Ecocity Insights: Regenerative Development and Ecocities

June 2, 2014

by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia Institute of Technology

This week, BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment hosted a living lab design charrette in regenerative design with Bill Reed, principle of Regenesis Group (http://www.regenesisgroup.com/). Regenerative development is the process by which humans play a positive role in stewarding social-ecological co-evolution.  Because BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment is concerned with the natural environment, the built environment, and the relationship between them, we are interested to learn more about how regenerative development processes can play a role in building ecocities, cities that are in balance with nature.

To regenerate is to make new, to regrow and replace what was and to expand the scope of what could be. Regeneration moves past restoration in the pursuit of evolving potential. In ecology, which is the science of relationships among living organisms and their surroundings, regeneration is the recreation of relationships over time such that the whole system, the ecosystem, is reborn. The integrity of an ecosystem is measured by its ability to replicate itself (i.e., to regenerate) over time. Healthy ecosystems have the ability to make themselves whole, overcoming challenges that negatively impact their potential. Therefore, the process of regeneration can be viewed as a process of healing.

Development is the process of evolving, building complexity, or advancing towards a specific end point. Regenerative development, therefore, is a process of renewal that evolves or advances the potential of an organism or system of relationships towards a destination. The destination could include the ecozoic era, in which humanity lives peacefully with other species staying within the ecological carrying capacity of earth.

Regeneration moves past restoration in the pursuit of evolving potential.

Regenerative development starts with a focus on being, on paying attention to oneself and one’s impacts. Next, attention is given to the immediate system or organization of which one is a part. This could comprise a family, neighbourhood, business, or city. Considerations include how one’s being, meaning one’s intentions and interactions, impact these larger systems. Attention is then given to the cumulative impacts of both one’s being and the system of which one is a part on the whole world. It is an exploration of unfolding potential and related impacts. In sociology, which is the science of human relationships and functioning, regenerative development explores the process by which cultures and societies create beliefs, values and norms of behavior to structure institutions that advance healing relationships with each other and the world.

These concepts draw heavily from the science of living systems (Miller 1978) and permaculture (Mollison 1988) that also manifest in bioregionalism and inform urban ecology and ecocity building. Regenerative development aligns with ecocity development such that the first informs the process of evolution towards the second which is the destination. Regenerative development involves a process for how to engage oneself and the people in one’s community in evolving towards an ecologically healthy relationship with nature that manifests through life patterns, including the built environment. Ecocity development involves the shaping of the destination, a built environment that enables sustainable and healthy living in balance with nature.

References

Miller, James Grier. 1978. Living Systems. New York: McGraw Hill.

Mollison, Bill. 1988. Permaculture: A designer’s manual. Tyalgum Australia: Tagari Publications.

 

British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative

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Ecocity Insights: Healthy Biodiversity

April 1, 2014

By Jennie Moore, Director Sustainable Development and Environment Stewardship
BCIT School of Construction and the Environment

 

Biodiversity refers to the vast array of species, both flora and fauna, that populate the Earth. Their interactions create the ecosystems upon which we depend, characterized by various biomes including: deserts, rainforests, grasslands, and coral reefs (Newman and Jennings 2008).

Healthy biodiversity needs intact nutrient cycles, no net loss of soils, and no accumulation of pollutants (in soil, air or water). Although approximately 12% of Earth’s wild places have been dedicated as natural reserves, global change processes, including climate change, mean that the systemic conditions needed for these places to thrive are being undermined. Biodiversity losses are being driven in part by urbanization processes that fragment natural habitats and nutrient cycles, deplete soils and aquifers, and increase pollution levels (Newman and Jennings 2008).

To achieve the “Ecocity: Level 1 Condition” requires that the geo-physical and socio-cultural features of a city are in harmony with its surrounding bioregion (www.ecocitystandards.org). This means that indigenous flora and fauna are allowed to flourish. Equally important, ecocities do not draw down the resources or increase pollution levels in areas outside the bioregion either. This could happen through trade imbalances and/or taking advantage of global common resources, such as the waste sink capacities of oceans and atmosphere. Therefore, ecocities are concerned both with preserving and enabling healthy biodiversity in their bioregion as well as in the world generally.

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The ecocity vision includes tightly clustered development immediately adjacent to naturally preserved areas (Register 2006). This allows people to experience nature at their doorstep despite living in high-density urban environments. Ecocities also utilize clean and renewable energy and responsible resources and materials that do not contribute to the destruction of natural habitat in their extraction nor the accumulation of toxics in their manufacture, use and disposal. Finally, by ensuring healthy and accessible food, ecocities also help to protect soils while keeping citizens well nourished.

References:

Newman, Peter and Isabella Jennings. 2008. Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems: Principles and Practices. Washington DC: Island Press.

Register, Richard. 2006. Ecocities: Redesigning Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola BC: New Society Publishers.

 

The British Colombia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative.

 


Why Nantes? Europe’s Green Capitol 2013

March 12, 2013

To those who say Ecocities are impossible, that a green economy will fail, and that citizens will never support or get involved in Eco-principles on a large scale, I give you Nantes.

Nantes: The Venice of France

Following in the footsteps of Stockholm, Hamburg and Vitoria-Gasteiz, Nantes Métropole is the European Union’s Green Capital for 2013. The European Commission launched the Green Capital project in 2008 to recognize and reward cities’ efforts to increase sustainability and improve quality of life. Addressing these issues is a pressing concern for European cities as three in four European citizens currently live in urban areas and that number is expected to grow to four in five by 2050.

This year will bring many exciting events to Nantes including ten local or national conferences and 11 European or international conferences, not least of which is the International Ecocity World Summit this September 25-27th.

Few outside of France may have ever heard of Nantes–it is well worth paying attention to.

Nante’s story mirrors that of many industrial cities in Europe and the United States. After the closure of the city’s main economic source–the shipyards–in the 1980s, city leaders were faced with a struggling economy, civic stagnation and abandoned, decaying industrial sites. But instead of trying to recreate failed systems and lingering in the industrial past, Nantes took a unique leap of faith and decided to invest in sustainable infrastructure, culture and quality of life. No mean feat for the 1980s.

Planners carefully redeveloped the shipyards into green public space and focused on highlighting the city’s history (dating to Pre-Roman times), fostering culture and community development, and connected the city via high speed rail to Paris. Nantes’ planning framework promotes urban density, solidarity, and equal access to green living amenities for citizens of all income levels. The result: in 2004, Time Magazine named Nantes the most livable place in all Europe.

A few numbers from Nantes:

  • 57m2 of green space per person
  • 15% of residents use public transportation daily
  • Everyone lives within 300m of a green space in the city
  • 80% of the Nantes/Sant-Nazaire metro area is natural and farmland space
  • Only 11% of household waste goes to landfills

Nantes works hard to encourage dense urban development to accommodate its growing population rather than sprawling into surrounding green areas. In addition many riverbanks, wetlands and green spaces have been restored to support a thriving wildlife population.

Nante’s city governance also attempts to break with a long history of top-down city planning that has often been patronizing and alienating. City leaders name civic pride and involvement a top priority for the city, and their policies reflect this. Vigorous public outreach campaigns involve citizens with the planning of their neighborhoods and the government also holds household workshops on carbon footprint reduction and sustainability.

Of course it is all a work in progress; still, Nantes is a consummate example of the Ecocity principles in action and we are so excited to come together for the 2013 World Summit in such a remarkable city!

Join us


Excerpt from The Kathmandu Post

September 6, 2008

The eastern part of the Tarai (plain) area of Nepal and northern part of Bihar State of India have been badly affected by the Sapta Koshi flood. Hundred of thousands people are now homeless, thousands of acres of land are submerged. Many people lost their lives. Since this, being a man made disaster, one country blames another. In view of this is an excerpt from Deepak Gyawali’s interview with The Kathmandu Post.

INTERVIEW WITH DIPAK GYAWALI
Dipak Gyawali, former Minister for Water Resources, heads Nepal Water Conservation Foundation and is a hydropower expert.

Excerpts

Q: Why did the Koshi breach its embankment? Who was responsible for the repair work– India or Nepal?

DipakG: It is important to step back a bit to realize that this catastrophe happened because of the unholy confluence of three things: wrong technological choice for this kind of a hydro-ecological regime, wrong institutional arrangements resulting from the Koshi Treaty that are not right for managing this kind of a trans-boundary river system, and wrong conduct in public service over the last half-century, which includes aspects of corruption … But let us start with the technological aspect, when the lateral, left-bank embankment (not the barrage across the river) collapsed on 18th August: it was not a natural disaster, but a man-made tragedy. The river flow at the time was lower than the minimum average flow for the month of August, and hence not even close to a normal flood, which had not even begun during this monsoon. In the Koshi, it generally occurs from mid-August to mid-September, and when this natural stress is added to a man-made tragedy, together they have all the potential to become a major calamity of a generation.

Q: Why is this project the wrong technological choice?

DipakG: Koshi is one of the most violent rivers in the world because it is not just a river with water in it but also a massive conveyor belt of sediment from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal. This is a natural geological process that is responsible for creating not just Bangladesh but also much of Bihar out of the ancient Tethys Sea. Some one hundred million cubic meters of gravel, sand and mud flow out of Chatara every year. Lest we forget, all the collected water and matter brought by Tamor, Arun and Sun Kosi rivers, all the way from Kanchenjunga in the east, through Makalu and Everest to Langtang in the west have to pass through this one gorge at Chatara. And as the river slows down in the flat Tarai plains, the sediment settles down raising the river bed and forcing the river to overflow its bank before finding a new course.

This process has essentially created the inland delta over which the Koshi has swung from Supaul in the west to Katihar in the east, like a pendulum suspended at Chatara. In the last half century, this process has been arrested by “jacketing” the Koshi within embankments at the western extreme of the delta; but this has only forced the river to deposit all the sediment within this narrow “jacket”, raised the river bed, perching the river some four meters above the surrounding land. It was a recipe ripe for this kind of catastrophe to eventually happen, as it has now.

You have to be extremely careful when you start fooling around with such awesome forces of nature. What happens when you do so without proper understanding can be easily studied on the Tinau, south of Butwal: in 1961, India built the Hattisunde barrage on the Tinau’s inland delta to supply irrigation water to Marchawar in the south, but the river changed course in the following year and the barrage has been standing high and dry since then, a tribute to man’s stupidity, and an equally great tribute to his incapacity to learn from mistakes. You don’t build such hydro-technical structures on an unstable delta fan, and the Koshi today is just Tinau repeated at a more massive scale.

Q: What do we know of the science behind these things?

DipakG: We have been studying the Tinau and its problems since the mid-1990s, which is just the same as the Koshi except at a much smaller scale. For the Koshi, the best example is the comparison of current river flow conditions of the lower Ganga with the map prepared in 1779 by Colonel Rennel for Governor General Warren Hastings. His map shows us that the Koshi actually joined the Mechi-Mahananda, which joined the Teesta. While the Koshi has swung west, the Teesta itself has swung east to meet the Brahmaputra, while the Brahmaputra has swung from meeting the Megna to meeting the Ganga. This shows how extremely volatile the dynamically shifting pattern of this region’s hydro-ecological is.

This disaster was waiting to happen because the intervention into the natural regime through the Koshi project was bad science that ignored the problem of sediment in the river. As regards science, we should also remember that deforestation has really no significant linkage with Koshi sedimentation: we have more forest cover in the Koshi catchment today, thanks also to community forestry, than we ever did in our past history; and the Myth of Himalayan Degradation (that floods in Bangladesh are due to poor farmers in Nepal cutting trees) has been scientifically debunked over two decades ago. It is Himalayan geo-tectonics coupled with the monsoon regime that is the cause of Koshi sedimentation and floods, and that cannot be battled against with bad science and even worse policy prescriptions of indiscriminate embankment building following from such bad science.

Q: Can we repair the breach once the monsoon is over?

DipakG: I doubt it, simply because the breach now is no longer a rupture in the side embankment that can be plugged once the water level goes down and the Koshi starts flowing along its original main channel. What we are seeing is the main stem of the river itself flowing through it, capturing centuries’ old channel and changing its course. To change it back is like damming the Koshi anew with a new barrage, in addition to making the river do a “high jump” of at least four meters to flow along its recently abandoned bed.

Believe me, it won’t be too happy doing that now or in the coming years, and will find some way to continuously breach the embankment in other weak spots, and no engineer can guarantee that this won’t happen, although they will have lots of fun playing with all kinds of expensive toys “to tame the Koshi”.
The problem now is no longer just the breach at Kusaha in Nepal: it is totally uncertain where the new Koshi channel will be in the middle and lower delta in Bihar. Currently, satellite pictures show that it might be moving along the Supaul channel; but I think this might just be a massive ponding that is occurring with Koshi filling every depression, canal, old oxbow lake or the space between the indiscriminately built embankments. Since the land naturally slopes eastwards, depending upon whether the coming September floods are a four lakh cusecs flood or a nine lakh one (as happened in 1968) the new Koshi could be as far east as Katihar. Even if it does not go that far this year, it is inevitable it will do so in the years to come. This river morphology dynamics has to be looked at before any new embankments or repairs of old ones can be considered.

Q: What might be correct technology then?

DipakG: First, let us put to rest another wrong technology, a high dam on the Koshi. It is wrong because it would take two or more decades to construct, thus failing to address problems of current and immediate future concerns, is extremely expensive, does not address the primary problem of sedimentation (the reservoir will fill up too soon with Himalayan muck), has no convincing answer regarding the cost of attending to high seismicity in the region as well as diversion of peak instantaneous flood during construction (it is a major engineering challenge with no easy solution), and will create more social problems when indigenous population in Nepal have to be evicted from their ancestral homes. A Koshi high dam would be tantamount to Nepal importing downstream seasonal floods as permanent features of its landscape for questionable benefits to it. I think neither India nor Nepal is in a position to afford the technical, economic and social costs associated with it.

The immediate requirements of Nepal and Bihar (and by immediate I mean from now till ten or so years) will have to be met by new and alternative technologies suited to an unstable but very fertile flood plain. Such adaptive technologies with strong social components have been traditionally used by people in the form of houses on stilts and building villages with raised plinth levels that keep life and property safe but allow the flood to easily pass by leaving fertile silt behind. It will also call into serious question the current design practices in the transportation, housing, agriculture and other sectors, forcing the adopting of new approaches that look not so much to the watershed but to the ‘problemshed’ for answers. There is nothing called a permanent solution (how ‘permanent’ is a permanent concrete dam, after all?); but building houses on stilts is a cheaper, more ‘doable’ and thus a better solution.

Q: Why do you say that the current management setup of the Koshi barrage and embankments was a wrong institutional arrangement?

DipakG: The answer to that question can come from looking at the highly undiplomatic and breathtakingly ill-informed statement that came out from the Indian embassy in the immediate aftermath of the breach by blaming Nepal for it. When forcing the Koshi Treaty on Nepal in the 1950s, India took upon itself all responsibility for design, construction, operation and maintenance of the Koshi project, leaving Nepal absolutely no room to do anything except allow India to quarry all the boulders they like (which incidentally are rarely used in the Koshi but find themselves black marketed to all the aggregate crushers from Muzzafferpur to Siliguri!!)

The Koshi Treaty has been criticized very often for many reasons, but the reason some of us from the socio-environmental solidarity to criticize it is because of the neo-colonial mode that is built into its institutional make-up. Instead of a proper bi-national management arrangement, Nepal can only be a by-stander even for matters within its own territory: it can’t order the opening of gates during floods or the supply of irrigation waters to its fields during the dry season. Everything is in the hands of the Delhi hydrocracy, which has conveniently (and to my mind, illegitimately) washed its hands off it by hiving it off to the Bihar hydrocracy. There is institutional irresponsibility built into the treaty at every level, which was seen at the time of its signing as a “construction” treaty rather than a management one, hence you can never get sustainable and scientific management out of it. In a tragic and perverse way, the current catastrophe has washed away the very foundations of that treaty and calls for revisiting the management of the Koshi in a more sane and equitable manner.

Q: What exactly did you mean by “bad conduct”, then?

DipakG: Even if you had a wrong institutional arrangement, right conduct could have still got things done more than semi-right. What happened here was that the entire Koshi project has become a synonym for the corruption that goes by the name of Bihari politics, which “New Nepal” seems to be importing with glee.

Consider the following quote  from an Indian scholar studying the problem.
Such is the racket of breaches that out of the 2.5 to 3 billion rupees spent annually by the Bihar government on construction and repair works, as much as 60 percent used to be pocketed by the politician-contractors-engineers nexus. There is a perfect system of percentages in which there is a share for everyone who matters, right from the minister to the junior engineer. The actual expenditure never exceeds 30 percent of the budgeted cost and after doling out the fixed percentages, the contractors are able to pocket as much as 25 percent of the sanctioned amount. A part of this they use to finance the political activities of their pet politicians and to get further projects sanctioned. Thus the cycle goes on. [The result is that…] the contractor’s bills are paid without verifying them. The same lot for boulders and craters are shown as freshly purchased year after year and the government exchequer is duped of tens of millions. Many of the desiltation and repair and maintenance works shown to have been completed are never done at all and yet payments are made….So much is the income of the engineers from the percentages that the engineers do not bother to collect their salaries.

(Fighting the Irrigation Mafia in Bihar, by Indu Bharati in the Economic and Political Weekly from Bombay in 1991, quoted by Dipak Gyawali in his book Water in Nepal/Rivers, Technology and Society, Zed Books, London and Himal Books, Kathmandu, 2001.)

This is what I mean by “wrong conduct”. My understanding, based on information filtering out of Saptari and Sunsari and on local FM channels, is that local cadres of ruling political parties got wise to the corruption practiced from across the border and began to demand a share, which was difficult for the Bihari contractors to agree to because of the high rake-in demanded by their traditional political and civil servant bosses in Patna and higher up. There were, it seems, tough negotiations going on before the start of the monsoon season, but no agreement could be reached. No formal approach was made by the Koshi officials to the most India-friendly government in power in Nepal because the issue to be resolved was not doing the work but sharing the booty. Which is why the complaint that the contractors had come on August 8 to strengthen the embankment but were not allowed to, itself begs the question: how come you come to do the repair works (if that is what you wanted to do) in the middle of the monsoon and not in January?

Q: What should be the priority now?

DipakG:  There are three things needed to be done on a war footing in order of priority:
First, this is a major humanitarian tragedy of global proportions, and it should be attended to with an open heart, generous pockets and caring hands. If Biharis are coming into Nepal because that is where the only high ground is, they should be welcomed, all relief should be provided to them too, but a record should be kept and they must be handed over to the Indian government soon after the monsoon. It must be recognized that the displaced fifty thousand or so Nepalis are in all probability permanently displaced (over their village, the new Koshi probably runs and will do so for the forseeable future) and need to be housed in camps before a permanent settlement is found. Perhaps the now emptying Bhutanese refugee camps should be used for the purpose.

Second, a bridge should be constructed over the Koshi at Chatara on a war footing and the traffic along the Mahendra highway restored to connect east Nepal with the rest of the country as soon as possible. The current Kosi barrage bridge will in all probability remain as the Hattisunde barrage on the Tinau, a defunct monument of interest to future archaeologists; but even if restored, we will need a ferry system over the new Koshi channel before we can get to it.

Third, a serious public review and debate must ensue over the Koshi project and the treaty that brought about this catastrophe. The investigations and debate must be conducted jointly by civic movements in Nepal and India so that a sane path forward can be charted. Hydrocracies of both countries can contribute to this exercise, but their judgment and legitimacy are now in question, as is their hitherto unchallenged policy hegemony.



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.


San Francisco Speaks

April 25, 2008

S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom and Jared Blumenfeld speak. This is not classic Newsom. Take a look: