Originator of the Term “Eco-City” Cites Misuse

As the person who first coined the term “Eco-city”, Ecocity Builders founder Richard Register questions the interpretation of the term in such places as the upcoming Abu Dhabi World Future Energy Summit in January of 2010. Register has been an advocate for the idea of ecologically healthy cities since 1965, and he started using the word variously spelled ecocities, eco-cities and EcoCities in 1979. According to Register, the ecocity is designed on the measure of the human being, not the car, powered by solar energy, fed by organic farming and designed to build soils and restore biodiversity and climate stability. He says we know it can be done because he knows people who are doing it.

The Abu Dhabi conference will feature engineering firm Arup’s design of Dongtan, China (on hold for three years now) and San Francisco’s Treasure Island, as well as Abu Dhabi’s Masdar eco-city.   The conference ventures to design the whole city a little differently, using renewable energy systems, better recycling, rooftop gardens and shade roofs over building in hot climates, and more pedestrian-oriented streets. Register says these goals are virtuous, but he also says that the emPHAsis is on the wrong syllAble.  The talk is more about massive new renewable energy supplies than energy conservation by city redesign ­ and Masdar’s so-called “pods” look suspiciously like a different design for cars after all.  Biofuels are also problematic, as it requires

According to Register, the Abu Dhabi conference attempts, once again, to make cars a central feature of the ecocity. Register believes this is a contradiction.  The automobile, he says, is on average about 30 times heavier than a human being and takes up about 60 times the volume standing still.  Moreover, car accidents kill a million people every year and contribute heavily to climate change. In Register’s view, the car is intrinsically incorrigible. When designing cities on the demands of automobiles, you have to invest billions of extra dollars on streets, parking lots and parking structures, freeways and interchanges, police and ambulance services, insurance, hospital bills and on and on. What if you put that money instead into designs based on the dimensions of the human body supported by bicycles and transit? Register suggests that car companies switch to a different product line building streetcars, trains, elevators, bicycles and the mixed-use cities that bring jobs, commerce and social life close together on much smaller areas of land.  “It’s a full employment, planning and intelligence-rich strategy for green jobs,” says Register.

Register is not alone in his interpretation of the “ecocity.”  The term has similarly been defined by the likes of Arizona architect Paolo Soleri, Curitiba Mayor Jaime Lerner (Brazil), Chinese ecocity theoretician, Congress member and Director of the Research at the Research Center for Ecological and Environmental Studies at the Chinese Academy of Science Rusong Wang, and climate scientist Stephen Schneider who accepted the 2007 Nobel Prize on behalf of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes.

“I met Arizona architect Paolo Soleri in 1965,” Register recounts, “in the early years of his talking about the disasters of the sprawl/automobile/paving/cheap energy way of designing and laying out cities. Soleri’s comment that no complex living organism is flat and spread out like a sheet of paper or the suburbs ­ two-dimensional rather than thee-dimensional in his words ­ and that cars are intrinsically an anti-city anti-human and ultimately anti-nature invention struck me as absolutely fundamental to understanding what human civilizations should be building.”

Register calls the relationship between complex living organisms like our own bodies and the complex built environment of cities, towns and villages “The Anatomy Analogy.”  He believes it prescribes a much more compact city like those of Europe as compared with those of the United States. But he and Soleri take the idea farther in proposing cities with buildings linked by bridges and the full range of community life and economy organized in much smaller spaces, leaving much more land and water for nature and agriculture while demanding far less in resources for life in the city. The lean and frugal city is Soleri’s term for such design.

Register’s organization – Ecocity Builders – along with Parantez Fair International in Istanbul, Turkey will hold the Eighth International Ecocity Summit in Istanbul this December. The world-renowned series follows the first, held in Berkeley in 1990, and five subsequent conferences in Australia, Senegal, Brazil, China and India. Ecocity World Summit 2008 will take center stage before a highly influential community of architects, planners, designers, policy makers, green businesses, political and nonprofit leaders, with the added participation of international experts and delegates.

Information on the upcoming Eighth International Ecocity Conference in Istanbul is available at www.ecocity2009.com and information on Ecocity Builders in Oakland, California is at www.ecocitybuilders.org

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