“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.


USA Today on Ecocity 2008

April 26, 2008


USA Today ran a national story naming the Ecocity World Summit as one of 7 things to do to “celebrate Earth Day”. Click here to weigh in on their other 6 suggestions.

The Ecocity World Summit is hosting the International Ecocity Conference Series in San Francisco Tuesday through April 26. It features international speakers on a variety of topics, from sustainable development to protecting the planet (ecocityworldsummit.org).

Ecocity Tours

April 14, 2008

Get a chance to see the city!

As a special opportunity for the many international guests and attendees to the Ecocity World summit, 6 guided tours will be conducted on the first day of the main event, Thursday, April 24 from 3pm to 6pm. Hosts from around the city will lead you on a guided tour.

Your options will include:

A. BART Infill Development Tour (to the East Bay)

  • Host: Bay Area Rapid Transit

B. SF Waterfront Bicycle Tour

  • Hosts: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council

C. CA Academy of Sciences LEED Green Building and Green Roofs

  • Host: SF Environment, CA Academy of Sciences

D. Downtown and Chinatown Walking Tour

  • Host: San Francisco City Guides

E. Crissy Field Wetlands Tour

  • Hosts: Nature in the City, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

F. MUNI Infill Development Tour (San Francisco)

  • Hosts: SF Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Please Note: Those not participating in an off-site tour have the option of remaining at Nob Hill Masonic Center for a screening of A Convenient Truth, Urban Solutions from Curitiba in the Auditorium, followed by a discussion session with the filmmakers, Maria Vaz and Giovanni V.Del Bello

Pacifica Tribune: Ecocity Summit

March 24, 2008

Get ready to change the world!

Throughout Earth Day Week, April 22-26, in San Francisco, the Ecocity World Summit (7th International Ecocity Conference) will convene an international community of inspired change-makers, courageous individuals addressing problems of the world’s environment with thoughtful long-range solutions that are truly sustainable, ecologically healthy and socially just. The International Ecocity Conference Series brings together the key innovators, decision makers, technologists, businesses and organizations shaping the conversation around ecological and sustainable city, town and village design, planning and development. We intend to put these issues on the economic and environmental agenda for 2008 and beyond.

Ecocity World Summit 2008 Themes:

  • People — population, health, equity, and access.
  • Nature — protecting and restoring the planet’s living systems and agricultural lands.
  • Sustainable Development — land use, transportation, architecture and infrastructure.
  • Economies & Technologies — building the supporting markets, businesses and technologies.
  • Incentives & Support Structures — role of government, organizations, institutions and individuals.


Lesley Nagy of Your TV20

March 19, 2008

Live Feed From West Coast Green

Lesley Nagy of The Bay Area’s own Your TV20 will be moderating panels at the Ecocity World Summit, as they announced today on their site. Here’s a little bit about the good folks over at Your TV 20:

Your TV20 doesn’t preach sustainable practices without applying those practices to our own business environment. In 2005 KBWB was recognized by the State of California Environmental Protection Agency as a 2005 WRAP (Waste Reduction Awards Program) winner. Although we are proud to be recognized in this way, we will not stop there and will continue to look for better ways to implement sustainable practices in all areas of our company.


Ecocities of Tomorrow: Gary Braasch, Environmental Photographer

February 21, 2008

Photographer and author Gary Braasch will be presenting a special pre-conference event on April 21st, the day before Ecocity World Summit 2008. Our friends at treehugger.com have written a great post on Gary and the amazing work he’s done all over the world. Thanks go to Jesse Fox for the write-up and interview. Thanks Jesse!

“Environmental photography is a combination of nature and documentary work that focuses on the world as habitat and biosphere and source of everything. This most strongly includes humans, who as mammals are completely affected by the environment and as technological beings are changing it more and more.”

Part artist, part whistleblower, Gary Braasch is a one-man, wandering IPCC with a camera. Since 2000, he has traveled around the world documenting the effects of climate change for his World View of Global Warming project. His book Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World was published in 2007, and his next book How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, a children’s book written with Lynne Cherry, has just been published. This week he agreed to share some of his work and insights with us at TreeHugger.

02CoalPlantNbrhdBraasch.jpg“The 2900 megawatt John Amos power plant near Charleston West Virginia looms over a neighborhood in Poca, across the Kanawa River. The Amos plant is consistently on the list of dirtiest power plants, its coal burning (2003 figures) makes it 11th in CO2 releases and 12th in SO2. It also emits mercury. Pollution from the 600 coal power plants in the US contribute to up to 30,000 deaths yearly. What to do about CO2 emissions is a severe issue now that the US government has delayed the experimental “FutureGen” sequestering project. It makes efficiency and conservation of energy all the more important.” Read the rest of this entry »

Richard Register @ Bioneers

January 22, 2008

Bioneers! – Episode 32 🙂

The Bioneers conference, held in San Rafael California, brings together visionaries in the social, environmental, sustainability movement. This 3-day-weekend-conference brings to light the solutions that will fuel this global change.Richard Register, resident of Eco City Builders, talks to Quantum Shift at the Bioneers conference.