Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A John King, Urbanist: Keep Nature Out of Cities

John King’s column on the future of downtown Berkeley (Chronicle, Tuesday May 15) represents an all too prevalent and self-righteous superiority evident in the fraternity of urban designers and the critics promoting them. They think cities have nothing to do with nature, that it’s beneath the dignity of the urban realm.

Gary Larson best illustrates what I mean about. The characters in this cartoon are chickens at an art opening. Chickens are standing around with cocktail glasses, nibbling away at hors d’oeuvres, chattering with one another. Standing among them are chicken sculptures in various poses and on the walls chicken paintings, chicken prints, modern chickens, cubist chickens, impressionist chickens.

Is the city for people alone, for their self-referential conversation with themselves and devoid of relationship with the world outside? Lest we forget that human economy is built upon nature’s economy, it’s time to remind ourselves that today’s city is at once the largest creation of humanity and humanity’s worst assault upon nature. Not just any city, but the city of cars, sprawl and paving all driven by stupendous burning of cheap energy. We might just catch on too late that we have banished nature from our experience in our cities. Why climate change and why are we hurtling toward an energy crisis of no less than the end of all the available oil the planet could accumulate in 200 million years? For more than any other reason it’s because we have ignored nature as we built cities. Cities could use a small dose of nature to remind us of all that. Our design imagination should be capable of creek restoration in urban centers, of even celebrating our relationship with water and its life-giving properties.

Why not a creek in downtown? John King thinks it’s phony. Strawberry Creek is currently running through a concrete culvert a couple dozen yards south of Center Street. It didn’t choose to be there. But to locate it elsewhere is illegitimate King believes.

A creek is as it functions in its hydrological and biological processes. The course of the creek is not the essential. When a landslide shifts a creek a hundred yards to one side does it cease to be a creek? Absolutely not. In short order it classifies its gravel, sand and mud in swirling deposits creating anchorage for plants and shelter for eggs of fish and insects and life starts coming back immediately. The first surge of water begins seeds and eggs and such mobile creatures as crawdads, dragonfly larvae and fish and birds that eat them. From the sun comes energy, from the air come birds and insects and more seeds. Animals approach to drink the water. Children come to play and adults to seek respite and just enjoy the sounds and smells of flowing, living water. All functions are on go from the moment the creek adjusts course.

A creek is a living environment, and there are infinite designs in which it functions perfectly well with its richly interconnected living systems. Those functions include aerating the water with its flow, filtering water with its plants, freshening the air above the stream, buffering floods with its capacity assisted by meander and wide places, providing habitat for dozens of species from aquatic and riparian to terrestrial and airborne: fish, crawdads, dragonflies, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, providing crucial education about living systems to people of all ages and many other things.

When a creek is buried it ceases to be a creek in the essence of what a creek is. Everything dies. When opened to sky, sun and surrounding living environment and provided with an adjacent riparian landscape, even a small one, it is genuinely restored in that it’s life and ecological systems and services all come back.

Think twice: if not “wondrous,” a misquote implying starry-eyed impracticality and attributed to me in Kings column, creeks could be at least wonderful in downtowns.

Richard Register is President of Ecocity Builders, a non-profit educational and research corporation and author of “Ecocities – Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. He is founder of the International Ecocity Conferences, the seventh in the series coming to San Francisco in April of 2008.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Autokind Vs. Mankind and the Denis Hayes Paradox

My friend Ken Schneider was laid to rest, more or less, yesterday. He disappeared. He drove a beat up old car deep into inaccessibility in Utah a year and three months ago. The car was found but not him. The Sheriff’s department, family and friends, dogs and helicopters couldn’t turn him up anywhere in those vast canyon lands of echoes and whispering winds. And when he disappeared he could hardly walk. He loved that country more than anywhere else. So that mystery abides and the memorial service was held with near certainty that he’s not spending the last of his days living it up in an unfamiliar distant tropical paradise where none of the ladies give him a glance and none of the drinks bring back his youth or realize his dreams of helping the rest of us. Ultimately, it looked like a graceful if strange parting, filled with different kinds of pain for family and friends for a different kind of man.

He wrote an obscure book that should have been the clarion call to save our civilization back when we still had resources availability on our side. Of course nobody wanted to be saved when they were drunk with power, fun, confidence and the sense of youthful immortality. By sheer coincidence it was published in 1971, the year oil production in the United State peaked. The quantity produced of that “black gold” stuff has been relentlessly sliding away in the US ever since, no matter how hard the oil companies try and car drivers pray. Today as we approach peak world oil production and as the era of it’s cheapness passes, so well may our opportunity to heed his ignored words.

The name of his book was “Autokind vs. Mankind.” He gave it the subtitle, “an Analysis of Tyranny, a Proposal for Rebellion, a Plan for Reconstruction.” If ever there was a relevant warning, like a doctor telling a teenager cigarettes will kill you, here it was. It’s still there, as unread as ever, now that the signs of cancer are spreading everywhere and I for one am having as much trouble sounding the warning as my friend did back when I hadn’t yet met him, back when I was waking up to the same pathetic story unfolding, the story of a society like the Easter Islanders too blinkered and deluded to see the most obvious physical threat staring them dead in the eye. For Easter Islanders it was the mania for cutting down trees until they were all dead and gone and carving absurd statues in a binge of building something to destroy most of the life on a remote Pacific island. For us it is burning out a planet’s worth of oil to build a physical infrastructure that’s suffocating the landscape and beginning to take down the climate stability and biosphere of an entire planet. You think the Pacific was big? Picture the all-embracing universe and Earth as an island floating in it.

Talk about a readable book, if you can get a slightly objective, not an excuse-making, difficult-subject-averse addict’s perspective on it. The whole fascinating history of the automobile is there in “Autokind vs. Mankind.” Did you know that they had steam-powered things called Russell carriages on the roads of England in the 1830? They were considered so
dangerous, though, they were banned in 1840 by the Court of Sessions. That’s going way back. Of the first three vehicles somewhat equivalent to cars purchased by the US Army each was “equipped so that a mule may be hitched to it, should it refuse to run.” Schneider chronicled the entire panorama of road building, invasion of asphalt into the cities and the swath of opinion swirling around and buoying up the automobile and its fortune. Said one Ladd Towel in a magazine of 1913, for example, “For genuine pleasure, health and excitement an auto is better than medicine, vacation or religion. It makes one forget he is living. It makes him feel that if he must die the auto route is best.” Said Henry Ford, with a distinct accent of sarcasm, “Our civilization – such that it is – rests on cheap and convenient power.” The history’s all there in “Autokind vs. Mankind.” Then again, as Ford is also quoted in Ken’s book, “History is bunk.” And it may actually be because this very man may well one day prove to have written its downfall.

Ken Schneider influenced me a lot, though I hadn’t seen much of him in the last 20 years. He’d given up on the problem of the city of cars, sprawl, paving and oil to turn his central attention to philosophical ramblings about democracy and humanism. Taking his earlier words to heart – a true idea is forever – and working to bring some balance back into the cities people build, I spend a couple hours every Sunday I’m in the Bay Area working on a creek daylighting project at the edge of Berkeley and Albany near the bayshore. The digging to bring the creek back from its underground tomb has long since been replaced by the less dramatic maintenance of biodiversity and a small orchard there necessitated by a constant weak assault from invasive species and lackadaisical, probably bored vandals. Mostly, it’s a great success.

Ken’s memorial was held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington way up Arlington Boulevard. I decided to bicycle up there from the creek as he would have approved. It’s a long way it turns out, pretty much up-hill all the way, some of it impossible to pedal on a bicycle with only three gears. So I pushed it about one quarter of the way. I passed a gas station on the way up. $3.31 per gallon for premium – on its was up again too. Yes, last of the cheap fuel is upon us. A couple blocks later where the slope had moderated enough that I could begin pedaling again, I stopped and got off.

Jesus Christ! What happened here? Blood sprayed all over the street, curb and sidewalk. I got of my bike for a moment of silence and double checking my eyes. It looked like a large balloon of blood had been hit by a car at more than 40 miles per hour. Must have been a dog. If it had been a child down at fender level it would have been cleaned up immediately by humans who can’t stand to see such reality shoved in their faces. But being just a dog…

I arrived somewhat shaken and out of breath. There is no way that place – the Unitarian Universalist Church and the whole single family home suburb extending from downtown Berkeley all the way up the hill for an hour’s worth of labored pedaling and pushing – could exist at all without that once-in-the-planet’s-lifetime gift of fossil chemicals called oil. So readily available. So easy to handle. So powerful in small doses of high concentration. $3.31 a gallon and inevitably going up and up. To think that the age that made this massive slab of asphalt and concrete possible,
all those millions, approaching a billion cars is coming to an end. To think those countless “single family houses” with their ample front, back and side yards, all their cute decorative gardens and driveways and double and triple garages can’t be maintained with “alternative” fuels and lots of Priuses or buses. One hundred years ago nothing anything like this could have existed and one hundred years in the future it will be impossible again. How much death and destruction, because of this binge of hyped up building the wrong kind of city, will there be by then?

Well, Ken Schneider knew even when people rushed to shut him up, edged him out of his job as a city planner and when editors and reviewers stonewalled the message of his book back more than 30 years ago.

In 1990 Denis Hayes delivered the keynote speech to a conference I organized with a committee of friends and colleagues. That conference was called the First International Ecocity Conference and was followed by five more, in Adelaide, Australia, 1992; Dakar, Senegal, 1996; Curitiba, Brazil, 2000; Shenzhen, China, 2002 and Bangalore, India, 2006. Denis, you may remember was chief organizer for the original Earth Day in 1970 and went on to head up the United States Solar Energy Research Institute, which was summarily dismantled by Ronald Regan.

Said Denis, how could we be winning so many environmental battles and still be losing the war? I call this the Denis Hayes Paradox. Despite progress in establishing good laws for protecting species, establishing wilderness areas, achieving higher efficiencies, better insulation, more thorough recycling and the like, we were in 1990 doing far worse than ever with the really large problems, such as climate change and erosion of biodiversity on the planet. Just as the prescient Ken Schneider hadn’t seen anything yet when ranting eloquently against the car and sprawl in 1971, so Denis Hayes hadn’t seen anything yet in terms of what we are seeing in global heating and world threat to living systems today 17 years after the First International Ecocity Conference.

The answer to the Denis Hayes Paradox is that we haven’t faced exactly what Ken Schneider had the courage to face when he was attacked frontally by everyone thinking they were in love with their cars and swamped with glorious materialism made room for by big private domains of house, den, yard and garage.

Why him? At the memorial service I learned about just how adventurous this man was, working for international aid programs, raising his kids in Africa. Go back far enough, to when he was 19 years old, and he was a gung-ho marine. After storming the hills of Okinawa against a hail of Japanese bullets, watching his comrades torn to pieces along with enemy fighters, maybe that gave him his supreme confidence; the opposition to his thinking, as compared to his body, wasn’t so bad after all.

Now days we see environmentalists clamoring over one another to buy up and subsidize the Prius and other “better” cars so we can keep driving, driving, driving. We see august institutions like the University of California at Berkeley getting massive by-offs from the oil industry (BP’s half billion dollar grant, for instance, to find biologically based “road fuels”). Now there’s a desperate effort to milk cheap energy out of the agricultural soils of America so we can keep driving and keep feeding our cars instead of our people! Now there’s a desperate effort to continue designing cities for cars instead of people! It gets down to mayors promoting changing light bulbs at Bioneers and telling their addicted constituents we are getting
green and sustainable when it is ever more obvious that all the caps and trades, all the fine tuning of the murderous infrastructure continues the pattern of delusion that gives rise to Denis Hayes’ Paradox.

We will solve this one when, and only when, we rediscover the sort of thinking in “Autokind vs. Mankind,” or maybe only when that exact book is taken seriously.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Disaster City Center Malls are History!

Some of us in the urban creeks restoration movement were treated to the first signs of the last throes of an automobile/land use fad as big as the country it transformed. Recently, (November 6,2006) members of the community activist group in Berkeley, California called Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza met with one of the representatives of the car culture that rocketed to prominence after the Second World War and is now approaching a sputtering turn around.

The local story is that our group wants to bring back a block of Strawberry Creek to the city’s downtown, while the University of California has recruited a hotel developer to build a project that would place a building right up to the present street line, rather than setting the building back in various places to make room for a creek and plaza.

Our guest at the luncheon meeting and a local businessman, and in addition a recent student of the computer graphics application called SketchUp, showed us simplified renderings of a possible creek “water feature” heading down Center Street with a lane of traffic along its edge. He repeated more than five times that hundreds of pedestrian malls in city centers were disasters – he’d traveled the country widely and did some research on the Internet to confirm that. When many of us present pointed out that there were many successes as well as failures and added that there are many pedestrian streets that are extremely successful and well loved in Europe and other parts of the world, he explicitly said models from outside the country were irrelevant since Americans love their cars.

He referred to the effect if the creek were not very shallow as a “revine,” and so, presented an almost straight line channel to carry some fraction of the creek water in a trench one to five feet deep symbolically through the city center, while out of hand rejecting any discussion of shifting the building footprint.

Well, that’s exactly what the group is all about: defining the building footprint so that there could be a creek and pedestrian plaza to grace the city center. He did do a good job re-convincing us that trying to create anything that looked remotely like a creek within the present street edge would look terrible. I said I’d rather have no creek at all than a trench with water that would give a bad reputation to creek daylighting in the future (daylighting meaning bring up buried creeks into the light of day).

But more importantly, there is the larger historical perspective that the discussion brings up.
While writing the following in a note to my fellow creek activists it dawned on me that expositions like our guest’s show a massive historic trend, powered by oil and the absurd build out of suburbia to the strained limits of both, both oil and suburbia, that is now turning around before our very eyes. Here’s what I said in my note to Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza:

Our guest reiterated many times that there are hundreds of mall failures in the US and precious few successes. I think he exaggerates on the negative and also that precedent, though often helpful, is not strictly required. Berkeley can be creative and can actually take the lead here, as it has in a number of other instances – first creek “daylighting” in the US, first Ecology Center, first to disinvest in Apartheid South Africa, first Styrofoam ban, first dog park, first police car radios! and many other firsts. Berkeley could do something that isn’t precisely modeled in the past, like our Strawberry Creek Plaza which we propose would be a combination creek opening, pedestrian street part of the way and a plaza set into the environment. Do we really need an exact precedent here? Partial precedents – and leadership again for the city – are good enough.

But perhaps why so many malls failed should be mentioned and our guest’s observation of that is at least partially true, if incomplete in omitting the many successes. The failures generally cited happened to be at a particular time in recent history and people have been generalizing every since without pointing out the time frame. The really large spate of failures was because of a disinvestment in the downtowns and new investment in car-dependent sprawl that occurred between the Second World War and about the beginning of the 21st century. Many other disinvestments contributed to killing whole town centers along with their pedestrianized streets, too. In fact I would say it was heroic for people to even try city center malls in the circumstances. They were conscientious people doing everything they could to save something very valuable.
I know a brilliant planner and author named Ken Schneider who is known only to people who have been searching for creative answers to urban problems and people who have followed the history and theory of cities for a long time. His books were published in the 1970s and 1980s. He was one of the heroic planners in the 1960s of the Fresno Mall, a project stuck in the middle of the worst time in history to be working for the pedestrian. I tell his story in my book, Ecocities. The Fresno Mall is frequently cited as a disaster – and it was, but not for the short-sighted reasons generally stated. The real reason was that at the same time planners there were struggling to attract people to the center, the city made decisions to close a large downtown hospital and a large hotel and move them way out of the downtown area. The IRS also set up its center three miles from downtown. Thus thousands of employees were decamped to the suburbs as well as placing the people far from the center in new low-density, car-dependent development. And by now we are all familiar with the big box destruction of city centers in towns everywhere epitomized by Wal-Mart.

One can say – “Hey! People love their cars so that’s just the way it is.” But no such phenomenon as the Fresno Mall failure is happening in communities today. Except for on the distant fringes of megalopolis sprawl and around smaller towns, there just isn’t much room left and commutes of more than two hours a day are just too ridiculous. Cities are now surrounded by such vast areas of sprawl you can’t just build new sprawl three miles in every direction – it’s already there. You can’t even build ten or fifteen miles in every direction because there are Bays and coast and parks, etc. thank God!, as well as sprawl already soundly established.

Moreover, as we approach and pass Peak Oil production world wide we will see gasoline prices continue climbing and alternatives will prove to be expensive or very destructive. Ethanol, for example, is about the price of gasoline now and millions of acres of farmland are now being impressed to feed cars instead of people. This is a social justice issue as well as an ecological one.

Finally, the “love affair” with the car is growing a bit old, stuck in traffic jams, wasting thousands of hours every year, paying enormous bills for the habit, gagging on pollution and worrying about global heating and being run over by humongous SUVs. Times have changed and we’d better grow up beyond that old courtship stage, which many of us enjoyed in the back seats of our now aging, if still voracious car culture.

Basically people ARE reinvesting in downtowns, as we see in housing, conference center, hotel and museum coming to downtown Berkeley and such projects coming to many other places in the country. This is a historic opportunity of a very positive sort. Let’s welcome it and take the lead – the historic moment is now!