What if Permaculturists Designed our Cities? Interview with Richard Register

Richard Register & Sven Eberlein
Thursday, 21st March 2013

With urban populations rising, how can permaculturists take an active part in re-designing our cities? Sven Eberlein talks to Richard Register, founder of the Ecocity Builders

SE: It seems that ecocities are permaculture on a larger scale. In what areas do you think ecocity thinkers can learn from permaculturists, and what can permaculturists do to scale up to city size?

RR: It's relatively easy to experiment with permaculture. All you need is a piece of land and you're ready to go. Cities are more difficult - you don't own them and you have to work with the most difficult natural condition in the world: humans. How do you convince humans to act in their own best long term interest?

The integration of all the best practices in the built environment of a whole city isn't really happening. At the same time, the built environment of a permaculture homestead makes a lot of sense. You have your garden arranged according to your needs. Daily things like spices and herbs are planted closest to the house. A little farther out are the things you bring into your house to put in the refrigerator run by your off the grid solar collector. Beyond that you have the crops that are harvested on a much longer term basis, maybe your grains and wood lot on the fringes. All that stuff makes an enormous amount of sense.

Ecocities - Large-scale urban permaculture

Usually you have little one storey solar greenhouse style buildings that are ideal in a permaculture context, but it is one family or one small group of people versus the world. You're integrated really well with the ecology, but what if you're a community working with the world? Then it gets more complex. You have to have educational facilities, work places, living places, transportation in some form or another, streets to gather people and link them together, linking to people who gather in clusters of buildings. You have to think things through.

People come up with these engineering concepts where they have a larger set of buildings and a street, and they envision this simple-minded solar access. They say, "Okay, you've got a building more than four stories tall, so you've got to make the street wider, so the sun can get to the buildings on the other side." Not true. It doesn't make any sense! It makes sense only from the perspective of looking at buildings exclusively, to scatter them so you can maximize solar gain. Well that's not enough, solar gain isn't all there is to life. It's gaining knowledge, sensitivity, wisdom. It's gaining views of the countryside, cultural access, a place in your building that keeps cool or well lit.

"So these become design parameters that go way beyond just thinking in terms of buildings. For example, you can make a car street much more narrow, go up many storeys, and be glassed over, and it becomes a pedestrian environment. It's wonderful, with light bouncing from above, several stories up in the air. There's a good example right across the street from city hall in Vancouver, called City Court. They had a car street that they made about one third as wide.

On the north side of the street were these old stone historical buildings, but on the south side were some buildings that didn't matter that much. So they got rid of them and built a building up to this much narrower street, with bridges between the second floor levels, all sorts of shops, restaurants and cafés, professional offices right across from city hall, with some smaller eight to ten storey towers and residential units right next to it. So it's a really urban solution, but it's not slavishly looking at engineering designs one building at a time.

So this is how permaculture is brought into the more complex urban community dynamic. Now you're not just looking at whether your own house is operating well, your kids are using computers at home to take courses. That's great but what if they want to meet other kids? What if you want to meet the other kids' parents, which is how a lot of adults meet? You need a school, you need people, you need variety, you need a local community. So you start applying permaculture principles, and what do you get? Ecocity principles.

The problem is, there aren't that many ecocity thinkers. You get into this field, and you find that everyone is sort of stumbling around, saying, "Well, I want to get rid of some cars over here." Then they say, "We promote bicycles." That's great. Then you have other people saying, "We do organic community gardens in the city." That's great, too. But how are you going to coordinate them?"

So should more permaculturists go into city planning?

RR: I'd say city planning, but more directly [looking] at the design of buildings as they fuse together, where architecture starts uniting clusters of buildings. It can look like Victorian stick work or an Adobe style house with glass on the south side and big adobe barrier walls inside your building to soak up and store the heat.

You can have modern styles with steel and glass that have ways of holding energy. The style doesn't even matter so much, but if you start pulling all those pieces together you have something different than just saying, "Let's promote transit," or "Let's promote solar energy." If you promote solar energy in the suburbs it just promotes sprawl.

Electric cars might be okay if they fit somehow, but they aren't ideal because they're still 30 times as heavy and as fast as a person. You can't design a pedestrian environment around that because you have to stuff it full of streets between the pedestrian zones and you have to have big towering parking structures so that people can store their cars. We've got to skip that sort of stuff.

A lot of the people are doing ecocities in the way they think of conventional cities - they add wide streets and parking spaces. We must explore the basic principles of ecocities and then think it through from the bottom up.

Interested in becoming a city planning permaculturist? Have a look at our permaculture course listings to begin your journey.

Read Richard's Ecocity vision in Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature.

Watch Compact Living - how to design small interior space.

See how good you could be at designing an ecocity by playing the ecocity game www.ecocitynow.com

River1 |
March 29, 2013 - 12:23pm
What if- we could have more than turf parks in Provo.
Dustin Bajer |
March 31, 2013 - 4:05pm
I've been quoting Richard Register for as long (maybe longer) than I've been practising permaculture. His book "Ecocities" is still a major influence on my thinking and I'm mentioned his fantastic work in pretty much every talk I've ever done... so much so that I feel that "this" is the may that permaculture needs to head. As permaculturalists, we all imagine a quite piece of land in the country but what's really going to save us are cities; combine the two and you have a winning case. I explain myself in this talk I gave in Edmonton: http://www.slideshare.net/CityRegionStudies/dustin-bajer-the-future-of-urban-agriculture-urban-ecology
Teresa |
April 2, 2013 - 1:19pm
What these proposals do is mirror Agenda 21 and ICLEI plans. Knocking down beautiful old buildings just because there is a space in front (whether that space is used for steps leading up to the front door of the building, a lawn or a car park) and making boulevards much narrower is not the way a city should be planned. I don't want the city where I live looking like Hong Kong or London during the Industrial Revolution but with smoke from coal fires and later petrol fumes from vehicles replaced with invisible pollution caused by excessive EMF's from the 'smart' grid, TETRA masts and spy technology. http://www.democratsagainstunagenda21.com/

add comment

Log in or register to post comments