1st International Ecocity Conference

Banners along Shattuck Avenue for the First International Ecocity Conference, Berkeley, 1990

Richard was a speaker at the Student Environmental Action Coalition Conference at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1988, with Dennis Hayes as keynote speaker.  A teacher there named Lee Altenberg came up to Richard and said that plans were underway for a big Earth Day in 1990. Perhaps it was time to do a major conference on ecological cities and plan it to precede Earth Day by three or four weeks. Earth Day could be used in this way to help spread the ecocity concept.  Reciprocally, they could lend a major theme to Earth Day.

Altenberg said that city form and function and the whole systems perspective on cities was not being covered in the plans that were shaping up. His idea seemed like a good one to Richard and several months later he launched into fund raising and organizing for the First International Ecocity Conference.

The objective was to bring together the leading ecocity theorists and innovators, and many of the key people involved in fields indispensable to the building of ecological cities.  Urban Ecology had built up some real credibility in the field. His friends Ernest Callenbach and Fritjof Capra were supportive and helpful. Arcologist and seminal theorist and practitioner Paolo Soleri, bioregionalist Peter Berg, Cerro Gordo organizer Christopher Canfield could be counted on, and probably David Brower who throughout his career has always been famous for his support of youthful environmentalists and his willingness to try out new ideas.

Richard telephoned Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock, who had enjoyed his book, Ecocity Berkeley, and asked her to be among the speakers.  Did she have some ideas for the conference?  She asked him if he had a Board of Advisors yet, for the conference, or for Urban Ecology, since many people will give more credence to someone promoting an idea if it has the moral backing of well known people.  Those same people, she suggested, could be among the main speakers and help gather people onto the band wagon.  Richard said he had not gotten around to seeking a Board of Advisors but it sounded like the right idea for the moment — “how would you like to be the first on the list?”  A brief pause, then she said sure.  That kicked the snowball off the ridge and there was no turning back.

Quickly more and more people committed.  Richard’s new European colleagues all said yes: the permaculturists Margrit and Declan Kennedy from Steyerberg, Germany; Peter Beck from STERN, Society for Careful Urban Renewal, representing his energy conserving, waste water recycling, low-income equity, intense redevelopment projects in Berlin (l,200 people per city block); and architect, professor, apartment greenhouse builder Floyd Stein from Copenhagen.  Helene Deplats would represent the city of Bordeaux and its street systems changes strongly de-emphasizing the car and providing a whole network of calmer streets for pedestrians.

There were appropriate technology practitioners, community activists and bicycle experts from Mexico and India, ecologists and planners from Austria, Norway, Canada and Venezuela, architects from Australia and around the United States.  Edgar Mitchell, Astronaut, said he could come — all the way from the moon, though twenty years had intervened.  With nine months to go Dennis Hayes said he could possibly make the keynote address but had to hold off on his final decision.  With three months to go, he came through at breakfast on New Years Day — then went right back to work on Earth Day 1990 in his Palo Alto offices.

Richard and the organizing committee kept adding time slots and renting new rooms to hold more talks and workshops because they were convinced each new idea added something valuable.  Six, seven, then finally eight concurrent events for two days, then into the evenings.  It reminded Richard of organizing those intense round the clock teach-ins during the Vietnam War days when the pressure of the emergency was almost unbearable.

When they eventually stopped to actually count the number of speakers they were staggered. The event was almost twice as large as they thought: 153 presenters, 84 separate events, excluding any meetings that might be set up spontaneously in the room we had provided for that purpose.

But the number of people who reported that it was the best conference they had ever been to in their lives was startling.  The three earlier conferences Richard had produced with Urban Ecology had been regarded as pretty good to solidly good. Nothing to get particularly cocky about.  But this — this was a conference!

The racial and ethnic diversity was very good.  Vernon Masayesva, Chairman of the Hopi Tribe was there, Running Grass, an inspiring, understated and dedicated leader of inner city youth activities including tree plantings and trips to the forest, Sharif Abdullah, designer, lawyer, leadership and conflict resolution consultant to Portland’s city government departments, Black Panther poet Erika Huggins and others.

One of their most important decisions was to meticulously record it all, which cast an air of importance and caring over the entire event. Every talk, workshop,and seminar was accompanied by a video camera and volunteer camera operator.  The cameras became unobtrusive after a time — they were just there, part of the woodwork.  People got used to them and self-consciousness didn’t seem to rise above the normal when people gather and speak out to one another in groups.

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