Ecocities: using creativity to express our future urban needs

Richard Register & Sven Eberlein
Thursday, 11th April 2013

'What is an Ecocity?' 'Where can we find them?' and the important role creative expression has in designing them. Sven Eberlein talks to Richard Register, founder of the Ecocity Builders

SE: What's an ecocity and where can I find one?

Richard Register: There are many cities in the world that have various pieces of the ecocity in place. They are pretty inspiring in many cases, but I don't know of a city where all the pieces yet come together. Villages often have all the essential elements of an ecocity-type pedestrian structure. For example, you'll find that the old villages and small towns in Europe have work, education, residence, services, entertainment, and transportation elements at a scale where these pedestrian environments work pretty well. However, with fossil fuels enabling cars and trucks going vast distances, cities have spread out all over the place and become fractured.

So there's no real full-on ecocity that I know of, but there are places that have the core of what was close to an ecocity before they became embedded in today's automobile infrastructure. Zermatt, Switzerland, which has nothing but little golf carts that mix with pedestrians quite nicely - they don't run over people and kill them like cars do - is one example. Venice is another. Avalon on California's Catalina Island, where only a few collectors' cars are allowed. I don't even know if it's so much of an ecocity, but it's just a lot more pleasant than most places. It's a tiny town, and everyone is close together.

In Changwon, South Korea, where I'm on the international board of advisors, they have what's called the City 7 project that does get quite a few of the pieces of an ecocity together. When I say that I mean that work, living, and education aspects are placed in close proximity so you can get to everything by foot or bicycle, and for longer distances you have public transit. The City 7 project is pretty exemplary, heading in the right direction. It has housing, hotels, conference centers, all sorts of shops, movie theaters, clothing stores, bars, cafes, rooftop gardens, lots of plants. Nothing native and no food plants, so you're missing that, and the buildings don't have any kind of logical relationship to views or sun angles, but if you added those elements in you'd pretty much have an ecocity fractal, a fraction of a total ecocity in one place.

SE: You've been drawing up ecocity designs for over 40 years. How did you get into it?

RR: I met Paolo Soleri on a hitchhiking trip in 1965, even before he started his experimental town Arcosanti, and his ideas made so much sense. The city can't be scattered all over the place like a sheet of paper. It has to be like a living organism, much more three dimensional. Since the city is a complex living organism, constantly growing, changing, disintegrating, and re-forming, it has many parallels with normal living organisms. If it's compact and three dimensional like the European compact city where people can walk around easily, then it's well on its way. But you can take it much further, the way Paolo did, like single structure cities, a whole city in a single building. Not an enclosed block but rather a lattice work of living, breathing air and light penetrating, bridges between buildings, and rooftop gardens.

In 1973 he came out with his book (The Bridge between Matter & Spirit Is Matter Becoming Spirit: The Arcology of Paolo Soleri), in which he said that the city has to miniaturize itself and implode to a center where a lot of things are going on close together. That way you don't need a lot of energy to get to where the information, the people, the tools, and the ideas are. It all needs to be close together. He also said that cars are a big problem, pointing out that places like Los Angeles - where I was living at the time - basically consisted of a bunch of little buildings and was totally flat. He said that this was a problem, that while it may look like just a bunch of buildings this was in fact an absolutely gigantic, unprecedented infrastructure with miles of pipes per person for water and sewage and wires for gas and electricity, and asphalt and concrete for all the streets and drivers. A quarter of your whole house is for your car and the driveway is ten times wider than your sidewalk. He thought that was crazy, and I thought he was right on. So that shaped my thinking.

The other thing was that I'd always liked dinosaurs, paleontology, cosmology and such. Paolo pointed out that there's a pattern throughout evolution towards miniaturization and complexification. Gas clouds condense and new things start happening. Stars explode and throw out heavy metals that never existed before. Those elements congregate and through chemical reactions they form up in much smaller areas called planets within which life emerges, and within that life consciousness evolves. So there's a pattern of miniaturization and complexification throughout the entire cosmos, and here you see cities going in the exact opposite direction, spreading out, requiring more and more material, more and more energy, more and more time, money, and everything to accomplish specific functions in your life.

To me this seemed like really powerful stuff. I was making sculptures at the time because I love tactile art. So I started making sculpture for temperature ranges, vibrations, surface texture, resiliency, moisture and dryness, because there are all these things you can feel and nobody is developing an aesthetic expression of it. I was having an enormously good time making tactile sculpture, but at one point I thought, well this is fun but the world is falling apart, cities are growing rapidly, covering agricultural land and burning up our fossil fuels. I've got to apply this to real life problems.

SE: What role do you think art and creativity can play in inspiring and facilitating ecocity design?

RR: If you try to figure out what it means to evolve into a more fulfilling human future, individually, as a society, and as a species, the best I know how to do that is through compassion and creativity. Creativity of course is smack in the middle of the arts, and as a teen and in my twenties I wanted to do nothing but tactile art. But it's about the content and the message, what it means to be alive on this planet. A lot of artists get there, but you have to have a discipline of some sort, something to hold your style together and help communicate.

If you want art with meaning, it needs to connect with two things: the eternal—the laws of the universe, ecology, biology, and things that emerge in evolution—and the human heart—our capacity to feel for each other and be compassionate. I think Marshall McLuhan misses the point when he says "the medium is the message." No, it's not. What's the content here? Are you going to build a society that's damaging the planet or are you going to build a society that's advancing human creativity? What are you actually going to be doing with your art? You can't just toss out whatever you want to express, it has to actually connect with society, with other people's feelings and how they organize things.

SE: Like someone sitting on a zoning committee with a creative mind? How do we get to that?

RR: Well, those folks need the language, and the language is really scantily developed. Part of that language is visual language, which is why I draw so many pictures. Being creative also helps if you want to enjoy your work and be inspired to collaborate. If you can't figure out a way to enjoy this struggle — and it really is a struggle — with your comrades and friends, how can it work? And if you don't have the experience of working together, you can't magnify things. I think that's where art comes in, but it's almost too subtle to even talk about. It's about how we fit in the world, and artists create all kinds of possibilities for precious and wonderful ideas, because they're open-minded. 

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.

See how Michael Guerra applied permaculture principles to interior space design. Watch the Compact Living - how to design small interior space video

See how good you could be at designing an ecocity by playing the ecocity game