Originator of the Term “Eco-City” Cites Misuse

November 5, 2009

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

“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.


Peter Head on Day 3

May 1, 2008

Peter Head, Arup, London, England

Peter Head is a Director of Arup, the English design and engineering firm, and head of their project for Dongtan, a planned ecocity on an island near Shanghai. He worked at the forefront of steel bridge technology in his early career, leading to his current role as Chairman of the Steel Construction Institute. Peter is a Recipient of the Engineering Silver Medal for an outstanding contribution to British Industry. Asked by the Mayor of London to become a Commissioner on the newly formed London Sustainable Development Commission, he has been in that position since 2002.

Arup: www.arup.com

Two More Ecocity Stories, courtesy CNN

April 2, 2008

Ecocity thinking and practices are rising in world consciousness, as evidenced by CNN running two stories today with connections to the Ecocity World Summit.

[ Building The Future ]

LONDON, England (CNN) — It’s easy to overlook the impact buildings have on greenhouse gas emissions, but the places where we live and work contribute over 30 percent of global greenhouse emissions.


An artist’s impression of how the Dongtan eco-city will look like when it is completed. The first stage is due to open in 2010.

Although the term “green architecture” was only coined about 20 years ago, architects have been embracing environmental or sustainable design for decades.

Today, architects are transforming our urban landscapes in ways which were previous unimaginable. Aided by cutting edge design and construction techniques, the bold new structures of today owe much to the techniques used by pre and early industrial pioneers. [Read this article]

And Peter Head was given his own profile, talking about his work in Dongtan.

[ Future Player: Peter Head ]

(CNN) — Peter Head is Director of urban design and development at Arup, the global design and business consulting firm.


Peter Head, of global design and business consulting firm Arup, is a noted pioneer of sustainable development.

Head is in charge of planning and development for Dongtan, the eco-city planned for construction on Chongming Island near Shanghai. Head himself describes it as: “the world’s largest sustainable development project.”

It was while he was overseeing the construction of the Second Severn Crossing — a bridge across the Bristol Channel linking England and Wales opened in 1996 — that he first became interested in sustainable development.

[Read This Article]