This Changes Everything

by Richard Register, Founder, Ecocity Builders

This is something of a continuation of my last article, with a whole new perspective.

You may remember I wrote about a book called Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Pillaging the Planet. Since then I’ve “met” The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein and bought her latest book from her. That one is called This Changes Everything and it’s about what climate change implies about rearranging our economics and politics—and more than that, maybe our trajectory toward ecological and political collapse on our lovely, rich and vital planet Earth. Emphasize this: collapse means essentially the death of practically everything we hold near and dear.

More on her book and related ideas later. First, just a reminder that “Extracted” was written for the Club of Rome, now 42 years after the Club sponsored the much misrepresented Limits to Growth study and subsequent highly controversial book of the same title. The authors of “Limits” suggested it would be better to face Earth’s mineral and biological limits, to do things differently, than keep going in the same manner, courting not “possible” but inevitable collapse from too much growth. Specifically, as said in the Foreword to Extracted, the original authors “recommended measures such as putting a limit on industrial growth and extraction of mineral resources. They also recommended sustainable practices in industry and agriculture, as well as measures to limit population growth.”

Well, that didn’t go over very well. As I wrote in my last article, those who thought infinite growth of everything economic on the finite Earth is the only measure of health (which are close to all university-trained and business and government employed economists) immediately bared down on anyone who would dare predict collapsing resources and systems in the 20th century. The only problem was that “Limits” said it would happen in the 21st century not the 20th. “Don’t panic quite yet, stupid. Re-read what we wrote” was the implied message to the climate deniers and fossil-fuels-till-they’re-gone pushers.

Ugo Bardi, author of “Extracted” put it simply and plainly in his Preface:

These problems [of resources collapse, climate change and mass extinction] can’t just be boiled down to the perils of “running out of something” or of modest increase in atmospheric temperatures. Instead they represent a complete transformation of the whole Earth’s ecosystem, generated by the human influence on the planet. So the call to action urged in the 1972 Limits study is becoming more and more urgent.

But now it’s 42 year later and time to panic.

Enter Naomi Klein. She was delivering a talk in Berkeley on the evening of the 29th of September. Her basic thesis in This Changes Everything and in her talk was that climate change is so dire we need to unite in ways we never have before across political and economic lines, left/right political affections and habits. Without abandoning her critique of capitalism, central to The Shock Doctrine, she in her new book and that night emphasized that socialists have been as severe in exploitation of nature as anyone else.  Now is the time to do things radically differently if our children are to have much of a future.

My earlier “panic” remark may hopefully turn out to be just a call to wake up to a few more possibilities than she has cited, some of them heartening. I think there is more positive there than even she has grasped for or found potential for in This Changes Everything. There are some perspectives that add a great deal to the positive side of a dangerous future. In my last article I mentioned, in the same spirit, that the graphs produced for the 1972 Limits to Growth didn’t include the massive and constant arrival on earth of a constant flux of energy from the sun that powers, through chlorophyll in plants, the entire enormously productive biomass of the planet. With the kind of solutions suggested by the Limits authors and her suggestions too, plus a few things I’ll shortly mention that they both miss, we may have a little better chance than otherwise.

What do I mean “things that they both miss?” “Extracted” fails entirely to mention city layout and design. She mentions the subject specifically only once, and in that mention features “urban design” along with recycling and other small steps as something we need to get beyond. She realizes we need to use climate change as a social justice solution that puts people and the politics of figuring out how to work together above all else. She does obliquely refer to the “ecocity” subject by referring to the benefits of not driving and switching to transit and bicycles, but her mention barely goes beyond “the mention that dismisses.”

The “mention that dismisses” I’ve noticed in planning (and design) public policy debates is the tactic that mentions a subject in public process but only in passing. Later if anyone says, “You didn’t even discuss this angle, option, policy or whatever,” the answer is, “Oh yes we did. Remember on the second day of the conference Howard brought it up in the third breakout session in the track dealing with bicycles…” or the like. Now the near silence on the subject is democratically justified and proven.

I’m sure, having now read This Changes Everything – a brilliant title I think, by the way – that she doesn’t intend to be dismissive of the subject. She just hasn’t paid much attention to it. And I also believe that she is right in using climate change as an opportunity to unite people of different political theory and economic persuasion. But she is lacking two important tools that could help her campaign to wake us up and get us on the track to the survival and resurgence on a healthy planet. They are the notion of the ecocity and the notion of exaggerated gamesmanship in economics and politics.

I should mention at the outset of explaining these concepts that Naomi Klein does cover solar and other renewable energy systems as crucial in solving climate problems and, later down the line, in uniting us all in a common cause of survival and renewal. She also covers the span of what was called in the 1970s “appropriate technologies” of recycling, conservation, organic farming and so on. And of course she deals with the positives in reducing the radical injustices of extreme inequality among us humans in terms of income and wealth. But she, as well as the Club of Rome, almost totally misses city and town design, layout and planning. Missing the largest thing humans create… well that’s a problem.


The ecocity represents what we build and implies also what we build with: whether it destroys much of the surface of the Earth and contaminates the atmosphere, causing climate disasters, or not. Maybe it doesn’t even need too, so severe is the threat of mineral depletion and resulting poisoning.

What we build with includes the minerals that turn into steel, concrete, glass and cut, sawed and constructed wood, and the entire supply chain of tools, fasteners, chemicals, paints and other coatings, machines, technologies, policies and habits that bring us our current sprawled out, car-dominated cities, towns and villages. In addition to the stuff of it all, the mineral/material stuff, there is the massive project of mining fossil fuels and burning them up to animate it all.

All this represents an economics and civilization based on massive use of material and energy from non-living, but, regarding energy, once-living sources. What ecocities imply by using the model of living organisms in their design and construction is an economics and civilization that recognizes the natural origin of all the above. That is, the minerals cooked up in exploding early stars and the energy from the sun powering chlorophyll. That investment alighting on Earth as nice, wholesome, everyday sunshine created the organic matter that became fossil fuels during the last 500 million years. But that complement of coal, oil and gas fuels we are burning up in just 200 or 300 years.

We humans will always need to use energy from somewhere. We could recycle most of our mineral wealth pretty much endlessly. But we need to wean ourselves from the diet of pass-through mineral and burn-it-all fossil fuels (and no doubt the radiations-soaked nuclear option) early history habit. That accomplished in our childhood, and over several generations if we pull it off, we will discover ourselves in a civilization based instead of the sun, plants, chlorophyll and only a very small component of non-renewable energy sources, if any such sources at all. We can use wood and biofuels, and other organic sources to make plastics and other amazing articles for a materially creative and compassionate civilization. We can still make concrete with solar energy and recycle lots of steel. And we will. If we don’t, we’ll radically impoverish the planet and possibly eliminate people along with the ever-lengthening list of plants and animals we are driving into extinction.

To attain such a biology-based civilization running on the sun’s gift to the Earth we will need to do a suite of things seen as a whole-systems solution of several parts. Without elaborating here, these solutions involve curbing and gradually reducing our gigantic population by intent rather than collapse; re-imagining and reorganizing agriculture to be far more organic and far less based on chemicals; and intensive use of energy, tweaking nature’s own processes of sequestration of carbon into soils and sediments, a strategy I call “natural carbon sequestration.” We’ll have to make deep investment into giving back to nature, recognizing how it has given us life and sustains us still as bad little children, most of us trying to grow up, and promising us, if not too abused by us, to continue giving us… everything.

Of course in Ecocity Builders and its circles we feature the reshaped city, the ecocity, as a indispensable part of the strategy. Those familiar with us know we mean the ecocity as the compact, ecologically healthy city, with its essential parts close together for efficient and productive functioning. Think renewable energy, energy conservation, pedestrian and bicycle and transit design, building soils with organic wastes and preserving and revitalizing biodiversity and that’s most of it.

Exaggerated gamesmanship

We all love games. But they can get out of hand.

The implications of this simple principle are profound, I believe, in terms Naomi Klein should know about since she is so deeply aware of and concerned about economics. The economic implications are immense. The competition between what is often seen as capitalism and socialism squaring off against one another ends up in endless injustices. It often leads to wars, cold and hot, assassinations, and slander to kill reputations and keep many would-be contributing good people marginalized.

People like games. There is no problem within reasonable limits. The problem comes when the competitions get more extreme. We seem to like the entertainment value of the more extreme. We have a weakness for flirting with danger while disproportionately respecting the skills of winning games. The best of the best in games become heroes throughout whole cultures and when it gets to economics and politics, there is nothing like a little violence once in a while to really get attention. Think Putin invading and annexing the Crimea coinciding with his meteoric rise in popularity to over 85% positive rating among Russians. Similarly, notice almost nobody in the Congress of the United States standing up to even discuss the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq based on what practically every one around the world, from UN weapons inspectors on the ground down to the citizen in the streets of the world, knew to be lies.

Getting a little deeper we can notice two very basic kinds of games and James Carse writes about them in a book that names them in its title: “Finite and Infinite Games.” He makes the point that games are activities we engage in voluntarily (or else they are not games but assignments). The finite game has rules and an end point, with a winner and loser at that point. We agree to those rules and jump on in. If we win, nice prizes from material ones to ego boosting ones, reward skill or luck. If we lose, we are free to try again. In business, academia, professions, arts and politics you want to keep winning until “success” is yours, usually measured in wealth but sometimes status, honor, reputation, or some mix of the above. The object is finality, knowing what’s what, and winning.

The infinite game is one in which the players are free to change the rules while playing and the objective is not to conclude but to keep the play going forever, throughout life. Since human lives overlap some of us play that game deep into the future, perhaps hoping to create the Third Reich that will last a thousand year, the American Millennium, everyone converted to Christianity or Islam, or maybe a healthy future on Earth enduring, and enduring and enduring. The infinite game is still a serious pursuit even though rules change; they have to change by persuasion and agreement or it’s not a game because a game has to be played by volunteers, not slaves.

Here’s where it gets interesting in Naomi Klein’s world of economic and political thinking: capitalism vs. socialism is a game of two sides. People play one emphasizing the individual as the highest attainment of evolution or God’s product to date – capitalism. The other says the collective is of highest value, that society progresses or sinks together – socialism. Capitalism believes in free markets as the most holy thing. Socialism believes in regulation and planning for the common benefit as most holy.

Creativity and hard work on the part of the individual to produce something to sell to the public justifies capitalist theory when the capitalist offers something the people like, want and buy. Thus, in capitalism, self-interest is the best route to the common good. However, socialists criticize, the material wealth generated by capitalists can accrue toward monopoly. The rich abuse workers and burn up too much of the world’s resources without sharing them. The individual capitalist uses his wealth to buy off those who might criticize by reducing their pay. So let us make the rules that share, the socialists argue.

Both sides are right and both sides are wrong. There is nothing wrong with being a decent capitalist offering a product or a service and taking a reasonable profit. And there is nothing wrong with insisting that we all share more equitably in both the rewards and in the deliberations leading to public policies regarding the economy. Capitalists worship the market. Socialists honor regulation. Both are needed, otherwise society is like a car careening forward (the power of the market to set prices and function smoothly) on the power of its engine. But without the guidance of the person at the wheel and the action of the breaks, if those functions are not performed, expect a crash and soon. And in fact that’s exactly what happened when capitalism crashed in 1929 and 2008 and “socialism” bailed it out in the form of government policy decisions and gigantic loans, interest adjustments and other banking moves. In the aftermath of 1929 that’s probably what saved us from fascism when most of the rest of the world thought it looked reasonable as a means out of a real jam.

Where both sides are wrong is in the exaggerated importance they give to their side of the pair of actions needed to progress. Both engine and breaks, forward energy and proper guidance and regulation, what capitalism and socialism champion, are needed.

The only trouble is, among finite gamers, you can’t get much more than ho-hum from the audience if you don’t pretend your side is superior and you turn cooperation into competition, and even better, real conflict. You can’t win the attention of those who might advance you in business, politics or elsewhere, or even those who might want to marry you, if you don’t get a little attention for the way you play the finite game. And only if you occasionally win and in general display your skill in the game. Get a little fanatic and absolute about your game and you can become a demagogue or the worshiper of a leader who is an exterminating angel in some religion or philosophy that insists on winning in a finite game that’s actually deadly: killing the opposition. Exaggerated gamesmanship can, and frequently does, lead to war.

Exaggerated gamesmanship in economics and politics is played within something that could be called capital economics. That’s capital economics, not capitalist.

First principle here is that our human-created economics are completely based on nature’s economics, and on earth that means dependent upon the sun, minerals, water from rain to oceans, air and biology of the planet. Early human economics appear to be gift economics in which the family or small band shared whatever was taken from nature. The first gift: mother’s milk to children. Then there was generally the man (somewhat specialized for the task) defending, killing game and bringing it home to share, and the woman engaging in foraging from nature and more dominantly transforming nature into artifacts and products on the home front.

Enter “the artifact list.” My first real job, when I was sixteen, was digging up Native American ruins with the Museum of Anthropology of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Out there in the mountains, forest and dry valleys, the culture that disappeared about 1,000 years ago produced a rather short artifact list. It consisted of bows and arrows, articles of clothing, tools for digging and scraping, the pit houses they dug and covered with logs, branches, twigs, leaves and dirt and lived in part of the time. Their fired pottery was the high tech of the time; their herbs, their medicine. And there was little else. Their artifact list could be written down on a single side of a single sheet of paper.

The artifact list of our material culture today includes so many things it would be impossible to physically lift and carry a complete book bearing the list. It would be too heavy. From Boeing 747 jet airplanes down to a tiny specialized screw. Those are two artifacts I choose to mention right now because I am on a 747 heading from China, where I was lecturing about ecological cities. Yesterday as the plane sat on the tarmac (an artifact) still attached to the jet way (another artifact) the captain announced over the in-plane speaker system (another artifact) that two gaskets (other artifacts) had been discovered to be loose and we needed a couple of screws (artifact) to fit where two had mysteriously disappeared before we could take off. United Airlines didn’t have the spare two screws but China Air did. So, the captain told us, we were in the process of negotiating to buy the two screws. Maybe we could pull it off. They did – sort of. But a mechanic apparently stripped one of the screws during installation. Anyway, for one screw (another artifact) or the pieces it was supposed to secure (two more artifacts) the entire flight was canceled and more than two hundred of us clamored onto two buses and a fleet of taxis and crossed half of Beijing to a hotel for the night and started all over again the next morning. Now I’m in a plane I hope has a good screw (artifact) holding the engine casing parts (two artifacts) together.

The meaning of all this is that the length of the artifact list is in some sense proportional to the size of the cities we create. The longer the list, the more people required for producing a variety of things, the larger whatever houses them—and that “whatever” is the city. Are they too big? Definitely the artifact list today has a massive quantity of nonsense items on it for useless entertainment (appropriately called “distractions” sometimes) and even many things designed explicitly for destruction: guns for police and criminals (as well as a few subsistence hunters), and airplanes, drones, bombs and warships to make sure our side is successful in securing the fossil fuels needed in the exaggerated gamesmanship of international economics—what Winston Churchill often frankly called dominance.

So… I offer the idea that gamesmanship is fine and entertaining within limits, but, as in infinite growth economics, when rendered extreme is extremely nasty in its implications. Maybe we should relax a little and think about what on our artifact list is really relevant to a healthy future. Could we play the capitalist/socialist game a little more reasonably? We will always be bickering about what is fair, as it will always be that some people contribute more than others to the social well being. But should we make such a big deal of it that some starve and others kill each other? The capitalist/socialist back and forth will always exist in terms of more or less for either of the two sides of the market/regulation balance, which is just fine. Back and forth can be like a dance and a pleasurable game between opposites, like partners swaying and flying about drenched in music. The my-religion-is-better-than-yours, or my-country, my-race… Well these things can get pretty destructive. But with a little tolerance turning into appreciation for difference it can be pretty wonderful. Is Naomi Klein right to say the climate change situation gives us a larger issue to understand, a larger, survival issue even to unite us all, including the other animals and plants on the planet? Yes.

Let my two charts try to speak for all this as a closing of this article.


Chart of resources extraction from 1972 data in “Limits to Growth,” published by the Club of Rome – as presented in Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.”

Chart of resources extraction from 1972 data in “Limits to Growth,” published by the Club of Rome – as presented in Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.”

Adding the effects of steady solar input and recovering biomass on the planet – the two overriding enormous positive forces to change our thinking toward a new reshaping of civilization “in balance with nature.” Yellow for the sun and green for biomass.

Adding the effects of steady solar input and recovering biomass on the planet – the two overriding enormous positive forces to change our thinking toward a new reshaping of civilization “in balance with nature.” Yellow for the sun and green for biomass.

 Richard Register can be reached at

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Remembering my friend Rusong

By Richard Register, founder, Ecocity Builders

His name is Wang Rusong, last name first in China, and Wang pronounced “Wong” – much softer in sound, as befits this wonderful man.

At five minutes after midnight on November 28 in a Beijing hospital my friend Wang Rusong died. I got the message only a few short hours later, California time, from my friend and ecocity architect Paul Downton in Australia. Rusong was one of the kindest, gentlest, most hard working, insightful, original, dedicated and effective, humble and important people I’ve even met. Stuffing so much positive into one person is quite remarkable. Well, that was Rusong. You could almost not notice him until you realized what he was up to, capable of, of the kindest heart yet with a determination of steel.

It was friendship at first sight – or rather sound. It was 1990 and the First International Ecocity Conference had ended the day before. I was at the empty office contemplating the chaos that took place there four days earlier as everyone dropped everything and evacuated for the heart of Berkeley where the real action was. We’d rented or commandeered seven locations for the conference in downtown and promptly forgot all about the command center that was to be the office. Now I looked around the scramble of random things left about from the hasty departure – papers, pens, calendar, posters, reminder notes taped to the wall…

The phone rang.


A soft but urgent voice came on the line, slight Chinese accent, slight musical lilt. It would sound the same for the next 24 years. Right off it said, “Is the conference still happening?”

“I’m afraid not. Yesterday was the last day. I dropped by the office just to clean up a little.”

“Oh no. I feel so lonely.”

“Lonely, why lonely?”

“I thought I was the only one and there’s this whole conference of people working on ecological cities.”

Rusong was 700 miles north doing post-doctoral research as a Visiting Professor in mathematics at Washington State University. He explained that for the last several years he had found no one of enthusiasm to listen to his thoughts about reshaping cities based on principles from ecology. I learned about all that later through wandering conversation – he never “bragged” about his accomplishments or pursuits. For example, as a leading ecologist in the country he had been selected by China’s national planners to evaluate the site for the proposed Three Gorges Dam in the early 1980s. He had come back with his usual broad perspective that took into account the communities there and recommended that the dam should not be built. It would displace two million people, saturate soils and destabilize steep slopes causing hundreds of landslides, muck up the river-come-300-mile-long-lake with silt and scum from erosion and upstream industrial and agricultural waste, and drive native species to extinction. All that happened of course. (Including the end on this planet, and anywhere else in the universe for that matter, for the Yangtze River dolphin, last seen or even “thought” seen around 2006.) But all that he accomplished – and dreamed of – was to be revealed to me in bits and pieces.

On the phone that day after the conference we learned a little about each other. I suggested, “Why don’t you come down here to Berkeley some time soon and we can spend some time together. I’ll give you a tour around and you can meet some of us. We’ll put you up in a little hotel…” He zipped on down less than two weeks later.

1. Rusong, Gar, R, #3E7D09C

In front of the Berkeley Ecology Center, 1990. Rusong is on the left, then Gar Smith, then Editor of Earth Island Journal, then me in one of my “Creek Critter” T-shirts, and Marci Riseman who would be a later President of Urban Ecology, the Berkeley-based NGO of which I was the first President.

Thus began our twenty-four year friendship. Rusong visited Berkeley two times in the next six months or so before returning to China. On one trip seven or eight of us went to look over Village Homes, the suburban paradise just west of Davis, California for suburbanites in love with their fruits, vegetables and bicycles. It’s definitely the greenest suburb development I’d ever seen, with its meandering back yard-linking bicycle and foot paths, absolute minimum city regulation width streets, solar greenhouse on almost every house, sandy bioswales in low spots for collecting storm water run off to slowly recharge the water table… We picked and ate scrumptious mulberries from an enormous tree, leaving every hand bright purple for the rest of the trip.

Our little two-car tour also visited architect Peter Calthorpe’s New Urbanist project south of Sacramento called Laguna West. Bill Mastin mentioned that the New Urbanist doctrine suggested highly mixed-use features such as at the community center of Laguna West should be within about a quarter mile of most of the housing. Access by proximity, a short walk away. But at Laguna West, he noted, artificial canals had been constructed and lake-like water features surrounded the community center instead of homes. Bridges connecting the housing to the center and stretching to low-density development around the meandering streets were easily bikeable but not so easily walkable routes to the otherwise useful commercial and cultural core. Mostly, everyone would be driving. Rusong, standing at water’s edge in Laguna West took one look and said, as he must have thought in the Three Gorges Valley around 1982, “Standing water not good feng shui. Flowing water much better.”

Many, many conferences

Rusong missed the First International Ecocity Conference but made it to Adelaide, Australia in 1992 for the second. Just before we were about to meet in the village of Yoff  outside Dakar, Senegal, for Ecocity 3, the US Congress Republicans fought off Bill Clinton’s new budget, temporarily shutting down the government. The cut in customs staffing at US international terminals meant Rusong suddenly couldn’t exercise his through-US ticket. He never made it to join us and was quite upset once again. But he himself with his crew from the Chinese Academy of Science hosted Ecocity 5 in Shenzhen, China in 2002. Rusong made it to Bangalore, India, 2006 and San Francisco 2008 and Istanbul, Turkey 18 months later in 2009. Then he started having bouts of illness – stomach cancer – and missed the next two, Montreal and Nantes. But every time I saw him, which was more than once a year average since then, he constantly said he was getting better.

Rusong and Maria Rosales, Pubic Information Officer of Curitiba, having a good time at the Dameisha Beach east of Shenzhen in 2002 during a respite tour from the Fifth International Ecocity Conference.

Rusong and Maria Rosario, Pubic Information Officer of Curitiba, having a good time at the Dameisha Beach east of Shenzhen in 2002 during a respite tour from the Fifth International Ecocity Conference.

What the Dameisha Beach looks like on a good day with a sharper focus camera than my replacement throw-a-way.

What the Dameisha Beach looks like on a good day with a sharper focus camera than my replacement throw-a-way.

Rusong was one of the founding officers of the Ecological Society of China (President or Vice President – I don’t remember for sure). Partially in that capacity, and through his position as Director of the Center for Ecological and Environmental Research at the Chinese Academy of Science, he was the driving force behind a series of ecology conferences to which he invited a small cluster of foreigners including myself. Eleven times he did this for me from 2000 to 2013, all expenses paid.

My stay at the Academy got me into trouble once when I talked about the virtues of the very spare but comfortable and graceful Science Academy’s Guest House where he hosted me once. The room was about twice as wide as the narrow bed but had a small bathroom, nice desk, chair, shelf, lamp and efficient layout with a balcony with one chair outside for the fresh air. Every morning I’d open your door to the hall and there would be a very large thermos of tea with cup. Propped against the wall was an issue of the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper supported by the government, which vice versa, the newspaper supported. Quite naturally it had very interesting articles you’d never find in The West. Some were answers to previously unanswered questions, some were new questions – also without locally supplied answers.

The way I got in trouble was that I touted the virtues of the humble but more than adequate accommodations during talk in Tianjin some years later. The subject of the preceding panel had been all about luxurious “green” hotels with enormous rooms and sumptuous, 90% unused trappings, with enough space for a badminton court. I said these designs had no notion of “enough” and the Chinese Academy of Science Guest House should be a much more serious model for genuinely “green” facilities. Silence. I wasn’t invited back.

Efforts to build

Rusong was dedicated not just to studying math, his first specialty. He researched ecology, cities, Chinese ancient philosophy, and ecocity theory while running a research facility and teaching graduate ecology and planning students, organizing conferences, and writing dozens of published scientific papers. He also worked hard to get things built. He became involved in four cities, two of which I’ll mention: Xiamen and Huaibei.

I was on a one month tour of China when Rusong called my host and said I had to leave a little early from Chongqing and rush to a special meeting in Xiamen. OK, I guess I’ll find out why when I get there. A beautiful Chinese woman met me at the airport with the largest bouquet I’d even seen. She handed me a note in the taxi and I said to myself, “Uh-oh. What’s this?” It requested me to please have a ten minute talk ready when I arrive at the luncheon. They were giving a prize to a really big developer. Well I’ll trust Rusong to find a good one.

I arrived on stage with everyone already eating and things started off immediately, no time for Rusong to further brief me. My talk was general but as usual unkind to sprawl development. What I didn’t know was that the audience was an assembly of about 200 people who had bought plots in a supposedly greener than usual suburban… sprawl. The audience clapped a little diffidently but Rusong got them cheerful again. Then he handed me the prize to hand to the developer, all in Chinese, which I don’t speak. All smiles at that point.

What was that all about, I asked Rusong at first opportunity. He explained he’d been having a hard time finding a developer with a really great completed project whose work he wanted to encourage. He was trying to support one that seemed to have a few good ideas in advance of the development so that they’d try harder and get a better development. At the post-luncheon reception for Rusong, myself, the developer and his senior staff, the developer shook my hand and said in Chinese (I was told) “Thanks for the prize.” It took me a little by surprise. I just smiled and executed one of those small bows used for such occasions in China. I could only hope the translation of my talk had been as diplomatic as possible. Apparently no feathers ruffled too much. Maybe some in that audience who looked a combination of puzzled and thoughtful might have had a few interesting ideas gestating in their heads.

I tell this story largely because I want to show you a picture. It’s of Rusong with three of his friends in the location just outside of Xiamen that was to become the developers’ project. The place could have been a slightly wetter, mountainous, rocky Arizona landscape. Rusong had put on some weight and had just had a “hard attack.” He was to lose that weight pretty fast. I told him, “Please don’t work so hard. We want you around a long time. We need you.”


China friends with Rusong, who is on the left, at the site of future development just outside of Xiamen, 2006.

The other city, Huaibei, I visited four times with Rusong. He added Kirstin Miller and Paul Downton, co-host with Cherie Hoyle of Ecocity 2 in Adelaide, to some of our entourages. We met with industrial diamond maker David Hall there who is interested both in mining technology and has a range of ideas for ecocities. We all gathered with the Mayor of Huaibei, his staff and his planning department who was to all appearances excited at the potential of ecocity projects in his city. We went on a tour of the local diamond making and coal mining industries. We were there largely to help think through a transition away from coal, which, said our hosts, they would start running out of in five to ten years. I was suggesting building a new section of town that would be a powerful model for energy conservation, a leadership position and hence a means to establish a kind of Curitiba-like energy in that location. It would be a go-to destination for pilgrims of the next generation cities, the sustainable, the “eco” cities of the future. Dream on. But I insist it is possible.

Then there in Huaibei came another Rusong surprise. We were touring one of the most intense facilities for manufacture I’d even seen. Standing, flaming, pumping, throbbing machines, literally ground-shaking machines larger than three or four story buildings sheltered inside a dark, brooding hangar that could house not just a 747 but a dirigible or two. Rusong said quite casually, “I worked here for six years as a shop floor foreman making these machines.” What! Rusong in the coal industry? “I was trying to make enough money to go back to school and get my doctorate,” he explained.

What came of the effort in Hauibei? I drew up my idea in a series of drawings for a small ecocity on the edge of one of their lakes and sent it in. Paul Downton actually got paid some and had a little back and forth with the Mayor’s office. Then more silence. Two years later I asked Rusong what happened. Our friend the mayor had lost the next election. The new mayor wanted to forget the last one so he could more easily build his own legacy.

Ecocity Builders Executive Director with Rusong at a fish farm near Huaibei, 2009.

Ecocity Builders Executive Director Kirstin Miller with Rusong at a fish farm near Huaibei, 2009.

What I owe to him in my work

Owing something to Rusong would be a strange idea. You don’t owe Rusong because he’s as far from a reciprocating investment as can be found. He simply gives. But in the usual way of helping others, I “owe” him a lot. Rusong was well established by the time I met him, solidly ensconced in the Chinese Academy of Science and a leading member of many societies around China. His material basics seemed to be well covered and I’m close to certain there was nothing he wanted from others other than to be part of a community of people trying to help improve things.

On some earnest friends suggestions Rusong ran for the Chinese Peoples Congress and became one of its 1,200 members. He mentioned this to me casually over a year after the fact. Something oblique made a political connection in the conversation and an, “Oh by the way” popped up. He seemed rather surprised and delighted. I didn’t think he was in the Communist Party, though by then I’d worked with quite a few people who were and had their business cards among my many. No, he was in an ecology party he said, something akin to the German Greens. The Congress, he said quite unselfconsciously, was advisor to the Party and the Central Government, but of more influence every year.

Rusong enjoyed the work. But then he was drafted for one job that was important but decidedly not enjoyable. The Great Szechuan Earthquake of 2008 killed 29,200 people and left 18,200 missing, presumed buried in the landslides and swept away in lake outburst floods. Rusong was rushed to the site to help plan the recovery efforts. Through tears he spoke of the shoddily constructed schools that had collapsed, killing hundreds of young students. What he had seen with his eyes…

I don’t just “owe” him for the 11 trips to important conferences in China plus dozens of introductions to all sorts of people all over the country; for risking the hosting – conferences are always tricky mustangs to ride – of one of our larger conferences: about 500 participants in Shenzhen. There, by the way, when Maurice Strong canceled due to heart surgery and several high ranking Chinese officials bailed, the City of Shenzhen reneged on a $20,000 payment they had pledged to the conference saying Rusong had not delivered as promised. So he fronted the money himself by tightening his center’s budget at the Academy of Science over the next couple years.

Not only all that, and for being utterly true to the cause, Rusong decided my book “Ecocities” needed to be published to help the movement in China. He got some of his most fluent grad students to translate it and moved it right through to publishing. Now it is probably my most important asset in getting me talks and consultancies in China.

In all my experience I can think of no other person who has so openly and generously just given and given and given. And with such a bright-eyed and ever so kind smile.

When I heard Rusong had died I seemed to fall suddenly into a great dark vacuum. “Oh no,” I said to myself, “I feel so lonely.”

Rusong portrait by Paul Downton, about 2008.

Rusong portrait by Paul Downton, about 2008.

Richard can be reached at

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Columbia Architects Conference, permaculture, and the infamous “bell curve”

Colombia architects conference and permaculture

Climate change is in the news today as I write and as the United Nations meets in New York City on the subject. Three-hundred thousand pro-future demonstrators in the street greeted the delegates. Down in Bogota, Colombia four weeks earlier it was also a major topic at the Universidad Piloto where the Architecture Program hosted their Tenth Annual International Conference entitled “Designing Nature, Humanity, and Culture: Permaculture for the Sustainable Development of Urban Habitat.” This was the second largest audience I’d ever faced, about 2,000 students and public guests. My largest speaking audience was 3,000 at a conference on design – not just sustainable but in general – in Seoul, Korea. Wonderful audiences in both cases, those enthusiastic, bright, young faces. The street in front of the large downtown theater was stuffed with eager audience when we speakers arrived, forcing us through the backstage door like some sort of star entertainers, which of course felt ego-gratifying. We made our way down dark hallways to back stage facing out on a cavernous empty space. Half an hour later even the balcony was almost completely filled.

Lining up for the talk at a large downtown Bogotá theater.

Lining up for the talk at a large downtown Bogotá theater.

The main speakers were from Colombia, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Brazil. From the United States came myself and Tony Brown, Director/Founder of the Icosa Institute in Prescott, Arizona. In the 1970s and 1980s Tony spent 13 years deeply involved in Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, most of that time as director of construction on site. I hadn’t known him well when I lived there in 1976-77, but much enjoyed getting to know him better in Bogota. At Icosa he and a bevy of faculty teach design and architecture from theory based in ecology to hands on workshops and tours to visit Arcosanti about 35 miles away.

Maria Ximena Manrique, one of our hosts, and Tony Brown, Director and Founder of the Icosa Institute in Prescott, Arizona.

Maria Ximena Manrique, one of our hosts, and Tony Brown, Director and Founder of the Icosa Institute in Prescott, Arizona.

Karina Santos, convener and host for the Piloto University de Colombia permaculture and architecture conference.

Karina Santos, convener and host for the Piloto University de Colombia permaculture and architecture conference.

Nice apartment complex seen through the gate on a narrow Bogota pedestrian street.

Nice apartment complex seen through the gate on a narrow Bogota pedestrian street.

The subjects covered were fascinating and the group of speakers and organizers as pleasurable as any ever to host one of my ecocity talks. There was a strong emphasis on permaculture, the study and discipline of a permanent agriculture based on similar principles to our own ecocity thinking in Ecocity Builders, but mainly focused on organic agriculture in a wholes systems context. Permaculture also addresses the built environment of the single homestead and small village to sometimes, though not often, the whole city. The conference also placed a strong emphasis on working with long-term indigenous village communities there in Colombia’s swampy Pacific coast where almost all buildings stand on posts in water, with boats and elevated paths, mostly wooden plank paths, uniting the villages. Also featured: rural areas in Mexico, favelas in Brazil, and in my show, from everyday urban living – BIG traffic jams – to ecocity initiatives in China. The talk on Cuba was especially interesting with urban agriculture and village development as subjects wedged between a number of comments on the effect of the United States’ embargo of the island. That looked a little perverse from their perspective, given that the United States’ largest trading partner and biggest banker is the largely Communist country of China.

The lead off speaker was Holger Hieronimi from Germany, now a longtime resident of Mexico, a practicing builder and farmer in the permaculture method. I enjoyed numerous roving discussions with him on our tours and at meals during which he introduced me to an impressive book I bought as soon as I returned to Oakland. If you were wondering if I’d ever get back to climate change, here is where everything collides: “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.” Holger recommended it forcefully with a serious determined look on his Werner Herzog face. If there’s a reason we are sinking into a morass of world wide problems, with climate change perhaps the reason with the most consequential implications is: everything. And that everything’s key physical source is extraction of minerals – by a slightly expanded definition.


“Extracted” – No joke, collapse is coming. How bad?…

There are the metals of various purities, through non-metallic mineral deposits such as borax, potash and salts, on down to raw gravel and sand for construction and landscaping. These are all extracted. Included in the book are soils, minded for living plants and the animals that graze. Then there are the fossil fuels: coal, oil, gas and various mediums from sandstones to sands permeated with fossil organic compounds called hydrocarbons. Mining those shales and tar sands gives us the energy to mine everything else we mine, plus run the machines of building and fertilizing crops of, killing pests of, and preserving and transporting and keeping cool and more or less fresh our foods. Plus the energy from extracted fossil fuels represents most of the energy for building our cities, towns and villages and running around in our transportation systems.

Climate change comes in as one of the gigantic multi-source outcomes from the multi-source problems of such extraction, plus associated life-style elements such as deciding to be small or large consumers, drivers in our vehicles of one type or another, weapons makers for real security or enhancing danger, injustice and violence in the world, and so on. Climate was not a big emphasis of the 1972 book “Limits to Growth” that made the Club of Rome famous. But the overall “bell curve” pattern that can be represented on a graph for human collective consumption of mineable materials represents the aggregated overall pattern leading to societal collapse. Ugo Bardi, author of “Extracted,” is a present-day member of the Club of Rome. As you will see, he defends the earlier book in his of copyright 2014.

Chart of resources extraction from 1972 data in “Limits to Growth,” published by the Club of Rome – as presented in Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.”

Chart of resources extraction from 1972 data in “Limits to Growth,” published by the Club of Rome – as presented in Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.”

By 1973, people were in a panic about “Limits to Growth.” Rather than think about strategic methods to change the course of history, human security and even evolution of life on Earth in a positive direction, people went not just into denial but attack mode. I’ll show here in this newsletter a chart from “Extracted” what those long-term trends looked like according to the 1972 data. A reminder first, though: the study that led to “Limits to Growth” was accomplished by dozens of the best scientists in the relevant fields and vetted by other scientists not involved in the study or resulting book. Just to put it in the text here, the growth curves that climbed, topped out then collapsed in a bell shaped curve were 1) industrial output, 2) food production, 3) population and, lagging a little, 4) pollution. The planet’s resource base in geological strata and soils – to be mined according to our expanded definition of mining – moves in a gently downward curve from the left side of the graph where we have abundance, dropping ever faster until most of our economically viable resources are gone, then leveling out at a level best called scarcity.

I’ll add a quote here from research in my present writing project, my book called “World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build.” Yes, some things, unlike the fossil hydrocarbons that are burned, can be recycled. But even when resources are tied up in our various products, there is an attrition rate headed toward no available virgin resources, which I call the Rust Factor. This is the most concise and dramatic comment I’ve heard on that subject, from the college text book “Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities” by Fellmann, Getis and Getis. They say the following.

The extractive industries depend on the exploitation of minerals unevenly distributed in amounts and concentrations determined by past geologic events, not by contemporary market demand. In physically workable and economically usable deposits, minerals constitute only a tiny fraction of the earth’s crust – far less than 1%. That industrialization has proceeded so rapidly and so cheaply is the direct result of an earlier ready availability of rich and accessible deposits of the requisite materials. Economies grew fat by skimming the cream. It has been suggested that should some catastrophe occur to return human cultural levels to a pre-agricultural state, it would be extremely unlikely that humankind ever again could move along the road of industrialization with the resources available for its use.[1]

Most people not tuned in to environmental activism and also concerned for resources have heard a bizarrely twisted version of what the “Limits to Growth” actually said. Those wanting to see their wealth, or in many more cases probably, their simple comforts grow, closed their doors of perception and turned off their internal reasoning processes almost just upon hearing anyone say growth couldn’t just go on forever. GDP growth still remains the Bible and fighting Koran of the mainstream economists’ religion too. This has to lead to collapse. It’s no joke.

But what Ugo Bardi has to say about the denial, the assault of misrepresentation and outright lies is this:

The story of “Limits” is so drenched in urban legends that it would take an entire chapter to unravel it, or even a whole book (which has been written). Here, we can just mention the fact that almost all the legends still told today on the subject are just that: legends. It is not true that “Limits” predicted that the world would run out of some specific resources before the end of the 20th century. It is not true that it predicted imminent famines. It is not true that the study didn’t use historic data as the basis for its models. It is not true that it was the result of an evil plot by multinational companies to exterminate inferior races and take over world government. In short, the study was not wrong.[2]

Now please refer to the first graph reproduced here. Pretty discouraging. It looks like sometime in the early 21st century, give or take a decade, we are going to hit one or more of the tops of the bell curve graph trajectories.

But now for my point to differ with the authors of “Limits” and with Ugo Bardi. The graph may feature some inexorable truths about our planet’s resources. But the 1972 authors and Mr. Bardi too, were not looking at all the mega conditions on the planet. The first of the two main ones, I’d maintain, is the absolutely enormous flood of solar energy that alights half the planet at any given time. The second is the stunning invention by life itself called chlorophyll in plants that takes that solar energy and captures it for use in the entire biosphere. This is not only all us living things on earth but the fossil hydrocarbons in soil and mineral deposits as well. So these need to be added to the graph for an even more realistic notion of what our future may hold.

The Club of Rome and Bardi have been looking at the dire coming circumstances as a glass half empty and going down. I’m offering the idea that at a steady rate the sun and biosphere are constantly streaming energy and biological matter into the glass, too. So what I’ve added, in the second graph, is a strong horizontal line representing what I call the “solar constant” and a line representing biomass, meaning the quantum of living matter using that solar energy source and working hard to get the planet back up to both maximum biomass and biodiversity – for such is the most basic tendency of life, the most basic pattern of evolution on Earth. So mine is not exactly a full-glass vision, but one that integrates both the bad news and the good gifts of nature on the planet.

Adding the effects of steady solar input and recovering biomass on the planet – the two overriding enormous positive forces to change our thinking toward a new reshaping of civilization “in balance with nature.” Yellow for the sun and green for biomass.

Adding the effects of steady solar input and recovering biomass on the planet – the two overriding enormous positive forces to change our thinking toward a new reshaping of civilization “in balance with nature.” Yellow for the sun and green for biomass.

You will notice in my amended projections that I think we are going to have some really bad times coming, with population collapse being probably the most elemental symptom. I mean collapse by neglect of overpopulation, not calm reduction to sane levels by human intention and design. We also face political chaos resulting from the compounding problems represented by the bell curves on the graph and the resources curve headed downward.

But as humanity learns the lessons of unsustainable demand, the depths of bad news need not be as bad or total in collapse as “Limits” projected and Bardi expounded for sometime this 21st century. But learning is the key. Maybe there could be permanent recovery, rejoining the other life forms in patterns of normal to healthy evolution. We would then see some version of what I’ve plotted as the beginnings of that post-collapse resource recovery.

Why did so many people reject “Limits” so violently? Maybe, as I originally thought, because of greed and desire for un-hassled comforts. But part of it was the “fault” of the authors in the first place by not considering the enormous two resources I’ve cited here: massive solar energy income and staggering biological power for life on Earth in its full richness.

There are two other “failures” too, though we could call them innocent oversights given the preoccupations of everyday life and overwhelming political problems that seem to be always with us. The first is an accurate sense of how long things take to mature, so to speak, and the final one for this essay, has to do with ecocities.

The last time I saw Ernest Callenbach, “Chick” Callenbach to his friends, I didn’t know he had very recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I thought it would be fun to travel with him to Martinez, California to see the famous beaver dams right there in the middle of the small city. I was eager to spend time with my friend, author of “Ecotopia,” the 1975 novel about an imaginary country ruled by society’s laws in turn ruled mainly by nature’s laws. The trip with Chick was 45 minutes each way on the train, which I always enjoy, trundling along the shoreline of the beautiful San Francisco Bay. After staking out the beaver dams we enjoyed a long wandering conversation lunch at a very good Mexican restaurant. But what I remembered most was a comment Chick made on the train about his book and the predictions it implied.

“Ecotopia” was a fantasy about Northern California, Oregon and Washington seceding from the US and setting up an ecologically informed civilization – from farming methods right up to city design, inclusive, of course, of the cultural proclivities of Ecotopians and courting and mating rituals of the locals. It was written in the early 1970s and finally made print when Chick gathered a few friends to invest in it and self-publish. Later it became a counter culture classic with several more mainstream publishers in the deal.

“Ecotopia” imagined changes coming on strong in the 1980s and 1990s. Those didn’t happen. His famous last words on that train ride that ring down to me through the years are “Things take longer than one thinks.” But if there ever was a hopeful vision, in many ways he got that right, if too fast for the way things usually work out. Of course Ecotopia may never happen. But we can try – unlike some version of the “Limits” graph that approaches relentlessly.

The other thing missing from both “Limits” and “Extracted” is the ecocity. It is not missing from “Ecotopia” however, even if Chick’s version and mine have some minor differences. The principles are basically the same. One might ask how could people miss that existing cities exemplify radically different impacts on resources and nature depending on the way they are organized and function? Why not pay attention to that? With old European city cores, that started as pedestrian designs, using on the order of a third as much energy and land per person as sprawling American car cities, we are looking at around a 66% reduction in demand for both land and energy. Are we really seeking solutions to climate change problems? 66% right off the top is what’s known as real money. As I’m writing this article, everyone who cares about climate change is clamoring for renewable energy sources, mainly solar and wind. But I search the newspapers in vain for “urban design” or “city layout,” or “the big demand side solution is far better city design, cities being the largest creations of our species.”

Does “Extracted” have anything to say about cities? Searching for the answer to that question is one of the two main reasons that I read the book immediately – and carefully – upon learning about it and arriving home. The answer: absolutely not. Amazing. On and on it goes.

Bardi’s book is 347 pages and the only things that could be considered even tangential to saying something is wrong with city design and layout we find on just two pages. Again, keeping in mind that cities are the largest creations of our species, here is his list under the topic “simplifying lifestyles”: “…eating less energy intensive foods, using public transportation instead of cars [ecocity design connected but not explicit], avoiding plane travel and long-distance vacations, Sharing large equipment (like cars) [a statement tending to accept cars, that is, actually antagonistic toward the notions at the core of reshaping cities for sustainability]…, and “focusing social and business interests in a relatively small local area.”[3] That last one again hints at but doesn’t hone in on the target. On the next page he does ask, “Why not move closer to where you need to go and walk there?” Good opening question showing there is something of an insight lurking about, but the answer is that the vast majority of us can’t do that until we design and reshape cities so we actually can.

You can reach Richard Register at

[1] Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities, Tenth Edition, Fellmann, Getis and Getis, Mc Graw-Hill, 2008, p.282

[2] Ugo Bardi, Extraction – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet, Chelsea Green, White River Junction,Vermont, p. 168

[3] Ugo Bardi, Ibid., p. 232

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Happy Birthday, Codornices Creek Daylighting and Orchard!

Happy Birthday!

Twenty years ago, toward the end of September 1994, work started on the liberation of Codornices Creek. This creek, comprised of four healthy tributaries becoming one stream near the base of the Berkeley Hills, is the second largest in the Berkeley area. For 50 years it was buried under asphalt between 8th and 9th Street on the Berkeley/Albany border. About eight feet above the forlorn lightless waters in their concrete box culvert were parked oil-dripping cars and a vacant lot covered in 8-foot high fennel. Couldn’t see into the fennel forest, or once in it, out of it; a real dry-land jungle. Savory, if you like licorice flavor or smell.

This time the bulldozers were on our side. In fact the operator who dug the rough trench to create the small valley the creek now flows through was so delighted to be “building” a creek that for the first time in his life he worked for half pay.

1. 1944. Where we sit

This photo from 1944 shows the new housing for shipyard workers and the rail line taking them to work in Oakland or Richmond where Liberty Ships – freight – were being built for the Second World War. At the time no one knew when the war might end. The creek now runs where the blue line is and for those who have visited, our benches where we often sit are where the pink arrow points.

Nice to have the bulldozers on our side. The operator was delighted with being able to “build” a creek and so worked for half his usual rate.

Nice to have the bulldozers on our side. The operator, Pete Van Valkenburgh, was delighted with being able to “build” a creek and so worked for half his usual rate.

Let’s see, to do the math, I’ve been there most Saturdays in the first couple years and Sundays after that, averaging about 35 times a year puttering about watering orchard trees, thinning the natives for maximum biodiversity, planting native trees, bushes and flowers, raking the path, often with company, sometimes without. What’s missing are weeks when I was traveling or when there was a nice steady rain. A very heavy rain and I hurried over to see the rushing water. Twice I found the stream leaping and flooding into the streets of University Village where dwell 4,000 UC Berkeley students, their spouses and children, most of them from foreign countries. At 35 times a year that’s 20 times 35 equals approximately 700 trips to the creek. My home away from home.

Seven months out from start, sweeping up for Earth Day, 1995. The water in the photo is not the creek proper yet. At the upper end we had not connected it yet. What we see is water seepage from the high water table – a linear spring.

Seven months out from start, sweeping up for Earth Day, 1995. The water in the photo is not the creek proper yet. At the upper end we had not connected it yet. What we see is water seepage from the high water table – a linear spring.

The history of Codornices’ rejuvenation goes way back to 1980 when several of us woke up to the wonders of urban creek “daylighting” – bringing buried creeks back to the world of the sun and moon, native species and the children who always love creeks – another native species. In 1980 our founders crew was engaged in trying to convince the city of Berkeley to open Strawberry Creek, Berkeley’s central and largest creek. It was a battle, but a speedy one by today’s standards. Santa Fe Rail Road had donated their old right of way to the city – what to do with it? The creek ran in a thick arch concrete culvert right underneath.

After a few reputation-enhancing creek clean up events and a number of city hearings in rapid succession, in one year we’d secured from City Council instructions for the city’s “Design Section” (I believe it was called) of the City Public Works Department to provide drawings for two conceptual schemes, one with an open creek, one with a closed version. Also desired were basketball courts, some small children’s playground equipment, and a linear landscaped park where the tracks were to be pulled up.

The decision came at a public meeting I attended with the other first activists including Carole Schemmerling, who went on to found the national organization based in Berkeley called Urban Creeks Council. Anne Riley, who was recently brought on to the staff at the State of California Water Resources Department, was there as was a long time creek fan named Dimitri Stepenoff. Dimitri had introduced me to an article from several years earlier called, “Fly Fishermen of the Berkeley Hills.” Really?! I still have a copy. Once, the ever-so-true story goes, there were salmon spawning on the UC campus and on up Strawberry Creek Canyon. Also at the meeting were the two enthusiastic creek-loving landscape architects working for the Design Section: Gary Mason and Doug Wolfe. The most famous attendee was Berkeley’s Dave Brower, saver of millions of acres of wilderness throughout the US, being his usual impassioned, elegant, poetic self.

It wasn’t going to be a slam-dunk. Some people were convinced their children would drown if creeks were opened—never mind streets with hurtling cars covering 1,500 times as much of the city (thirty-three years out and no one has drowned yet). Others were convinced the open stretch would become a garbage dump. The representative from Public Works kept saying creeks were a high maintenance item.

But the decision was positive for the creek. I think because an alert woman living on Shattuck Avenue stood up to speak: “You know [looking at the man from Public Works] I’ve lived for many years now at Live Oak Park right next to Codornices Creek there, and I’ve seen workers form Public Works trimming the trees and bushes, mowing the grass, picking up litter… But I have never seen them ever doing anything down around the creek.” All eyes turned to the Public Works representative as he cleared his throat and said, “Well I’ve been under the impression creeks are a high maintenance item,” at which point a sly smile spread through the assembled creek fans. The national movement for creek daylighting was off and running. (I wish I’d thought to get her name. If you know her please notify me.)

As far as we know, the opening of Strawberry Creek in 1981 was the first liberation of a once buried urban creek in the US. Now there are hundreds.

So the vote went our way, money was allocated and within a year the deed was done. Things moved as fast then as urbanization in China today. Now we have a happily flowing, nobody drowning, clean and sparkling lovely little creek named after the wild strawberries that used to grow on its banks (maybe still do somewhere) right in the middle of town.

The creek comes back to life, about 2008.

The creek comes back to life, about 2008.

Fourteen long years later Carole activated again and negotiated with all relevant authorities from Berkeley, Albany, the Corps of Engineers, State Fish and Game and I don’t even remember the others, and with a property owner wanting to build a small office building right next to a buried section of Codornices Creek. With support of Urban Creeks Council and Ecocity Builders it all went through to approval. The owner/builder rearranged his plans moving the parking lot off the creek and 20 years ago today, even maybe exactly as I write, we started work. I was in charge of the “construction” project and worked eventually with over 375 other volunteers. Now I go back to do a little maintenance work for fun, watching the seasons and wildlife come and go. This year a red tailed hawk took up residence in a big tree there and the largest steelhead trout I’d seen at about two feet – enormous – chose to end its ocean-going life there in one of the deeper pools.

It’s beautiful. I love it. Come visit. But if you do, write or call up because I am often traveling these days. or 510 444-4508. Show up one Sunday between 11:00am and 1:00pm and I’ll give you a tour. But beware: I might put you to work with some clippers and a rake, gloves provided.

Life’s a bit hectic for me right now but I’m sure that in spring with the wildflowers blooming and fruit trees budding we will have a proper birthday party.

Where a parking lot used to be. Emily Wright, frequent volunteer and creek fan, reads a book at the benches on the edge of our orchard.

Where a parking lot used to be. Emily Wright, frequent volunteer and creek fan, reads a book at the benches on the edge of our orchard.

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Notes from Summer Travels, 2014

by Richard Register

To begin with, a conclusion: China could be the first country to model a “complete” ecocity project. Despite the adoption in bits and pieces of the ecocity model, nowhere have I seen a complete ecocity development project or what we sometimes call an “ecocity fractal” or “integral project” up and running.

I’ve been drawing models of these projects for years. They are places from about the physical footprint of two city blocks (with pedestrian street and plaza) on up in scale that are fully functional, full-on ecological/economic synergistic communities. That is, they have housing, commerce, offices, education, food growing, and rooftop amenities with the best local views of nature and town. They have some product-making, proper response to local sun angles, seasons and weather and are connected with foot, bicycle and rail, powered by renewable energy and replete with best, cleanest building materials. They conserve water while contributing next to zero to air pollution, recycling assiduously and building soils and biodiversity. All that to be three-dimensionally organized and car-free, that is, designed around the human being, not the money, advertizing and lobbying of the auto and oil industries.

How remarkable it would be to finally see a full realization of this. Who will be ready to lead the world and take that last step?

The City 7 highly mixed use project in Changwon, South Korea does get about 75% of the way there. China, too, looks to be in the running for first-ever integral project.

Why am I betting on China? China has the largest population in the world, is urbanizing like crazy and is the only government to be promoting ecocities by name, even using the word ecocity in new cities’ official names. Promising connections are starting with Wang Rusong, friend since 1990, of the Chinese Academy of Science, organizer and host of the Fifth International Ecocity Conference. Wang is the fellow who got my book, “Ecocities,” published in China. Connections are continuing with Fan Bin, President, and my other friends at C&P Architecture in Beijing and Qiu Baoxing, recently retired Vice Minister of Housing and Urban Rural Development, now Vice Chairman, Committee on Population, Resources and Environment, Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference and President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies.


I’ll start there at the end of spring, traveling to the ENN energy company with Ruby Yangxue, my general assistant for most of my travels for talks and consulting in China. With us too is Jai Ma, my translator. Both Ruby and Jai Ma were found for me by C&P Architecture of Beijing. I did a three-hour presentation for ENN Group, including an hour of discussion with chief engineering and executive staff, plus lunch. At lunch I asked ENN Vice Chairman, Gan Zongxue, where he had heard of me such that he’d invite me there to Langfang for the meeting. He’d read my book, “Ecocities.” How’d he find out about that, I asked. He said, sitting on the other side of me, it was from his Chief Information Director, Wei You Shuang. I turned to my right and asked that man. “Well, I was browsing in a book store and found the book. It looked interesting so I bought it,” he said. “That would never happen in the US!” I replied.

ENN produces fuel gasses and liquids from underground coal in-situ, in other words, without removing the coal to above ground. They use the coal to generate energy and provide transportation fuels. When powering various factory processes the company bubbles the “waste” CO2 through water to feed algae that in turn produce biofuels, getting two uses out of the same carbon. The carbon does enter the atmosphere but only after two uses, greatly upping system efficiency. ENN is also moving rapidly into solar electric panels sold in China, Western Europe and the US. With their profits they have moved into creating hotels and a tour cruise line. I suggested they could build small ecocity towns around such hotels. We are following up with some communications but whether we get there or not, we shall see.


With a little help from our friends at Novatek in Utah (inventor and industrialist David Hall) and the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation in Laguna Beach, California (philanthropist Ron Chilcote), Ecocity Builders hosted Latha Chhetri, Chief Urban Planner for the country of Bhutan. Over three weeks she and I traveled to visit David in Salt Lake City and Provo, to Los Angeles for considerable touring including with a visit to nearly car free Avalon on the island of Catalina. In our Oakland office she gave a full-capacity talk to around 55 of us that inspired all present: Bhutan, home of Gross National Happiness and possible long strides forward for ecocities. At Los Angeles Ecovillage she also presented to a capacity house of fascinated urban ecovillagers and their guests.

In Salt Lake City we paid a visit with David to the enormous conference center of the Church of Later Day Saints, of which he is a member. The horizontal expanse of the 21,000 seat interior with relatively low ceiling and skylight illumination was stunning. More so yet, there was an artificial creek system popping up in ponds and fountains on the roof graced by native plants that ran from upstream to down with plantings to reflect the mountain ecology to the east and the plains to the west. There reflected on the break in the city topography between the steeper slopes and gradual plane of the grass, shrub and desert landscape slopping to the Great Salt Lake. Even more stunning, a waterfall plunged from the roof to a pond that then became a creak running through City Creek Center, a shopping center evoking the original now long-buried creek. In ecocity style, that commercial district featured multi-level linked architecture, bridging over streets and creek (admittedly artificial on a bronze plaque celebrating its construction). Not mixed use, but structurally complex and featuring a very natural looking creek system with native fish included.

At David’s Novatek laboratories and factory he and his chief architect, Ben Jensen, gave us a tour and presentation on their ecocity ideas – urban centers car free and including high production agriculture. They have imagined an enormous number of innovative design twists such as multiple use of the same structures as whole sections of a room lift into a space reserved in the ceiling, which opens up like the doors to the wheel wells of an airplane, while other room divider walls, furniture and appliances descend into the same space. A highlight was to see, sparkling under a low power microscope, the very first industrial diamonds, which were invented by David’s father, Tracy Hall, in 1954. David himself makes industrial diamonds and drilling equipment and has over 300 US patents and a staff of patent lawyers trying to keep up with his (applied) imagination.

Richard, David, Lattha

Richard, David and Latha with protective eye gear for watching a tiny industrial diamond moving back and forth in a flat plane across and wearing down an enormous rock as heavy as a large car, cutting the stone. It looks everything like a record player needle on its arm crossing a 33 rpm record. That’s at the Novatek lab and factory where the diamonds and drills are made and the ecocities according to David’s schemes are designed. Always testing for harder diamonds.

Latha got a serious lesson in American car dependent sprawl when we went shopping for a tomato and an avocado to make a nice couple of sandwiches. We wandered suburban Provo, Utah where Novatek’s guest house was located, and spent two and a half hours before achieving our goal. I admit we started about almost 5:00pm on a Sunday evening, but still it took that long? Then we had to remember our way home in the dark.

Then off to Avalon on Catalina Island and an appointment with the chief planner there. Latha and I and the regional guide for our trip, Paula Berlin, friend from Arcosanti, conferred with perhaps the least curious government official I’ve ever met. That is, more or less “conferred.” Over an hour in her office and she never asked a single question of Latha, head of urban planning for a whole country, and much less the fascinating and beautiful Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the mouse that roared about happiness over mass production and consumption, perhaps the most consequential concept of the century. She didn’t ask me a question either and perhaps I’m no slouch for ideas and experience some city planners might find a little more than a bore. To avoid embarrassment I won’t mention her name. But, we learned quite a bit about Avalon and Catalina, the only community in all of California that gets to decide its own car policy. Otherwise the state and car interests dictate.

Fortunately our host, Kathleen Carlisle at the Old Turner Inn was full of information and questions that led all over the place, literally. She was a born and raised there, expert in the history of town and island and volunteered to drive us in her electric golf cart around most of the city and out to the city recycling and landfill site a few miles down the coast. Later we traveled to the southeast, to water sources and to our delight, to a natural history museum up the valley west of town. We went to the in-city museum the day before but were disappointed to find only movie star trivia there: Charlie Chaplain and Elvis frequented the place and Natalie Wood apparently fell, jumped or was pushed and drowned in a drunken haze with two men vying for her attentions there. Hmmmm…. How the people, rattle snakes and ironwood trees got there interested me more, with info at the nature museum ready and waiting. The answer: during the Ice Ages (which ones or one I don’t know) when the ocean was hundreds of feet lower, by slithering, maybe walking if there soon enough, and by way of birds and wind carrying seeds.

Absolutely stunning to learn was that Native Americans with no metals and only stone tools could build boats of planks from the local ironwood (which is so hard and dense it sinks, not floats, on water) to make the storied “Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea” (The Four Preps’ song, 1957) to the distant mainland. I could barely see the distant mountains beyond Los Angeles through the salt haze that hovered over the choppy waves. The Native peoples caulked the planks with stiff petroleum globs washed up on the beach, I learned from Kathleen and the museum. The planks must have wracked and twisted with the pitch and roll of heaving swells while the ancient mariners paddled furiously all day and night. How on Earth could they do that? What sort of courage was demanded to trade with the mainlanders? But they did, as archeology tells us from products found from both sides made the trip. Just amazing.

The other observation gets us back to the near total absence of cars on the island and in Avalon. They simply decided the town was so cozy and nice, cars would wreck it and the tourism that employes most of the locals. From the head city planner we learned that if you lived there and put your name on a list that took 12 years to get around to you, maybe you were eccentric enough to be one of the few allowed to drive one of the things. Otherwise there were only a rare few ancients among the golf cart-sized vehicles, plus some service vehicles like small pick ups and some somewhat larger trucks for hauling, and a couple of ancient futuristic looking streamlined buses for tours. I actually didn’t see a single conventional car.

But my biggest impression took me back to Beijing of all places. Just two weeks before I’d been in the narrow streets of the old town and it seemed from just one year to the next the place had gone almost silent, except for human voices. Most of the motor bicycles, small carts and small cars had suddenly gone electric. They were moving slowly, weaving in and out of people walking and bicycling and progressing ever so quietly between the old walls re-missioned as new cafes, small hotels and businesses, residential units, arts galleries and small plazas. I saw a wedding procession for what looked like two young office workers with everyone on flower bedecked bicycles. I recalled the quiet of the Beijing streets because many of the Avalon golf cart-sized vehicles were a nasty, loud pain in the ears, and late at night too. We have a vehicle size lesson to learn from Avalon and Avalon has an electrification lesson to learn from Beijing. And that’s some of my peculiar impressions from that part of the visit.

Why did Latha, chief urban planner for Bhutan, visit on her way back home from a professional enhancement study fellowship for planners at MIT? Because last year I spent almost a month in Bhutan working under Ms. Chhetri and urban designer Tshering Dorji as a semi-independent consultant. During my time in Bhutan I provided, drawings, maps, plans and policies I think might be helpful there, and hence, “there” being powerfully unique with their GNH program (Gross National Happiness). Perhaps there is another opportunity to bolster the ecocity movement around the world. China and Bhutan could hardly be two such different countries, China with 2,000 times as many people rapidly urbanizing and Bhutan with barely as many as San Francisco’s population, a country almost paranoid about growing too fast. To me it’s a fascinating race which country will stride out in the lead.

China, again

And so… back to China barely four weeks after the last trip there. Once more C&P Architecture took me on the rounds, and this time the tour was paid for mostly by Urban Environment Design Magazine, better known as UED. I visited four cities and gave talks in all of them. ­Beijing and Shenzhen I’d been to before. New to me was Changchun, about 175 miles north of North Korea, with unforgiving cold winters, and Xi’an, famous in the central far West for the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor. Population is 8 million for Changchun and 6.5 million people for Xi’an.

In Changchun the chief city planner for the City’s Institute for Urban Planning and Design, named Fang Fei, had read not just my “Ecocities (2006)” but also “Ecocity Berkeley (1987).” What a surprise! He gave me and my traveling companions a one hour talk and another hour went by in lively discussion. He tantalized me some saying they have locations where they would like to try several small ecocity suburbs connected to the main city by rail, bicycle and walking paths, inviting me to become involved there. Exciting! We shall see. Interesting tidbit: driving down a random street I noticed a large complex with the sign over the entrance: “Air Force College.” I asked about it. “That’s where the Chinese astronauts who went into orbit studied,” said our local guide.

Changchun planning staff, RR

Here Ruby is 3rd from left, Fang Fei is 5th from left and I’m 6th with much of the planning staff of Changchun.

In Xi’an I did no tourism, missed the low-fired warriors exhumed from their mass grave beneath the farming sod, buried for 2,200 years and uncovered to an astonished world in 1974. But I did visit the offices of the semi-governmental, semi-business firm called China Architecture Design and Research Group. Hard to conceive, my guide there said most of the public buildings in the whole country are designed in the Research Group’s facilities. The hundreds of photos on the wall, almost all of them in the strange architect’s perspective in which the vertical lines, if extended, run parallel rather than converging toward a point high above. You might be familiar with that: buildings with flat roofs create an impression of the closest corner rising to a sharp point. Why this is preferable to just regular photos I don’t know. What I do know is with so many large modern buildings  displayed on the hallway walls I was dizzy before I got to the lecture hall for my talk.

My Shenzhen meetings were even more stunning in their possibilities. I learned that China Vanke was the largest builder of residential property in China, at 200 million square meters a year.

Excuse me? 200 million square meters?

That would be approximately 2 billion square feet. The two World Trade Center towers that went down on 9/11/2001 totaled “only” 11 million square feet of developed floor space. Are we seriously talking about this company building 182 times that floor area every year? I was assured that was correct. Double checking on the internet, everyone agreed it is the largest development outfit in China. So I sat down to discuss ecocities with my friends from C&P and UED and Alex Qian, Director of China Vanke’s Urban Research Institute, with a sense of the responsibility to make a few suggestions. About twelve of us, including several from his office dug into why ecocities are important and the many things they can deliver all at once, like a healthy future. This requires follow up! (This I did one week after returning. Now to see what happens next.)

I skipped mentioning my first meeting, in Beijing. Ruby picked me up at the airport, we dropped off my bags at a hotel, then went straight to a meeting with Qiu Baoxing. I started off saying, “I hear you retired from your position as Vice Minister for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development. What are you up to now?” (I noticed he was still in the same office as last time I went to his work place, in a large national government building.) He smiled and said, oh, he’ll retire in maybe ten years. Meantime, said his new business card, he’s now Vice Chairman of the Committee on Population, Resources and Environment of the CPPCC, the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, adjunct to the congress of the country, and President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies. To make a one hour conversation short, he reiterated his pledge to help get my next books in print in China in both Chinese and English, and when I asked him if he had some sort of think tank for policy and design for ecocities in China, he said, well, yes in fact, and its funded by the European Union and called the Europe China Eco-cities Link Project Task Force – “Want to join it? Here, I’ll introduce you to Li Hailong. He’s director.” He leaned over, grabbed the phone and in less than two minutes was introducing us. And now, as said, to make a one-hour conversation short, Mr. Li has just confirmed by e-mail that I’m “International Consultant to the Eco-Cities Planning and Construction Center of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies,” Qiu Baoxing, President.


And lastly, the beach at Diamisha on Shenzhen’s eastern shoreline with the South China Sea. We took a field trip to this beach at our 2002 International Ecocity Conference, conference #5, held at Shenzhen. The sun was so hot people gathered – as we see some doing in this photo from the Internet – in the cool shadows of the sculptures to escape the foot-burning sand. My last talk in China this trip was at an enormous new modernist building most of it raised on tall angled pillars right next to these dancing, flying statues. The 2007 Google Earth satellite view with the photo featured here shows no such building, and when our ecocity conference crew went there five years before that, the whole areas was way, way out in the country.

And lastly, the beach at Diamisha on Shenzhen’s eastern shoreline with the South China Sea. We took a field trip to this beach at our 2002 International Ecocity Conference, conference #5, held at Shenzhen. The sun was so hot people gathered – as we see some doing in this photo from the Internet – in the cool shadows of the sculptures to escape the foot-burning sand. My last talk in China this trip was at an enormous new modernist building most of it raised on tall angled pillars right next to these dancing, flying statues. The 2007 Google Earth satellite view with the photo featured here shows no such building, and when our ecocity conference crew went there five years before that, the whole areas was way, way out in the country.

New Mexico to California, then Colombia… then Korea… then China again…

What to think of all that? Well then I just had to take a vacation to New Mexico to visit my son, Aldie, his wife Miranda and my 9 year old granddaughter, Stella. Following our visit I returned via a cross country road trip back to California where my granddaughter is totally in love with the beach. Ah to relax like that and next, in two days, be off to Colombia, where the adventures go on with a talk at the Universidad Piloto de Colombia in Bogota for the Tenth International Architecture Seminar: Design for Nature, Humanity and Culture.  In September, I will depart for two weeks on Jeju Island, South Korea for actual site-specific designs and plans for an ecocity there. Then it’s back to China in October to speak at the Qingdao International Eco-city and Green Roof Conference.

In the meantime I labor to polish up my “good manuscript” for my next book, “World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build…” Pretty busy these days. Wish me luck.

Stella, Richard, cafe in Santa Fe

And, so nice to see my family! We all need a summer vacation. That’s my granddaughter Stella and myself in a Santa Fe breakfast and lunch restaurant.

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“Firsts” — Observing our Ecocity influence unfolding

By Richard Register, Founder and President

About 90% of the way through Lester Brown’s autobiography, Breaking Ground (W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2013), he confesses, “I’m way beyond my comfort zone writing an autobiography.” A few friends have suggested I write one too. “You’ve lead a very interesting life,” they’ve said. I’ve replied, “Well, I suppose some people would find it interesting…”

But I’ve had a problem expounding on various ideas I’ve had or adopted over the years and decades, always thinking I was missing some of the ambition, even interest, of those “wanting to be writers,” a little too impatient to intensively study and “master the craft.” I always wanted to get down to doing something. Instead of seeing myself as a writer of any sort I have seen myself as the maker of “things,” including those ephemeral sometimes real sometimes ghosts called “ideas.” Some such products of my thinking have been pretty novel, even “firsts” as far as I can tell.

I also see myself as a democratic kind of guy, an impresario of sorts gathering together others I think have inspiring, original or just plain beautiful thoughts and ideas. This is partially because it’s fun and partially because it’s a serious investment in learning something, investing in the future, something of serious help. I do this “gathering together” in the form of setting up meetings, tours, seminars, conferences, once-upon-a-time quite a few just common parties. Sometimes it’s simple as individually posing people for photographs because an aspect of certain faces, bodies, and even clothes reveals something of the worlds they live in, their thoughts, feelings and inner being—our inner being.

So as follows, an overview of some of the ideas I’m most proud of, what I might consider “firsts.”

A Confluence of Independent realizations?

I can’t say it doesn’t frustrate me somewhat that much that I’ve been doing for decades is now just getting the limelight, to the benefit of others just catching on. Yet history is full of these cases of forgotten originators. So it is in a long line of frustrations that I see my ecocity mapping system I represented in the early 1980s is now on the back cover of the great 2009 volume Mannahatta – a Natural History of New York City (by Eric W. Sanderson, Abrams, New York, 2009) with no mention of my work.

The Manahatta map shows low-density automobile dependent development replaced by a pattern of centers-focused development. Most of the paved surface is replaced by farms and what looks like some areas of natural landscapes and water features. The same for my imagery, which appeared in 1987 in my book Ecocity Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, about four years after I started making such maps.

But in addition, my offering illustrated a methodology by which the resulting centers-oriented, open-space-liberating could come about.

  1. First, look into the past maps of your town and learn something of the natural environment and ecology that is/was present there. Note something of the cultural and development history. We will never get back to the “natural” state or preserve the past like a somehow living fossil, but we can learn a great deal about how life can thrive in this particular geography.
  1. Then identify the most vital downtowns, district centers and neighborhood centers on the map of you town, city or metropolitan area. In these places increase both density and variety of land use. In other words, imagine placing residences, commercial, office, food availability, schools, etc. close together, mostly in walking and bicycling distances from one another. Radically reduce the need for long distance commuting.

This kind of planning, based on what might be called future-oriented mapping, is antithetical to planning for cars. Automobiles are too large and fast, take up vastly too much space, and cost too much energy, money and time. Ecocity mapping is about planning for us human beings, not cars. Infrastructure needs to be built to our scale, our speed of normal movement and the eternal, fluctuating needs of our cultural creativity and care.

We can proceed with this mapping exercise in a way that respects “human scale,” that celebrates views and sun angels for heating buildings, that provides accessibility to places that feel comfortable, even inspiring. That means accessibility to pleasant environments, native planting and gardens on terraces and rooftops and, in the more dense areas, bridges linking some of those terraces and rooftops with pedestrian bridges.


Ecocity map for Berkeley, California, about 1983. This was imagined guiding a development shift for “density and diversity” moving toward “vitality centers” while landscapes and waterways were opening up for nature and farming. A sequence of changes guided by the map is followed over the decades in Richard’s Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for A healthy Future, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1987.

Ecocity map for Berkeley, California, about 1983. This was imagined guiding a development shift for “density and diversity” moving toward “vitality centers” while landscapes and waterways were opening up for nature and farming. A sequence of changes guided by the map is followed over the decades in Richard’s Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for A healthy Future, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1987.


Several decades later, and ecocity ideas are just becoming popular, with little credit to the “old guard” of my generation’s movement. Still, a genuinely good idea stays a good idea. Perhaps the dynamic of history is simply that a good idea emerges from a context getting ever more obvious. In this case, it’s that sprawl is a disaster and we need to reverse the pattern. But maybe here was the rub and why the project of adopting that mapping for ecocity transformation was postponed 26 years until 2009, Mannahatta’s publishing date – or still 31 years to 2014, to today. When I made the first such centers-identifying maps and proposed a system for slowly withdrawing from scattered habitation, people would immediately look for their house on the map and panic. “You mean you want to demolish my house?!” Or conversely, “You mean you want to put an apartment house and office building on my block?!”

I’d explain the small-scale details were crucial; the process could be by “willing seller deals” and not by eminent domain and condemnation. The process of reshaping would also be expected to take decades and the city and its environs would be constantly improving in both types of development: new open spaces, expanding room for nature, farming, recreation, sports, playgrounds, etc. “Think of the serious problems solved: climate change, biodiversity destruction, local pollution, remoteness of nature and associated alienation and loss of educational potential for children, think about nature and food production… Plus there is real flexibility in ownership and renting in the city: you can always move to another neighborhood or sell your home and buy another one. Almost all of us do move once in a while,” I explained.

But back in the 1980s my first ecocity maps provoked panic. With very rare exception, once the people of Berkeley had found their house on the map, down came the local iron curtain of the imagination and all positive thought evaporated. Never mind that by the time most of the projects came due they would not even be there any more. They’d have moved or be dead and gone from the planet entirely. Maybe such a thought – having to move, to uproot – or just the thought that they might not even be alive any more at some point, compounded the problem. The future thinking maps kindled the imagined personal danger into flaming imminent threat—that is, totally freaked them out.

In any case here we are in 2014 and the idea is as solid and helpful as ever. The author of Manahatta recognized the powerful idea he was illustrating whether he knew anything about my work or not. The idea is as well founded and useful as ever. A good basic idea is, like a diamond, forever. And like a diamond can be easily lost, in the case of ideas, if not communicated and applied. Fortunately it can also be rediscovered.


“Ecocity” aka “Eco-city” and the used almost nowhere “EcoCity”

How about the term “ecocity?” One of my firsts? Maybe… My friends in China say I coined the term and I don’t protest as they go about trying to build some version of the concept. Wang Rusong of the Chinese Academy of Science and Qiu Baoxing Vice Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development have joined the ecocity effort, Rusong in 1990 (actually under other names and related activities going back to the early 1980s) and Baoxing in the early 2000s. Then there are Lin Xuefeng, Victor Liu and Tong Yen Ho busy building Tianjin Eco-city. This is an actual city for 350,000 people rapidly a-building about 100 miles east of Beijing on the Bohai Bay, the first in the world with the word ecocity in the official city name.

I entered the scene after the Garden City movement, perhaps the first “Green” thinking among serious urban planners. These discussions of the best term for ecologically healthy cities that I participated in took place in the 1960s when Paolo Soleri coined the term “arcology” for the fusion of architecture and ecology. At the time a number of us aware of his work were discussing his notion of compact pedestrian, single-structure cities. But we thought “arcology” wasn’t quite the right word because we were not talking about just the architecture of buildings but clusters of them, plus streets, rails, open spaces of special design, energy systems to fit, and restoration of associated lands and waterscapes. The term ecocity must certainly have been offered by one of us in such discussions. It very likely was myself. I definitely started using and promoting the word consistently by the mid or late 1970s while fleshing out a good deal more about its meaning.

A word I did make up for sure was “ecotropolis.” I even know exactly when and where: on the second day of the 9th International Ecocity Conference on (August 23, 2011) in Montreal, Canada walking along the second floor north corridor of the Palais des Congres, the big civic conference center there. I was thinking about the fact that in many parts of the world fairly closely scattered towns and cities grew outward with the increase of population – but mostly because of car-induced sprawl – until they all grew together and merged into a whole urban agglomeration called a metropolis, megalopolis or metropolitan area. The infrastructure replacing this sprawl should have a name too. Why not ecotropolis?


My adaptations and general catch up

I represent a number of ideas I didn’t make up. Bridges between buildings, for example. Downtown San Francisco has a whole district of 16 blocks of housing, offices, shops and even three large rooftop parks linked by bridges at the third and fourth story level over the streets. It’s called Embarcadero Center and these days taken quite for granted. It should be considered a powerful and early ecocity manifestation.

Some urban features I highlight for something in them of special “ecocity” meaning or purpose, such as exterior glass elevators for the exciting cheap thrills of sweeping up and down as if flying over your city as well as for the convenience of vertical transportation. Sometimes I try out names for such features, too. Probably my favorite is the rare feature I call a “keyhole plaza” or “view plaza.” Imagine your typical plaza but instead of the open “hard space” for people to gather being surrounded exclusively by buildings, there is an opening to a view to a special natural or perhaps agricultural feature nearby. That is, a corner or a side of the plaza is missing to provide an opening to such a view. Don’t build anything in the way of this view. The cultural product in the form of surrounding buildings frames a view to, say, a mountain, or perhaps a river, or looks up a beautiful coastline. You could even imagine a keyhole plaza in the flat relentless plains of Kansas or steppes of Russia or savannas. In these cases horizontal lines in the view-surrounding buildings designed to emphasize the character of the infinite horizon so strong as the natural environment there.

I called this a “keyhole plaza” for many years. I was thinking of the plan of such a plaza viewed from above looking something like the hole for the key shaft in the old style lock. Later I started using the more generic term for what it provides – a “view” plaza.


Keyhole (or “view”) plaza. Surround or “frame” a special view to nature or agriculture – something very important in the environment – with the cultural product of some of the town’s best buildings, thereby celebrating both nature and culture very conspicuously and appreciatively. (p.6)

Keyhole (or “view”) plaza. Surround or “frame” a special view to nature or agriculture – something very important in the environment – with the cultural product of some of the town’s best buildings, thereby celebrating both nature and culture very conspicuously and appreciatively.


Jackson Square in New Orleans is such a plaza. Unfortunately it lost its view to the Mississippi River as the silt and the river rose up over the years due to sand and mud deposition. This has forced the raising of an artificial levee to protect the whole city. The levee now presents a blank slope instead of a river view to Jackson Square.

San Marcos Plaza in Venice, Italy is such a plaza too, though its view focuses more on buildings across the lagoon than the lagoon itself or the open Adriatic Sea. Piran, Slovenia too, though the notch in the wall of buildings, opens to a view of the Adriatic. The opening should probably be quite a bit wider for the effect to be really felt.

Among the ideas that certainly are not mine but ones that facilitate ecocity progress, ideas I’ve been advocating for decades, are ones such as creating pedestrian and bicycle streets and paths, making and expanding car-free areas, simply making mixed use places even more “mixed use” and “balanced” in terms of complementary facilities close together and investing in and making these places more popular so that people can enjoy their “vitality centers” more. This is exactly what was portrayed in our prescriptive ecocity mapping since the early 1980s.

Of course waterway, shoreline and ridgeline preservation and restoration fits too and gradually over the decades their acceptance is expanding. My friend Sylvia McLaughlin, 97 years old, still emeritus on our Ecocity Builders’ Board of Directors, saved the Bay with her two associates, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulich founding the Save San Francisco Bay Association in 1960 – which not only saved the 85% of the bay that was in the planning pipeline for fill and development, but established rules for the entire state that provided shoreline access for the public as well as preservation of waterways and shorelines – and proved a model for the country and whole world after.

Solar, wind and other renewables fit here as the energy base for the energy conserving ecocity, providing the supply for the reduced demand of the redesigned and rebuilt city that could be an ecocity or ecotropolis. My interest in solar goes back to Farrington Daniels who wrote a book published in 1962 entitled The Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy. Solar energy is clean and so ample as to constitute 99.97% of all energy arriving daily in the film of life on Earth called the biosphere. Plus, in geologic time, solar energy, converted by the chlorophyll of plants, provides the planet’s fossil fuels. For direct application, sunshine needs some concentration to be utilized for most human purposes other than simply “passively” warming our constructed environments of buildings and clusters thereof. Daniels – plus nature herself – seemed to make immaculate good sense so I looked for, found and wrote about early solar energy pioneers for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine getting my early article on the subject published in the magazine, then known as West Magazine, September 27, 1972. Solar fits beautifully with ecocity design.


Back to some “originals”

One idea of mine that I was promoting, as early as 1976 in Berkeley, has just in the last year seen application in San Bernardino, California and Tampa, Florida: the planting of “fruit parks” in public places. The Alliance for Community Trees reports just this year (in the April 12, 2014 issue of their internet newsletter) on these initiatives in which fruit trees are being planted – at last! – in public parks. My original effort was designed to appropriate some of the $100,000 (more like $400,000 today according to Oregon State University’s inflation conversion factors chart) allocated to my neighborhood in West Berkeley at the time in Block Grant funding for purposes the neighborhoods themselves would decide upon. Our idea was to have an urban orchardist help plant trees in front of people’s houses and in small portions of parks in the neighborhood, involving the interested neighbors in planting, pruning, harvesting, canning and otherwise preparing the produce. The proposal supported the purchase of trees and hiring of an orchardist/coordinator for the program for one year of a pilot project. The problem was that the administrator of the grant working for the City told us there was no money for the orchardist/coordinator – sorry. Capital projects only. I discovered a year after the decision was made for spending the money that the City’s administrator of the grant was either mistaken or actually lying to keep things simple.

In the meantime what did get funded? New asphalt for a few blocks of one of the streets. But now maybe people are realizing that the city trims and cares for trees all over town anyway. Why not a systematic approach to tree food production involving those who might be interested? You will note also that the ecocity mapping approach helps coordinate and arrange not only new development and open space in best places but gives order and pattern to projects such as expanding parks and community gardens as part of an overall sensible system shaping a better city.


A good place for freeways. For the damage they do, a deserved place for car drivers! That was something of a joke to me in the early 1980s but I discovered such places were being created shortly after. (p. 8)

A good place for freeways. For the damage they do, a deserved place for car drivers! That was something of a joke to me in the early 1980s but I discovered such places were being created shortly after. (p. 8)


Another idea. Between centers as defined in the ecocity mapping exercise and in special other places: bury highways. Already railroads and highway burrow through mountains – the Alps and some other mountain ranges are riddled with tunnels – and subway systems in cities around the world keep the most intense infrastructure of the transportation system out of the way of surface movement while radically reducing congestion, pollution and noise. Around 1983 I drew up, pretty much as a flight of fancy, an image of a freeway under an orchard, which was printed in my book Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Healthy Future in 1987. I’ll include this picture as one of this article’s illustrations. Then on a trip to Europe <the following year> that included Vienna I was shocked and delighted to see that is exactly what the Viennese did along two and a half miles of the Danube, down to an almost identical design of ventilations boxes about eight feet high. They had built what I had imagined, a wall to keep people from accidently falling into the tunnel. The way the tunnel was built was to simply bridge over the freeway with a roof and create a park on top. I’ll include another picture here too, coincidentally from the April 24, San Francisco Chronicle – that is exactly what is planned for replacing what used to be Doyle Drive in the city’s Presidio district just south and east of the Golden Gate Bridge.


The new Doyle Drive plunges under landscapes soon to be designed and built in San Francisco’s Presidio as seen in this artist’s illustration just above the Rotunda dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. Image provided by the Presidio Trust. Website:  (p. 8)

The new Doyle Drive plunges under landscapes soon to be designed and built in San Francisco’s Presidio as seen in this artist’s illustration just above the Rotunda dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. Image provided by the Presidio Trust. Website:


Another idea: why not elevate bicycle paths? Unlike elevated freeways and the elevated rail lines much more common and noisy in the past but still in frequent use and noisy enough to bother most people anywhere with in a few blocks, elevated cycle ways would be narrow, quite – approaching completely silent – and allow much more light to pass around and down to the ground. I drew such imagery – another picture featured here – in the early 1980s, also in Ecocity Berkeley, which only did I discover in Wikipedia two years ago, was preceded by about 85 years by the real thing: the California Cycleway. That was an elevated wooden bicycle path that set out from downtown Pasadena toward downtown Los Angeles. It was opened in the unfortunate year of 1900, 40 years before the opening of the country’s first freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, that took almost exactly the same route between town centers. “Unfortunate” I say because the automobile was just then beginning to come on strong. The California Cycleway only made it about one third of the way from Pasadena toward its southwest destination. People were switching to cars so fast and in general pushing cyclists around so obnoxiously that cycling began to experience a rapid decline. The cycleway was only open for a few months, then closed.


Various designs for an elevated cycleway, circa 1983. Added idea: the low upward arch drains to supporting posts where soil is provided for plants watered only by rain and snow melt, native plants that thrive in the area where soils are more moist. (p. 9)

Various designs for an elevated cycleway, circa 1983. Added idea: the low upward arch drains to supporting posts where soil is provided for plants watered only by rain and snow melt, native plants that thrive in the area where soils are more moist.


A piece of “happy face” history

An idea still earlier and even more remote from ecocities – and this one seems so unlikely I very seldom even mention it, is this: the happy face, alias smiley face. That was spring of 1965. Around 1968 someone told me someone else came up with that now universal symbol of happiness in 1963, an advertising agency man from Seattle. He didn’t make it into Wikipedia, but then neither did I. So there is some ambiguity. But an interesting story traces at least my “creative process.” It was definitely original in my experience. The story according to Wikipedia is…

1953 the movie “Lili” featured advertisements utilizing “happy faces” that shows up on the advertising poster for “Lili.”

1958 the movie “Gigi” – exact same story.

1962 New York radio Station WMCA produced a sweatshirt with the happy face with their current slogan underneath: “WMCA good guys”. This also is pictured in Wikipedia.

1963 or 1964 depending on sources, commercial artist Harvey Ball created the black on yellow version with corners on the mouth for State Mutual Life Insurance, again as a commercial promotion. Paid $45 – equal to $340 in today’s dollars. Unlike the others above and mine below, this happy face was standardized in black on yellow with corners of the mouth added.

1965 – my part of the story isn’t featured there.

1969 and the fad goes mainstream with the grinning yellow one on a Time Magazine cover I remember but can’t find on the Internet.

1972 I find myself in Stockholm around midnight during the first of the United Nations Environment conferences – I’m out in the cold – staring at a stylish downtown window displaying floor mats, toilet seat covers, wall paper, lamp shades, plates, cups, saucers table cloths and clothing all with smiley faces, all in black on yellow.

1972 a little later, a journalist at the Detroit Free Press decides to do some research and discovers I’m in there with an interesting thread in the tapestry, writes the only story I know – outside of Los Angeles where I was actively promoting No War Toys – about that follows – that dug into my part in that particular history. About that shortly.

1980 a popular bumper sticker appeared with an exact replication of my first and most utilized design – I’ll provide a photo here for you to compare with one of my early buttons.


One of the first happy face buttons from 1965, orange, pinned to a 1980s bumper sticker picking up on the drawing, a regular feature in the peace movement during and for a while after the Vietnam War. (p. 10)

One of the first happy face buttons from 1965, orange, pinned to a 1980s bumper sticker picking up on the drawing, a regular feature in the peace movement during and for a while after the Vietnam War.


OK, now my story… The Vietnam War (actually the American War in Vietnam) was raging and growing rapidly in 1965 when I decided there was something unhealthy about giving toy weapons to young boys to encourage them to pretend to kill one another … for fun. What’s that all about?! Could it be the first, the indirect and most subtle first start for conditioning society to accept and glorify war, making it seem heroic, exciting, natural and even inevitable – might as well give up on peace and not give it a chance. I decided to cultivate the debate and started my first non-profit organization and called it No War Toys. Four <For> about six years it was mostly what I was up to.

Almost from the very beginning in the spring of 1965 I decided I needed a logo – push “a brand” as is said by the “in” PR theorists and persuasion spinners these days. But what to use for such a symbol? Methodically I pored over possibilities. I ruled out geometric shapes like stars, hexagons, silhouettes of plants, animals and tools and boring collections of letters. NWT would be a loser. Why not a face drawn by children quite early, regularly, naturally and pretty much universally? Just look around homes, nursery schools and kindergartens and there it was: among the first and happiest of creative activities undertaken by children. Creative and happy at the same time – great! I thought. The only problem was, from my point of view and my effort to find a simple and strong graphic <was this>: was the nose best represented by one dot for the prominence or two dots for the dark punctuating nostrils? Why not just dispense with the nose altogether? That was the same stroke – maybe a little short – of genius I shared with my unknown predecessor publicists for “Lili,” “Gigi,” Station WMCA and so on. The kids all used a dot so maybe us adults were a little off, but it worked and it spread.

First I’d need a newsletter to get the No War Toys ideas confronted directly in relation to propaganda for war and looking into the deeper possible functions of both the creative and destructive, symbolism and actual habit-inducing mental and physical action in children’s play. Next the lapel buttons, balloons and T-shirts. The idea seemed simple enough and off I went to the balloon company to order a couple thousand, white paper and sharp black making pen in hand.

My shock was that it was so hard to draw an intelligent looking happy face. I must have drawn between 30 and 50 versions before one said to me, “I’m smart, happy, competent and confident, without the slightest snide or condescending nuances of glance or look of stupidity or blandness.” It amazed me how many expressions could come through with a drawing so simple. But I eventually liked one of the images and used it for the next six or seven years – on all sorts of colors, not just yellow. I also encouraged children coming to our tree house-building projects in back yards and giant sandcastle (actually sand city) building projects on beaches to bring their own versions of happy faces on flags and banners, and in classrooms and at fairs and festivals, to draw any version they liked.

Now I look back and remember the commercial aspects of the other promotions, but it should also be said I used the happy face in a similar way myself: commercial with a cause, you might say. Sales of the buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers provided most of the money for all my “activist” efforts in the years of my peace movement contribution. At the height, there were approximately 30 “offices,” meaning kitchen and dining room tables around the country, distribution centers for our newsletter and paraphernalia, and for meetings planning demonstrations tacked on to larger peace demonstrations, picketing toy stores, appearances on television, at PTA meeting and the like. My pride was that the “smiley face” or “happy face” might have helped some in deepening thought about war propaganda and the perhaps much more subtle differences between creative and destructive “pre-tend.” Happily it represented for me also creativity.

By the way, I was never for deceiving children that war has not happened and continues, if hopefully less so into the future; some among my friends considering themselves liberals thought I was cultivating deception. To them I said their boys should play war realistically. Maybe they will have to defend their country some day but they shouldn’t think war is fun. The next morning when little Howard wants to play with Sammy, “Sorry, you can’t seem him anymore. Remember? You killed him playing war yesterday.” “But that was just play.” “That’s right but for it to be a bit more truthful, you need to understand what it’s really like. We are going to play Veterans Administration Hospital now…” “But I don’t want to play hospital. I want to pretend to kill my friends.” “Sorry. Today we pretend to lie in bed and try to recover, realizing we won’t… ever.”


Why mention all this about firsts?

For three reasons. First to give some thought to the process by which new ideas or a least new syntheses of older ideas come about. Perhaps a need exists – such as making less damaging, or even actively healthy, cities. Or, second, perhaps it is simply a pleasure like playing, done for self-satisfaction and/or entertainment, for self, friends and children, worthy ends in themselves. At the very least, understanding the dynamics around “firsts” is to understand a little more about the mysteries of creativity and to further the notion that just maybe creativity can be cultivated – to the betterment of practically all aspects of life.

The third reason, perhaps hoping for more than likely satisfied, is that others will recognize such creative capacity and reward it some, thinking the chances of future invention and progress of some sort might in the future materialize. That is, creative people tend to come up with more creative ideas and products as time goes on. Some burn out but a lot keep going. We should help them. The self-serving sub-text here is that there should be more support for people like me! I could get a lot more good projects accomplished with a little of that.

Regarding the first reason, some techniques for cultivating creativity are almost mechanical and not so inspired and exclusively the property of “gifted” people as some creative people would claim – in an effort to romanticize or cast in magical glow what they do to facilitate, they hope, their own legend as special people. And if it is true that there are ways to encourage creativity, as I thought likely then in my happy face days, promoting war toys was at the very least a big waste of time that could be much better used developing the opposite of destructivity, namely creativity. Some creativity is innate no doubt, but I also believed – and still do – that a fair capacity for creativity can be actually taught.

These mechanical approaches to creative action include simply looking at things from another perspective: what happens when we look at something upside down? Or backwards? Or in reverse chronological order? Do we see something new and interesting appearing? What if we methodically search for a basic principle that might be hidden in something we are looking at that appears ordinary at first glance but might mean something else just under the surface? Looking at the everyday map of a metropolitan area is something like that, revealing to the mind that looks beyond the evident smudge of gray and sees the centers of vitality that could become the ecotropolis of the future, a cluster of ecocities, ecotowns, ecovillage and enfolding farms and natural landscapes.

Another technique of methodical application is to simply not fear embarrassment, people trying to make fun of you, to blame you for trying something strange and different. Think that they should be embarrassed, not you. Probably the most entertaining case of this in my experience goes back to the days when I was making sculpture. At the time I was busy enjoying the ever entertaining and lively world of the artist, in my case, in Venice, California most of that time. But that work didn’t bring in enough money to survive so I had a one day a week job making silver and gold peace symbol necklace pendants and pins for a Los Angeles Jeweler capitalizing on the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the time. Not to make him sound greedy – he was also adamantly against the war and a Quaker – but more basically a compassionate thinking man. He’d asked me permission to make happy face jewelry since in those days in the peace movement I was, as the kids would say, the happy face man. I saved up and bought a gold one that I made – the gold belonged originally to the jeweler – and pinned it on my sweater. But when low on money once, I unfortunately sold it.

The job entailed holding a rough cast peace symbol or happy face to a coarse grinding wheel to flatten the surface and smooth the outside edge, then progress on to a fine grinding wheel then polish on a spinning cloth buffer wheel. The metal object would vibrate with a hard tingling feel, heat up almost burning the fingers. Then I’d plunge the amulet, pin or ring into cold water to cool it down and proceed to the next step until a descent looking shiny item was produced.

One morning I was taking a shower in my apartment thinking about making the metal adornments, adjusting the water temperature, thinking of the peace symbols heating, then cooling, vibrating from the grinding wheel, my fingers getting hot, drying out some then plunging into water to get cold and wet again, over and over. I thought, “Why don’t people make sculptures to explore that?” meaning the full range of what we can feel with the several tactile senses. This struck me as very interesting indeed. Almost immediately (after toweling down and drying out) I set to work buying up and assembling in various arrangements vibrators, heaters, coolers and freezers, foggers and misters, foam rubber, fur, velvet and corduroy and I was off and running making tactile sculpture while part of that time overlapping with my No War Toys work.


One of Richard’s tactile sculptures at San Francisco’s Exploratorium from 1974 through 1994. He was the first in the institution’s Artists in Residence program.

One of Richard’s tactile sculptures at San Francisco’s Exploratorium from 1974 through 1994. He was the first in the institution’s Artists in Residence program.


But then what was entertaining about this somewhat long story? And what was revealing about the creative process – and the process of subverting it?

I was at yet another more or less cocktail party with loads of artist types, maybe a few real ones, plus ordinary mortals, as the artists might see it, and a man says in the usual way, “…and what do you do?” So I said, “I make tactile sculptures.” He said, “What do you mean?” I explained I built things to be felt with your hands, sometimes with your whole body as when a moist cool breeze descends from an overhead fogger and gentle fan, something like an on coming rain storm. If a thunderstorm, you might throw in a negative ion generator (like a friend of mine was making a living selling about then).

He scrunched his brow together and said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” He looked almost angry. “You can’t do that. I’ve never heard of anything like that.” “Well all I can say is that’s what I do” and decided to talk to someone else.


Conclusion, if any

Another methodical creative process is just sticking with it. Sticking with it and trying out variations on its theme long enough to see if something unpredictable comes out the far end of all that repletion. Often it does and not only does an end product of quite curious and sometime helpful nature appear, but usually the basic reason or principle behind the process becomes evident too, guiding kindred such processes into the future. Think of the first person to whip up some whip cream, maybe saying to herself, “if I just keep doing this maybe there will be ever more and more bubbles and smaller ones until something really different appears,” or maybe she just doggedly whipped on for ornery refusal to quit once started. Water – it wouldn’t have worked and eventually the experiment would end in just a little information. But whipped cream? OK! A discovery.

In fact, this is one of the tried and true approaches to scientific discovery and its application often thus transforms a vague “theme” into a very powerful and dependable “principle.” One could say sticking with the ecocity venture long enough has revealed – even guaranteed – that the core ideas do in fact reveal themselves as basic principles and produce some pretty amazing and healthy results including some designs guaranteed to satisfy both human beings and the welfare of the planet.

One such principle revealed through relentless focus on the ecocity subject – remember that it took me almost 30 years from ecocity to ecotropolis – is the pattern within for regions larger than mere cities. Another basic principle is the essential three-dimensionality of the built habitat dramatically identified by Paolo Soleri, as compared to two-dimensional sprawl, the principle also known in my world as the “anatomy analogy” as so many things in city arrangement compare very educationally “like” three-dimensional the organization of complex living organisms, and if that concludes or perhaps better yet opens up my line of reasoning here, that is, as in many other considerations in ecocity design – and life itself – up to you.


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Ecocity Economics

Infinite growth is impossible

Our newsletter readers all know that infinite growth in a limited environment is impossible so I’ll mention here, without trying to prove the case, an interesting fact: life depends on energy, 99.97% of which arrives in the thin zone of life on Earth from the sun. Only .025% oozes up from the crust as geothermal energy and the thin slice of .005% comes from tidal energy, cosmic rays, meteor friction with the air and most interestingly I think, residual heat from the originally birth of the planet in accumulating bombardments from asteroids, comets and space dust.

Life, of course, also depends on climate, local or regional soils and/or waters and the interaction between living organisms. Carrying capacity in the case of human presence on Earth has components that multiply one another in a manner similar to that identified by Paul Ehrlich in his famous formula: I = PAT, meaning Impact (on the environment and everything in it) is equal to Population multiplied times Affluence (or consumption) times particular Technology. One technology may be almost totally benign, solar energy for example, and another definitely risky, such as nuclear with its unsolved waste problems and necessity for massive insurance and investment subsidies. Continue reading

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Postcard from Medellin: A Big WUF for Urban Equity

by Sven Eberlein

“Is this your first WUF?” is a question commonly asked at the World Urban Forum, a gathering for, by, and about city people that was first convened by UN Habitat in Nairobi in 2002 and descended on Medellín, Colombia last week for its 7th incarnation. While the answer coming out of my mouth was always either “Yes” or “Sí” with a few stray “Ouis” and “Jas” mixed in, the feeling I had for most of the seven days inside the colorful pavilions spread across the Plaza Mayor Convention and Exhibition Center was one of Déjà vu, if not kinship.

After all, the question of how we are going to arrange the two percent of planetary space in which 70 percent of humanity is projected to live by 2050 in a sustainable and dignified fashion has been on my mental drafting board since before the Stone (Temple Pilot) Age. And here I found myself in the presence of 22,000 people of all ages and ethnicities, from every pocket of the world, passionate about co-creating the kinds of urban spaces that can exist in harmony with the little round ball we all call home.


No Equity, No Sustainability

The WUF7 theme was Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life. The idea behind it seems obvious — if we invest in the most marginalized communities within our cities that are trapped behind invisible social and economic borders, everyone, including the planet, benefits.

Why? Well, it’s no secret that the default mechanism of most of our current economic and political systems rewards those who already have a lot with even more while leaving the less fortunate fighting for scraps. This generally applies not only on an individual basis, but on a municipal, national, and global level, where wealthy neighborhoods, cities, and countries add girth just by being, and poor ones can’t seem to get a leg up at all.


And yet, safe for those with the most advanced case of “I’ve got mine” tunnel vision, there are no winners in this arrangement. The haves struggle with obesity in the broadest sense of the term, from high rates of heart disease and material overconsumption to producing a carbon footprint that would take multiple planets to sustain and is lurching the one we’re on towards climate catastrophe. The have nots, in turn, are mostly in brute survival mode, without future prospects or a stake in the broader social and environmental contracts needed for humanity to preserve a livable biosphere.

This is the context within which a level playing field is the foundation for any kind of global-scale environmental improvement, including a reduction in greenhouse gases.

Riffing on the timeless “No Justice, No Peace” theme, the bumper sticker in this case is “No Equity, No Sustainability.”

Paying tribute at WUF7 to a giant of #equality and #equity

While individual acts are certainly important and international agreements badly needed, the spaces where policy and governance can most effectively meet the on-the-ground realities of people and their communities is in cities. Urban ecosystems are intimate enough to allow for meaningful solutions to be sought and implemented with respect to each area’s unique socio-cultural and geo-physical conditions, yet as a whole, large enough to make the kind of planetary impact we need if we are to curb our extractive habits.

One of the biggest lessons of assembling so many stakeholders in one place is that there is no one-size-fits-all panacea that could be mandated by just a handful of large entities and applied to everyone. While it is tempting to place all our hopes in a powerful country or head of state to flip the right switch or a big company to invent the miracle seed or breakthrough energy technology, the reality is that our global human community is a web of diverse cultural microcosms embedded within a plethora of natural ecosystems.

Diversity is the secret sauce of our planet and the source of our strength, and together we’re only as strong as the weakest, most-neglected link in the delicate chain.


The Ecocitizen World Map Project

With this in mind it makes sense that the project I was there to present with the amazing Ecocity Builders team was such a big hit at WUF7. The Ecocitizen World Map Project begins with the belief that if we all take coordinated actions towards a shared vision of sustainable and equitable development – cities and citizens in balance with nature and culture – we can address even the most serious problems facing humanity through actions, large and small alike, taken by many. Specifically, it combines education for ecological design, internet tools, data collection methods and community based research with municipal data and maps to provide a more holistic view of local urban systems and how well they are serving citizens.

Ambassador Carmen Lomellin, Permanent Representative of the United States to the Organization of American States, introducing the Ecocitizen World Map at the “Building Resilience and Equity Through Citizen Participation and Geodesign” session at the UN Habitat City Changer Room

The way to achieve such a shared vision is to enable everyone to be part of it. All too often, decisions affecting entire urban ecosystems are based only on input from those in positions of privilege, or derived from static, general data. To provide a much deeper and localized data set as well as empower residents of traditionally neglected neighborhoods to identify local urban issues and assets, the project invites those citizens to participate in a three-part survey — a general quality of life assessment, a parcel audit and household resources survey, and an environmental assessment of air and water quality.

For example, the only data usually available for a city’s water consumption is the total amount flowing in and out of the urban metabolism, with virtually no information on what happens in between. So in our pilot cities of Cairo and Casablanca, where water is precious and expensive, residents of the Imbaba and Roches Noires neighborhoods were surveyed by teams of Cairo and Mundiapolis University students (who had attended our “ecocitizen bootcamp” training events) about their specific water uses, like kitchen, laundry, or toilets. The information gleaned isn’t just valuable for city leaders to get a more nuanced view of their city’s resource flow and better understand the needs of their citizens, but it led the residents themselves to ask questions such as “why can’t we use greywater for our toilets?”

The way one of our team members described the experience, it was like holding a mirror to people’s lives, making them visible to themselves within the urban environment, and opening the door for having their voices heard.

Citizen participation in action!

Participants of the “How to use mobile technology to measure urban equity” workshop presented by ITC-University of Twente, Esri, and Ecocity Builders learning how to conduct an ecocitizen survey

Medellín: Urban Laboratory of Inclusion

The story of how Medellín successfully used urban planning as a tool to create a more equitable and ecologically balanced city after the fall of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel has been well documented. In fact, the very roots of the city’s  turnaround can be found in a commitment by successive administrations dating back over a decade to deploy a comprehensive strategy of collaboration between planners, designers, city officials, and residents, with a strong focus on the poorest and most isolated neighborhoods. With incredible amounts of data available but not in any kind of integrated format, the first task for our Medellín Pilot was to collect all the different layers of information and present them in a clear and easily navigable map.

Putting together the map consisted of three parts: First, we went to each city department (health, education, transportation, etc) to gather all the raw data. Next, with the help of GIS mapping tools provided by our partner Esri, we built the colorful layers that allow the public to view the relationship between elements like Population Density, Income Levels, Public Transit Routes, or Green Infrastructure for each neighborhood. And finally, we integrated a layer that enables any resident of Medellín to get on the map by taking an online citizen survey, powered by crowd-mapping platform Ushahidi. Once the platform is fully developed, people in any city of the world will be able to add their insights, information, concerns, and recommendations tagged to corresponding urban elements.

EWM Projects Facilitator Ashoka Finley explains how to navigate the Medellín Ecocitizen Map at the Esri Geospatial Pavilion.

While looking at data and maps can be a powerful tool to assess how far along a city is in becoming more ecologically healthy, there’s still nothing like walking into different communities for a sensual experience of the diverse physical and cultural layers. Having spent countless hours researching various integrated development projects that have been driving the city’s transformation, I couldn’t wait to get out of the confines of the conference and into the neighborhoods. And it felt exactly the way it sounded.

You could feel the sense of pride people take in their Metro, a clean and efficient system (the only one of its kind in Colombia) that connects previously disparate “upscale” and “lowscale” communities.

Getting on and off Linea A, the main North/South line, at Estacion San Antonio.

The Metro Cable, a gondola system that has revolutionized mobility and accessibility for the poorest communities on the city’s hillsides, is as viscerally uplifting as it is visually stunning.

The Metrocable aerial cable car system has vastly improved the quality of life in Medellín’s isolated and impoverished hillside communities

The famed Library Parks, a series of public libraries strategically located in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the hillside peripheries of the city, were perhaps even more impressive in real life than in pictures. Books are just a small part of these public treasures — they really are community hubs where people come to gather, learn, and play, aided by inspiring architecture, lots of light, and green space.

A group of teenagers was practicing a dance to much laughter and joy the day I visited Parque Biblioteca San Javier.


The project that perhaps best summarizes the idea of urban equity are the “escaleras eléctricas,” a series of escalators deep in the hillsides of once-notorious Comuna 13 that enable people to climb the equivalent of a 28-story building in just a few minutes. Not only do they connect hill dwellers to vital services more quickly, but they instill a great sense of pride in residents. The community itself came up with the idea and collaborated with the city on the design that includes the beautiful orange roofs, murals, and gardens along the way, as well as music from Sinatra to the Rolling Stones humming through speakers along the way.


If this was a disadvantaged community, it sure didn’t feel that way.


  • All photos by Sven Eberlein
  • This is the first in a multi-part series about Medellín, the World Urban Forum 7, and the Ecocitizen World Map Project. It is crossposted at Shareable, the Ecocitizen Blog, and A World of Words. Stay tuned for the next installments that will take me deeper into mapping magic and more colorful neighborhoods in Medellín.
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Looking Up and Looking Forward

Brief Note from Richard leaving China

I’m on my way back from China reflecting on some of the best opportunities and heaviest responsibilities I’ve gotten myself into since starting ecocity work almost 50 years ago. I first gave a plenary talk at the Tenth International Green Building and Technology Conference and Expo in Beijing. Then I spoke to university audiences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Tongji University, Shanghai; Tianjin University in Tianjin and Southeast University in Nanjing. How my hosts at C&P Architecture in Beijing, especially Mr. Bin Fan, President of C&P, and Ruby Yangxue, my translator, guide and general assistant, pulled it all together is quite amazing—and at very short notice too.

The story is long and my space here short, but two photos and two short observations, one something of a confession, are in order.

Confessions first, so, as usual with confessions, I can then move on more relaxed.

Tall buildings

In my slide presentations I frequently feature images of the two big towers in Shanghai. I took the picture six years. I make the comment that super tall buildings are linear development. They are not integrated into the community in the three-dimensional arrangement of complex living organisms obeying the rule of internal and external “access by proximity.” One has to be relatively close to things in the environment (external), both natural and built, to have easy, efficient, healthy access to the benefits of the environment. So too for the organism itself (internally). An organisms internal functions work best with organs close together in a 3-D, not flat (2-D) or linear (1-D), arrangement. Continue reading

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