriving. (The area is also known as Lalitpur which means roughly place of beautiful arts – why not one or the other exclusively, Patan or Lalitpur, I know not.) The pattern of the city layout and design there, and also very similar in Kathmandu and other Kathmandu Valley towns, is the following: very narrow streets, except for more recent ones that appear to have been blasted through some old infrastructure to bring in cars, motorcycles and buses. These wide streets fortunately don’t dominate in too many places and link more distant places. Considering the rapid growth in population – almost 6% per year, about half local “natural increase” and half in-migration from rural areas due to the recent political revolution and poverty in the country – and due to the spread of new buildings in chaotic settlement around the valley, the wide roads certainly look necessary to those stuck in that scattered pattern needing access to jobs and markets. Due to the newer development patterns, for those far from the centers, the motorcycle and car certainly look indispensable.
But down in the narrow streets that far outnumber the wide ones, typically you have to duck through tunnels to get from the streets into the courtyards ringed by houses four to eight stories on the inside, often with shops at ground level on the street side. Another way to look at these features is not as tunnels but as bridge buildings among other buildings completely surrounding the small courtyard squares, usually two of them, providing entry and exit. The courtyards are almost totally free of motor vehicles, other than an occasional smaller motorcycle that might be stashed in a private hallway taking up almost all the space, forcing people going in or out of a residence to pin themselves to the wall and slither
Our tour took us to many courtyards where we observed the courtyards themselves and the surrounding homes of ancient, more contemporary and simple, and historic revival styles. Old structures were of brick with wooden doors and windows with fancy carved screens of wood. Newer buildings were generally concrete and steel post and beam infilled or faced with brick. Most displayed three or four stories of vertical rise, or even cantilever encroachment over the already narrow roads, then usually with the top three or four stories terraced in, in a kind of stepped pyramid, top covered in plants, solar collectors, water tanks, flags and laundry set out to dry.
Often in the center of the courtyards was an old shrine or one rebuilt after the last big earthquake, which was in 1933. Usually there was a water spout arriving sometimes at a large pond, almost a small lake, almost always square in plan, or sometimes just splashing on a rock in a stone depression a couple steps down from the courtyard grade, water carried by one of the terracotta pipes that can be several hundred years old that connect with nearby uphill small tanks just outside of town or sometimes just seeping through the sand in the soil as groundwater tapped for small quantities. Water for drinking, cooking and washing was also delivered in two other ways: by tanker trucks we saw on several occasions surrounded by people with large colorful plastic water containers of various sizes, and by pipes that come from dammed small reservoirs up hill from town and farther away than the ancient water system of a smaller and slower-growing set of valley cities. That newer piped-in water is today pumped by electricity to large black plastic tanks that rise high above the ragged and lively skyline of the city. These tanks are the largest of the chief items greeting the eye hovering with big silver cubes for hot water, higher even than the rooftop gardens and solar hot water panels, sharing airspace with thousands of fluttering flags and more various pieces of laundry.
Anusuya led us to the top of one of the typical homes with a series of terraces leading, potted plant by circular metal staircase, up and up, ledge by ledge to a final plot of “land” six or seven stories in the air and not much larger in area than a typical American dining room. Here there were peppers, beans, and some sort of vine squash along with various flower bushes and herbs among the ever present and elevated black plastic water tanks. Inside the building in one level under the other the members of the extended family of environmental activists and appropriate techies lived raising worms on kitchen compost and weaving beautiful, durable, tight baskets of, of all things, gum wrappers of colorful paper underlain with glinting silvery metal foil. Undoubtedly they had other more prosaic jobs, with the produce of their rooftop and terraces proving but a modest boost to calories, vitamins and minerals.
Surrounding the Kathmandu valley you see people dwelling in a most vertical existence on ridges, tending terraced plots of land before the slopes plunge off into deep valleys. My legs strengthened considerably, after initially getting sore and tired, walking up and down the much higher than California building code risers of their steps. I wondered at the notion that the buildings had something in common with the mountains themselves, precipitous, requiring strength and imagination, dangerous, especially in earthquakes, and for children in training to be alert in where they place their feet and aware of their balance. Except the “mountains” of downtown Kathmandu and Patan were hollow and full of people and only four to eight stories high instead of solid stone and five miles high.
From Kathmandu to Best of Ecocities: New Experimental Cities?
We settled into a series of seminar/meetings at the beautiful mostly Tibetan styled Vajra Hotel, designed by our friend Phil Hawes, also architect of the Biosphere II project in Arizona. The historic contributions of the once car-free city of Kathmandu (all cities of the world were car-free until the very late 19th century, though Kathmandu retained most of its earlier structure) was one powerful consideration.
By the way, at some of my talks I get the question, “Do you really believe car-free cities can ever exist?” To which I answer that’s all we had until about the last 100 years through 8,000 years of urban history, if you start with Çatalhoyuk in Turkey, first town of around 5,000 people with infrastructure way more diverse than the preceding villages. So car free cities were not only the norm but all that existed for 79/80s of urban history. What existed as a powerful pattern that long, though maybe not in all it’s past detail, is not only possible but certain – since Venice, Italy; Zermatt, Switzerland; Gulongyu, China; Avalon, Catalina and a few other car free cities that are buzzing along quite well right now. As occasionally said, “If it exists it is possible.” Car-free cities are rare today but only rare things, in any case, turn into the leaders of the future.
Back to our train of thought. In this contest, there in the Vajra in Kathmandu we were, and still are, trying to distill something of a very healthy and vibrant future from the best of Kathmandu, the best of the getting-very-long ecocities tradition and the best ideas of David Hall and his work through his company Novatek and the NewVistas project for car-free, ecologically healthy, agriculturally cornucopic cities of their formulation. These pieces I am confident can be synthesized into some leading ideas.
Vancouver, greenest city in the world
Incheon, site of the ICLEI Future of Cities Conference
I’d planned to visit Vancouver for two quick purposes: meet Sadhu Johnston, Deputy City Manager, and some of his staff in the City Government and have some time to strategize and enjoy the good company of my friends and colleagues Paul Downton, Co-convener of the Second International Ecocity Conference visiting from Adelaide, Australia and Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship of British Columbia Institute of Technology. Paul was there to deliver a talk at BCIT and both of them were to participate in Ecocity Builders’ International Ecocity Standards discussions, also attended by Kirstin Miller, and the international conference called Gaining Ground where Ecocity Builders was leading a workshop on the standards. I had to take off after only two days to give my talk in Korea, but enjoyed my brief stay considerably, as I always do in Vancouver – a few meals and drinks out with them and Jennie’s husband Jonn, trip to the top of the mountain on the gondola to the spot where Jennie and Jonn got married and rambling thoughts about our times of opportunity. Now, and often against their will, confronted by massive evidence such as climate change and the sheer scale and ever more obvious impact of badly designed cities, people are having to face development, economic and ecological issues stonewalled in silence for years. There’s at least a chance now that creative ways, among which ecocity design is among the most promising of all, will finally get its fair hearing. That, and personal stories, were definitely fun to talk about.
Beautiful – and green too, said Sadhu and his colleagues Matt Shillito and Sean Pander about their city – and officially striving to be the greenest city in the world as described in a city sponsored paper, a kind of first take outline plan entitled “Vancouver 2020 Bright Green Future.” They met with me and Paul and Jennie but just before the meeting, our small ecocity delegation arrived on the north lawn of City Hall with 40 minutes to go, and noticed the statue of Captain George Vancouver who, working for King George III of England, charted Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet thus leading to the city being named after him. The statue’s right fore finger points toward the inlet about nine blocks to the north. Having photographed Paul standing before the statue of Col. William Light, Adelaide, Australia’s surveyor and founder, also famously pointing, in his case to Adelaide itself from a hill on the edge of town, I couldn’t resist suggesting we do another round of having fun pointing with the statue half way around the world, see photo.
But lunch first. Across the street just west of City Hall is a pretty amazing project, very “ecocity” in nature, and having several quite pleasant places to have a fast lunch – or a leisurely one, though ours was fast. Two cross streets between some landmarked buildings and other buildings either replaced with new ones or built on formerly open land – parking maybe? – were turned into glassed over pedestrian streets with shops on ground floor and the second floor linked by bridges. The project was called City Square. When we arrived to speak with Sadhu and his colleagues I mentioned what a great project it was, just right across the street. He immediately said he agreed. He moved in when he got his job with the city and lives there right now. Talk about access by proximity: housing, food, shops and directly across the street, his job, not to speak very nice preservation and restoration tuned beautifully with new construction. On the Internet, meet Sadhu and his bicycle helmet in pictures and stories. Watch out for cars! One must be careful in the city transitioning towards ecocity.
The objective of the meeting was to see if Ecocity Builders and ecocity activist in Vancouver could work more closely and effectively with City Hall and the regional metro government, popularly called Metro Vancouver and officially the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Many of the early ecocity activists participated with Jennie in the 1990s instigating many of the sustainability projects working in an organization called Vancouver Ecocity Network and helping with policies that are currently making Vancouver something of in international model definitely heading strongly in the ecocity direction. Specifically I wanted to encourage Sadhu and Planning Director Brent Toderian, who was out of town and couldn’t make it to the meeting though he did speak at both Ecocity 7 and Ecocity 8, to pursue an in depth and strongly supported ecocity mapping project for Vancouver and to find a particular place or two to design and build a full spectrum ecocity project of the sort we used to call “integral” but currently favor calling an “ecocity fractal.” We define that as a fraction of the whole ecocity on a much smaller scale but with all the essential components together and well arranged. Such a project would not need to be much larger than the City Square project but with a few other features added such as rooftop gardens, solar passive design and native planting. Finally, after all my travels, I’d find a truly complete ecologically tuned “village within a city” as some people would see it and a smaller very urban version of what the whole could become.
The real story will be in the follow up. We shall see. It was good to meet everyone and see just how seriously “eco” Vancouver planning is going in any case.
Incheon is a city to the east of the International Airport named after it and about half an hour by bus or car and more than an hour by train. It is southwest of Seoul and almost twice as far from the city as it is from the airport. ICLEI, which gets its letters from its earlier name, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, is now just “ICLEI” with the tag line “Local Governments for Sustainability,” says its logo. The NGO has more than 1,200 dues paying city government members around the world receiving its sustainability advice and assistance services, comparisons of best practices and challenges to ever better building. It was a great conference of 2,000 participants sharing experiences and ideas from city governments and NGOs around the world. I was honored to not only give a plenary talk there but also invited to do a drawing for the backdrop behind the stage. The idea for that came from ICLEI’s Secretary General, Konrad Otto-Zimmermann who saw one of my slide presentations at an earlier conference in Changwon, Korea where we are both on the City’s International Advisory Board. It was not only an honor but a gratifying delight. The color pencil drawing went from 24 inches long, via satellites circling in cold space and down to Bonn, Germany where ICLEI’s international office is located, then up and down again to printers somewhere in Korea, and turned up behind the stage of the Songdo Park Hotel in the Songdo business district of Incheon. Now it measured about 50 feet long and 15 feet high. The lighting crew in the auditorium was brilliant. They orchestrated a slowly changing color display of subtle spots and patterns shed upon the expanded image. It was a great pleasure to see speakers and performers in the cultural offering after the opening dinner against the backdrop of the drawing.
Many of the attendees noted the contrast between the drawing and the Songdo district we were in. Songdo certainly has the larger city density recommended by ecocity theory but in enormous, severe blocks of single uses, both offices and apartment houses, joined awkwardly and threateningly by an automobile dominated landscape of some of the widest streets and most daunting corner crossing I’ve seen in my life. Arrive at a corner and wait, and wait, and wait. Reminded me of the opening scene of Casa Blanca where, not too far from Rick’s place, the refuges are stuck there to wait, and wait and wait for a seat on a plane to escape. Surrealistically, few cars moved on the near empty streets. The development, after all, wasn’t quite finished yet. Almost all of it is missing from today’s Google Earth download, including my hotel and the tallest though unoccupied building in South Korea diagonally across the big flat intersection. That too waits and waits and waits for the money for completion.
In my drawing the massive chucks of Songdo’s buildings are broken up into much smaller more diverse, even chaotic patterns with elevated parks and gardens set on terraces larger but still in the pattern of the houses’ roof line of Kathmandu. Around the ensemble, open natural and farming landscapes. In Songdo it’s vast parking lots everywhere. Directly across the street from our hotel a large fairgrounds covered what would be three or four normal city blocks. The fairgrounds were then featuring a sprawling Bible Expo with its wire and cloth larger than life models of scenes from the Bible, but rather amazingly destroyed only two weeks earlier by a hurricane, sometimes called act of God. Adam and Eve with snake and apple, Noah’s animals toppled and scattered, David still standing holding up Golliath’s severed head – I didn’t realize he’d been decapitated… In a desultory manner a few lonely figures were slowly cleaning up between the enormous landscapes of almost empty parking lots.
Also present in my stage set drawing but absent in Songdo, bridges between closely space terraces on taller building. Quite by coincidence, surfing the internet as I write this article, I see the CTBUH (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat) awarded the “Best Tall Building Overall” prize of 2009 to architect Steven Holl’s “Linked Hybrid,” recently constructed in Beijing. His structure is much more massive that the one’s in my drawing and lacks the elevated trees and gardens and such features as wind screens, water tanks and attached solar greenhouses but at least shows more serious consideration is developing for the practicality and aesthetic interest created by bridges that dramatically link his towers – and for the psychological/aesthetic as well as physical linkages they create. Piecemeal, like this, the vision of ecocities may be going mainstream.
The president of ICLEI is David Cadman and coincidentally he is Deputy Mayor of Vancouver, the city just a few hours behind me. Naturally I zipped straight over to my fellow plenary presenter who also served as part time conference MC to talk ecocity mapping and fractal design and building. He said he new exactly the best spots for the latter and does read books, so I gave him mine. Again, the story is not just the past but the future. I’ll follow up.
Mathis Wackernagle, the co-creator of the ecological footprint concept beamed into the conference from his office in Oakland where I had been five days earlier and am now. He now spoke to us from the two big screens to the sides of my drawing. Meantime, Kirstin, Paul and Jennie far across the Pacific Ocean were meeting with Bill Rees in Vancouver, Bill being the other co-creator of the ecological footprint concept. They were busily discussing Ecocity Builders’ international ecocity standards project. I will leave you with what Mathis had to say to the 2,000 assembled as two enormous faces earnestly lecturing down at us: “City design is responsible for 80% of our global ecological footprint.”
Richard Register is President of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at email@example.com