12.06.08 | Phoenix Central Library: Linear City Panel Discussion


At 2PM on Saturday at the Burton Barr Central Library about 100 people gathered (including numerous Arcosanti residents and alumni) to hear a discussion regarding a proposal by Paolo Soleri and Nadia Begin to develop a form of Arcology city called the Lean Linear City.

The panelists at the event included: Paolo Soleri with assistance with his presentation from Architect Nadia Begin and Arcosanti Site Coordinator Mary Hoadley; Arizona Department of Transportation rail transportation planner Rakesh Tripathi; David Muench a photographer championing the strength and beauty of the desert southwest including Arizona Highways; and Arizona State University Professor John Meunier. After the presentations we had a break which was followed by a discussion by the panelists that included Q&A.

Professor Meunier’s Presentation

John Muenier is a architectural professor that is currently studying desert cities. He believes that in order for us in the Southwest to survive the 21st century there are important lessons to be learned from preindustrial desert cities. The city of Phoenix until very recently was the second largest growing big city in the country behind Las Vegas. The result is that Sonoran Desert countryside surrounding Phoenix is rapidly disappearing and local resources are rapidly being consumed to sustain this rapid growth. This leads us to ponder about what kind of environment are we creating and leaving for our children?

The Map of Despair?

One sad note is that Professor Meunier observed that everywhere he went, the people who had the means were trying to pretend they lived in Scottsdale (or similar affluent regions), desperately  trying to follow our example of growth and progress.

This trend of lower density development, not only encourages rapid consumption of land, but also encourages the car as the primary transport option not just in Phoenix but all over the world. The difference between the density of Phoenix and Manhattan is stunning. Professor Meunier reminds us that Soleri’s Map of Despair in The City of the Image of Man illustrates the pitfalls of low density suburban development that we are facing now on many levels. The fear is that there will only be a few islands of nature left.

To reverse this trend we have to address a deep seated cultural belief that we celebrate our success by buying the biggest piece and putting the biggest house. Professor Meunier noted in his presentation that the famed French architect Le corbusier once said “that a dream multiplied by a million is a nightmare”.

Studying Desert Cities and seeing How they Cope with Living in the Desert

Professor Meunier talked about his work on a PBS documentary titled Desert Cities where he looked at examples of compact desert cities around the world (see his PowerPoint Desert Cities Lessons). Meunier’s research shows that many cities built in ancient times, provided and still provide a remarkable environment for a “rich and caring urban life” – despite a very modest and financially constrained existence among their residents. Possibly this fact is yet another reason that we need to reconsider what is developed and and undeveloped in the world.

Yemen and other desert regions are places where many lessons are to be learned says Professor Meunier, especially for those of us living in the desert Southwest. Cities in the Middle East and other desert regions of the world have a long history of cultural and social evolution that have made these cities hospitable to human habitation, despite the challenges of their environments.

In places like Shibam, Yemen (which is a UN/UNESCO World Heritage Site), in the Middle East, community gardens are a common and basic part of everyday life. In addition to providing food for residents in surrounding neighborhoods, the human waste solids are gathered, then dried and finally used as fuel to warm the water used at communal baths. The ashes are then used to fertilize the gardens. Long before we ever had known of permaculture or sustainable design, there was an example of a full and complete cycle of recycling wastes, that included its use first as food then as fuel and finally as a fertilizer for the plants. Another important feature of desert cities that Professor Meunier discusses is the shaded streets in Middle Eastern cities that generate lower temps. In the so-called developed world, we have the opposite trend where cities are unintentionally designed to be quite literally “heat sinks” (The Heat Island Effect) that increase the sun and the heat, when we need it least – at the peak summertime months. Also important to consider is how these ancient cities function as centers of commerce with linear markets and souks full of life and vitality. Such interactions are vital for making cities highly desirable and attractive places to shop and socialize.

Compact City Studios Effort to Remake the East Roosevelt District in Downtown Phoenix

At the discussion, in addition to the Solare Linear City posters, there were also posters of the work that Compact City Studios is doing. Professor Meunier and his team of students and professionals at ASU (Compact City Studio) came up with a plan for the redesign of the East Roosevelt district in Phoenix (see map of area here). Much of this is based on what the team learned from Shibam Yemen and other desert cities.

They derived some lessons from ancient high density cities as they came up with the plans:

  1. Concentrate development in very dense 3-D nodes. Compact diverse habitats enable people to life a rich urban life with lots to do, see and experience.
  2. Pedestrian friendly urban zones enable people to easily get about using bikes and by foot and using buses and rail as needed for longer distances.
  3. Well Shaded environments keep heat down.
  4. Loss of individuality and personal identity is addressed with much higher density housing that enables people to retain their sense of home and their own identity as part of the larger urban form.

Connecting Rail Construction with Efforts to Remake the Build Environment

How does this relate to us here in Arizona? Arizona State University is seeking to support local efforts to reverse current trends by developing more sustainable education programs and by coordinating their efforts with more grassroots approaches to remake the built environment in Phoenix.

Professor Meunier’s program is based on the planning and design of compact urban cities (See the JPEG Handout about the Compact City Studios for more about Professor Meunier’s work), and is at the forefront of the effort to make students aware of the importance of sustainable design and planning in their work. Seeing the linkage that light rail has with urban densification and also rising land prices, a major focus has been on promoting high density development around the light rail corridor.

Re-orientating Phoenix towards a sustainable trajectory is no easy task but is being made possible thanks to the efforts of visionary champions of sustainable design in the region from all walks of life. Many of these leaders were influenced and inspired by the vision tha Paolo Soleri put forward first at Cosanti and then at Arcosanti.

Despite the challenges, Professor Meunier believes that we are at an incredible moment of opportunity. Looking at other cities and their efforts, we can see that Transit Oriented Development (TOD) has the potential to rapidly develop or redevelop a highly density linear spine through the heart of Phoenix. Similar results are seen in places like San Francisco Bay Area where TOD is a now a major focus of local and regional municipal planners. San Jose, which recently expanded its light rail system in 2005 is now aggressively building TOD projects on its two main light rail lines (see also a map of TOD projects in San Jose). According to Professor Meunier’s calculations, if redevelopment projects along the light rail can average around 20,000 people per mile, this would make it possible to add 1 million people without reducing desert landscapes to sprawl. This kind of compact, high density urban planning is needed to reverse current trends that are unsustainably consuming land and resources in the Valley of the Sun.

Lean Linear Cities Presentation

Paolo Soleri spoke of the “trivia” of technology overflow of products, and the Gridlock that we a all victimized by. He says we need to radically change the landscape of the city. What was right and meaningful a generation ago is no longer meaningful. We need to reformulate many things that we need consider as part of the modern existence. After Paolo Soleri’s brief introduction Nadia Begin took and discussed the proposal for a Solare Lean Linear City for Arizona.

The American Dream was something one could achieve through hard work and determination. Wasting vast amounts of land we created a culture based on the car that led to a diapsora of the habitat. Urban sprawl creates a great deal of land do we have enough land and resources to sustain this lifestyle. The life of the organism becomes grotesque deprived of civitas or effective civic action and interaction.

What if there is an alternative to urban sprawl?

This is a common theme that has guided Arcosanti over the years. Hyper-consumption in Soleri’s view is decoupling the urban form from the logistical realities of life. Despite Soleri’s clear frustration with the way things are going within humanity its evident that he still has hope for a “lean alternative reformation“. During the panel disucssion he sought to separate the “Green Movement” from the “Lean Movement” seeing them as separate, because the green movement has sold out to the PR imperative of capitalism and the marketplace. While many his points are valid, he overlooks how a critical thinker could and have made similaris critisims of Arcosanti not so much because of capitalism but due to organizational inertia. Regardless, in the Soleri reality, Green Design efforts like Amory Lovins’ Hypercar, are defined with rejectionist stamp of “better kind of wrongness.” The bottom line in Soleri’s view is that being “more green” does not improve the gridlock of the city or address the need for the construction of more sustainable built environments in a comprehensive way.

A total reformulation is the city in its most promising. His core vision seems aligned with Meunier’s in terms of seeing the city being remade by Transit Oriented Development in the form of a more linear city. Soleri’s vision of the linear city is of a continuous urban ribbon built alongside lightrail that can connect urban nodes together.

Lean linear City Specs

The Linear City modules measure about 200 meters in length and have all the amenities expected in urban environment. Each module is able to harvest a percentage of its urban needs. Solare is a Italian word and it translates into you are the sun. It will include two main structures each proposed as 20 or more stories high. With this kind of density the urban module can easily have a density of 240 persons per hectare.

Key Aspects of the Lean Linear City:

  1. Energy Apron that includes Passive Solar heating of the structure that also incudes Greenhouse apron & orchard apron as well as Renewable Energy power generation such as wind & PV
  2. Light Rail & High speed maglev trains to transport people between modules
  3. Moving walkways to transport people within module as well as local pedestrian and bicycle paths
  4. Water/stream for aesthetic and water recycling and purification

Promoting Relocalization through the Lean Linear City Model

The Linear City promotes a “Localization” or “ReLocalization” approach includes a focus on local ecosystem planning within each bioregion that reduces the need for transport of products and services using global supply chains that consume huge amounts of resources to sustain. A major goal of the energy apron is to:

  1. Bring agricultural activities much closer to the point of consumption
  2. Design with building materials that can be produced locally with a minimum of ecological and social impacts
  3. Produce power to provide comfortable built environment that using local energy resources such as biomass, wind and the sun.

Soleri offers an olive branch to the corporate world despite his critical view of capitalism. He says that the corporate world could put some effort in seeking to test out this hypothesis, if it was truly determined to remake itself into the Natural Capitalism image offered up by Lovins, Lovins and Hawken. Corporations and other institutions could send employees to this facility and Soleri even puts forward an image of an Eco-Industrial Park where we can envision businesses incubating sustainable ventures where the waste of one becomes the food of another similar to what was observed in terms of how the waste was recycled at the community gardens in Middle Eastern cities. He says that the main deterrent or alternative to materialism is leanness. The planet might sustain six or seven billion with the lean alternative. Industries based at Arcosanti could be developed to practice the learn alternative.

How Multi-Modal Planning Relates to Linear City Development

Rakesh Tripathi is a Multi-modal Transportation Planner with experience working in Texas on the the largest transportation planning program in the state. Multi-modal takes a holistic approach considering the most sustainable and efficient way to get people and in some cases resources from place to place. At the Multi-modal planning division at ADOT Tripathi is hoping to take ADOT into a multi-modal posture. Key to this process is to consider accurately the future of rail at the local, regional and national levels. There is a lot of uncertainty about what is rails future in AZ and indeed the nation. He says that he is looking at rail as rival to cars and studying various corridors that would replace and or take the load off of overloaded car routes. He says that one dirty word called money is an obstacle in what we do. Regardless major infrastructure improvements are need to address the transportation needs of a rapidly growing Arizona.

The Rise of the Interstate Highway System and the Demise of Rail

Tripathi notes that the interstate was built for national security purposes. In 1919, a young colonel Eisenhauer was a in military convoy that was going from Washington to San Francisco. Because it took 57 days to make that trip Eisenhauer was motivated after the war to develop an effective national transportation system to address this situation. At the time though, rail was the only way to travel long distance in the country. During WW2 he saw the advantage Hitler had in relation to using the Gernman Autobahn road system to rapidly mobilize his troops.

When the Interstate system was being planned. The challenge was finding money to fund it. Tollroads were considered but the reality was that a national system of tollroads would never have been enough to fund all the sparsely traveled corridors between the major traffic areas. So it was decided that a road taxation system would fund it. States had institute gas tax to match the federal money allotted to fund the program. States had to pass constitutional amendments that allowed the monies to be used for roads only. This is a major reason why today there is very little federal money being used for anything rail. There has been a discussion how do we deal with funding rail at the policymaking level. One reason why national rail systems have continued to flounder why local light rail systems proliferated was that there are still no dedicated funds for large scale investment in a national rail network. What you see in the rail is what happened with roads in the 20s.

A Light Rail Revival

Major big cities have been instituting light rail programs over the last 20 years in places like Dallas, San Diego, Portland, Denver, San Jose and now Phoenix, all the while Amtrak has been slowly dismantled.

In Dallas there was a tremendous amount of conflict but it became a success and then neighboring cities wants it. Widely expanding program because there is a demand for it. There has to be a demand from people. When that comes there is more tolerance to pay for it.

The Big Question: Do We need a Strong National Rail Network to Build Sustainable Cities and a Sustainable Society?

Recent light rail successes will mean more light rail, but what happens after the local system is completed. Do people need to have viable regional and national rail transportation options? Should we consider connecting the metro regions that are making significant investments in local rail infrastructure as part of a more comprehensive approach to building a national high speed rail infrastructure? What about the greening of the automobile? Does such efforts such as hybrids and electric cars negate the criticisms that anti-car advocates like Soleri put forward?

These questions have to be answered in a way that leads to a clear understanding of the challenges, the possibilities and possible scenarios in the mainstream. Regardless of the outcome of the social and political and economics debates, the good news is that there are signs that regions all over the country are taking the initiative in exploring how to develop truly high speed intercity rail infrastructure (California is the first state in the union to actually pass a bond issue to fund a 10 billion dollar intercity rail line between San Diego and Sacramento).

However as Tripathi points out, the impediments to a nationally cohesive high speed rail network are still considerable:

  1. Consistent national level funding is needed for local, regional and national rail systems. We have to find a way to pay for a more enlightened transit system. He suggests that we should look at road funding and review the laws that force all the road taxes into road building and maintenance.
  2. Private rail companies have extra-legal governmental powers that prevent the effective rebuilding of America’s rail infrastructure. If a state dept of transportation wanted to take rail land, they could not because the laws says you cannot condemn rail property. Railroads answer to their shareholders unlike public entities who answer to the policymakers and the public. Changes in the ownership of the rail are also needed so that government can exert control as necessary or at least force the railroad companies to make the needed in improvements in the rail infrastructure.
  3. Cohesive and coordinated policymaking is vital so that we have a national level plan for developing a comphrensive national high speed rail infrastructure.

Way Forward

Gross mis-caclulations by modern American policymakers and planners over the 60 or so years led us to believe that progress was something that meant distancing ourselves from the ancient wisdom of how to live in harmony with the environment. We were misled to believe that our command of sophisticated high technologies would enable us to live without worry about considerations of the surrounding environment. The trend towards such arrogant assumptions is no easy feat to reverse.

As we saw with Soleri’s comments after the Panel made their presentations the current human condition can lead to a overwhelming sense of despair leading many that commit their lifetimes to the struggle of changing humanity to become increasingly negative and cynical. The definition of success in terms of how humanity sees development has become focused on American modern cities like Phoenix which are very low density.

The challenge is how do we reverse prevailing assumptions in American politics, economy, society academia and media:

  1. How can we deliver a sustainable and rewarding life in terms of designing a model of sustainability that others can learn from and be inspired by to reverse current trends of development that see American Suburbia as their model?
  2. How can we learn from people we are taught to look down upon in the so called developing world?

One promising and concluding note is that the Obama administration appears pro-transit and pro-rail. However, it remains to be seen how successful it will be in reforming the heavily auto-based American economy and put forward something that is more ecologically and socially sustainable. Tripathi says that a staggering amount of investment is needed (he estimates the cost at nearly a trillion dollars) to update the rail system infrastructure into a modern state of the art system.

What you can do:

  1. Get Involved in Local planning committees as Professor Meunier suggested in the Q&A session
  2. Support the Arcosanti program by making a donation to the Cosanti Foundation, or by purchasing a bell, a book or a poster of Solare Lean Linear City – at one of the galleries in Cosanti in Paradise Valley, at Arcosanti or online.
  3. Write letters and  op-eds in local, regional and national media outlets to increase the robustness and depth of the discussion about sustainability and in particular urban living in America
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4 thoughts on “12.06.08 | Phoenix Central Library: Linear City Panel Discussion

  1. […] 12.06.08 | Phoenix Central Library: Linear City Panel Discussion …Dec 7, 2008 … John Muenier is a architectural professor that is currently studying desert cities. He believes that in order for us in the Southwest to … […]

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