Rio Aladago – The Flooded City

December 12, 2013

How well does your city move people? Chances are complaints about the inefficiencies of public transit pop up daily. After all, you interact with cars, roads, buses, and light rail constantly. At the same time, other systems of movement that go more unnoticed are essential to the functioning of the city organism. How well does your city move waste and energy? How well does it move water?

Here in Rio de Janeiro water is a constant of life. Whether flocking to the ocean, complaining of the clouds (or lack of cloud cover), or wondering when it will rain, Cariocas (residents of Rio) are surrounded by water. It doesn’t rain here as often as you might imagine, as in, say, the daily downpours of Singapore, but it is tropical. Unfortunately when the rain comes the saturated ground turns anything more than few hour’s drizzle into a potential disaster.

Tuesday night it rained as much in one night as it normally does in a month. Rio is a huge city filled with micro-climates due to the dramatic mountains that corral it. In Barra da Tijuca, a new area in the south, it seemed like a sprinkle. For the residents of the North, it was a downpour. Those living in this predominantly poor area awoke to find several feet of muddy water in their streets and homes. The extend of the flooding is astonishing. Entire neighborhoods are underwater.

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Liberating Streets

July 26, 2012

By Sven Eberlein

Sunday Streets returned to my neighborhood in San Francisco’s Mission District. Sunday Streets is an event organized by the City of San Francisco, MTA, and Livable City that creates a large, temporary, public space by closing off stretches of a neighborhood’s streets to automobile traffic, and opening them to pedestrians, bicyclists, and activities. Or to be more specific, a huge street party for old and young to come out and be human for a day.

sunday streets 1

I’ve posted about Sunday Streets quite a few times and I keep telling myself that I don’t need to do it again, but what makes this event so special is that it’s never quite the same. Each time I go, even for just a couple of hours, there are new sights and sounds.

The people who’ve been there before keep reinventing themselves, and all the first-timers add so many new layers of fun and creativity that it’s hard to keep up. I really can’t say it enough, but when the streets are for the people and the people get out of their cars, really cool, creative, and unexpected stuff happens, just like that.

sunday streets 2

Of course, there were the usual suspects, like the lindyhoppers…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

the hula-hooping kids…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

and the finger-pickers…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

there was serious chillin’ out…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

and the roller-blading acrobatics…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

There were some variations on familiar themes. For example I’d seen lots of cute pets and heard cool tunes, but I hadn’t seen the bulldog standing in as a flyer for a sidewalk sale…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

or a Balkan brass band smokin’ it up…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

But I knew something was up when even bubble girl — a Sunday Streets institution — was stopped in her tracks. Was that really what I think it was?

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

Yup, it was a mechanical pony, a modern day hobby horse made for streets of few cars. Bubble girl couldn’t resist a closer encounter…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

But wait, that wasn’t it. As we kept walking, they kept coming in our direction…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

as if it was the most normal thing in the world, like checking your emails…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

Indeed, this could become a daily sight if it’s up to these guys bringing horses back to the mission district…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

This kind of transportation may seem a little unusual, but I think it really signifies the bigger kind of changes we need to see in how we get around in our cities, if not literally but definitely symbolically. It’s all nice to tinker around the edges, a bike lane here and a Smart Car there, but I think it’s not just about physical changes but about a different kind of thinking, a more imaginative way of being together, if we really want to have cities and settlements that are on a people scale.

Most ideally, a little people scale…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

In order to create a whole new paradigm we really have to dare to embrace the impossible, and as we were walking back towards 24th Street, we were stopped in our tracks by a perfect demonstration of what’s possible when we collectively attempt to rearrange the existing pieces…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

Yup, there it was, the leaning tower of street jenga…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

With the slanted table and a fierce San Francisco wind blowing we thought that we were pretty much witnessing the end of the game, but what happened next…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

was really amazing.

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

One guy after another kept stepping up, pulling out piece…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

after piece…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

There were so many oohs and aahs, and people were having a great time, laughing and cheering each other on…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

With each move it felt more and more like we were all in this together. This kid was amazing, he literally took out the foundation of the tower…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

and unbelievably, with its entire bottom corner missing, the tower stood…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

It was nothing short of a miracle, but then again I kept thinking to myself that this is what we can do on a larger scale, to re-envision our entire foundation without collapsing the whole thing. We just have to work together and support each other. And we’ve got to be bold!

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

In the game, however, we know what must happen…

Sunday Streets, June 3, 2012

but in life it’s the process of collaborating, pushing each other further, and expanding our horizon that frees us from the same old building blocks that got us stuck in the first place. The future we want is in our hands, and in our streets.

Sven Eberlein, Ecocity Media

Sven Eberlein is a writer, musician and activist living in San Francisco with roots in Germany. As an associate of Ecocity Builders, Sven has been intimately involved in the advancement of sustainable cities and urban design. His essays have been featured in magazines ranging from the SF Bay Guardian to Global Rhythm Magazine. His new book, Dancing on the Brink of the World, weaves themes of ecology, social justice and spirituality onto a canvas of art, music and creative storytelling. He is a founding member of the band Chemystry Set and publishes the creative portal Tuber Creations. You can read Sven’s creative musings at his blog, A World of Words.

Freiburg, Germany: City of the Future, continued…

October 3, 2011

A Key to Ecological Design: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Our story begins right after World War II, with almost all large German cities laid to ashes from the ravages of the war. With over 80 percent of its historic center destroyed, Freiburg decides to rebuild its inner city in adherence to its previous medieval walkable, multiple use layout. Along with Münster in the northern state of North Rhine-Westphalia, they are the only cities to do so, at the time a hugely unpopular decision.

Professor Daseking explains

Most people at the time wanted to erase the memories of the past by completely redesigning the city. In fact, almost all the other German cities bought up all the destroyed plots and built a completely new grid, that was the “modern” way of thinking.

This “modern” way of thinking of course at the time was to build a much wider and more spread out grid to accommodate the growing number of cars and trucks, fueled by a sense of expansion and progress, and leaving the old behind. (Considering the country’s recent past, the sentiment wasn’t entirely inexplicable, but it was certainly making it much harder for cities like my hometown Stuttgart that completely erased their historic core to get everything from traffic to carbon footprint under control.)

Freiburg’s planning director at the time, Joseph Schlippe, decided to model the reconstruction after the original medieval blueprint, not so much because he was an early ecocity advocate but because he saw value in keeping the old plots and landmarks intact, preserving the city’s history, identity and functionality. The move earned him much grief and derision, and he was ultimately pushed out of his job and run out of town for being much too conservative. But not before leaving behind the foundation for a living breathing ecocity: a dense, accessible, and mixed use grid based around a central tram line, pedestrian streets, and public spaces.

There’s no doubt that Professor Daseking, the current Green Party Mayor Salomon, and the overwhelmingly Green-voting Freiburg citizens’ lives have been made much easier by a conservative planning decision made over 60 years ago.


Renewal and Expansion of Things that Work

Nonetheless, much work needed to be done. In the 1950s and 60s everybody wanted to own a car and a house with a big lawn, so many families moved out into the suburbs to pursue their German dream. Sound familiar?

It wasn’t until the oil crisis in the early 1970s that a wake-up call was received, not just in Freiburg, but throughout Germany. People realized how dependent they had become on fossil fuels, how volatile this energy supply was, and there really was no need for wasting so much of it. The city responded, and in the following years a number of projects to make Freiburg into a lean, energy-efficient, and livable city were under way.

Expansion and Integration of Public Transit

Expansion of the existing tram network, including an integrated tariff system that made the use of public transit second nature to residents, as the backbone for new urban development and the foundation of a vibrant city.


Making Food and Daily Needs easily Accessible without Driving

A supermarket policy that restricted the development of shopping centers on the city’s outskirts, strengthening local inner city markets and making them easily accessible to young and old by public transit, bicycle and by foot.


Reintroducing Nature

Reconstruction of the unique “Bächle” (little creeks), a 5km system of water channels fed by the Dreisam River. Used for graywater and fire fighting in the Middle Ages but shut down and paved over to accommodate increased traffic after WWII, they were resurrected during expansion of the pedestrian district. Loved by everyone, but especially little ones. Local legend has it that those who accidentally step into one of the little streams will end up marrying somebody from Freiburg. ;-)


Adding Artistic Accents and Aesthetics

The art of cobbling experienced a revival from 1970 onwards with the expansion of the old town pedestrian zone. Following a pedestrian friendly design concept, public spaces became continuously cobbled by natural stone and pebbles from the nearby black forest, Dreisam and Rhine Rivers. When you walk around downtown there is beautiful cobblestone everywhere, with an amazing variety of artistic patterns and designs.


Modernizing the Original

Formerly rundown and deserted streets like Konviktstrasse were revitalized through brandnew buildings built by different architects while retaining their original style. As Professor Daseking likes to point out, “the houses on Konviktstrasse are all virtually new, but nobody knows it.” The ease, aesthetics and accessibility of the medieval plot structure combined with modern functionality lured many suburbanites back into the city. Notice also plants and greenery intermingling with the built environment.


You Build it and They’ll Come

A common criticism of cities and why people don’t like living in them is that they’re drab, congested, dangerous, dirty, and any number of other horrible, suffocating things. Freiburg shows that it doesn’t have to be that way, that if you build a compact, accessible and beautiful city, people will enjoy living there, with a much smaller energy and carbon footprint. Freiburg also shows that if you build an infrastructure that makes it easy to walk, bike or take public transit, people will gladly get out of their cars and enjoy the fresh air.

Whether it’s getting there…

Designed as an integrated transport hub, Freiburg Central Station combines high-speed and regional train services with access to local trams, buses and cabs. A multi-story bicycle facility includes storage, repair workshop and “Cafe Velo.” Along with shops, hotels, theaters and 24 hour bars it’s a place that never sleeps.

going to work…


getting a cab ride…


taking a spin on the beer bike…


parking your vehicle…


or just chilling at a street café…


…life in an ecocity is so much easier, healthier, diverse and fun than in the distant, monotonous, and sprawling auto-centric concrete cubes we’ve come to accept as our standard idea of a city.

The Lessons

While certainly no easy task, it becomes clear just by walking around Freiburg what a big head start the ecologically-minded planners have had, by virtue of inheriting the original city layout. As I stated above, it’s not only American cities but many German cities that struggle with the implementation of the access by proximity idea because the basic foundation of their urban space promotes distance. However, there is much more than just infrastructure and spatial division that defines sustainable urbanism. Professor Daseking and his team have just recently published the Freiburg Charter for Sustainable Urbanism, laying out twelve universal principles, all interconnected and each one an important step towards the compact, sustainable City of the Future:

freiburg-12principlesWe have to redesign our inner cities with ecological principles in mind. Another pivotal issue will be to keep working towards social justice and economic parity. Fostering cultural diversity will be very important. And of course, education, you have to have an educated population for any of this to happen. Obviously, all these issues are interconnected, a diverse and educated populace with economic opportunity is the foundation of an ecologically balanced city. There’s a lot of work ahead for generations to come, and I’m excited about it.

Prof. Wulf Daseking, Freiburg Head of Urban Planning since 1984


All photos by Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein is a writer, musician and activist living in San Francisco with roots in Germany. As an associate of Ecocity Builders, Sven has been intimately involved in the advancement of sustainable cities and urban design. His essays have been featured in magazines ranging from the SF Bay Guardian to Global Rhythm Magazine. His new book, Dancing on the Brink of the World, weaves themes of ecology, social justice and spirituality onto a canvas of art, music and creative storytelling. He is a founding member of the band Chemystry Set and publishes the creative portal Tuber Creations. You can read Sven’s creative musings at his blog, A World of Words.

Live blogging – Greenr’s wrapup

April 28, 2008

This in from the greenr blog:

Closing Slide - EcoCity 2008 Conference in San Francisco

This closing slide says it all!

Worldchanging Summit Blogging – Ecocity Highlights

April 28, 2008

Highlights from the 7th EcoCity World Summit


In order to transform our cities, we need to move from ego-culture to eco-culture.”

—Rusong Wang
President, Ecological Society of China

The EcoCity World Summit (see my intro here) wrapped up on Saturday afternoon in San Francisco. An incredible assemblage of the world’s brightest minds that are working to build greener cities and towns gathered for three and a half days of presentations, discussions, city tours, arts & culture, and celebration. As an urban planner for whom the sustainable cities movement is not only a passion but also a raison d’etre, professionally speaking, I found the conference to be nothing short of mind-blowing.

A vast amount of information and ideas was exchanged, and after letting it all sink in for a day or so I’ve summarized what I thought were some of the most interesting concepts and initiatives presented at EcoCity.

The Big Picture for Saving the Planet: Sustainable Cities

Amazingly, somehow I have worked as a city planner in Oakland, California for almost a year without knowing that right here in my own neighborhood is one of the leading green city advocates in the country, if not the world: Richard Register. Dubbed “EcoCity Master” by his conference co-organizer, Rusong Wang of China, Register is the President of non-profit EcoCity Builders.

Looking critically at the environmental movement, Register asserts that humanity is “winning the battle but losing the war.” Despite lots of successes – stronger environmental legislation, recycling programs in most metropolitan areas in the U.S., and the like – ecological degradation continues and is, in fact, worsening. That’s because, says Register, we’re not paying attention to the big things. And the big things, first and foremost, have to do with the design and functioning of our cities. Urban population is on the rise the world over, and cities are by far the greatest sources of natural resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and other pollutants. For this reason, a sustainable global future cannot be achieved without re-thinking and redesigning cities to reduce their ecological impact.

An important point that Register makes is that the eco-city concept is not a new phenomenon – it’s actually hundreds or even thousands of years old. The old city, the expression of humankind still living more or less in harmony with our natural environment, was much more ecologically sustainable. So working now toward eco-cities is really more of a reclaiming of past ideas about city form and function, as well as a revival of smart and ecological alternatives that have been neglected or suppressed for the past few decades. “All the solutions are here,” says Register.

Americans are Connecting the Dots

Parris Glendening is the former governor of Maryland and the current president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. His talk on the importance of compact, dense urban land use patterns that are well served by multiple and sustainable modes of transportation – a theme that was well covered at the summit – was informative. But for me the most insightful of Glendening’s contributions to the dialogue was his observation that mainstream Americans are starting to “connect the dots.”

What he’s referring to is the shift that is starting to take hold in our collective consciousness about the degradation of our quality of life and how this relates to issues like land use and transportation that, in the past, have seemed irrelevant to the layperson. But “common folks,” says Glendening, are starting to understand that our ever-diminishing free time, the loss of sense of community, rising gas prices, the sub-prime mortgage implosion, and a whole range of other current societal problems are all pieces of a bigger puzzle. We’re starting to understand that all of this points toward a fundamental problem with the way America has designed and developed our communities over the past 60+ years. This shift in thinking among the American mainstream is beginning to bring about the popular and political will to rectify our past errors.

EcoDensity in Vancouver

No serious discussion about urban sustainability goes far without somebody bringing up Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver is highly lauded and well studied for its achievements in city planning and sustainability. It ranks #1 on many a list of the the world’s most livable cities. But like a true overachiever, Vancouver says it still isn’t doing enough.

Planning Director Brent Toderian spoke about the City’s new EcoDensity initiative – a groundbreaking public outreach campaign and dialogue about what he calls “strategic densification.” Toderian explains that from a physical standpoint, including the street grid system, zoning code, etc, Vancouver is ready to accept higher density development on a large scale. But the more crucial question (and city planners everywhere will nod their heads in understanding) is, is the city ready to accept density from a political standpoint?

This was the impetus behind the EcoDensity initiative, which involves lots of media coverage and extensive public participation. The goal is to increase public understanding about the ecological value and necessity of denser urban areas, and to allay some of the common fears and misconceptions about density. The campaign is using innovative tools, like community publications, video, and a great website that summarizes the deliberative public process.

Curitiba, Brazil: It’s About the Kids

Jaime Lerner is the man behind one of the world’s greatest urban success stories as the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. He was the highlight of the summit for me (and not just because he drank out of my water bottle since they didn’t stock disposable cups at the water dispenser in the exhibition hall).

One of the most memorable moments of the conference was the recounting of how Lerner, a former architect, came up with the idea for the bus-boarding tubes that help make Curitiba’s transit system so efficient and successful. He was thinking about the design of a subway system, with its tunnels, cylindrical form, and stations for entering and exiting the trains, and started to move his hands back and forth in the shape of a subway tunnel. It seemed to Lerner that building an efficient transportation system on the ground was simply a matter of bringing the subway-boarding concept to the surface. That’s brilliance in action, if you ask me!

Perhaps what endeared Lerner to me the most was his philosophy that making a better city starts with the children. A lot of effort has been made in Curitiba to teach environmental ethics and stewardship to children in the schools from an early age. And then, Lerner explains, the kids teach their parents. “This is the fastest way to make people understand that it’s possible to make their lives better.”

Day 3 kickoff with Paolo Soleri

April 26, 2008

Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti

Born in Turin, Italy on June 21, 1919, Paolo Soleri was awarded his Ph.D. with highest honors in architecture from the Torino Polytechnico in 1946. He came to the United States in 1947 on a fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona, and at Taliesin East in Wisconsin. His major project is Arcosanti, a prototype town for 5,000 people, under construction since 1970. Located at Cordes Junction, in central Arizona, the project is based on Soleri’s concept of “Arcology,” architecture coherent with ecology. His proposed cities would be for people on foot, not designed around automobiles, compact and three-dimensional, not two-dimensional, that is, not flat and scattered over large distances. Arcology advocates cities designed to maximize the interaction and accessibility associated with an urban environment; minimize the use of energy, raw materials and land, reducing waste and environmental pollution; and allow interaction with the surrounding natural environment.


Richard Register on Day 3

April 26, 2008

Richard Register addresses “the most important architects in the world”.