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: http://www.viddler.com/explore/maui1/videos/4/
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.