Cities Can Save the Earth

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

The climate crisis won’t be solved by changing light bulbs and inflating your tires more, planting a tree and driving a little less. It’s going to require a truly fundamental shift in how we build our cities and live in them.   

The key to changing our cities involves the car. Cars dominate cities in the rich countries, and they are increasingly swamping poor countries as well. Big auto companies, are rapidly building car factories and highways in China and India. Many cities, like Berkeley, California where I lived for 30 years, don’t have a single pedestrian street – and their citizens don’t even notice how completely given over to the car their towns are. Only one out of 10 people on the planet actually drives cars, but drivers are causing a vastly disproportionate share of planetary damage through the automobile-sprawl pattern of development. 

The concepts behind the ecocity are fairly simple. They involve a shift in development toward centers of high diversity:

  • Switch to a pedestrian and transit-oriented infrastructure, with ecocity architecture built around compact centers designed for pedestrians and transit; 
  • Roll back sprawl development while vigorously restoring nature and agriculture; 
  • Integrate renewable energy systems while using non-toxic materials and technologies and promoting recycling. 

A major difficulty in moving toward ecocities is that cars have influenced urban design for 100 years. Many of us caught in this infrastructure find it extremely difficult to get around in anything but the car. The distances are just too great for bicycles, the densities just too low to allow efficient, affordable transit.

Despite these obstacles, there are tools available to help us move in the right direction immediately. In many places – such as San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon in the United States, and to a greater extent in Curitiba, Brazil – a certain amount of this “ecocity” thinking is already going on. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of recapturing the past. Cities used to be built for pedestrians. The core of some of these cities remains in Europe and China, though China is bulldozing some of these ancient city centers as we speak. Some cities like Venice, Italy, the Medina of Fez, and hilly Gulongyu, China are 100% car-free – and very successful.

 It’s possible to build ecocities, and we must do so if we are ever to solve the looming triple crisis of climate change, declining biodiversity, and dwindling fossil fuel energy. 

The Biggest Things We Build

It’s puzzling that almost no one connects the largest things we build – our cities – to the largest problems that we’re experiencing, much less connects them to solutions to those problems. 

When I was the convener of the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990, our keynote speaker was Denis Hayes, chief organizer of the first Earth Day. We have made a lot of good progress in the environmental movement, Hayes said, and then cited all the battles we had won, all the good laws and policies we had implemented, all the adjustments in lifestyles and better recycling and energy conservation we had put into effect. But somehow in regard to the largest problems of all – chief among them climate change and species extinctions – we were losing the war. We needed, he said, to rethink the way we design and build our cities, and how they function as a whole. 

As Hayes suggested, we haven’t won that war for the health of the environment, and in fact are worse off now than ever before simply because we never confronted the largest things we build.  We said, “Let’s change a light bulb and fill our tires up more,” rather than, “Let’s look at the big picture.” When he spoke 10 years later, on the verge of the millennium, he gave pretty much the same speech – because virtually nothing had changed.

Cities are “whole systems” and function something like living organisms. Their main organs are linked together, complementing each other’s services for the benefit of the whole and relating the whole to its environment in a way that could be of reciprocal benefit to all organs and the whole organism. The city’s organs include structures for transportation, living, working, education, shopping, recreation, manufacturing, and distribution. 

The whole organism of the city we’ve been constructing for the last 150 years has been built on the basis of linking functions through ever-lengthening strands of connection. First, there were rails and trains and streetcars, then much more massively, highways, cars, and trucks. After World War II, a wildfire of enthusiasm for consumerist development swept the world. The United States emerged from the war the only industrialized country that wasn’t pounded into the dust in direct warfare on its own territory. Assessing the results, the United States noticed it had about 5% of the world’s population and half its resources at its disposal. We were the Saudi Arabia of oil in the 1950s and had half the world’s cars. The United States spent that victory bonus building its freeway system and low-density housing, blasting off into the age of consumerism. Each house was a big, prosperous shell in the suburbs, accessible only by automobile and demanding to be filled with consumer products. This consumerism was as internationally contagious as the flu and spread everywhere. Today, perhaps the ultimate expression of this consumerism is the Chinese development model.

In the wealthy world, cities are whole systems made up of low-density development called suburbs, largely “single-use” downtowns called central business districts, with asphalt and pavement covering vast areas of land to facilitate travel by car. This is all supported by an oil infrastructure that stretches from our local gas stations to our 725-plus U.S. military bases scattered around the world, and heavily concentrated in and around the Middle East and Central Asian oil fields. With its far-flung support systems, says social critic and author James Howard Kunstler, this scattered city of suburbs constitutes “the greatest misallocation of resources in history.” This diffuse city structure has been based on fossil fuel energy that became cheaper and cheaper over the last 150 years. Now such energy is getting more and more expensive as we approach peak oil production. After that, oil will become scarcer and even more expensive, as will any nonrenewable resource that’s burnt up instead of recycled.

Redesigning the City

We can change our cities. In fact, our cities have already changed. Portland has frequent transit that’s free in the downtown area, and has designated a “urban growth boundary” to limit the expansion of the city’s urban area and preserve nearby farmland and other open spaces. and a thriving and very dense new residential and “mixed-use” center in the Pearl District. The rooftops in Tel Aviv, Israel and dozens of Chinese cities sparkle with solar hot-water panels. Copenhagen’s pedestrian street, the Støget, has been growing steadily since 1962 and now stretches more than two miles. In San Francisco, Pacific Gas and Electric, the regional utility, has recently signed contracts for over one billion dollars for electricity from BrightSource Energy’s desert solar electric power facilities. They will provide electricity to apartments and condominiums for city centers where transit works well – a more “ecocity” solution than placing solar electric panels on car-dependent suburbs.  

But we can do more, much more, to redesign our cities for pedestrians and bicyclists, taking up very small areas of land in more compact development. Taller buildings with rooftop gardens and solar greenhouses can be linked by pedestrian connections between rooftops and terraces above ground level, making city centers intimately accessible to people on foot. As we add population and ecological architecture in pedestrian/transit centers, we can gradually eliminate the unsustainable suburbs.

As development shifts toward the centers, bicycle and pedestrian paths will begin to reach into the suburban fabric, alongside restored creeks that revive natural plant and animal communities and provide refreshed water circulation and filtration. Community gardens and parks will appear along these networks of waterways and bicycle paths. When buildings become dilapidated or damaged by fire, termites, earthquakes, floods, or dry rot, they are removed rather than replaced. With time, larger agricultural areas reappear and nature will reach in to meet citizens, rather than citizens driving for half an hour or more through the suburbs to get “out” to nature. 

The notion that "city is city and nature is nature and never the twain shall meet" is one of the worst en vogue ideas in architecture and city planning circles today.  If we don’t dramatically celebrate nature as brought into cities in small but rich ways, such as through waterway restoration and its attendant wildlife, then there will be serious consequences.  We’re already in trouble as evidenced by global warming and species dying all around the planet, it will be worse if we continue to extend into the future ideas that banish nature from the city. 

If the biggest things we build are our cities, then it’s one of the biggest mistakes we can make to exclude the experience of nature from people who live in them. But if we learn from nature and  come to understand our cultural foundations in nature, we can then understand what sort of foundation in land use patterns and design we need for sustainable cities. 

A Good Start

Ecocities have their antecedents in the Garden City movement in the first half of the 20th century and in the critiques by Lewis Mumford of the rapidly spreading city of cars. The cultural flux of modernist, can-do thinking after the World War II laid the conceptual groundwork for the modern ecocity.

Three cities – Auroville, Arcosanti,  and Curitiba – set the parameters of the ecocity. In Auroville, India, Mirra Alfassa, a devotee of the revolutionary mystic Sri Aurobindo, founded an international experiment in living and thinking in 1968. Their philosophical idea was to further human evolution toward higher consciousness, partially through the building of an international city where everyone was citizen of the world, dedicated to peace and an exploration of human enlightenment and higher fulfillment. Auroville soon became famous as a city restoring the forests and regenerating the degraded landscape near Pondicherry, India.

At the same time Paolo Soleri, an architect, philosopher, and student of Frank Lloyd Wright, was thinking through his vision of the compact ecological city. He envisioned a city much more three-dimensional than the flat, automobile-dominated giants spreading out rapidly at the time. He pointed out the paradox that a compact city rising tall from its foundations – which didn’t have cars and highways or need the oceans of gasoline for everyday functioning – was actually far smaller and more efficient in terms of energy, land, and time. He dubbed his idea of cities with much smaller ecological footprints “arcology,” the synthesis of architecture and ecology. He set out to build an example in the high desert city of Arcosanti, located halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff in Arizona.

Curitiba, in Brazil, was an already-existing city that moved in an ecological direction. Mayor Jaime Lerner, with a team of architects and planners, began shaping the city around transit-oriented compact development. They planned five long arms of tall buildings to reach out from a city center, where dozens of city blocks had become pedestrian streets. Streets dedicated to busses and emergency vehicles only served these arms of high-density development. With this pedestrian and transit-oriented basic form, the city went on to grow around open spaces preserved as public parks. The city planted millions of trees in denuded former ranching land, instituted stringent recycling including trading groceries for garbage in poor areas, and built inspiring libraries called “lighthouses of learning” in the city’s neighborhoods that rose up five or six stories. In general, this visionary leadership released a torrent of creative innovation with an ecocity base unlike anything before.

These innovations haven’t realized their potential. Auroville’s growth as an ecocity, despite significant support from the Indian government and official UN endorsement as an international city, has slowed to a crawl. Arcosanti, in contrast, has received relatively little support from government, foundations, and the general public, and it too hasn’t really gotten off the ground. Curitiba is today overrun by cars despite its early leading ecocity role.

Humanity failed to heed the lessons these pioneers offered. What we could have done by creative initiative we now must do out of necessity. Oil is running short, the climate is changing, and species are disappearing: We can no longer indulge in isolated experiments. We must redesign every city, and soon.

Next Steps

There are several ways to begin turning our cities into ecocities. First, there is ecocity mapping. This amounts to mapping your city plan so you have a clearer sense of your centers of most vitality. The map shows where to increase density and diversity of development, which is in those centers, and where to best open up the landscape for such features as restored creeks, expanded community gardens, and parks, which is often in the areas farthest from those centers. 

The ecocity general plan, like any other general plan, lays out policies for  developing and maintaining the city’s physical expression and functionality. Those policies have to also include specific reference to financial investment; if the city doesn’t allocate money for the transition, its plan is just symbolic window dressing. If no serious money is spent, no serious progress will be made.

“Transfer of Development Rights,” or TDR, is a powerful real-estate investment and development tool. It provides a height bonus for developers willing to put higher density housing or other structures in exactly the right place according to an ecocity transition plan. The developers pay for the purchase of development rights that are transferred from one part of town to their taller buildings in the growing pedestrian transit centers. At  sites where the development rights are purchased, existing buildings are removed and no more development can be built there. This tool is a willing seller/developer transaction – when the seller wants to leave, a ready fund is there to buy his or her property. After the sale, buildings are dismantled and recycled and open space, such as a restored creek or community garden, is created. This tool, which is being used now in South Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border, is perhaps the single most powerful tool presently available for rolling back sprawl development, making it possible to plant millions of new acres in CO2-absorbing trees as well as bringing close-in farming back into our lives.

There are many other tools to create ecocities. Car-free-by-contract housing, for example, encourages building apartments and condominiums with no car parking provided because residents don’t need or want cars. Any policy that establishes and expands the pedestrian environment is a tool for building ecocities. Such policies can be used to shape buildings that utilize the sun’s energy, eliminating the necessity of having to pay for a car to get access to the city’s benefits, or help restore natural landscapes. Such tools produce pioneering transit systems that fit low-energy infrastructure, like that in Curitiba, and provide free public transportation, like that in downtown Portland. They are the wave of the future – if we are smart enough to get to that future in one piece.

Richard Register, the founding president of Urban Ecology and founder and current president of Ecocity Builders, convened the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990. He is the author of Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Photo from Flick by lynac