The Challenge of Creating a Thriving Global Eco-Cities Movement

Earlier in the year I considered going to the Ecocities Conference taking place in Sept in Nantes France. I worked with Libby Hubbard (AKA Doctress Neutopia) on a submission to the event.

We explored the limited evidence of success in which even a broad definition of EcoCity can be applied. In response to the slow growth of EcoCities, conference organizers seemed to be taking steps to bring in people and ideas that might enable a discussion of how to build a ecocity that might eventually bring in larger scale redevelopment players. Yet it is the case that many of these so called big time players who as decision-makers mold our modern cities are the ones that resist the needed changes. Conventional environmental and planning actors have been hobbled, humbled and in many cases made jaded by the largeness of the task at hand to transform the human built environment and to do so in very short period of time. In response they have tended to see incremental reform as the only realistic option to create practical change. Could it be that the only real long term solution is to build smaller, more human scale built environments arranged along ecological principles and resize the city more in the range of the Greek city state?

In writing up our proposal to attend the event as presenters, we considered the Herculean task of not just reforming, but in Solerian terms, Reformulating modern cities. In their rapid evolution, as modern centers of culture and commerce, cities have become transformed into massive and gigantic resource hogs. Soleri’s notion of reformulation as applied to the modern city, explains that the problem of the unsustainable city is so great that a fundamental overhaul of the urban built environment is the only way out. He attacks the mainstream reform effort in his reformulation manifesto saying that piecemeal or incremental reform only perpetuates existing unsustainable development dynamics. He often referred to these misguided attempts to create change as “a better kind of wrongness.”

Its worth mentioning that urban sustainability planning pioneer Richard Register has long been a friend and colleague of Paolo Soleri. I just saw that Register is one of the Arcosanti Alum who will be attending the Paolo Soleri memorial event that I plan to attend in two weeks at Arcosanti. It was Register who coined the word EcoCities (Sustainable Cities), convening a global conference on the topic that now takes place every year – this year it is Nantes France. He also started a consulting non-profit called Ecocity Builders which offers consulting for the construction of EcoCities and published the Auto-Free Times. Register stayed close with Arcosanti and Soleri, since first coming there decades ago and featured him in his books and publications about EcoCity Development.

Its obvious in his writing that he was highly influenced by Soleri as a creative person and visionary intellectual. Register has been able to take a leadership role through his hard word in developing a huge volume of materials and projects over the years. Most importantly he represents one of the few established professionals and academic people who have put forward respected visions of a future that incorporates Soleri’s work and vision, as an independent thinking person who seeks to integrated Arcology into his own work and theories.

The modern city is an extremely bloated and overloaded creature, designed to house many more humans than is actually possible over the long term. The fundamental unsustainability of the modern city is leading to an increasingly inhumane situation in the urban environment in modern societies. At the same time it also expresses the hypocrisy of modern life, despite our own failure to build sustainable cities, we encourage the rest of humanity to uncritically embrace the demographic transition and escape rural  life and all that is not urban to rush into the mix and become urbanized and modernized as quickly as possible.

To develop practical plans to fundamentally overhaul and redirect the modern city, we must look critically both at current urban development practices as well as alternative models which seem to be slow in being implemented at a larger and realistic scale to enable global transformation of the ecologically, socially and economically unsustainable industrial economy and society.

Human scale development is a counter-point to mega scale, top down development strategies put forward by corporatist institutions like the World Bank and the rest of Demographic Transition leaning Globalists.  Part and parcel of this globalist ideology is to remove our ancient “tribal” identities to place and culture (also as quickly as possible) to make us into modern sophisticated global citizens. But despite all this rush there is no real plan or idea how we will regain our localized sense of place and culture within in these compact shiny and new (these highly corporatized spaces are often sanitized of any genuine human feel) urban spaces.

The movement towards a more human scale approach includes the realization that to a large extent tribal has been demonized by development professionals and academic intellectuals who write the textbooks and policy papers that determine nation-state and globalist institution official policy positions – along with the rural folk. The issue is if tribal is something bad that we need to remove ourselves from, then what is the alternative, the collective hive or the corporate fiefdom or possibly a combination of both? A major critique of Soleri for me revolved around my concern that he became too obsessed with a romantic notion of city. This romanticism of the city often disregarded the diversity of lifestyle possibilities that existed and continued to exist for humans.  I see the glorification of the city as part of package of thoughts and ideologies that sustained the empires of the world, which were for the most part based in the cities. I did not see Soleri as capable to truly consider the rural reality of people as well and that gradations of density and lifestyle were both desirable and preferable to a one sized fits all approach to urban and human development. Such a reformed view of Arcology implies that suburbia is not necessarily a bad thing, but a result of a natural and organic evolution of the urban form.

Our tribal identity has been stolen from us as modern people and with that, a sense of the intrinsic value of nature and spirit that transcends the physical reality. We exchanged a authentic and deeply rooted sense of local culture for the allure of the modern cosmopolitan urban lifestyle, which is why Wall Street and Hollywood values override the ones on Main Street. All this, despite a resurgent yet very superficial “back to the roots” conservatism that is increasingly guiding the country’s leaders. Red State, Blue State is really about city verses country folk and the importance of creating divisions in very predictable ways along those lines of the conservatives and the liberals. While in the long term it leads the country to disaster by creating an untenable polarization that prevents us from seeing us as part of one nation, short term it keeps any real populist middle way alternative from emerging  in the mainstream that might bump the existing leadership and their unsustainable way of doing things from power.

My suggestion is that an modified sustainable urban lifestyle must be a radical departure from what we now see as the city life. It must embrace the suburban and the rural, seeing that a city is not a monolith or a linear form but amorphous mass that is hard to define or control. It must seek political solutions and develop a political framework for action that transcends the parochial interests of any one group – liberal or conservative, rich or poor, urban or rural. A sustainable city existing symbiotically within both a larger human and natural ecosystem. The real issues are not about evolution or creationism or abortion rights, gun rights, gay rights, etc, its about things like whether rural people can trust that liberals educated in the isolated silos of academia to not dominate government and society propelled by a single minded urban vision that denies the validity of the rural lifestyle.

For a city to be sustainable, we must design it so that human and ecological life is valued at every level of its existence. So this means we have to respect and take in the rural wisdom of how to value and live off the land. Its also important that the importance of the rural guides the development of academic, cultural, and economic decisions in the society and that there is a real authentic respect of the rural regions in that they provide important and vital resources to sustain the urban prosperity. We must also consider the limits to density and growth at least at this time in our existence and that the city must better balance itself with the rural and boundaries of natural systems.

In terms of the scale of the city, we know for a fact that there is a limit to how much information we can process and how many people and things we can experience in a given day. In terms of living together with people, the actual number of people we can to on a human scale is relatively small around 150-500. Oddly enough the modernists, in the rush to modernize societies and transform them into highly urbanized nation states, totally disregarded Greek knowledge and wisdom about human scale development and democracy. In fact they believed there were concrete and definable limits to the size and growth of their city states. Its hard to grasp that Athens at its peak had about 100000 citizens and 250000 people total. Compare that reality to the fact that NYC has 18 million, Mexico City 25 million and Tokyo about 30 million. Now possibly this idea of the limit to the size of a city and society can be increased with modern innovations like cars, freeways, urban transit systems, water and power systems, skyscrapers and computers to manage all the resulting complexity. Yet the issue of how humanely the people will relate to each other is still an issue. When we see signs of urban decay, its evidence that we don’t even really value the city, its culture and its infrastructure. This is precisely what the term human scale and community oriented development seeks to address.

What I am seeing is that there is a need to mimic natural systems in how we network and map out solutions. We’re not just talking about ecosystems or ecology here but looking at the fundamental organization of life systems around Holons. A Holon is a basic building block for life that develops at a basic level as a relationship between the key components for a system. From this layers of systems emerge that often do develop hierarchies from which to manage life tasks that expresses the interconnectivity and independence of both living and nonliving systems. A five or six sided geometric shape expresses the fundamental relationship in nature of the Holon to all things.

From the Holon that basic building block, we can consider bottom up approaches that creates the imperative of change by creating innovative systems at the neighborhood scale. So rather than seeking to create change in the system by appealing to larger scale developers, we seek to make the focus about better organizing the grassroots around this idea that we have to manage our resources better by taking control of the systems and managing them in alternative economic systems that are more cooperative, nature and people oriented. This is not to say there is no room for the larger players, you can’t realistically leave them out but I am saying to build an true EcoCity you have to work to develop alternative considerations of success that impose limitations on their power and impact in the emerging sustainable city.

The Holon is the core that is balanced on all sides. It considers not just profit in the design of its economic systems but also education, health care, environment and governance. It is based on ancient notions of development that sought that embraced the reality that a sustainable society is never sustained by money or the money people as the sole driver of success and prosperity. So then why design modern societies based on these assumptions and then cloak this reality with the cleverly crafted illusion of democracy? Undermine this prevailing notion of society in a constructive way will be our greatest challenge and obstacle to achieving our goals in building a global coalition of Ecocities that evolves past nation-state nationalistic primitivism.

In terms of the future city development such milestones may include the radical opening of city space back into nature and rural and the compressing and compacting of the remaining urban realm into spaces more quaint people friendly spaces. The big players are going to be needed for some time to come to provide financing to link these nodes of human convergence together by train bus and bikeway. Financing is also needed to create hub centers to help facilitate this growth around converging factors and variables that may include the practical application of more Arcological inspired and themed development models. Corporations will be needed to provide for us those things that the local rural and urban folk can’t easily provide for themselves through the localized and global, internet enabled peer to peer networks. National governments will recede into more city-state and regional agglomerations similar to what we see happening in countries like Belgium right now.

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