Cities Can Save the Earth
Richard Register May 12, 2009 Editor: John Feffer
Foreign Policy In Focus www.fpif.org
The climate crisis won’t be solved by changing light bulbs and inflating your tires more, planting a tree and driving a little less. It’s going to require a truly fundamental shift in how we build our cities and live in them.
The key to changing our cities involves the car. Cars dominate cities in the rich countries, and they are increasingly swamping poor countries as well. Big auto companies, are rapidly building car factories and highways in China and India. Many cities, like Berkeley, California where I lived for 30 years, don’t have a single pedestrian street — and their citizens don’t even notice how completely given over to the car their towns are. Only one out of 10 people on the planet actually drives cars, but drivers are causing a vastly disproportionate share of planetary damage through the automobile-sprawl pattern of development.
The concepts behind the ecocity are fairly simple. They involve a shift in development toward centers of high diversity:
- Switch to a pedestrian and transit-oriented infrastructure, with ecocity architecture built around compact centers designed for pedestrians and transit;
- Roll back sprawl development while vigorously restoring nature and agriculture;
- Integrate renewable energy systems while using non-toxic materials and technologies and promoting recycling.
A major difficulty in moving toward ecocities is that cars have influenced urban design for 100 years. Many of us caught in this infrastructure find it extremely difficult to get around in anything but the car. The distances are just too great for bicycles, the densities just too low to allow efficient, affordable transit...
A Good Start
Ecocities have their antecedents in the Garden City movement in the first half of the 20th century and in the critiques by Lewis Mumford of the rapidly spreading city of cars. The cultural flux of modernist, can-do thinking after the World War II laid the conceptual groundwork for the modern ecocity.
Three cities — Auroville, Arcosanti, and Curitiba — set the parameters of the ecocity. In Auroville, India, Mirra Alfassa, a devotee of the revolutionary mystic Sri Aurobindo, founded an international experiment in living and thinking in 1968. Their philosophical idea was to further human evolution toward higher consciousness, partially through the building of an international city where everyone was citizen of the world, dedicated to peace and an exploration of human enlightenment and higher fulfillment. Auroville soon became famous as a city restoring the forests and regenerating the degraded landscape near Pondicherry, India.
At the same time Paolo Soleri, an architect, philosopher, and student of Frank Lloyd Wright, was thinking through his vision of the compact ecological city. He envisioned a city much more three-dimensional than the flat, automobile-dominated giants spreading out rapidly at the time. He pointed out the paradox that a compact city rising tall from its foundations — which didn’t have cars and highways or need the oceans of gasoline for everyday functioning — was actually far smaller and more efficient in terms of energy, land, and time. He dubbed his idea of cities with much smaller ecological footprints “arcology,” the synthesis of architecture and ecology. He set out to build an example in the high desert city of Arcosanti, located halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff in Arizona.
Curitiba, in Brazil, was an already-existing city that moved in an ecological direction. Mayor Jaime Lerner, with a team of architects and planners, began shaping the city around transit-oriented compact development. They planned five long arms of tall buildings to reach out from a city center, where dozens of city blocks had become pedestrian streets. Streets dedicated to busses and emergency vehicles only served these arms of high-density development. With this pedestrian and transit-oriented basic form, the city went on to grow around open spaces preserved as public parks. The city planted millions of trees in denuded former ranching land, instituted stringent recycling including trading groceries for garbage in poor areas, and built inspiring libraries called “lighthouses of learning” in the city’s neighborhoods that rose up five or six stories. In general, this visionary leadership released a torrent of creative innovation with an ecocity base unlike anything before.
These innovations haven't realized their potential. Auroville’s growth as an ecocity, despite significant support from the Indian government and official UN endorsement as an international city, has slowed to a crawl. Arcosanti, in contrast, has received relatively little support from government, foundations, and the general public, and it too hasn't really gotten off the ground. Curitiba is today overrun by cars despite its early leading ecocity role.
Humanity failed to heed the lessons these pioneers offered. What we could have done by creative initiative we now must do out of necessity. Oil is running short, the climate is changing, and species are disappearing: We can no longer indulge in isolated experiments. We must redesign every city, and soon.
There are several ways to begin turning our cities into ecocities. First, there is ecocity mapping. This amounts to mapping your city plan so you have a clearer sense of your centers of most vitality. The map shows where to increase density and diversity of development, which is in those centers, and where to best open up the landscape for such features as restored creeks, expanded community gardens, and parks, which is often in the areas farthest from those centers.
The ecocity general plan, like any other general plan, lays out policies for developing and maintaining the city’s physical expression and functionality. Those policies have to also include specific reference to financial investment; if the city doesn't allocate money for the transition, its plan is just symbolic window dressing. If no serious money is spent, no serious progress will be made...
There are many other tools to create ecocities. Car-free-by-contract housing, for example, encourages building apartments and condominiums with no car parking provided because residents don’t need or want cars. Any policy that establishes and expands the pedestrian environment is a tool for building ecocities. Such policies can be used to shape buildings that utilize the sun’s energy, eliminating the necessity of having to pay for a car to get access to the city’s benefits, or help restore natural landscapes. Such tools produce pioneering transit systems that fit low-energy infrastructure, like that in Curitiba, and provide free public transportation, like that in downtown Portland. They are the wave of the future — if we are smart enough to get to that future in one piece. Richard Register, the founding president of Urban Ecology and founder and current president of Ecocity Builders, convened the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990. He is the author of Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.