Friday, June 11, 2010

UCB Sold Out to BP – a Money Gusher in Downtown Berkeley

Anyone visiting downtown Berkeley lately will notice the advancing demolition of the nine story slab that used to be the California Department of Health Services Building. Big machines munch into its gray concrete like steel-jawed dinosaurs ripping up clouds of dust tamped down by fountains of water. It’s quite spectacular, actually. The site’s next incarnation will be as the UC Berkeley Helios Energy Research Facility whose mission is to guess what? Generate profits for BP while researching how to turn plants into road fuels for gas tanks. Is this a worthy project to prevent future oil spills like BP’s big one in the Gulf of Mexico an assault on the world’s farmlands, forests and grasslands and a campaign to make cars and the car-based city look good forever?

Seven years ago I was flying over Malaysia on my way to speak at a conference. I remember a strange sensation building looking down from 35,000 feet at the oddest forest I’d ever seen. It looked like Astroturf from horizon to horizon and it was going on and on as the plane sped forward at 570 miles per hour. Suddenly I realized those weird tiny green star shaped things carpeting the world below must be palms trees. With a shock I realized they had to be oil palms, millions and millions of them. I learned shortly after that approximately 40% of the whole country (now more than 50%) was stripped of its rich forests for oil palm plantations. The Malaysian government is promoting biofuels refineries, subsidizing the fuels and forcing “gas stations” to switch to biofuels. On the island of Borneo, Indonesia is clearing forests for oil palms too, joining the ranks of biofuels providers. And of course China, India, Turkey and many other countries are building automobile dependent cities like crazy, following our historic lead here in the USA where when looking for blame for the Gulf Oil Spill only one out of one hundred see the connections going back to car drivers navigating the cities built for the automobile.

Back in Berkeley, if you read the sign on the fence at the Health Services Building site, you will see BP and the University trying to appear as green as possible. You will learn on the sign they are going to make the building LEED silver certified with energy conserving design, though green points there will be nullified every day by just a few of its employees driving to work. Green mini plaza? Nice! But the object of the entire enterprise? We learn on the sign on the fence that those working there will be “…using biotechnology in the quest to reverse global climate change.” Over the last three years and five months since announcing their $400 million grant to the University, BP and representatives of UC’s Energy Biosciences Institute to be housed in the Helios Energy Research Facility have taken pains to describe their efforts as benign and healthy. They say they are not interested in turning corn crop lands into fuel producing lands, despite the fact that their research partner getting the other $100 million of the half billion dollar BP grant said in its press release announcement of the deal, “Initiative will put Illinois at forefront of farm bioenergy production.”

Their stated purpose: working on “second generation” biofuels that will not compete with farm land, despite the fact that biofuels production is growing rapidly on farm land right now. In 2009 over 30% of the land in the United States that used to grow corn now produces biofuels, not food. They speak of learning from termites about the chemical reactions that go on inside their guts and reproducing it in labs, reducing cellulose into liquid fuels. Then go on to commercial production with profitable patents for BP, researched largely by UCB professors and grad students. So they don’t appear unsustainable, they say they will get the raw material from wasteland. Wasteland? That’s land that’s too cold or hot, dry or flooded, land that needs massive energy and chemical inputs, irrigation or drainage, for plants grow. There is a reason it’s called wasteland. In fact it is the last of the planet’s biodiversity in forests and brush and grasslands.

Remember this: as Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute points out, one tank of biofuels requires the same amount of land that would feed a person for a year. Even if we were to transform all of American’s food growing land to producing biofuels it would not be enough to run the cars America has today, much less put a dent in the growing car dependent, fuel craving growth in other countries. Notice that convincing people they can drive with green fuels promotes further driving and expansion of a disastrous land pattern dependent in turn upon the car. It’s time to break that vicious cycle. That’s what climate change and deep-sea drilling disasters are warning us about.

What is BP really up to? Their literature speaks about the coming end of oil – and they should know. So the goal looks like it has to be cornering the market for alternative fuels after using up all they can get of the oil we are still dependent on. And they are not talking about fewer cars at all. They are promoting them.

The real solution is to build cities for people, not cars.

- Numerous web sites by UC, and the Energy Biosciences Institute
- My own experience in March and May of 2009 when my organization and a group of UCB activist students organized two teach-ins featuring UC professors Ignacio Chapela, Cori Hayden, That Patzek, Claudia Carr and others
- Lester Brown, “Plan B 4.0,” Norton, 2009, New York
- Posted information on the fence at the demolition/construction site

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Back from Changwon, Barcelona, and The Big Apple

I landed back in the Bay Area about a week ago. Five talks in Korea, one in Barcelona where I participated in a “degrowth” conference, one in Brooklyn, another in Manhattan and a final at Ecovillage at Ithaca two miles outside of Ithaca, New York. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it.

Changwon, South Korea
Wow! Almost a whole ecocity fractal!

Out of the snow of Seoul I flew the length of Korea, southeast, to the blue skies of Changwon. There I was honored to be inducted into the International Advisory Council to the City of Changwon, South Korea, along with Konrad Otto Zimmermann, Secretary General of ICLEI, of Germany; Heather Allen, Senior Manager for Sustainable Development of the UITP, the International Union of Public Transport, Belgium; Bernhard Ensink, Secretary General of the European Cyclists Federation, the Netherlands; and several others. The young mayor, Wan-su Park, beamed with enthusiasm as we all signed pledges to share information for sustainable development into the indefinite future.

The old 1875 idea of an “integral project” rechristened an “ecocity fractal” in 2003 by Australian architect Paul Downton came a couple steps closer to reality – and there I was, as I began to catch on, in the middle of it in Changwon. In 1975, those of us in the earliest organizational predecessor of Ecocity Builders, Arcology Circle, were promoting an idea we called an “integral neighborhood.” The Farallones Institute had just remodeled a house in West Berkeley called the Integral Urban House that had solar active hot water, solar passive greenhouse, composting toilet fertilizing an organic food garden (with a permit from the then-very-innovative Berkeley City Government), a small wind mill, chickens and rabbits, a pond for edible fish (I forget what kind), a floating fly trap on the pond that dropped its starving fly victims into the pond for the hungry fish, bedrooms for students and instructors, rooms for meetings and classes and recycling containers for practically everything.

In Arcology Circle, named after Paolo Soleri’s word for uniting architecture and ecology, we saw the “integral neighborhood” as the next step up, providing housing, jobs, shops, movie theater (there were several very small ones in Berkeley at the time), gardens, multi-story solar greenhouses, larger community food gardens, etc. on a two block sites with street in the middle closed to cars. It was to be an example of a project midway between the Integral House and the integral city. Of course we saw the integral city as one and the same as the ecological city we were promoting and trying in every way we could think of to facilitate. Then, about 2004, Paul Downton, ecocity architect from Adelaide, Australia, proposed calling such projects “ecocity fractals,” meaning a fraction of the whole with all the essential components of a whole larger ecocity present and well organized. We liked the idea and adopted the term for frequent use since.

There in Changwon, Korea, where I was being inducted into the Advisory Council, was the closest thing to an ecocity fractal or integral project I’d ever seen. And I was staying in a hotel that was part of it, lecturing in the conference center there and enjoying late evening drinks with Heather at one of the rooftop bars, the quiet one without dancing. On the terraced roof of the “City 7” as it is called, was a very large discontinuous garden hopping from roof to roof and level to level with trees, fountains, sculpture garden, and for the first six floors, commercial areas including all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, many with views out over the city or into large interior atriums and terraces and all held together with many bridges on several levels linking the various activities. Rising above: about twenty stories of apartments and condominiums.

This becomes important in that I’ve been hawking the theory for many years that a project that exemplified the complex, compact design of a very three-dimensional pedestrian environment like this would help people picture the full design possibilities of ecocities and without such a project or many of them it would be very difficult. Since such a project, from the scale of a neighborhood center on up to a fairly large one like City 7 covering about three blocks of a city would be much smaller than a whole city, obviously, but as such could be build able in a reasonable time and could act like the DNA to shape by example the whole organism, you might say, of the whole city into the future.

In fact, in my travels to speak in 29 countries so far and visit five or six more looking, I’d never found a place coming quite this close. All that was missing from making City 7 genuinely complete as an ecocity fractal of a possible future whole ecocity, maybe Changwon itself as an ecocity, were some elements of food production, connection to a natural environment adjacent or celebrated on site and conspicuous relation to the natural energy flows of the location, such as tall solar passive greenhouses that would have fit very well with the rooftop gardens there. In a hotter climate, shade structures of the sort designed by architect Ken Yeang for his buildings in the tropics or Foster and Partners for their designs for car-free Masdar, now in construction in Abu Dhabi, would have been appropriate. So City 7 is not quite there but tantalizingly close. Being an official advisor to the city, perhaps we can get even closer soon.

A very interesting extra: humor. Approaching City 7 you see several people clamoring over and hanging from the edges of the buildings and bridges between the buildings. At second glance they look suspiciously like life-sized sculptures – and they are, cavorting about the walls, rooftops, gardens and stairs. None are marred by graffiti though many of them you can walk up to and shake hands with.

One thing I didn’t mention, they promote bicycles like crazy there, unlike any other city I’ve seen in Asia or Africa. They even have GPS screens glowing in electronic colors on the handlebars of the hundreds of cheaply available city rental bikes. I personally think that’s overkill and doesn’t help people who should know better where they are in their own heads, a slightly stuffy idea on my own part. But since so many love gizmos like that, maybe it helps.

One thing to offer them to help shape Changwon into the future is our ecocity mapping system – a perfect fit with their long steps toward the ecocity exemplified in City 7. It turns out, when I looked the project up on the Internet it was designed by Jon Jerde’s architectural firm in Venice, California where I gave a lunchtime lecture on ecocities to their 130 design, architecture and support office staff, including Jerde, in 1999. I’d met Jerde at Arcosanti just a couple months earlier. The office was already doing projects heading in the direction I saw arrived at in Changwon at City 7.

Gemcheon and Seoul, South Korea
The future isn’t quite what it used to be

In Gemcheon and Seoul I was under the wing of the remarkable Younsook Park, founder with Futurist Jerry Glenn of the Global Climate Change Situation Room (a short video of the open ceremony six months earlier at: She is also President of the World Future Society, South Korea Chapter and President and Founder of the Korean Foster Care Association.

Besides appearing in Gemcheon where she took several of us to give short talks and consulting to local leaders, she zipped us back to Seoul on the Korean High Speed Rail system (KTX: Korea Train eXpress) for a day of talks and discussions she called the Second Insight Workshop – Forecasting the Technology Revolution. My part naturally was the city of the future. In Seoul I stayed on the fifth floor of her building where she lives on the third floor with her husband, has offices on the ground floor and on the second floor, a school swarming with young foster children who looked to me to be kindergarten age through about second grade. I didn’t ask what she had going on on the fourth floor – already dizzy enough with all she was up to. She had been head of protocol for the Australian Embassy in Korea, and host to such luminaries from the British Commonwealth as the King and Queen and Princess Di. In Seoul she lined me up with Bill Halal, Professor of Management from George Washington University in Washington, DC and Jim Dator the Director of Future Studies at the University of Hawaii. The three of us had the pleasure of presenting at the above mentioned Insight Workshop to a college age audience all afternoon and in the evening to a beaming and autograph seeking swarm of high school students. Her comment that futurists are the rock stars of Korea took on some credence as I fought my way out of the hallway to the elevator, trailed by a dozen kids wanting to be in pictures with me and Bill. Unlucky Jim was still lecturing on into the night.

I have one observation to make about futurist perspectives. I find them often overly optimistic on the technology side. True, often much of what they project comes true and sometimes even more technologically amazing things materialize that even outpace their projections, such as the amazing computer I’m typing on right now, a beautiful Mac OS X version 10.6.2, if typing is even the right term anymore, so correct are they oftentimes.

But about now we also see the strains of other much more bleak themes coming into their lectures, that we might see their expected wonders under cut or utterly destroyed by such possibilities as very serious climate change, unstoppable diseases zipping around the world on international jets, fish populations collapsing right when ever higher populations are crying out for more food from ever less land and more beleaguered waters, possible genetic engineering backfires, further economic and social/political degeneration heading toward collapse and so on. As Jim was talking about some of the possible wonders he imagined in space travel, I began to wonder what was essentially the same and different in my own thinking about ecocities. When I was in around the sixth and seventh grades I was a fan of Willy Ley’s books with Chestly Bonstell’s inspiring illustrations of travel deep into space. I was wondering why the wonder of all that began to dim for me even before Neil Armstrong stepped from his Lunar Lander onto the moon and botched his line to a forgiving world: “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Jim was going on with space exploration possibilities in high gear, though with dire provisos that catastrophe might instead catch up with us. The latter he down played, way down, for the high school students, though.

Meantime I was thinking that ecocities represent a very interesting mix of futuristic visions with very realistic notions of the limits of our ecological and resource base. Some pretty amazing city and town environments can be created but at the same time designed to avert the very disasters he suggested might derail his dreams. I was getting pretty proud of my thinking on the subject and raised the notion from the audience that the science fiction vision and the design for the real world come together most admirably in ecocity thinking. He sensed I was undercutting his space travel theme right away and interrupted me twice to bring the discussion back to space tourism only five years away (that is fairly frequent space tourism, since there have already been two or three rich people who paid enormously to fly into space on Russian rockets).

I didn’t push the point but think it is very worthwhile to delve into some so here goes. He said, with some real enthusiasm, as if it would be a really good thing, that people could take orbital level flights by 2015 for one million dollars, as if that were getting into striking distance for lots of people. So I drew out a line across the top of my 8 1⁄2 by 11 paper about 8 inches long representing one million dollars and divided it in two, 4 inches each, representing $500,000. Dividing that into five I got down to $100,000 or about .8 of an inch. If you spend $10,000 on an airplane you can represent that by .08 or less than a tenth of an inch. Then say you get a fairly good deal with a flight to Europe for your vacation at $1,000, which could be represented by a line .008 of an inch, which is little more than the width of a period on any old printed page or the screen you are looking at right now. When I want to get a sense of proportion I often compare numbers like this and what it means is that there is no way any but an extremely small number of people could ever hope to be space tourists. Similarly if you look at the Space Shuttle and realize the massive structure under it is almost all fuel tank you begin to get a sense of proportion about the energy required to orbit someone, anyone. You may then begin to understand the damage to the world such travel would entail for any but a microscopic fraction of humanity’s numbers. Space tourism makes flying on the SST (Supersonic Transport) look pretty benign by comparison and that was banned as early as 1971 at speed (which made it pointless) over the United States and other countries because of its jarring sonic booms.

But we are a space-faring species, said Jim Dator, destined to leave the cradle. I thought about that for a moment too and decided it was one of the least appropriate metaphors I’d ever heard. The Earth is hardly a cradle with humanity as babies basking in warm, soft blankets, helpless and in the care of loving forces smiling down at us. The Earth is a wild-ass exterminating angel of volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, freezing blizzards and desiccating deserts, of rattlesnakes and deadly diseases. It’s the exploding fireworks of billions of sexual orgasms, achingly beautiful sunsets, rainbows and happy babies. It’s bathing in warm seas and falling asleep in the arms of your lover. It’s rich, dangerous and inspiring in its own infinitude, anything but a sheltering cradle swaddling humanity in the comforts of inexperience, ignorance and dependence. Space travel you can see, once you realize the true proportions of the venture, is the technician’s rapture to their version of heaven and founded in believing in what is wanted not experienced, taken on faith not evidence. In other words, out of touch with science while claiming to be some version thereof.

Suggesting we spend months, years or lifetimes out of “the cradle” and imprisoned in a metal canister somewhere in an endless vacuum billions of miles from Earth… you do that, not me! And I say that at the same time I’m in awe of the imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope and various fly-by missions exploring our solar system. I’ll take Earth anchored ecocities as applied science fiction and just the practical ticket to a happy, healthy future here among the glories we already have.

The “degrowth” movement not quite yet reaching for clarity

Fantastic city! I’d heard it was and thus I experienced it. Usually when I travel, paid for by my hosts and being still low income after all these years, I don’t take enough time to explore while in the various cities I get invited to. Warned about its beauty and fine grain pedestrian liveliness well in advance I did put aside two extra days to explore there.

A favorite: the Segrada Familia (Holy Family) cathedral by Antoni Gaudi, all the more amazing because above those strange spires that looked something like slim towering living creatures covered in melting wax rose even taller five bright yellow cranes swinging enormous buckets of concrete and bundles of steel rods through the sky on cables so spider web thin you could barely see them. The cathedral is still under construction after 128 years (started in 1882) and not expected to be completed until around 2025. The Rambla, a wide pedestrian promenade filled with people conspicuously enjoying themselves tremendously, extends from ancient city center to the Mediterranean. It was located just three short blocks from my hotel. Even closer was the most amazing food market I think I have ever seen. The seafood collection looked like it came from a national aquarium, but one where you could buy and eat anything you saw there.

I’d come to participate in the “2nd Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity.” I was featured in a breakout session with a talk and panel discussion. The opening plenary was held in a room of the University of Barcelona more grand than any I think I have ever spoken in: gold leaf in floral patterns, tall columns, paintings
twenty feet long of historic meetings and world explorations lined the walls, names of scientists from around the world in red and gold plaques, heavy well padded wooden benches with straight backs, chandeliers, stain glass windows… The opening plenary featured several speakers including Jeroen van den Bergh Professor of Environmental and Resources Economics in the faculty of Economics and Business Administration, the Free University of Amsterdam (known generally as VU) and Research Professor at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in social sciences.

Van den Bergh, I thought, had the most to say warning us that just as Gross Domestic Product was a measure that had to go, and, he suggested, if we just ignored it and go on with specific efforts to produce and utilize green products it would go away. GDP would then just fade away and economic theory would catch up with better practices. Instead of railing against capitalism, which a number of speakers throughout the conference did, for all its exploitation of nature and people, his emphasis on particular actions seemed refreshing. The only problem was, where were cities in this picture?

I stood up from the audience during the comment and questions period and said I’d been listening for the word “city” to come up and didn’t notice it once. This, I said, seemed to be a pretty big omission in theory and strategy in a degrowth conference since cities are the largest creations of our species and hence what most needs to “degrow.” It was an interesting irony also since here we were right in the middle of one of the world’s best cities apparently not even noticing it or paying attention to what lessons it might hold. I was told later that the older design part of Barcelona, an area of hundreds of blocks, was only 5% streets for motorized circulation with the rest for buildings, courtyards, plazas, promenades, public buildings, monuments, parks, fountains, streetside cafes and so on – as compared to around 60% - 65% for motorized traffic in cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix. There is something to learn in that contrast!

In a session later in the conference, I participated in a “working group” called “Cities and degrowth.” We split into three sub groups and in mine, of about ten people, our subject was “politics in the city.” I said I’d like to cover some ideas for using zoning ordinances and general plans for shrinking cities back from sprawling automobile dependence to compact pedestrian infrastructure. I had in mind exploring strategies to implementing our ecocity mapping system. I mentioned that in the process we’d have to discuss the NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon in which right where development makes the most sense there is likely to be greatest opposition to it. How about discussing means of educating people for this large and very specific application of degrowth and getting them on our side?

Immediately faces looked glum. Several people chimed in almost simultaneously to say zoning and general plans weren’t political issues. I responded saying I’d seen no more intensely political issues in my life than zoning and general plan issues, with the possible exception of intense
debate during the Vietnam War about United States policies and the draft which was forcing thousands of Americans to kill and be killed for…what?

They wanted instead to affirm that change had to happen from the bottom up, that women’s and indigenous people’s rights were proper political issues to be discussing. I was amazed, tried a couple times more to suggest how zoning and general plans could be used to reshape cities making them literally much smaller infrastructures, bring back agriculture to paved areas and so on, only to see the discussion diverted again. Eventually I gave up.

This is not to reflect on the conference as a whole, which at least had a place for me and for a working group on cities, and addressed growth itself for what it is actually doing and being honest about the problems that result. Certainly they were head and shoulders above most economists in this regard. But I was surprised and disappointed at just how little debate about cities on anything like a fundamental level was – and in a sense this is a correct word – allowed at the conference. That is to say it was not allowed by consensus of a large number of the people there. In a later full plenary session in the big splendid room I mentioned this experience and noticed there seemed to be little reaction as we went on to a woman saying there should be a procedure, since there were far more men at the conference than women, of calling on men and women alternately – a man then woman, a man then a woman and so on – no matter what.

Another person again insisted on dumping capitalism saying little could be accomplished if that wasn’t accomplished. To degrow certain things so that we have more to go around, including to share with nature – good idea. But were cities just too big for those assembled to think of degrowing? Well, there is always the 3rd Conference on Degrowth coming up…

I did get into one very productive discussion in a workshop on basic degrowth theory and over lunch with a reporter named Louise Stoddard from Broker Magazine which did touch on some of the nitty gritty details of ecocity design and projects. Regarding theory, I thought the emphasis on anti-capitalism could productively go the way of van den Bergh’s suggestion about GDP: away. In a discussion of alternative currencies I suggested the existing ones could be dealt with right now in a pretty standard way by using seriously graduated income taxes. If you want to make serious change that requires money you have to go where it is actually located, in other words tax the rich and close their loopholes. One plenary speaker from the audience on the first day had suggested that it was crucial to re-establish government legitimacy and effectiveness by eliminating corruption and I agreed that graduated income tax to fund ecocities, organic local agriculture and family planning in a corruption free government was exactly the way by which capitalism itself could be removed from peoples obsession with smashing something, namely capitalism in this case, of course. Would it fade away like the central economic measure GDP?

Probably not but we needed to be clear that reform might make a whole lot more sense than revolution, using systems up and running but shifting from big corporations to smaller businesses while shrinking cities. I said I thought that approach held enormous positive potential. You don’t like big capitalism? Buy from small businesses even if it costs a little more. I suggested we might not have time to create new economic institutions from scratch anyway, and those capitalists who render a service and provide helpful products are part of the solution, not the problem, and deserve a reasonable profit. These ideas did engender some interesting discussion.

As to my conversation with Louise, she recorded some of it on film and a short clip on some of my points can be seen answering her good questions at: http://www.theborkeronline./en/regulars/blogs/Global-green-economics/Visualising-degrowth

New York City
Friends galore in Brooklyn, magnificent tours in Manhattan

I stayed at the house of Melissa Ennen and her husband and she toured me around Brooklyn – higher population than Manhattan it turns out and third most populous city in the United States after Los Angeles and Chicago if New York Cities’ boroughs are figured each separately. It’s
big! in other words, and was very friendly to me. Melissa has just launched a meeting space and set of offices she calls “The Commons” in a building she owns, trying to precipitate a kind of sustainable city renaissance in her hometown. A very friendly crowd with excellent questions materialized, and she organized a talk for me with US Green Building Council people in Manhattan hosted by Toto Toilets in their showroom. They are the world’s largest manufacture of toilets, I learned, and they had a number of electronic computer controlled models that would clean you up good and thorough. Most lingering impression: dropping in on the bathroom before my talk to be confronted by an intelligent toilet (I guess) the lid of which, when I approached, opened beckoningly like a giant clam waiting for me in the corner across the room. I’d remembered stories of deep sea divers getting their legs caught in such giant clams somewhere way back in childhood adventure books… As I left the restroom the toilet slowly and silently closed its gaping mouth. I felt lucky I was only there to take a leak.

Melissa also set me up to participate in a panel discussion on projects in New York that ended up talking almost exclusively about how to handle waste food, which wasn’t the best use of my time and George Haikalis’. He’s a legendary anti-car, pro-pedestrian, bicycle and transit expert and activist in New York City. I’d come prepared to propose using our mapping system in perhaps the worlds most dense city – a very interesting challenge, but perhaps one to coordinate some parts represented on the panel: transportation, food, recycling, ecology… But after an initial five-minute statement I was never called on again. The audience as well as the moderator wanted to stay tuned to food waste handling.

The high point there was the High Line and the south central neighborhood near the East River where my friend Wendy Brawer of Green Maps fame lives and works in Manhattan around 4th St. I visited the High Line with Steve Bercu, one of our two new recruits to our Ecocity Builders Board of Directors, an officer in the Mazer Foundation and an undaunted Boston bicyclist and lover of the not yet existing thorough-going bicycle city. It was a stunningly beautiful day and the old elevated rail line, famous for its long abandonment, had been converted into a spectacular yet very subtle linear park flying through the air about three stories up and near by the Hudson River. Over the years since it was used for freight delivery, active from the early 1930s to 1980, weeds, flowers and small trees gradually grew and spread on accumulating dust and organic matter from the plants themselves. It became something of a New York natural history museum of local succession for birds bringing in seeds and fertilizer, insects serving for pollination and all sorts of plants.

Converted to a pedestrian treasure in the last five years, the High Line now features much of the ecological community that self established, long lengths of the tracks themselves and a beautifully designed pathway with benches and many places to stop and ponder the glories of New York, the Hudson River, the Empire State Building to the east, the statue of liberty far to the south over the water and on days like that, the sky above.
Later I joined Wendy Brawer for a tour of the food, flower, tree, bush, pond picnic table, arches and gazebo gardens of her neighborhood. The season was exactly right for trees spreading diaphanous screens of yellow green lace – the brand new buds of leaves just appearing – and pinks and whites of blossoms everywhere, with buildings behind peaking out as if through printed shower curtains. Each garden was a unique treasure in its own right, and on the street as twilight came on, the bright lights of shops and restaurants took over from the calm and downright rural of the trees and gardens. A new wave of people in the streets shifted my attention from the clouds of soft leaves and blossoms higher in the brick and glass canyons to the food, drink and conversation that filled the rest of the evening.

Ecovillage at Ithaca and Ithaca itself
Pioneering village grows on and on, plus a real surprise

It was my pleasure and privilege in 1991 to give the keynote talk (on ecocities of course) at the conference organized by Joan Bokaer and Liz Walker where they and their friends made the commitment to launch Ecovillage at Ithaca. Joan had settled there after walking from the Pacific
Ocean in California to the United Nations building in New York with a couple dozen other hardy souls. They called it the Global Walk for a Livable World and it shared ideas for peace and ecological solutions across the entire country, city by city, village by village, long empty road by busy hazardous one. En route Joan decided she wanted to create some sort of ecological community and in Ithaca she floated the idea of transforming Ithaca into an ecocity. Despite the very pleasant downtown pedestrian area called the Commons, some serious density in the core, a very imaginative remodeling of the big old downtown high school into offices, shops and restaurants including Moosewood, famous from the times of its first popular 1970s healthy foods cookbooks and still thriving, plus Ithaca’s rightfully treasured deep gorges, waterfalls, creeks and Cayuga Lake shoreline, that is, many natural blessings to alert people to nature in the city… Despite all that, interest in transforming the city was low. Interest in a village… that would be something else! The co-housing model was coming on strong then, an import from Denmark launched into the upper prosperity levels of the American counterculture by a book on the subject by Katy McCamant and Chuck Durrette. By mid 1990s Ecovillage at Ithaca was up and running.

By the time I arrived – barely more than a week ago – Ecovillage at Ithaca had grown to a community of two compact pedestrian neighborhoods of approximately 100 people each two miles from the city. Cars are parked on the periphery and kids are safe, safe, safe! I was taken aback at how many there seemed to be there too. As mentioned, the weather was perfect the day before in New York City. Now it was hot in the afternoon and the pre-teens and teens were swimming, sunbathing and paddling about in the big pond downhill and toward the expansive view from the plateau toward the town of Ithaca. A henhouse and chicken run along a big vegetable garden clucked and shuffled about laying eggs in the distance. Elan Shapiro, teacher in all things eco and ecovillage and proprietor of the B&B there greeted me and Joan, who had earlier picked me up at the airport and updated me on latest info. Regarding how safe the kids might be, I looked at the surrounding rolling hills, fields and forests and asked if any of the children ever got lost exploring about. Elan seemed surprised and said he’d never heard of it.

Here’s the surprise: three days earlier, checking in to my e-mail in-box on, David Taylor had said he’d noticed I was coming to the Ecovillage and he was living there now. Who’s that? He was one of my main partners in my peace movement days in Venice, California, about 1965-1968. I hadn’t see him since. What a pleasure and so much to catch up on. I’d started something called No War Toys looking into the informal training ground of the everyday home armed with toy weapons and violent TV – what might all that mean leading to acceptance of war and disinterest in peaceful settlement of cross country conflicts? After a definitely yummy dinner hosted by Jen and John Bokaer-Smith – Jen is Joan Bokaer’s daughter and the couple are the most stellar of the ecovillage’s farmers – I settled into one of those way-back-when memory lane sessions with David over at his duplex. What a difference 42 years makes – and at the same time doesn’t. Meeting up with him again in Ithaca the following night, and walking down the street, reminiscing about No War Toys and the “old days” I saw a young woman standing to the side wearing a Jim Morrison T shirt. “I knew that guy,” I said. Her eyes widened somewhat. “He played a party for No War Toys in 1966 for $400. The Doors were amazing. They had almost all the material from their first two albums at that party. Two weeks later they opened at Whiskey a Go Go on Sunset Strip.” Her mouth dropped slightly. “Mind if I take a picture of you with your T shirt.” Not at all she said and I promised to send her the e-mail of a woman I know in Canada named Victoria who has written the definitive Doors book, “The Doors on the Road,” featuring my own ad for our party, first graphic ever executed for one of their performances or records. So there! Of course that is not all that interesting for those who don’t like The Doors, but it amazes me people still do – and passionately – after that many years.

Home again
What could I have learned?

Well there was the fact that Changwon is actually moving forward with some very significant ecocity projects and I happen to be one of their official International Advisory Council members. Maybe we can progress to great things there. But I think the sleeper in this is the unlikely sounding degrowth movement, not because they really “get” ecocities at this point, but because somebody out there is ready. On the one hand you have the back-to-the-land-and-learn-basic-skills people of the Transition Towns sort and rural survivalists as they used to be called and now sometimes thought of as the “life boat” Peak Oilers. And on the other you have those of the more middle class bent taking the science seriously and seriously worried about climate change and other macro problems. Actually there is a third pole too, those that are at least somewhat warmed up to ecocity thinking which includes the poorly named New Urbanists who don’t quite get to the new really urban ideas and the even more poorly named Smart Growth people, the last of the hold outs before they realize degrowth is actually more like what needs to happen. In this, plus what we have to offer in Ecocity Builders, is some real hope.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Report from Istanbul on the 8th International Ecocity Conference, with Reflections on the Copenhagen Climate Conference

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders and conference series founder

The Eighth International Ecocity Conference (Ecocity 2009) is over and so is the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. It is time for some assessments and moving on. Let’s try to make sense and progress of the United Nations event despite the general disappointment, even sense of betrayal and despite growing damage to the climate system and everyone’s future, including people and all the other animals and plants who share our home planet.

Reading below you’ll see why one of the world’s two leading and earliest climate scientists sees the failure of Copenhagen as hopeful, and why I think the failure might be an opening to even more opportunities for a healthy future than James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies believes.

As for our conference, the eighth in our series and the one that completes our tour around the world’s continents, we saw there a truly pioneering and inspirational event for the approximately four hundred people who attended. Our work remains to bring such thinking to bear where the national negotiators and the general public have dared not tread: in the realm where footsteps, not tire treads, reign.

Right up front: thanks Zubeyde Kavraz and Gunes Nukan of our conference organizing company Parantez Fair for sponsoring and organizing another in our pioneering International Ecocity Conferences. Your faith in the importance of the issues we address and the spirit of exploration and development of urban solutions at this very crucial moment in history is deeply appreciated by Ecocity Builders. The International Ecocity Conference Relay Committee that is responsible for continuity of this series of conferences into the future greatly appreciates you both. And thanks to Kirstin Miller, Executive Director of Ecocity Builders for her crucial contributions in helping organize and manage the Eighth International Ecocity Conference.

Istanbul, New Years, 2009 becoming 2010

At the first glint of orange on the eastern horizon the call to prayer knocks me out of bed. The minaret with full battery of loud speakers is just 100 feet from my hotel window. Comes to mind: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

For an American in Istanbul, crossroads of ancient East and tarnished Western Modernism, this is truly an exotic place. But then the West has become pretty “exotic,” as in “exotics” denoting non-native species where the natural landscape has almost completely disappeared and “tarnished” as in climate change, collapsing biodiversity and all the other things that went wrong on the way to the bank of material prosperity from Industrial Revolution England to bigger, faster versions in America, to yet more in China. That it isn’t working out so well in regard to ecology and even evolution was evident at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark. That it could work out much better was evident at the same time at our own Eighth International Ecocity Conference here in Istanbul, Turkey. Just what did happen at Istanbul and Copenhagen contrasting and evaluating these two very different conferences?

Ecocity Conference brief review

At Ecocity 8 we started out with the highest national official yet at any of our conferences from US to Senegal, Australia to India, Brazil to China. Veysel Eroglu, Minister of Environment and Forestry and head of the governmental body for all issues related to climate change in Turkey led off with the opening keynote address on his country’s strategy for more sustainable cities and forests throughout Turkey.

Citing his own country's participation in the Kyoto Protocol in contrast to the United States' stonewalling for so many years, he said, "Climate change is the most pressing and complex challenge that humanity faces today. Combating climate change requires strong solidarity of the international society... Turkey is planning to adopt nationally appropriate mitigation planning and no-lose targets to limit emission growth and move to a low-carbon economy." But he emphasized, in the theme heard so often at Copenhagen, "This shift to a low-carbon economy is only possible through technology transfer and multilateral financial support" (Shortly after the conference co-convener Ms. Gunes Nucan wrote to announce that a national ecocity conference was already in planning to be sponsored by the Minster of Public Works for the country. Look for its announcement for late April or early May in subsequent newsletters.)

Dr. Erogul took the opportunity to introduce his Ecological City Index to the conference and announce it as a personal statement of hope and commitment in guidance for cities everywhere. The Index is a list of 53 “articles” that are attributes of the city that can be rated present or absent in any particular city, such as, for example, “Public and railway transport must be developed” and “Streams must be improved and streams must flow through green valleys.” Add these up to a highest potential 100 points and thus rate your city’s sustainability. The Environment Minister thus anticipated our own conference emphasis on exploring measures and principles of what constitutes a real ecocity and took a step the conference organizers will use in debating an ecocity accreditation system in the future. Dr. Eroglu, the conference organizers and David Hall, initiator and sponsor of the two sessions called the “Ecocity Challenge” on the last day of the conference, all agreed that a system to bring attention and clarity to the design and planning of ecocities could constitute a strong and effective stimulus to ecocity development in the future and everywhere around the world.

Some conference highlights:
Varyap, a large Turkish development company and the premier sponsor of Ecocity 8 presented its ambitious and very large new community development schemes integrating quality and energy efficient building materials. The size of the projects were stunningly large and well on their way toward healtheir spatial arrangements of mixed uses for compact development.

Wulf Daseking, Planning Director of Frieburg, Germany presented the city’s many policies and features that have been leading ecocity development internationally for years. One of his main points: city planning is a marathon race, not a sprint. When Turkish speakers said the average time a city planning head was on the job was 18 months, Wulf, planning director for over 20 years in his city now, was shocked and admitted he didn’t know really what could be done about that but try hard to change the practice. With no serious continuity how could there be any good planning? When asked for brief advice for Istanbul – or any city into the future – he said, “No sprawl at all!” In his city the almost 100% car-free neighborhood called Vauban exemplified a model project that should be known world wide, the sort of very specific built development that should be front and center at climate change conferences but as yet is not.

Nepalese architect and Kathmandu Valley historian Sudarshan Tiwari privately spoke with Wulf shortly after. “Easy for you to say ‘no sprawl at all’,” he repeated to me later. Freiburg is in a country with practically no population growth and Freiburg simply doesn’t have the problem cities like Kathmandu have. There in Sudarshan’s home city the population is expanding at 5% a year, 2% by increase of the local population and 3% by in-migration to the city from poverty and the political dislocations of enormously divergent parties in a struggling democratic system, from Maoist to Royalist in variety. Adding his own priorities, Sudarshan said cities must be moist, that is permeable to precipitation, returning water in human use to ground water and springs and rivers downstream.

Brent Toderian, Planning Director of Vancouver, British Columbia detailed his city’s “EcoDensity” program and described in words, maps and imagery the city’s design features heading toward very strong pedestrian emphasis and greening of high density. I was personally delighted to see buildings among his photographs with large rooftop trees and other plantings protected by windscreens ten to forty stories above the streets. These were reminiscent of my own drawings going back to the early 1980s. He projected a map on the conference main hall screen depicting the future of the suburbs around Vancouver featuring a pattern of centers of reinforced density and diversity surrounded by recovered green areas emerging from today’s uniform low density development – “roll back sprawl!” The map looked almost exactly like my own ecocity mapping for Berkeley and Alameda Island in San Francisco Bay, also going back to that same period in the 1980s.

Opening Up to Nature and Real Culture Again

From the San Francisco Bay Area two of Ecocity Builders close associates, landscape architect Walter Hood and artist, entrepreneur and community organizer Marcel Diallo spoke about their work.

Walter was head of the University of California Department of Landscape Architecture and still teaches there. He is presently designing projects around the US and has notoriety around the world. His project in downtown Berkeley, to create a pedestrian street and open creek – Strawberry Creek, Berkeley’s most central and largest creek which runs underground presently through the heart of the city – has been inspiring the imagination of the community like none other in recent memory. His approach delving into the “revelatory” potential of designed and built projects in the particular place where he is working has brought a focus in Berkeley to the meaning and function of the watersheds of the city. These are eight parallel basins with creeks running roughly down their centers from the crest line of the Berkeley Hills at around 1,500 feet west to San Francisco Bay four miles away. Unlike any other public process known to Ecocity Builders working in that city through its 20-year life, Walter Hood’s has been successful and putting radically transformative ideas forward that reveal important principles of natural hydrology while shaping places for public gathering and passage. Walter also talked about his ideas for Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, involving removing rather than adding development in those areas where a set of noteworthy and ecologically rich streams and small lakes used to exist.

Marcel Diallo is an artist, poet, buyer and builder of real estate in his community. He’s an unofficial historian of the black tradition of West Oakland, where with friends and associates he runs a cafĂ©, a cultural center, owns a couple houses and a vacant lot with food garden and fish farm. Oakland’s old Lower Bottoms neighborhood – “bottoms” as in low areas that are moist and largely recovered by fill from the marshy bay shore fringe – was home to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Second World War ship builders, West Coast jazz musicians, Black Panther leaders and is currently the site of his own efforts for a cultural center neighborhood like Chinatown or Fruitvale Village in Oakland where Latino tradition and people thrive, honoring their history there. He warned the audience at Ecocity 8 that ecological sustainability has to include cultural contribution and sustainability. To emphasize the quite, almost underground reach and value of his cultural matrix he related that, arriving in Istanbul two days before the conference, he thought he’d take in a little music at a local club. The band up was playing Jimi Hendrix. His work coordinates with Ecocity Builders’ ecocity mapping of Oakland and his talk focused on the cultural stories to boost the alliance between eco and cultural sustainability.

Several high density mixed use projects in Turkey were featured by their development companies and the “Turkish Green Building Movement was described, along with descriptions of a number of buildings including the new Turkcell (cell phones) building and the Levent Sapphaire, tallest building in Turkey, which is approaching completion and is built with “sustainable materials” and advanced HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems. Ahmed Samsunlu former Minister of Public Works and Settlements and professor at the Istanbul Technical University reviewed Istanbul’s recent green policy advances and challenges and Hiroaki Suzuki of the World Bank’s Eco2 Cities project (“ecological cities as economic cities”) reported on the Bank’s program for making loans to developing nation’s governments to help with leading ecocity projects.

Past Governor of Maryland and current President of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute out of Washington, DC, Parris Glendening, had a clear and simple message: after relating America’s diversion from sanity into car culture with all it’s sprawl, paving and world-wide trend setting of the most environmentally destructive sort he said “don’t follow us!” Member of the Chinese People’s Congress and department head at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Research Center for Ecological and Environmental Sciences Wang Rusong compared and harmonized ancient Chinese ecological theory with current ecocity ideas. Canadian Colin Grant described his “See-it” graphics program that aids cities, NGOs or anybody else in their planning and tracking progress toward ecocity goals in their cities.

Ecocity Future of Istanbul?

Ecocity 8 ended after many other kindred talks and a bicycle ride for the intrepid around Istanbul through rain and wind. I was on the last panel, which addressed the future of ecocities and Istanbul’s in particular. For my part I mentioned that Istanbul has large pedestrian areas that are full of people and commercial vitality. They are colorful, lively and economically successful. These should be models for cities everywhere as we, hopefully, move away from the automobile-clogged and dominated cities of today. Few things could be more important.

I also said I was impressed with the sense of time Istanbul brought to the subject of city design, continuity through time and change. Perhaps Istanbul could take a similarly deep view to the future that it has in preserving much of its past Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern secular Turkish history in its physical character by embracing ecocity theory and developing policy to that end. Certainly climate change, collapsing biodiversity and the world’s rapid draw down of energy and metals resources implies not just extreme conservation and recycling but some lessons from cultural and historic perspectives that would benefit society and ecology deep into the unknown future.

In my own presentation I had brought up possible lessons from evolution and very long expanses of time suggesting that nature prescribes evermore subtlety and complexity as part of the natural pattern of evolution. The lesson is thus that sprawling suburbia with its enormous commitment to machines, paving, redundant small separate buildings adding up to far more material, land and energy. The compact city for people with extreme conservation and preservation rather the exploitation of nature, could be explored productively in the case of Istanbul seen through time from the deep past into the deep future. Our particular images of buildings, public spaces, restoration projects, transportations systems and energy systems presented at Ecocity 8 could be seen as buildable beacons to help light the way. Also, that evolution produces higher living organisms of a particular form – compact and three-dimensional, not flat, spread out and two-dimensional – was another lesson from evolution prescribing appropriate urban form since cities are also complex living organisms with strong parallels to us living animals and even the more highly evolved plants.

What about rapid population growth?

As the discussion was proceeding in the panel on the ecocity future and Istanbul, a planner from the city spoke up from the audience. He said he’d been with the Planning Department for 27 years and during that time plans were generally ignored as developers and politicians simply initiated, approved and built developments wherever an opportunity presented itself and a seller of land and developer could agree upon a price. Housing, work sites, profits and tax base were all created whether congruent with planning or not. The engine driving this was population growth. What he then said was stunning. During his 27 years working for the municipality, said the Istanbul city planner in the audience, the city went from one million to 15 million people. If Sudarshan Tiwari was upset with five percent growth per year, the 1,400% growth of Istanbul in 27 years was approximately five times as fast.

Obviously something was going on here that needed addressing, but the conference was running out of time. I was rapidly formulating some thoughts, such as, “Will people here get upset if I bring up population pressures? Is it time to mention the fact that there is 100 times the biomass in human beings on the planet of any other land animal in evolutionary history or that only 7% of the biomass of animals are wild anymore, with us and our food animals and pets constituting 93%? Is it time to suggest big cities should not only not expand but break up into smaller cities and even shrink in total population?” Before I had time to put the issue into context with urban design in my own mind and an opening in the conversation presented itself on the panel, the clock had run out.

But here’s my thought – call it analysis for the purposes of this report and a lead into contrasting Ecocity 8 with the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen: We covered the built environment in its largest and most climate-changing incarnation. And we presented the solution to the car city doing most of the climate damage as the ecocity based instead on the measure and needs of the human being, not the car. As usual in their series, the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen missed that enormous point. Neither conference dealt with population. But they both – urban design and population – are there at the very foundation of solving the global heating problem.

The Inadequate Focus of the Copenhagen Conference

The controversies surrounding the Copenhagen conference reaching print in the newspapers of the world revolved around rich countries trying to maintain their wealth and growth while bargaining with poor countries about helping them to grow more prosperous with minimal damage to the climate system. The assumption is that we can all continue consuming more but in a way that can slow and stop global heating. The assumption is that more money can be invested in new energy sources that produce little or no CO2 and means of saving energy such as through better light bulbs and insulation, better public transportation and recycling can save the day while we continue to grow in consumption and prosperity. City design itself may have been vaguely implied and cars given a light slap on the wrist with the assumption that we need improved transit, but in addition, at the Copenhagen Conference powerful tools such as ecocity mapping and the whole idea of integral mixed use projects or “ecocity fractals” from the size of two or three blocks up that would be educational and transformative were completely missing.

Moreover, the proportions in the assumptions behind the implied corrective measures were way out of whack. That is, cities are BIG and moving from car infrastructure and layout to design for pedestrians could save, just in the shift from the sprawling American model to the more European model, even without sophisticated and advanced ecocity architectural features, in the range of 66% of the energy used per person. Get that right and add the smaller changes in technologies and lifestyles and we would be really getting somewhere. Neglect ecocity design and layout and expect far smaller benefit.

More solar and wind energy is a good idea, and less coal and oil. But to massively reduce the demand is the more basic issue and where a sense or proportion comes in. Congruent with that a whole new or revived sense of prosperity is needed, not one based on acquiring as much property as possible or money to represent it and trade for it but a sense of prosperity that celebrates the full richness of life on this planet. That’s difficult to attain given the glorification of consumption to the point most people in the “developed world” see themselves as consumers rather than producers, much less creators capable of philosophical observation and enjoyment of our glorious universe. The notion of such non-material values even sounds slightly absurd, so popularly accepted is today’s ascendance of capitalism over socialism, land-anchored property over the free-range egalitarianism of many of the indigenous and traditional peoples.

The Eighth International Ecocity Conference, in contrast, was all about the city of lower impact and in having far fewer cars, and much less asphalt. This apparent paradox is the essence of the radical conservation we need, that the compact city of larger buildings closer together is actually much smaller physically in aggregate than the scattered city of smaller structures. Arizona architect Paolo Soleri pointed this out as far back as in the late 1950s. He said we need the “lean city,” the “frugal city” of shorter distances in streets, pipes, wires and shorter time in traveling about. Fewer redundant walls of the individual living units, apartments instead of single family houses with big garages and public parks and community gardens instead of tens of thousands of acres of lawns, sidewalks and driveways – that remains after all these years a large part of the answer provided by the ecocity. It shall remain forever, too, for such is the power of a true principle. A truth, unlike a diamond (that’s easily lost or stolen) is forever!

Now to think about the carbon credit trading discussed at Copenhagen. This carbon trading idea that has dominated the debate is I think best portrayed as “wrong headed.” My sympathy is with the poor countries. Their representatives to the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen declared insistently and quite accurately that the climate problem is the creation of the rich and they should pay the poor countries to make development for the poor less damaging on the planet. Maybe there is a way, consistent with economic growth theory, by which healthy growth can be maintained forever on this finite planet for both rich and poor and if so let’s try to find it and climate stability at the same time, despite the prime law of ecology that infinite growth in a finite environment is impossible. Ecology says it can’t happen.

What we were seeing in the newspapers as it played out in Copenhagen was an approach that, instead of looking at physical realities of energetics and biology, was looking at financial manipulations for primarily other reasons than repairing humanity’s relationship with the planet and its other living creatures. The powerful wanted to look at it this way so they convinced everybody, through their lobbyists and editors and programmers of the media where their products were advertised, to get on the bandwagon. This sounds cynical but fits the facts.

Further, looking at simplistic measures, such as the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere, has evaded the kind of serious conversation that could deliver real answers. The conversation to deliver is one that asks about basic principles and looks at the way whole systems work. For example, the whole system of cities with their architectural, transport and energy components and integral relationships of the components to one another, is closely analogous the relationship of parts of a living body – organs, skeleton, nervous and circulatory system, etc. – to one another. We’ll return to this momentarily.

“It’s Good that Copenhagen was a Failure”

That radical sounding statement, “it’s good that Copenhagen was a failure,” was the sentiment of one of the world’s best and earliest climate scientists to raise the global heating warning. He is James Hansen and head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. In the early 1980s I was collecting his studies and those of Stephen Schneider, one of our main speakers at the 7th International Ecocity Conference in San Francisco in 2008. They were the pioneers warning us as early as the late 1970s that climate change was coming because of “climate forcing” from CO2, methane, CFCs and other anthropogenic gasses building up in the atmosphere. CO2 for sheer quantity was the biggest threat among the offending gasses, and still is, though both methane and CFCs happen to be far more effective per molecule in capturing the sun’s heat in the atmosphere. I was interested in the studies for their implications in regard to city design: they proved from yet another angle that we needed to make cities as energy conserving as possible, thus Hansen’s and Schneider’s information on the problem gave further weight to the importance of ecocity design and theory.

Speaking about designing and trading “carbon offsets” said James Hansen in a article by Susan Goldenberg on December 2, “The whole approach is so fundamentally wrong that it is better to reassess the situation. If it is going to be the Kyoto-type thing then [people] will spend years trying to determine exactly what that means.”
He also points out that before Kyoto global emissions had been increasing one and a half percent per year and after Kyoto the rate accelerated to three percent per year. Probably that was coincident with development picking up in “developing countries” while rich ones continued to grow steadily if at a slower rate, rather than due to a Kyoto-cause emissions growth effect, but in any case the climate benefits of phase one of carbon trades were and remain and probably we be in the future obscure if of any real benefit. What if, for example, individual CO2 producing businesses get better – but their numbers increase dramatically as population and average consumption per person continues to grow?

It has been a long time ecocity theme that the climate scientists, activists, politicians and sympathetic reporters, such as the New York Times writers Andrew Revkin and Thomas Friedman, for years now have neglected the largest thing human beings build: cities. I’ve ranted numerous times that you could hardly solve a problem as large as climate change and leave out the discussion of the way we design cities. I met Andy a year ago and he promised he’d cover the city connection to climate but hasn’t, not in any of the articles he’s written that I’ve looked up. Copenhagen hung tight with the carbon market idea, avoiding the “what it is we build” approach in their usual tradition.

But what has been really happening is not being talked about much, and Hansen opened the subject: you can’t solve the climate problem with a market manipulation, not even one that supposedly reduces investment in carbon producing technologies and businesses in one sector while allowing waste carbon production in another. The creation of a market subject to manipulation of investors creating new “exotic instruments” sounds all too familiar: billions in profits to be made while who knows what’s really going on at the level of resources, CO2 production avoidance and sequestration. Hansen says play it straight: tax the stuff.

Democracy Sacrificed?

Maybe the more basic issue is that Copenhagen was the latest chapter in the attempted takeover of government prerogatives by the very people who gave us the Great Recession of 2008. Instead of direct democratic authority from “the people” to the decision makers charged with the common good we have the great corporations and their economic experts designing the carbon market in which some of those with the most adroit skills with profit greatly. Of course that is not to be talked about in polite company. What is in the news is the general conclusion, promulgated by very large business and investment interests and their representatives in government and media, that Copenhagen has been a bust because the United Nations process is too cumbersome to work. Maybe it is not that it is too cumbersome but that it has been made ineffective by people obstructing its process and negotiating in bad faith. Maybe even more fundamentally it is not working well because the ideas holding sway right now are the wrong ones.

The traditional idea of democracy is that we the people elect representatives and vote for laws either directly or through our representatives to further the common good. We also decide what, through debate or through own initiatives and representatives, that common good actually is. In addition, we tax ourselves and invest the money in policies and projects that further that common good. But those designing the carbon credits and other tradable instruments have convince hundreds of millions of people, maybe by now literally billions, that government is not the legitimate way to go, that we should trust the designers of and investors in market instruments to devise systems for the common good – that happen to coincide with their own maximum potential personal profits. And when their systems collapse and they are “to big to fail” they get massive bailouts while the rest of us are left out on a limb to just sit there and ponder. Could buying products be a better expression of democracy than voting for what we believe should be policy and practice? Should green screen replace real green? Hansen proposes instead to simply tax outright carbon production where energy is burned. Then use the money to pay for changes in technology and lifestyles that save energy and reduce carbon pumped into the atmosphere. In other words, he argues a return to directly approaching the common good as if democracy mattered.

What We Actually Build Matters

The next step he doesn’t take, of asking what it is we are actually building and what that might have to do with demand for energy. Could we build cities to run on one tenth the energy and one fifth the land they use now? Could we get around religious commandments dictated when our human population was about that of other major species instead of 100 times as big and around cultural attitudes to reduce human numbers peacefully through, say, family planning and education? Could agriculture require much less land, chemicals and energy than it currently does with its high and growing proportion of commitment to meat production? These are the big questions about what is actually going on physically at the foundation of climate change. These were the key question absent at Copenhagen, one of which – knowing what to build – was covered extensively at the Eighth International Ecocity Conference. The fact is that there would be plenty of profit to be made in the new economy by people deconstructing the disastrous infrastructure that consumes so much energy and land now and building the city based on conservation and restoration of the health of nature, but we’d have to actually set out to accomplish that and that might leave out some of the people making money on their clever market gambling.

It could even be suggested that reliance on endpoint indicators like cleaner air or less CO2, even without undue economic manipulation, might not be the best approach in general. Good endpoint “metrics” have attained almost religious faith certitude in sustainability circles. Is there a problem with that? Yes.

Again, knowing what to build might be the much better approach, or at least an equal if neglected necessity. I’ve lately used the example of Los Angeles solving most of its local air pollution problem – the smog was horrendous and world infamous in the 1950s and 1960s there, and deadly too. I lived there in much of that period and can attest to burning, draining eyes, throat and lungs. They fixed the car by bolting on the smog device rather than the city by designing it better. They created the city of, for and by the car was the wave of the future – and the rest of the world surfed that wave like good Southern Californians right up to now as China and India pave their landscape and introduce the Tata Nano so that everyone can drive everywhere. In Los Angeles by making the car better they solved a local air pollution problem – and fifty years later by their leveraged influence delivered the global atmospheric phenomenon called climate change. The end point measures, even apparent vastly cleaner air in Los Angeles, and economic manipulation tricks now in debate on high, just won’t work. Basics, true proportions and whole systems need to be understood.

As James Hansen said, it is probably a good thing Copenhagen failed. Because if we don’t understand whole systems, such as the car/sprawl/paving/cheap energy system for what it is and fix the city instead of the car, expect further and much larger disasters coming. The failure might be an opening to debate like this in this article and the beginning of actually facing the problem on its own terms rather than investment bankers and giant corporations. The failure of Copenhagen might be an opening to the conversation on population and the diet/agriculture nexus too. “Success” at Copenhagen in the terms negotiators were dealing with there could well have been a means to continue distracting the world from approaches with a much better chance for success.

The Positive Future Suggested by Ecocity 8

Fixing the city is indispensible but not enough. Janet Larsen echoed that observation when she spoke at our conference representing Lester Brown and their Earth Policy Institute where she is chief research scientist. One of their themes for years has been that humanity needs to address current resources, biosphere and climate problems with an effort as serious as mobilization for a war for survival. They reiterate at almost every speaking opportunity they have that during the Second World War the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration didn’t just arm the military but engaged everyone in the full multiplicity of roles needed for the war effort. Everyday citizens in thousands of roles not only worked like banshees but even turned into bankers in that they bought up government bonds (loaned money to the government) to help finance the war. Similarly, according to the analogy, said Janet, today there needs to be a full bore effort to save the planet that confronts all the crucial issues – and probably the not so crucial as well – if we are to solve the problems facing us.

To get specific, the population issue raised from the floor during the panel on “Istanbul and the Ecocity Future” suggested that we might look to solutions for Istanbul being the same as those for all Turkey and the whole world. Like this: If there were to be ecocity policies on all levels of governance the whole country would need to be remapped. Istanbul would cease to increase rapidly in size spreading out over the landscape like American cities if in considerably greater density. Instead, smaller cities and towns should be supported in their development by government incentives in both policy and finance. Metropolitan areas should plan neighborhood, district and downtown centers that develop into discrete compact mainly pedestrian towns and cities in their own right linked by bicycle and transit, taking on the form seen in the map presented by Brent Toderian in his portrayal of how to develop Vancouver’s current outlying low density suburbs. Cities all over Turkey should absorb population as Istanbul stabilizes its population and breaks up into a galaxy of smaller cities and towns with nature and agriculture coming back into town around those centers. That deals with migration to “prime cities,” urban form and restoration of open space for farm and nature all at the same time.

Also at the same time, all efforts should be made to educate about and promote family planning with the objective here in Istanbul – as should be everywhere – of finally reversing the population growth that is banishing natural species from the planet. Catholics and Moslems are famous for insisting people should let only God do the family planning. Yet Italy, home of the Vatican and Iran, home of high Islamic fundamentalism, both have very low birth rates, Italy’s actually being slightly negative at this time. So maybe it I not so impolite to address population directly as part of the context of city planning and climate change after all.

Remember, human beings, viewed from the ecological perspective as part of a living biosphere presently represent more than 100 times the biomass on the planet of any land animal in our general size range that exists or ever existed. That requires enormous quantities of food as a basic reality to keep such a population going. Remember, about 93% of all the animal biomass on the surface of the planet now is either us humans or animals we’ve designed specifically to serve us. We have similarly eaten up, literally, most of the life in the seas. We used to live on a rather wild and bountiful planet, even if we didn’t know how to extract and burn up such resources as coal, oil and uranium extract and scatter to unavailability such resources as rusting steel and rare metals lost here and there as literally billions of people lose track of bottle caps, bits of wire and foil, batteries, light bulbs, sunken ships in the tens of thousands of tons of pure metals each... Bottom line: we have a very serious population problem and everyone including Turks and citizens of Istanbul should look seriously at it while at the same time planning to rearrange the way we design and build cities.

Healthy Energy Systems + Less Demand = Solar Ecocities

Arnold Goldman, founder of the solar electric energy company BrightSource Energy and a citizen of Israel was one of our speakers and described how his thermal electric power plants worked. In addition, aside from his presentation, he made a point to me and Kirstin Miller that a very major step in peaceful progress could be made in Turkey if that country would take the lead in developing ecocities. To focus on one particular city might be a good idea for concentrated effect. Enhanced leadership for a secular and forward thinking Islamic country which would come from being first or very early in ecocity development could help stability in the region.

The actual ecocity project in construction called Tianjin Ecocity was featured in the Ecocity 8 sessions called the “Ecocity Challenge,” the objective of which was to clarify actually what we meant by “ecocity,” and perhaps lead to enough consensus at a later date that could result in a powerful certification system for cities on the road to becoming ecocities. Tianjin Ecocity is being planned and constructed in China cooperatively by the governments of Singapore and China working with a consortium of companies and was represented by Singapore’s project lead Beng Lee Ong. The compact, automobile-lite city is sited on low salt marsh lands and is dedicated to considerable energy conservation by compact design and restoration of biodiversity on nearby land and wetlands. But when Mr. Ong mentioned the city would strive for only 20% of its energy to come from renewable sources a howl of protest went up from not just the audience but his fellow presenters as well. Tianjin Ecocity planners seemed to believe that energy to run the city had to come from the physical footprint of the city, a preconception held also by many architects and sustainable development advocates who believe that the building that provides for all its energy needs is the Holy Grail and in the case of Tianjin only 20% seemed available. So whatever source was on the power lines – and the answer was coal – was going to be the main source. From the audience Arnold Goldman pointed out that there is no requirement that cities need to count only energy they can gain from their physical area as renewable; renewable energy can come from some other places better suited. Some in the audience and on the Ecocity Challenge panel said such low ambition for moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables was enough in itself to disqualify the project from calling itself an “ecocity.” As the person to coin the term “ecocity” back in 1979, I too concur. A target of 90% benign renewable energy or more or no such designation! The mint has spoken!

Mitch Gelber, from International Architect Ken Yeang's office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia presented new imagery from their recent work. Ken, who spoke at Ecocity 5 in Shenzhen, China and San Francisco for our conference series is famous as the world's leading "bio-climatic" architect with literal green - of plants, followed by local wild birds and naturally air conditioned breezes in hotter climates - spiraling up into, over and through his skyscrapers. In Mitch's presentation we saw plans for clusters of buildings of mixed uses with ramps of plants leading up from rolling turf with trees to make three-dimensional the usual two dimensional art of the landscape architect, and a total assemblage constituting perhaps the world's first of what we call in the movement, "ecocity fractals."

The project in planning called New Vista, out of Novatek, the company owned and headed by David Hall of Provo Utah, presented its relatively low density mostly one story but car-free version of an ecocity with everyone a farmer, at least part time, with food gardens wrapping around all housing and up and over rooftops in greenhouses. Mixed-use buildings would punctuate a very uniform and repetitious design the object of which was very low energy consumption and healthy local food. Behind the numbers behind the offering was the objective of coming up with a buildable community that could be replicated around the world and provide housing and community services for everyone on Earth with no one left in poverty. David Hall couldn’t come but sent Novatech employee Carl Bellingston as project representative. Critique of this offering circled around surprisingly low density and as yet vague notions of how ownership and citizen representation would work there. Many of us were delighted that someone was cranking numbers in an attempt to build a completely car free and seriously equitable environment. Hall’s engineers had calculated that a whole city of the kind of arrangement they were imagining could be built for no more than the cost of the automobile infrastructure of a conventional American city. Though the form of New Vista departed radically from the complex mixed use and compact more three-dimensional offerings of every other ecocity development project offered it was recognized as a possible form for a simpler agricultural community structure adjunct to larger ecocities.

At the conclusion of the “Ecocity Challenge” the conference organizers assumed the role of editor of what may emerge as the main themes developing a metrics and set of principles for assessing ecocities. The starting point will be Turkish Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroglu’s Eco-city Index, the Shenzhen Declaration of our Fifth International Ecocity Conference and the European Green City Index.


Ecocity 8 concluded with an announcement: the Ninth International Ecocity Conference will be held in Montreal, Canada. Luc Rabouin, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center of Montreal, traveled to Ecocity 8 in Istanbul to describe a few of the many ecocity features of his hometown and to share his organization’s early plans to host Ecocity 9 in August of 2011. Montreal is the second largest Francophone city in the world after Paris and host to the first International Ecocity Conference to be held in a northern and cold climate. New issues will be raised, and with an emphasis on democracy as well as ecology. It is especially auspicious that the Montreal Protocols on CFCs was signed there, the treaty that saved the biosphere from one of humanity’s inadvertent steps almost over the cliff. If we saved the atmosphere and biosphere from one deadly stumble once before, and in that town, maybe we can (finally!) wake people up to the real solutions for global heating there in Montreal that still are so illusive for humanity even after all good efforts at Copenhagen.

A few photos from Istanbul...

Typical pedestrian street near the Grand Baazar

Bill Mastin (left) and Kirstin Miller, Executive Director for Ecocity Builders, contemplates a delicious meal at an Sultanahmet district outdoor restaurant

Istanbul's Bicycle Association hosts a rainy but fun bicycle tour for delegates