As We Build So Shall We Live

While it probably won't rid the world of greed, ethnocentrism and violence, building a nonviolent city that respects other life forms and celebrates human creativity and diversity is consistent with solving those problems.

By Richard Register
Published September 15, 2005

(This is excerpted from Richard Register's book Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature. Raise the Hammer will review Ecocities in an upcoming issue.)

As we build so shall we live.

The city, town, or village - this arrangement of buildings, streets, vehicles, and planned landscapes that serves as home - organizes our resources and technologies, and shapes our forms of expression. It is the key to the future healthy evolution of our species and will determine the fate of countless other species as well.

The city, in fact, is the cornerstone of the civilization that currently embraces the entire planet. Insofar as our civilization has gone awry, especially in regard to its impact on the environment, a very large share of the problem can be traced to its physical foundations.

Considering the crisis state of life systems on Earth - the collapse of whole habitats and the increasing rates of extinction of species - it follows, then, that cities need to be radically reshaped. cities need to be rebuilt from their roots in the soil, from their concrete and steel foundations on up. They need to be reorganized and rebuilt along ecological principles.

Most people believe instead that fine-tuning the same old civilization will be enough, that there is no real need for fundamental change in the way we build and live. But simply failing to notice the crisis in the built environment won't make it go away. Only rebuilding will.

Building the ecocity will create new cultural and economic life in which we can tackle the problems of healthy evolution rather than fighting a rear-guard action aimed at repairing damage.

The edifice edifies. Children in today's typical car-dominated cities learn that cars are valued so highly that it is worth risking human life and enduring high costs and serious pollution to make way for them. They also learn that people don't care much for public life or nature.

While it probably won't rid the world of greed, ethnocentrism and violence, building a nonviolent city that respects other life forms and celebrates human creativity and diversity is consistent with solving those problems.

What we build creates possibilities for, and limits on, the way we live. What we build teaches those who live in the city, town, and village about our values and concerns. It says, "This is the way it should be," or at least, "This is the best we could do."

The edifice edifies. Children in today's typical car-dominated cities learn that cars are valued so highly that it is worth risking human life and enduring high costs and serious pollution to make way for them. They also learn that people don't care much for public life or nature.

In Berkeley, California, where I live, there are no public plazas or pedestrian streets, though you can be sure there are plenty of parking lots taking up hundreds of acres and cars on every road. Creeks are buried for miles, and the ridge lines form which we could once enjoy the sunset and a view of San Francisco Bay are increasingly filled with private houses that banish public access. In ways like this each city tends to reproduce in its children the values embodied in its form and expressed in its function.

More to the point, if our cities are built for cars, one sixth of us will find jobs in the automobile industry and its support systems, and another sixth will be building and fixing the buildings and infrastructure that go along with the layout automobiles require.

But if we build the ecocity, larger numbers of people will find jobs involving its building and operation. By shifting steadily toward an ecocity infrastructure we could soon train people to be streetcar and bicycle builders and mechanics, organic gardeners, restorationists, naturalists, "green" designers and builders and pedal-powered delivery people, all with a minimum impact on nature. As we build, so shall we live.

Even more, as we live so shall we become. And not only in attitudes, skills and habits, but also, eventually, in physical form. As Americans spend more and more time sitting motionless before television and computer screens and in ever fatter SUVs, they are becoming increasingly overweight and unhealthy.

Another way of looking at this is to see that we build environments that build us. We indirectly self-design in a very significant way, turning ourselves into a species that reinforces its own design by building its environment in particular ways.

In ecology and evolution biology, we have learned that species shape one another physically and behaviourally. Pollinating insects and birds adjusted their proboscises and beaks to their task, and flowers shaped themselves to cooperate with them, feeding themselves while accomplishing the work of pollination efficiently. Some birds' nests have evolved over thousands of years, affecting the birds' behaviour and even body shape.

All creatures respond to and change their habitats, climate and even atmospheric and soil chemistry, altering them over the years. If we want to live an ecologically-healthy and responsible life, we need to build so that we can do so.

Since 1991 I have traveled to every continent but Antarctica talking about ecocities. I am one of several dozen people on this loosely-linked lecture circuit who are thinking about redesigning and building whole cities on ecological principles. My experience suggests that a meaningful and growing number of people around the world is beginning to take a strong interest in urban form and dysfunction, and in the ecologically-healthy alternatives that ecocities offer.

Cities such as Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland, Oregon; Curitiba Brazil, and Waitakere, New Zealand are making ecological progress on a number of fronts, and the international ecovillage movement is steadily growing. We are seeing good works, and that is significant and heartening. But society is still moving overwhelmingly in the opposite direction.

For more than twenty-five years, for example, I've been trying to help reshape the city of Berkeley, California. With others I've co-founded two non-profit organizations - Urban Ecology, in 1975, and Ecocity Builders, in 1992 - and these groups have managed to open portions of creeks that had been buried for decades, to redesign a street as our "Slow Street," to establish a bus line, to write an ordinance making attached solar greenhouses legal in front yards, to build a few of those greenhouses, to plant and harvest street fruit trees, to develop energy-saving ordinances, to delay freeway construction, to tear up parking lots to plant gardens and urban orchards, and to affect the course of particular development projects by pointing out their impacts on the city's ecological health. These and other projects have not only created physical features and functions and established laws, but also stimulated discussion of these issues as well.

It has gradually become clear, however, that few people notice. New single-storey buildings are being built in Berkeley's downtown, where taller buildings would place transit and passengers in mutually supportive proximity. Transit service itself is being cut and fares are rising. The neighbourhood around one of the major transit stations has been rezoned for reduced development, when a higher-density "transit village" would have helped housing, transit, energy conservation, pollution abatement and the economy.

Large freeway-oriented projects and big parking lots have been built as an outcome of a planning process with considerable public support and input - many people wanted it that way. These projects and parking lots have required the widening of Interstate-80 from eight to ten crowded and inadequate lanes. The University of California has built several very large buildings and parking lots in that period with little regard to their surrounding urban and natural environment.

At the national level, despite ever more intense verbal attacks on sprawl, the big news going into the third millennium is bigger sport utility vehicles and capitulations to more highways, parking spaces, bridges, and other car infrastructure. For example, in 1960 one-third of the citizens of the United States lived in cities, one-third in suburbs, and one-third in rural locations. By 1990 well over half lived in suburbs. Between 1970 and 1990 the population of California increased approximately 50 percent while the land area of cities went up 100 percent.

Between those years, the country witnessed what has sometimes been called "the second suburbanization of America," in which, instead of commuting daily from suburb to city centre, tens of millions of people began traveling from suburban house to suburban workplace. It's not uncommon for spouses to work fifty to a hundred kilometres apart while their children attend school at the third corner of a geographical triangle encompassing hundreds of square kilometres.

Since 1970 giant suburban developments have popped up on a scale and in numbers barely imaginable before. Industrial and "back office" business parks have appeared on farm, range, forest, and filled marsh lands miles from any other development. These office and commercial zones are surrounded by acres of land converted to dead-level asphalt and concrete slabs, sweltering in the summer, pouring car-contaminated waters into the creeks, rivers, and bays when it rains, and draining oily, salty, rubber dust and sooty snow melt in winter.

In 1972, before the Oil Embargo and the subsequent energy crisis, cars dominated on the average of about 30 percent more energy per mile than they did fifteen years earlier. About a third of the United States' oil was coming from the Middle East. By 1992, after a new wave of suburbanization, the United States was getting approximately 60 percent from the Middle East.

The energy-efficient cars help create the energy-inefficient city.

The less fuel it takes to drive about and the cheaper per mile, the farther people are willing to drive. The better the gas mileage, the more the suburbs sprawl out over vast landscapes, the more demand there is for cars and freeways, and the more cars are needed to service the expanding suburbia. Ultimately and ironically, the more gasoline is needed.

Thus the energy-efficient cars help create the energy-inefficient city. The car is a part of a whole system of complex, necessarily interconnecting parts existing in an interdependent relationship with the total environment it helps create.

The bigger picture - represented by total commuting time for large populations, world use of fossil fuels, ocean tanker oil spills, war for oil in the Middle East, waste of investment capital in building infrastructure that will go on damaging the world for many decades, and so on - is far from encouraging.

China started closing Beijing's streets to bicycles to make way for cars in 1998, and it is currently engaged in a massive highway-building program. It plans enormous shifts of population from rural areas and farming to cities and manufacturing and business, and shifts from rail, bicycle and pedestrian cities to cities for motor vehicles on rubber tires - a colossal transformation in the wrong direction.

In Brazil, Turkey, India, Africa, and Australia, large highway projects are being built as they emulate America's destructive example. People in those places say quite directly and, from their point of view, completely reasonably, "You Americans have cars. Who are you to say we shouldn't? Now it's our turn."

To move forward from this point it is helpful to look at the whole system we are part of rather than one small part at a time. This complex system is known as the biosphere. It is our home that we are wrecking with our "plundering industrial life patterns," and the major engine of our civilization's short-sighted exploitation and destruction is the modern city with its flood of traffic, thirst for fuels and vast networks of concrete and asphalt.

The car/­sprawl/­freeway/­oil complex reproduces more of itself - a peculiar kind of economic "vitality" - while it paves agricultural and natural land, kills half a million people outright in accidents every year, injures more than ten million, and is completely destroying a reserve of complex chemicals that took 150 million years to create - the so-called fossil fuels.

It also consumes enormous quantities of steel and energy. In a 1999 television ad, the Ford Motor Company asserted that it uses enough steel to build 700 Eiffel Towers every year. Seven hundred Eiffel Towers of steel racing about the countryside powered by flame, paving the earth, and transforming the atmosphere! And that's only one of a dozen major automobile manufacturers.

We have built 500 million cars worldwide and transform several million acres of land every year from agriculture, nature, and more pedestrian-oriented travel towns to sprawl. The car/­sprawl/­free/­oil complex is destroying habitat, and directly and indirectly destroying animals and plants. Repetitive, small, car-dependent buildings scattered over vast areas, often made of wood from shrinking forests, not only requires enormous quantities of gasoline to maintain, but share walls with no one and lose their energy of heating or cooling to the surrounding air after a single use.

Because this monster is a whole-system structure, we can effectively attack it by taking on any one of its four main components.

Thus scattered, small-building development wastes energy not only for transportation, but also for space heating and air conditioning. This four-headed monster of the twentieth-century Apocalypse - cars, sprawl, freeways, and oil - is what we are building and what we are committing the next generation to live in. It is what largely defines our jobs and many other life activities. It commits us to one of the most expensive and dangerous common activities allowed, namely driving.

The car/­sprawl/­freeway/­oil infrastructure has enormous arms, in the form of shipping routes and pipelines, both subject to accidental disasters, and in the form of military forces that maintain constant pressure and, occasionally, go to war to keep petroleum flowing.

Because this monster is a whole-system structure, we can effectively attack it by taking on any one of its four main components. Working against cars, sprawl development, freeways and paving, or oil dependence will bring down the whole destructive edifice.

Even better, we know that if we provide positive alternatives to any of these components, we will be starving the system and nurturing another whole-system creation, the pedestrian/­three-dimensional system. We will be building a whole new infrastructure for a new civilization.

Richard Register is an internationally-recognized urban design specialist and activist. He is the founder and President of Ecocity Builders, a non-governmental organization dedicated to environmentally-responsible urban development through public education and consulting with governments and planners.


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