By Andy Mannle | Monday, 05 May 2008
“Cities are the largest thing humans build," said Richard Register as he kicked off the Ecocity World Summit. Register convened the first Ecocity summit in 1990, founded Ecocity Builders, and has been a tireless proponent for re-imagining man's largest creation for nearly twenty years. He cautioned however, that “if we continue adjusting to the things that are wrong, we’re in trouble.”
“Better cars make worse cities,” he points out. By getting faster, quieter, and cleaner, we only come to rely on them more. And if building more freeways were the answer, LA would be a paradise to drive in, says Register, not a snarling traffic nightmare. But cars are not inevitable, either. “After all, we’ve been building cities for 4500 years, and cars for only a 100 years.”
Instead of designing our cities to accommodate automobiles, we should design them to work in tandem with the natural environment, he says. This is the vision behind the Ecological City.
The idea of the Ecocity has grown from being an oxymoron in 1990, to being at the cutting edge of urban-design, architectural innovation, and efforts to save the environment by making cities – the largest things humans build – more “permeable to the environment,”
Likewise, the Ecocity World Summit has grown from being a gathering of impractical pioneers, to being a world-class forum for politicians, academics, engineers, architects, and urban designers and others from over a dozen countries to present case-studies, discuss works-in-progress, and share solutions.
In Seoul, Korea they tore out a 16-lane freeway and restored the historic waterway running through the center of the city.
In Curitiba, Brazil mayor Jaime Lerner invented Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and a host of other revolutionary programs which are now being copied in over 80 cities across the globe.
From Australia to Amherst cities are building wildlife corriders over their freeways to connect green spaces, and establish ‘eco-grids’ to make cities more permeable to nature.
In Shenzhen, China, the world’s largest roof acts like an artificial cloud, shading an entire city plaza, including the office buildings on either side.
What if we raised our cities into the “views and breezes,” oriented them toward the sun, and filled them with waterways, greenstreets, living walls, and daylight? Register asks. “If you clad your structures in life, they take on a life of their own,” he says, describing warm, dense, diverse cities with .
This is the idea of the Ecocity that he has championed for nearly twenty years, and people all over the world are starting to put these ideas into practice.Eco-Cleanliness – Clean air, water, ground, food, houses and sanitation.
The key, says Register, is to begin with the urban core. By re-inventing our cities around ‘urban fractals’ – mini-cities with all the ingredients necessary for urban life: housing, jobs, shops, and schools, – we can create higher density clusters that are interlinked with farms, parks, working wetlands, and natural areas.
For Joan Bokaer, it begins with getting the cars out: “Our work is based on two assumptions: We won’t get the world right until we get our cities right. And we won’t get our cities right until we get the cars out of them.”
She organized the third Ecocity World Summit in Yoff, Senegal, as well as the Global Walk for A Livable World -- 100 people who walked from Los Angeles to New York raising environmental awareness. “Cars are going to become obsolete. That should underlie all of our decisions,” says Bokaer, who is committed to turning her hometown Ithaca, New York, into a car-free zone. She has founded an Eco-Village as well as a development company Connect Ithaca to reverse “auto-centric sprawl by developing high-density, mixed-use urban village nodes,” connected by bicycle and public transport.
Paul Downton, organizer of the 2nd Ecocity World Summit in Australia, says that to foster community and get rid of cars we need to shift our perceptions. “We’re sharing a lot in cities already, but we don’t recognize it. We concentrate on the individualism.” Likewise, we tend to forget that, “Every day we have the equivalent of the 9/11 carnage on our roads around the world.”
50,000 people each year are killed by cars in the United States, alone, and over 200,000 a year in India. By replacing the myriad small daily trips which make up the majority of car usage with walking, biking, light rail, or even highspeed moving walkways, we can make our communities cleaner, safer, healthier and happier.
Rusong Wang is president of the Ecological Society of China, a member of the People's Congress, and a host for the Ecocity World Summit in Beijing. He expounds a theory based on ancient Chinese tradition and modern science, with a growing emphasis on remapping cities in order to reshape them for minimum energy demand and maximum ecodiversity.
The Chinese, he says, are committed to “Re-thinking organizations, re-forming institutions, and renovating technologies.” His city of Shenzhen he points out, has grown from 20,000 to over 10 million people, and cities all across China are doing the same.
What principles can be used to guide such rampant growth?
Wang offers a synthesis of old ideas in a new form:
Eco-Security – Localized food production, water resources and transportation.
Eco-Metabolism – Uniting the economy in a series of ecological material flows.
Eco-Landscape – Restoring our water and air to be more ecologically sound.
Eco-Culture - Recognize we are sustained by nature, and encourage people to clean and honor her.
Over half the world's population live in cities, with more coming every year. The sooner these Ecocity principles get put into practice, the closer we come to realizing Jaime Lerner's prediction that, "Cities are not the problem. They are the solution."
Drawing of Ecocity New Orleans by Richard Register courtesy of Eco-City Builders.