Designing Healthy Cities

Bulldoze suburbia?
Eventually, yes.

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 52
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

The recent first International Eco-Cities Conference, sponsored by Urban Ecology, brought activists and designers from many parts of the world together in Berkeley, California. Richard Register – artist, Urban Ecology founder, and author of the book Ecocity Berkeley – explains some of the whats, whys, and hows for designing (and redesigning) our towns and cities so that they are both ecologically healthy and more pleasant to live in. For information on Register’s book, or the proceedings of the recent conference, write Urban Ecology at PO Box 10144, Berkeley, CA 94709 Ecocity Builders, P.O. Box 697, Oakland, CA 94604 (current as of Aug 2008).

Robert: Why do we need to think about designing “ecocities”?

Richard: Cities are in the nature of people. We like being close together, and there are certain economies of scale involved. But the impacts of cities now are very big and extremely negative. That’s not too surprising, since so many people live in them and they are the focal point of enormous energy use and pollution production.

So the question is, can these built environments be a good neighbor to nature? Are there ways of rebuilding them so they can become ecologically healthy?

Robert: Is that kind of thinking catching on?

Richard: There’s growing interest and excitement around it, but it’s still a subject that frightens a lot of people, because it implies a major change in the way people build and the way they live. Very few people are willing to face up to changes like giving up the automobile, finding work close to home or a way to work out of the home, or having higher-density construction projects come into their neighborhoods – even if that makes ecological sense, and they agree with ecologically healthy notions in general.

But people are beginning to look at the possibility. I’m not saying it’s a fad ready to happen, but at least some ideas are out there.

Robert: What are the major characteristics of an ecologically healthy city?

Richard: One characteristic is more density at closer proximity, though the density could be very small scale. In a European village, for example, many homes are close together, and that was the pattern almost everywhere before automobiles scattered everybody hither and yon.

At higher density, public transportation systems start making sense. You have more diversity within a shorter distance. You can walk to many of the places you need to get to in your life. You might even be able to walk to natural creeks that have been restored. That’s the structural core of the idea, and most people are beginning to agree that it makes more sense to have towns built in that manner.

Robert: When you say more density, do you mean high rises?

Richard: Well, it depends on the scale. In small cities and towns, smaller heights might make a lot more sense. A lot of people condemn New York for being too dense, but it happens that per capita energy use in New York is about half what it is in the average U.S. city. You have to take figures like that seriously when you’re thinking about the impact of a city upon nature.

Robert: If society were to move in this direction, would it mean bulldozing the suburbs and moving people into denser urban concentrations? Or are there ways to, in effect, recycle our existing housing?

Richard: First of all, this is a long-range picture. It doesn’t mean moving everyone to Manhattan. In Europe, you can look down the valleys of the Alps and see dense little villages of five- and six-story buildings clustered together, completely surrounded by rolling grassy fields and farmland and beautiful forest and mountains. It’s very dense development, but it doesn’t cover much space, and it has the immediate relief of being surrounded by nature or farmland.

And you know, suburbia wasn’t there in many places fifty years ago. It’s a phenomenon that has spread out over some of the richest, most beautiful agricultural lands. So yes, eventually we’ll want to withdraw from suburbia and from these patterns of sprawl. Ultimately that would mean, over the next fifty to a hundred years, bulldozing some of these places, perhaps taking out the ones that are in the worst shape first.

But it’s not just about bulldozing suburbia. We’d be taking some buildings out of the middle of town too, for example, and replacing them with beautiful plazas.

Robert: What needs to be done to move us with all due speed in that kind of direction? What are the appropriate next steps?

Richard: The appropriate next steps go from the personal scale all the way up to the governmental. The small things do make an enormous amount of sense if you can pull them together – things like living closer to work, not using the automobile if you can avoid it, recycling, and all those things which have by now become traditional environmentalism. But you need to go beyond that.

If you own a house, you can go beyond that by making physical architectural changes – putting in solar collectors, for example. Or you could actually sell your house and move closer to your work. That’s a very big change for most people, but one that’s very healthy for the earth.

Governments should have ecological development agencies that actively support ecocity building. Instead of providing subsidies for automobiles, governments should make loans or research and development grants available to people who want to try out new kinds of architecture, build mixed-use downtowns, restore creeks, and do small-scale agriculture. Then you would see some fairly major projects happening, and the population would start thinning in certain areas that are now very automobile-dependent.

Robert: It strikes me that one of the major obstacles at this point involves local zoning.

Richard: Right. And zoning changes all the time, but it almost always changes in the wrong direction – building height restrictions get lowered in established neighborhoods, for example, that previously had higher limits. People want to amplify the privileges of their isolation.

We need zoning changes based on identifying active centers. For example, within three blocks of an active center in a neighborhood or suburb, we might allow considerably higher height limits and densities – but not beyond that radius. We would keep it very finite, so that people living in the dense areas could walk out easily. We could institute these zoning regulations gradually, over a whole generation or more, so people would accept that more easily.

How to actually make those changes when nobody really takes environmental threats seriously is very difficult to imagine. But you can do it. Lots of people know that this is serious, and they are working with this idea now.

Robert: The recent Ecocities Conference in Berkeley was a real milestone in that process. What sort of impetus do you think it will give to the movement?

Richard: Well, it’s hard to say. I know that networks are developing and a lot of people made contact with each other. If all goes well, we’ll eventually produce an international ecocity association that could go to bat for people and be a resource bank.

Robert: If this idea can be internationally based, it may be able to move forward more smoothly. That way it won’t get stuck in the strong American cultural bias against village-like dwellings.

Richard: That’s very important. One of the problems with our conference, for example, is that we didn’t have enough Third World representation – partially because the of expense and distance involved, and partially because we didn’t have the best contacts in the Third World cities.

So we need better communication with the Third World. Their ways of living are closer to ecologically healthy ones, in many cases because they don’t have a choice. It’s a gigantic reality that the rich countries are still parasitic on the poor, all around the world. We have to do something in relation to our responsibility towards other human beings, not to mention the other creatures on the planet. When you look into it, you discover that some of their lifestyles are really pretty graceful.

Cerro Gordo:
The Town That Time Almost Forgot

by Chris Canfield

The Cerro Gordo Community started twenty years ago with a pilgrimage to Hopi. We wanted to learn from traditional culture and worldview how our way of life might begin to grow back into balance with the rest of the biosphere.

During the four years of discussion that followed, our ideas grew into a proposal for a self-supporting ecological village for 2500 people; our group grew to include several hundred families of prospective residents and supporters; and we purchased the 1200-acre Cerro Gordo valley near Eugene, Oregon. We were eager to begin building our prototype community.

At the same time, however, the state of Oregon was instituting planning requirements that remain the most rigorous in the country. All cities and counties were required to prepare comprehensive plans and zoning, primarily to protect farm and forest lands. Of course we wholeheartedly supported such farsightedness, but the local county planners warned us we wouldn’t be able to secure the zoning we needed until the county plan was completed and approved by the state – which they said would take “a year or two.”

Fifteen years later, the Oregon Supreme Court decided that the third version of the county’s plan still did not meet the criteria, so the majority of the county remains in limbo. But the good news is that Cerro Gordo is one of the few islands in the county with, at last, final land use approvals from the state.

And so we’ve started building the community we’ve always envisioned: homes, businesses and community facilities clustered in and near a pedestrian village, preserving 1,000 acres of forest and meadow in their natural state.

Most of our property is protected as wildlife habitat. Private automobiles will be replaced within the site by walking, bicycling, transit and a delivery service. Community-wide systems will minimize resource use, maximize re-use and recycling, and rely upon wind, water and biofuels for power as much as possible.

The community will be self-supporting, with jobs provided by light production companies, remote services, education and publishing, community shops and organic agriculture. The village school will involve residents in the exchange of learning opportunities with the children.

We’re finally building Cerro Gordo as a prototype symbiotic community, to explore and demonstrate viable approaches for a more sustainable way of life.


For a copy of the updated and detailed Cerro Gordo plan, send $5 to Cerro Gordo Town Forum, Dorena Lake, Box 569, Cottage Grove, OR 97424.

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