Making cities sustainable is a crucial challenge
by Richard Register
IN MANY WAYS, cities are the main things we human beings build: the homes, offices, factories, schools, streets and parks gather there, as do the vast supply lines pumping in water, food, lumber, gasoline - and pumping out waste. And yet, the way cities are built, the logic of their internal functions and their connections with resources and natural environment are virtually ignored - they are not seen as potentially whole, living organisms. We can see houses as homes, and so it should be with cities, but even more so. Yet even many conscientious environmentalists, reacting to the negative impacts of our present cities, fail to see the great creative, social, cultural, even spiritual good that cities can facilitate. Perhaps most people give up on building the good city before they even consider it seriously because of the sheer scale of the task, perhaps because technology and "Progress" have failed to give us a secure, humane world and we have lost confidence in the idea that we can shape our own destiny. In any case, with the exception of war, there is no issue more important for the future of our species than making cities ecologically healthy.
The City Past And Present
Imagine yourself five hundred years ago standing on a hill overlooking town - almost any town, anywhere. In Europe you see a cluster of buildings two to five stories high: houses, apartments over stores, small handicrafts shops. There's a walled section in the middle of town and surmounting it all is the church or cathedral spire, a symbol of the community's heaven-oriented religious cosmology. Overlooking the Indian pueblo in the American Southwest there is again the clustered pattern of mixed living and working habitats - this time revealing an earth-focused and seasons-conscious religious bent: kivas spotted around the communal dance floor, openings in the architecture facing south to receive - even celebrate - the warmth of the winter sun.
Now imagine looking over a good-sized present-day city or large town. There's almost no comprehensible form at all, save the tangle of streets and freeways we all know go somewhere and link some things (while also separating and dividing). The whole scattered amalgam is probably cast in a yellow-brown haze of auto emissions over which rise a few scattered, sometimes clustered tall buildings, most of them banks and insurance companies.
Towering above even the symbols of money and security, transmission antennas flash sci-fi red lights to ward off giant buzzing aluminum gnats full of jet powered people. The antennas, we all know, are beaming images directly into the houses sprinkled widely in almost random patches about the landscape. Therein people worship at the altar of diversion from nature and diversion from deeper confrontation with themselves. The altar, of course, is television, which constantly implores them in their isolation to make offerings to the giant companies, financed through the tall buildings (nobody else can afford television time). Looking over this town we again see the values and cosmology revealed in the city structure, or lack thereof, in this case.
For those few that are students of both ecology and city planning and design, standing on these fictitious hills viewing these cities reveals something way beyond, say, the benefits of solar energy, or the value of scrupulous recycling. The lessons run deeper than the significance of life- styles based on minimizing consumption and maximizing conservation. What comes to the mind of the urban ecologist looks more like this:
Lesson #1. The city must gather people for some worthwhile reasons or it would not persevere these hundreds, even thousands, of years.
Lesson #2. But the shape of the city looks connected in some way to the disastrous condition of the air, farm lands, nature in the modern city; that is, flat and sprawled seems to be a problem.
Lesson #3. If we can build cities with millions of acres of concrete and asphalt, 100 story buildings, giant metallic insects and mysterious remote control communications, then we can build anything - even a healthy, exciting, vital future replete with cities that serve both people and nature.
The City Future
Walk back up that imaginary hill again and try to picture a city that selects the best of what we have learned from science and art, a city that regains consciousness of place and conscience toward nature.
Each city according to its location and climate is unique, but many patterns are similar to each other and similar to the older towns we looked down upon earlier in this article. In radically de-emphasizing the automobile and bringing together again a cluster of many different functions - urban planners call it "mixed uses" - the city begins again to take on a more comprehensible form, more three-dimensional than the sprawled flat city. The gigantic megalopolises have broken up into smaller cities linked by speedy public transit, though far more people work and live in the same town rather than commute from one to another. Where the giant city used to cover the countryside like a one- story thick carpet with a few areas of tall buildings, now nature and agriculture has crept back in and pushed the city into a spot pattern of development, rather than a sprawled two-dimensional or strip one-dimensional pattern.
Ernest Callenbach in ECOTOPIAportrays the San Francisco Bay Area megalopolis (which includes Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, Palo Alto, Richmond and dozens of smaller, physically contiguous towns) as breaking up into a necklace of separate towns linked by very high speed public transportation, each town with its own particular economy, products and character.
Something like our view from the hill top. If we zero in with binoculars we begin to see the details. We notice creeks and small rivers removed from their underground culverts, restored to their earlier state between the inhabited "spots" and running open through cities, their courses bounded by parks and orchards, gardens and playgrounds, foot and bicycle paths. The intimate human scale is everywhere in evidence with great diversity of detail, but the human scale also includes tall buildings. But these buildings are radically different in form and environmental and social effect. The severe simple boxes of an earlier era are broken up with terraces and design features that permit the sun to warm in winter and prevent winds from becoming excessively difficult.
Most large buildings are mixed use, many apartments and condos, many work places. People live here. The kinds of places that need little natural light: theaters, photo labs, warehouses, etc., are located in the lower stories, lifting the downtown activities higher into the sun. The views are breathtaking. Occasional covered streets have the grandeur of cathedrals. Unlike their predecessors, the larger buildings of the ecocity's downtown, provide workplaces for non-commuters mainly. The hundreds of thousands who once poured into downtowns over billions of dollars of freeway in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of cars, now quietly zip in and out by foot or bicycle from nearby, with a minority coming in by bus and rail. No car parking downtown except for emergency delivery and construction/maintenance vehicles.
The larger buildings sport multi-story solar greenhouses and rooftop gardens that compete with local private and communal gardens for food production and horticulture. Solar collectors and windmills glint and twinkle in the sun. The streets hum with human activity - rather than rumble and scream with mechanical noise. No air pollution or soot, and no deaths under rubber tires. Bridges link many buildings and make the rooftop cafes as lively as those below on the streets and along the water courses. Arcades, awnings and covered walkways make downtown streets negotiable in all kinds of weather. Transit shelters and posted schedules make easy work of bus, trolley and street car travel.
Night time is a great time to be outside moving about and socializing in the many lively spots - TV looks too passive and dull to these people who can barely believe that in 1983 the average American family watched more than seven hours a day. At night the sky is absent of pollution and almost all glare - stars are everywhere, astronomical observatories have begun to function properly again. In the day, song birds and hummingbirds fill the fragrant air of the "carfree zones" and neighborhoods.
In the lower-density areas that remain, streets are made narrower - almost no parking is needed since these neighborhoods are within bicycling distance of employment and walking distances from transit. The streets are generally narrowed from the north side so that gardens can be planted with minimal shading from the buildings on the south side of the street. South-facing houses frequently have retro-fitted greenhouses, north-facing ones are often peeking out from fruit trees - many of these homes have backyard greenhouses and vegetable gardens. Some streets in low density areas are removed entirely, replaced by foot paths and bicycle routes. The local "fruit and nut brigade" cares for, plants and harvests many of the street trees, making the city almost as productive as straight-forward conventional orchards, but here the distribution costs are exceptionally low.
Some lower density areas have also been transformed by the integral neighborhood idea, in which village scale arrangements function for most practical matters: workspaces approximately balance adult residential space, considerable food is produced, recycling approaches 100%, stores for everyday merchandise and handicrafts are on hand - and the rest of the city, its colleges, hospitals, movie houses, street theater, art galleries, larger employers and specialized markets are a short bicycle or transit ride away.
From the top of the hill, television and radio towers are less conspicuous. But knowing something of what goes on in town, we also know more about the quality and style of communication. Information storage and retrieval technology, once worshipped in the declining years of the industrial age, is now seen as a useful filing system in certain circumstances, but information per se isgiven no particular status. People have learned to select far more carefully the information that helps preserve and explore life. There is more discretion, less tolerance for irrelevant and degrading information and images. The whole society in deciding to build ecocities, made a commitment to bringing lifestyle into harmony with the biosphere - the process of making meaningful choices has rubbed off on everyone.
The ecocity functions according to certain principles, which, if understood by many people, could begin influencing cities in positive directions immediately.
Small scale - highly qualified. Equal population areas of Los Angeles and New York are radically different in physical size. Despite its large buildings, New York covers a much smaller amount of land, uses about 1/3 the energy per capita (despite its far more extreme weather), and has very few cars and much smaller square footage per person in asphalt and concrete streets, freeways, interchanges, parking structures, vehicles. The issue of optimum or maximum size of an ecocity has hardly been broached because most thinking on ecologically healthy alternative communities has focused on villages and small towns, while people contemplating future cities have generally not dared to believe they could be radically reformed.
The key question in issues of scale: what is the final cultural and ecological impact? If it is possible to have a high population, say one million people in a city or cluster of cities, and use considerably less resources than conventional small towns of the same population total, then that's not such a bad arrangement. But at whatever population, the scale of material consumption and waste should be much smaller than in today's cities and villages.
Paolo Soleri takes the idea of the small city to its paradoxical conclusion. This architect who is building Arcosanti in Arizona, is promoting the building of whole towns in a single structure or a tightly interlinked cluster of stylistically consistent tall buildings. In these structures, land area for human society would reach its absolute smallest with cities of 100,000 or 1,000,000 covering only tens or hundreds of acres, using almost no energy at all once built (save solar energy and human waste heat energy) and producing virtually no pollution - almost all wastes would be recycled as new resources. It would be very informative to learn how such a city would work - or why it would not, and in which ways. Unfortunately this smallest of all cities (and potentially largest of all buildings) is so enveloped in narrow criticism and so plagued with operational problems and lack of money at the one location it is being attempted, it's unlikely to be actually built within the decade or so. The price for a town-sized "arcology" as Paolo calls his ultra- compact cities, would be less than an aircraft carrier.
Access by Proximity is an important principle of ecological city building. If enough diversity is close enough, you don't need to travel a lot for life's basics: residence, job, school... The idea is to design maximum access right into the city structure. Mixed use zoning again, but the principle goes further than this. Proximity access policies could also include local hiring practices, renting apartments to people who don't own cars and who work nearby, making bank loans available in the neighborhoods from which the savings come (very often low income urban areas have accumulated savings in great excess of the loans made in those same areas, while suburban developers use those funds for anti- ecological construction). Another proximity policy: ordinances permitting increased residential construction in activity centers and prohibiting it in farther-out areas. Land trusts and public bond issues, as in Stockholm, could purchase structures in car-dependent areas and convert suburbia back to nature, agriculture, or ecologically stable villages.
Small scale recentralization. We hear a great deal about decentralization - but it has to be thought out well or it quickly falls into serious contradictions. Suburbia is perhaps the most decentralized form of human development behind scattered farms and ranches. But suburbia supports the most centralized establishments conceivable: giant automobile manufacturers and oil companies. The suburbanite sits decentralized in his or her little home watching a communications medium so big and centralized only a handful of companies in the whole country can afford to advertise (and decide what goes) on it. From the ecocity point of view, cities, towns and even villages should be recentralized physically and decentralized in terms of participation in community life and politics.
Diversity is healthy. This is perhaps the largest, broadest principle of all. In cities, as in agriculture and most natural ecological areas, diversity is healthy. Some call diversity complexity and shy away from it in many aspects of life. Some are fatigued by life in today's cities and think it's because the environment is complex. but how complex is sitting in one position driving to work in a car hours each week, doing a repetitive job or conforming to dress codes and social expectations? It's far more complex to be deeply involved in your neighborhood or tending a large garden than doing most of the tiring things of life in the present city. With a closer look, the simple life isn't so simple either and the most complex activities of all are probably the choices people have to make about important moral issues. If we look toward ecology and evolution we see that the tendency toward complexity, toward environments and situations involving great diversity, are precisely those environments and situations that cause individuals and species to survive, grow and diversify. War is exactly the opposite: a convulsion that wipes the slate clean of its messy little details and leaves the ravaged place simplified. The implication of all this is that cities built with the mixed use notion are on the right track.
Ecocity Builders, 339 15th Street, Suite 208, Oakland CA 94612. Ian McHarg's Design with Nature, Paolo Soleri's Arcology, the City in the Image of Man, and E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful contribute key ideas to the basic ecocity concept. Books like the one written by the author of this article, Ecocities, Kenneth Schneider's Autokind vs. Mankind, Paul Downton's Ecopolis: Architecture and cities for a changing climate, go even more directly to the prescription for ecological cities. The bioregional context for these cities is developed in Peter Berg's work with the Planet Drum Foundationof San Francisco.
Richard Register can be reached at email@example.com.
This article was adapted from an earlier version published in In Context Magazine. Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute