Ecocities to balance the new and the old in Bhutan

May 21, 2013

Richard is on the road again, leaving this week for Bhutan where he will meet with government officials about building ecocities in Panbang, a province of Zhemgang.

Bhutan is a small Buddhist county nestled in the Eastern crags of the Himalayas, commonly overshadowed in the news by its neighbors Tibet, Burma, China and India. Bhutan is most commonly known for its policy of Gross National Happiness (GHN), a metric introduced by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuckn and used to measure the well-being of its citizens and guide the development of government policy. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

The GNH measures reflect Bhutan’s Buddhist foundations which emphasize the need for spiritual and moral development to coincide with material development. Bhutan is cautious about modernization, and justly so. Most countries have embraced the luxuries of modernity while degrading precious traditional values and our connection to nature.

Slogan on a wall in Thimphu’s School of Traditional Arts. Court. of Wikimedia Commons.

King Wangchuck broke with his father’s legacy and has opened Bhutan to modern changes little by little (Television appeared for the first time in 1999), hoping to adopt the benefits of new technology while avoiding the evils. The results are mixed – crime, materialism and dissatisfaction are rising, but not to the rates of most other countries. Some educated Bhutanese returning from educations in the West seek to lead the country in a unique blend of Buddhist values and Western practices. Read the rest of this entry »


The Power of Nearness

February 9, 2010

Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.
– Albert Einstein

City planners aren’t usually on the list of people we associate with paradigm-shifting embers of wisdom. Spiritual leaders, artists, and philosophers — yes — they have sparked our collective imagination and shaped the course of society throughout history. While Be the change you wish to see in the world and I have a Dream will forever be guiding lights in our journey through a complex and often confusing world, it’s clear that each generation brings with it the need for new symbols and archetypes in response to the struggles of its time.

It was at last month’s Ecocity World Summit in Istanbul that I thought I’d heard a concept expressed that reflects and encompasses so much of the millennial Zeitgeist, as a theme to embrace as well as aspire to: The Power of Nearness

Read the rest of this entry »


Green Collar Jobs, Industrial Policy and a Society with a Future

July 2, 2008

This article on Green Collar Job recently appeared at www.BeyondChron.org, San Franciso’s Alternative Online Daily, and was written by Bernard Marszalek

“Green Collar Jobs” have gone mainstream. Obama endorses it. And a plank in the Democratic Party Platform calling for green collar jobs would solidify it as Democratic Party policy. Even if that expectation is premature, the popular reception of this program is a remarkable achievement for what began only a few years ago as an under-reported campaign uniting a few progressive labor leaders and some politically astute environmentalists. Despite its popular appeal, or maybe due to it, “Green Collar Jobs” lacks clear definition. The term arose from the groundbreaking, alliance between labor and environmentalists to create a massive national effort to “jump-start” an alternative energy program. They modeled it after John Kennedy’s well-funded Apollo Project to get an American on the moon, fast.

(link to rest of article)


“Nothing More Important” By Richard Register

June 26, 2008

The following is a short essay written by Richard Register as the published introduction to the companion book for the “Theory and Model of International Ecological City” subconference of the “20078 China International Architecture Design & Scene Planning Exhibition and Forum on Urban Planning of Senior Government Officials” in Langfang, Hebei Province, China, June 19 and 20, 2008. The book, called “The Living Land,” was published by the Shanghai International Investment Company which is building five “ecocity” projects including Dongtan, near Shanghai, and Wanzhuang, about 80 miles east of Beijing near Langfang.

There may be one or two things as important for humanity’s future, but nothing is more important than ecocities.

If human beings are stressing planet Earth to the breaking point, and we are, it is because of our vast numbers and our enormous rates of consumption of resources and production of wastes in the process. This stands as something broadly accepted in a world of climate change, the coming end of cheap energy and collapsing species diversity on a global scale.

But what is most often missed is the design and layout of our built environment of cities, towns and villages. Could we build cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well? That’s the promise of ecocities and in China some of the most important efforts in exploring cities are underway in places such as Wanzhuang Ecocity Project in Langfang. There we see the strategy of “leading by government, operating by market” which means that there needs to be a design of the incentives to assist and enable the design of the physical thing itself, the physical city as an ecocity.

First, just how important are cities? We have been hearing for some years now that “this year more than half the people in the world will be living in cities.” The figures keep shifting because the data gathered by the United Nations simply accepts and uses the various nations’ wide ranging definitions of what constitutes cities. But what is important to notice is that probably 90% or more of us – almost all of us – live in either cities, towns or villages and at all those scales our built community can be either designed upon the foundation of ecological understanding or without it. In other words, ecocity design relates to practically all scales of development and, if it were applied across those scales would be a solution of sufficient power to preserve and restore the health of the whole planet.

Second, how well recognized is the fact that ecocity design holds this enormous potential for health and happy solutions to crucial problems? Practically not at all! We are dealing with something almost a complete secret when the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali in December, 2007 fails to mention the largest things human being create when debating solutions to global heating. Not a word was said about city form or urban design. Certainly some of the world’s best scientists and most conscientious citizens and politicians were doing their best in all the ways they normally go about their work. But somehow they all missed the connection between the design, layout, planning and building of the largest creations of our species – cities – and their impacts on climate. If one kind of city puts out massive quantities of CO2, but a city built in a very different, ecologically informed way would put out one tenth as much, that is enormously important information. That building a different kind of city has this potential for good is simply an insight that is currently so new as to be almost unheard of. People have gotten used to the idea that an ecologically healthy city is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. The fact that cities do pollute has completely obscured the fact that they can pollute much less, very much less by design – and perhaps the “waste” products of that better design could actually be used for benefit instead of cast off as damage to land, life and society. We have simply not been paying attention to building the best we possibly could.

Third, why haven’t we been moving much more quickly toward ecocities? I’ve been wondering why something that sounds so good – cities designed on the measure of the person, rather than the machine, cities designed to leave room for nature in all its glory, cities to enrich soil as is done in China in a number of other countries in an older kind of agriculture that recycles organics thoroughly, cities conserving energy so well that only a modest flow of energy from the sun or wind could power the whole thing – have not been developed right along with all the other clever humans inventions. For more than forty years I’ve been working on ecological city design, and there have been others in the field too, but practically nothing until very recently has been built, and then on a small scale, as just a building here or there or a small part of city.

Lately we have been recognizing healthy “ecological” patterns in the essence of a much older way of building cities, as we see in the model of old European cities, Nepalese large towns, and traditional villages of compact design in China and around the world defining streets and bringing the full variety of mutual services close together. Why haven’t we earlier extracted the basic principles and techniques from the many pieces that seem to indicate where we should be going? Why has only recently Curitiba, Brazil assembled enough pieces of good layout and design that people are beginning to bring the picture into focus? It would seem strange that Dongtan, now said to be the “first ecocity” could actually be the first or something close to a first when we could have been building right for decades or even centuries. Maybe most important, is there something in the way we are building cities that makes it very difficult to actually progress toward cities good enough to be a positive ecological presence on Earth, a built environment in harmony with the natural environment?

I think there is an answer to this puzzle and it is that we have not been looking at things in their true proportion and we haven’t been exercising imagination fully. We stop thinking halfway to the answer.
Regarding proportionality, for example, the car is a key player in shaping contemporary cities – and disastrously. There is good theoretical basis for seeing the automobile as intrinsically extraordinarily damaging to urban health in simply noticing that the average car is approximately 30 times as heavy as the human body, ten times as fast and about 60 times as big in volume. Designing for something that overbearing in cities has been a mistake few are willing to face. Attempts at making cities healthier come up against desires for speed and bridging distances that have only been possible in an age of very cheap energy and machines that muscle their way across town while completely redesigning it. That’s one big problem in the way.

Another is a notion exemplifying lack of imagination and unwillingness to think through options more thoroughly. That problem exists even in many of the best of European towns and taught in architecture and city planning classes and that notion is that “good urbanism” doesn’t have nature in it. Why not? Who says? In what form and design? Why the lack of imagination here? This idea, embodied in, for example, the compact “walking streets” of old Europe and Asia and the squares and plazas with no plants at all and only pigeons for wildlife, or parks with 100% grass and non-native plants is an idea that has been around for so long it is taken as some sort of rule without thinking through how a much better relationship to nature could be even better urbanism, enriching urban life even more. It’s time to wake up – before nature strikes back for our lack of attention to her.

Another notion is “human scale” in cities – meaning small and often tagged to a four or five story height limit – though many people in China and larger cities everywhere take the notion much more realistically. The benefits of compact, three-dimensional form with real diversity of facilities and services means people can walk and take bicycles and transit very easily, saving enormous amounts of energy, land, time, material investment and money. There is a core of truth to the notion of human scale as small scale but it exists in a dynamic with the larger scale, which is a human product too, and which can be designed very differently than we see generally expressed now. For example, the vital pedestrian city could be one with many taller buildings with terraces linked by bridges, with large sheltered interior passageways on the scale of cathedral interiors, with sunny public space arranged around small waterways and native plants attracting native birds to high places.

I’ve seen people move small steps in the right direction and stop, satisfied that they have arrived. They, for example, might recycle better and buy an energy saving automobile, but they still live a long way from work and their friends and drive anyway. I’ve seen them freeze up the city, opposing any new “density” in already existing neighborhoods or resist adding diversity of services and jobs to a neighborhood, clinging to the segregating single uses of zoning that helped the car scatter the city of car dependent and cheap energy dependent distances. But in projects now being planned in China, such as Dongtan and Wanzhuang, the notion of “access by proximity” – being close to a wide variety of what you need in the city is finally taken seriously and will be the world model for our fast approaching future when cheap energy is gone forever.
But even there, what is missing is going for the full spectrum ecocity now. We need to be thorough. We need to see all the parts connected and understand that to have a better car actually makes a worse city because it perpetuates the same anti-ecocity form with all its excesses. It is time for imagination to explore the whole notion in its fullness. Only then can we get beyond the compromises and the habits of stopping way short of… cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well.


A virtual look at two planned Ecocities

June 5, 2008

A promotional video for Masdar City.   The first stage of the development of the project is a state-of-the-art photo-voltaic power plant, which would deliver the energy required for the construction of the rest of the project.

 

Flyover of Dongtan, China.  Dongtan is a new ecocity planned for the island of Chongming, near Shanghai, China.

 


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