On the road to Cairo, Casablanca, and Medellín, Ecocitizen World Map in hand

March 29, 2014

Hola! Bonjour! As-salam alaykom! Hello!

EcoCitizenWorldMapProjectLogo72It’s been a busy four months since I went into woodshed mode to help create the Ecocitizen World Map Project, a portal where citizens can map their communities and share first-hand information for a holistic assessment of their city’s ecological and social health. The one thing I’ve probably missed the most while wading through oodles of HTML, CSS, and GIS has been some good old fashioned ruminating from the spaces between soil and soul. So, I’m taking this opportunity to yak it up about the project and share a few stories and visuals of Medellín, Colombia, one of our initial three pilot cities. (with Casablanca and Cairo completing the awesome triad!)

Speaking of Medellín, we’ll be officially launching this groovy tool for sustainable urban development that links community crowdsourced information to national, regional, and global data sets at the upcoming 7th World Urban Forum from April 5-11th.

More about that a bit further on, but as anyone who’s ever been deeply immersed in a multifaceted project can attest to, the danger of making sense only to yourself while sounding like a babbling cryptogram to everyone except the people you’re working with increases proportionally with each additional hour you spend your head buried in jargon and code. So at the risk of being a bit long-winded but in the hopes of reclaiming my ability to some day carry a normal conversation at a social gathering again, I will use this opportunity to pretend we’re sitting at a pub and you’re asking about that crumpled map sticking out of my pocket.

As my favorite author once launched into a story: “All this happened, more or less.” Read the rest of this entry »

Soil is the Solution, or, the Most Important Story I’ll Ever Write

February 28, 2014
by Sven Eberlein

soil Sven, “Soil is the Solution” might be the most important environmental story you’ll ever write. It is part of the solution to our environmental challenges. The story belongs on the front of the NY Times and on 60 Minutes. – Email from Robert Reed, composting manager at Recology, San Francisco’s waste management company

This is a story of hope and possibility in times of great turmoil and struggle.

A few months ago I was working on an article about
San Francisco’s pioneering efforts to become the world’s first zero-waste city by 2020. Chronicling this journey toward a current nation-leading 78 percent waste diversion rate, a major focus of the story was on the city’s mandatory composting program that has played a huge role in keeping over a million tons of food scraps, plant trimmings, soiled paper, and other compostable materials from clogging up landfills and releasing methane into the atmosphere.

I was particularly interested in the idea of the food cycle, and it was heartening to see just how far along the City by the Bay has come in closing it: each day 600 tons of sloppy goodness from hundreds of thousands of residents, businesses, and over 5,000 restaurants gets shipped to a local state of the art composting facility, from where it returns to residents’ dinner tables in the form of fresh, organic foods grown bylocal farmers who use the city’s nutrient-rich compost as fertilizer.
It wasn’t until after the story was published that I was alerted to the most remarkable and possibly game-changing discovery about urban compost: its potential
to offset 20 percent and perhaps as much as 40 percent of America’s carbon emissions! Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Conservatives, cont.

August 31, 2012

And speaking of automobiles, even though these socialists love their cars as much as you do, they also realize that they’ve got to be more conservative with their oil consumption. They’re pretty psyched about smaller, more efficient cars that not only save them a lot of money but allow them to express their individuality, move around more freely, and park more easily. All with a Mercedes engine…


In fact, most of these socialists like their freedom so much that they don’t want to be dependent on dwindling oil resources and the whims of a few oil monopolies that they happily get out of their car whenever possible and welcome the kinds of infrastructure improvements that enable easier access by foot or by bike. Not getting stuck in traffic gives them so much more time, flexibility, and the opportunity to stop for a quick cup of coffee on their way to work. Plus, they like taking the kind of personal responsibility for their physical health that a daily bike ride to and from work contributes to.


Some of the most conservative folks, just like in America, live in the more rural areas of Socialandia. A lot of them are small farmers and they have a rugged individual streak for sure. That’s why they love solar energy. The idea of supplying the power for your own electricity needs not only matches their independent spirit, but the fact that they can make extra money selling back excess power from their big barn roofs to supplement their hard-earned farming income is just icing on the cake. Really a no-brainer for any economically-savvy, fiscally-responsible, and freedom-loving land owner.


All kinds of regular citizens of Socialandia have taken the personal initiative to build the infrastructure for a clean energy future. For example, my cousin’s ex-husband is one of the test pilots for the airplane that made the first solar powered intercontinental round-trip flight just a few weeks ago. Many self-reliant folks are building houses and entire towns that produce more energy than they consume. In true entrepreneurial fashion, a bunch of parents in one town started their own renewable power company and modernized their electrical grid after the old power company refused to support their customers in conserving energy. Their company now provides power from over 1,800 solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and cogeneration facilities to 115,000 homes and businesses throughout the country.


But it’s not just the businesses, scientists, parents, workers, and farmers in Socialandia who have realized that investing in renewable energy is the only way to assure that their children and grandchildren will have the same opportunity and mobility to move around on a livable planet. Religious leaders all over are stressing that God has given us this planet not to trash it and suck every last drop of oil out of, but to take care of it and pass it on to the next generations in no worse but preferably better shape than we found it.

Pastor Hasenbrinksolar-jesus03

What’s that you say? A lot of these clean energy developments wouldn’t be happening without government subsidies?

You’re right. The Socialandia government has been offering feed-in electricity tariffs to encourage the use of new energy technologies for years. Just this year, the government announced that it would invest $263 billion (8% of GDP!) in offshore wind farms that will cover an area six times the size of New York City and erect power lines that could stretch from London to Baghdad. This all on the heels of its targeted switch to 100 percent renewables by 2050 to become the world’s first major industrial nation to kick the fossil-fuel habit.

vauban_68But get this — it’s the CONSERVATIVE LEADER of the CONSERVATIVE PARTY who has been pushing for the world’s most ambitious plan to power an industrial economy on renewable sources of energy, because it’s the ultimate pro-business, pro-family, pro-Christian, pro-life (on earth), and pro-fiscally-responsible conservative position to hold. Also, the citizens of Socialandia, some of the most productive and hard-working people who are driving one of the strongest economies in the world are demanding that their leaders advocate for a sustainable economic plan and clean energy infrastructure in which they can continue to be the most productive for generations to come.

It’s quite simple: You can’t do business or raise your children on a dead planet. So what people in Socialandia have realized is that to not unnecessarily waste the planet’s dwindling resources and to do everything we can to keep an already warming planet from spinning out of control is neither conservative nor socialist — it’s survivalist.

I know you don’t want to get on this train because right now Barack Obama is the conductor, and you don’t trust him because he’s a socialist, or something. But you see, this is not about the conductor, this is about the tracks this train is running on and the places it’s destined for.


The switches to the future are all pointing in the direction of developing new sources of clean energy and not wasting so much of it in the first place. It’s true that in this upcoming election the only train to get on is President Obama’s because Mitt Romney is sitting in his limousine, ready to pick up a few of his buddies, and turn around as quickly as possible. But there’s really no reason why you as a conservative can’t get on the train without losing your conservative bona fides. In fact, the train would run so much more smoothly if you stopped blocking the tracks and got on it, so we could start having a meaningful debate with you on how to run it most efficiently. Either way, the American people are getting on this train, and it ain’t coming back.

The cool thing is that even if you don’t make this train, you can still catch the next one. There are daily departures, and enough room for everybody. You can, of course, keep standing on the platform, shaking your fist at everyone for going on this journey of their lives, wishing they were just standing there with you, pouting. But why be miserable and wish for everyone else to be miserable as well, when you could just hop on and travel to a better, greener, and cleaner future? The ticket is a bit of an investment, but the returns of co-creating a livable future for our children and grandchildren are of such immeasurable value that you can’t even put a price tag on it.

Just know this: whether you keep standing there waving your fist or try barricading the tracks, these trains are going to keep leaving in the same direction. They’re not stopping, and they’re surely not going backwards.

So what do you have to lose except for a little bit of partisan pride you’ve been holding on to for just a bit too long? Step on in, the doors are wide open. We’re really all together on this trip.


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.

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@ecocitybuilders.org

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.

Informal – Informal at the UN continued

March 29, 2012

As such, we were invited to join the discussion on how to solve these complex problems, not only with a keen eye toward the role cities will play in the final outcome document, but also to network and exchange ideas with other stakeholders on how to ultimately translate all the talk into specific action on the ground.

We were pretty excited to see the paragraph ascribed to cities in the zero draft of the document, which is the agreed upon starting point of the negotiations:

We commit to promote an integrated and holistic approach to planning and building sustainable cities through support to local authorities, efficient transportation and communication networks, greener buildings and an efficient human settlements and service delivery system, improved air and water quality, reduced waste, improved disaster preparedness and response and increased climate resilience.

Of course, by the time the UNCSD delegates had gone through their first reading of Section V (Framework for Action and Follow-up), a whole new picture appeared. Here just a small sample from the third day of informal consultations, as excerpted from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

On cities, CANADA supported the US proposal on sustainable transportation. NEW ZEALAND recommended maintaining resilient ecosystem services. The REPUBLIC OF KOREA introduced its proposal on including greener buildings in city planning. The EU reserved on Japan’s proposal to establish a platform to promote sustainable cities. Proposals for a new title included “Human Settlement, Sustainable Cities, Rural Development and Housing” (G-77/CHINA) and “Cities and metropolitan regions and opposed to extend it to rural development” (EU). The US suggested replacing “low carbon cities” with “sustainable cities” or “low emission cities.” The G-77/CHINA identified slum prevention and upgrading as key elements.

Delegates consulting on the text, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

It’s a little bit like a global sausage-making town hall, and actually quite amazing how courteous, efficient and fast-moving this process is, considering that it literally involves the entire world.

While the process is quite fascinating and I enjoyed my time sitting in the plenary, the real action for us happened in our major group meetings, side events, and casual meetings in the UN cafeteria, aka the Viennese Cafe. It’s in those meetings where NGOs and civic groups can get a chance to talk to some of the delegates and give their input on what should be included in the draft.

John Matuszak, US, meets with NGOs, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin


There’s obviously no guarantee that any of it will be included, or if it does, it may very well get deleted again at a later point in the negotiations, but just this morning at our daily major groups briefing, Nikhil Seth, Director for Sustainable Development at the UN, reiterated that civil participation is strongly encouraged and asked us to not get frustrated by the sometimes very arduous process. He likened it to a wave that kind of sucks you in and spits you back out, but ultimately will move us all forward.

There’s definitely a palpable excitement about this new commitment by the UN to include stakeholders from all walks of life and society. While most of the input may not make it into the final document, there’s no doubt that people at the highest levels are willing to listen to a broad range of ideas and let their thinking be inspired by the experiences and lessons from the ground.

For example, for us it was pretty cool to be invited, along with a group of other interested NGOs, to Swedish ambassador Staffan Tillander’s office, to discuss a possible ‘friends of the city’ network that could pool our knowledge and broaden our scope to make the voice of sustainable cities stronger.

Naomi, who is fluent in Swedish, had a chance for a photo-op with the ambassador.

This is really just the beginning of a non-stop process that will go on throughout the coming weeks, into June, and really, beyond the conference. Whatever language ends up in the final document, the real challenge will be to translate the words, intentions and treaties into action.

Sven Eberlein, Ecocity Media  sven@ecocitybuilders.org

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.