Is Arcosanti really the “City of the Future?”

Motherboard (a youth oriented hipster styled magazine that is a subset of Vice) recent on October 30s published an article about Arcosanti titled The City of the Future is Hiding in the Arizona Desert. The article featured an interview with Cosanti Foundation President Jeffrey Stein providing the familiar narrative…

The assertion put forward in liberal media like the Atlantic is that “The City of the Future is Already Here” and the mainstream society just hasn’t been looking very well to find it. Arcosanti suffers from a victim complex that its been neglected. Soleri felt he’d been neglected by the mainstream society, depriving him of the funding and support needed to actually build Arcosanti as the Prototype Arcology that he intended in its original founding to be the city of the future. He saw himself as a failure because he didn’t live to see his magnum opus life work fully materialize into a functional Arcology model.

In central Arizona there exists an experimental town called Arcosanti. It’s built on the principles of Arology, which combines architecture and ecology to envision a city that works in tandem with the Earth’s resources. In this short documentary, The Atlantic goes inside this distinctive urban space to understand how Arcosanti plans to reconstruct how humans envision cities. Author: Sam Price-Waldman

There are several ways to address this idea of Arcosanti being the “city of the future.” One is to say its not even a city but a small settlement of 50-70 people, so why are we considering it in much more grandiose terms? It is compact and interesting, and has some aspects of what compact urban living should or even might look in the future, yes but there is no critical mass level of development. This idea of what it will actually take to create a Critical Mass level of development (which was pegged arbitrarily at 500 but I suggest 150 is a good number to consider Arcosanti as a urban model if other goals could be met as well in terms of culture, social, economic development and sustainability) has been talked about (to death actually) but for reasons described more deeply in this essay, its never been achieved. Soleri acknowledged this, making a clear distinction between what it is now and what he aspired it to be as the “world’s first prototype Arcology.” I suspect he wouldn’t agree with the idea of linking Arcosanti to the idea of city or even urban life as it is quite isolated and small in a rural area of the semi-desert of Arizona.

In my view any serious futuristic city model would necessarily would have real ecocity bonafides. It would have many cutting edge sustainable technologies to make it a center of innovation in the green economy and ecological design fields, a “walk the talk” model of sustainable development and living. My tendency is to get a visceral reaction to this kind of portrayal about Arcosanti, because I felt having lived there for over 4 years that real efforts to develop appropriate technologies have never really been encouraged or considered at Arcosanti. Soleri never encouraged these sort of technologies the ones you would expect a sustainable future city to have because its takes away from status as the creator of the Arcology. We got into countless debates about this at School of Thought when he was alive. His argument at the turn of the 21st century, at least, (when solar panels were much more expensive that they are now) was that they had not developed enough to make them practical. He called them “trinkets” as a way to devalue them and their significance.

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FCE Takes Key Step in developing its Environmental Learning & Training Center in Beverly MA

IMG_4204The nonprofit Full Circle Earth, which I am involved with as a board member and volunteer, has “raised the roof” of its new training and research facility in Beverly MA. This involved installing a plastic greenhouse membrane to complete the greenhouse construction which began in June 2014.

My colleague, friend and fellow Arcosanti Arizona alum, FCE executive director James “Jimi” Carnazza has been leading this effort. Thanks also to the volunteers whose work was pivotal in making this effort a success.

The goal of this facility is to enable research and development in Aquaponics, Worm Composting and Compost Tea for promoting local and sustainable food production. These are the initial focus points towards promoting a more comprehensive/holistic approach to sustainable farming and living in the North Shore region of Metro Boston.

Our work will include the sharing of relevant appropriate technologies developed at the facility, through workshops, community outreach opportunities as well as k-12 programs, working with local schools as well as programs that cater to special needs students.

We also just got certified as Tax Exempt nonprofit by the IRS. So you can now make a tax deductable donation to support our work via PayPal:
For more about the project and our work please go to FCE’s website:

Stay tuned for more news and updates as we further develop this project.

Arcology Related News and Commentary for 01.11.14

Since I feel like I have become too much of a news consumer of information and that it has become like an addiction, I have been trying to shift the dynamic a bit and make it a focus to write about what I read more. Rather than just add my voice to the comments section of a page I am viewing or post it to my Facebook Page, I am trying to make a concerted effort to compile information into my blog in capsule form. I do try to keep an Arcology or Arcosanti theme, but I am also casting a wide net and am adding things that might be worthy of consideration within an Arcology themed project/ecocity.

Please feel free to send me anything you have and or are thinking about and I will post here:

Here are some of the headlines and issues I am looking at now…

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Paolo Soleri Memorial: Day 1 Cosanti – 09.20.13

Jim Carnahan explains the agenda and his role.
Jim Carnahan explains the agenda and his role.

After a long trip from MA to AZ by car, I finally arrived at my destination: Cosanti in the Phoenix suburbs to begin a discussion about how the alumni of the Arcosanti Workshop Program could become more involved in moving the Arcosanti project forward in a decisive way. It also included those from the Cosanti Apprenticeship Program, which ended in 1970.

About 150 people participated and they ranged in age from 92 to 20. While there was an element that involved the honoring of Soleri, it also included several sessions to discuss the way forward and possible ways that alumni could support the further development of Arcosanti. The first day focused on giving a space and a soapbox for members to express their views on things in a more general way and then ended with a panel discussion of local experts familiar with Soleri which I missed.

James Carnahan, who did a workshop in May 1972 as was on Staff from 1972-77 was introduced to the group. He had worked with Jeff Stein on preparing the sessions and brining in professional facilitators to help us guide the process in an effective way. While I was skeptical at first about this it seemed it worked rather well and folks generally seemed rather pleased on the outcome of this event and were looking forward to getting down to business.

Event Discussion Agenda – A draft agenda was put together that basically went along these lines:

  1. Friday, September 20, 1pm to 4 at Cosanti Foundation: The Legacy of Paolo Soleri – what are the important ideas and how can they be implemented locally and globally?
  2. Saturday, 9am to noon at Arcosanti, two broad topics:
    1. How might Arcosanti function in the future?
    2. Discuss organizational forms suitable for implementation of the ideas coming out of Friday’s conversation.
  3. Sunday, 8am to 10am at Arcosanti: What role(s) can the alumni continue to play in support of the various missions, goals & objectives we have been talking about?

The following content I cobbled together based on my incomplete notes so I probably missed a lot of good stuff. Its my attempt to compile a set of reports on each of the three days we participated in this event together. If you have any suggestions, additions or corrections, please let me know by email at:

Cosanti Foundation President Jeffrey Stein speaks to Arcosanti and Cosanti alumni.

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Recent Bay Area TEDx Sustainable Cities Series Features Presentations on Arcology

Last Saturday, Cosanti Foundation president Jeff Stein presented at an event organized by a group based in SF called TEDxMission. The name of this particular event was called TEDxMission 2.0 The City. It featured discussions with leaders in the sustainability field. There was a specific focus on innovative ideas and technologies relating to urban design (and particularly in terms of the Bay Area): “to share the powerful narratives of urban innovators and organizers, stewards and artists, builders and tastemakers.”

Besides Stein, the other speakers I recognized were (my thought is that these people could be a potential network resource for making Arcosanti more sustainable):

  • Brock Dolman is a permaculture expert who is well known on the west coast. He is a Occidential Arts & Ecology Center Lecturer  (OAEC) in Occidental CA and a guest lecturer at the Regenerative Design Institute in nearby Bolinas. Sewing Circle is an intentional community  small ecovillage/intentional community that is interwoven with OAEC similar to the way Cosanti Foundation is with Cosanti Originals at Arcosanti.
  • Geoff Lawton excited a lot of people by what he was able to achieve in Jordan on a dryland permaculture project that showed much was possible even in a very desolate desert environment. Considering the challenge that Arcosanti faces in growing food in a similar climate, he might be a great link towards increasing agricultural productivity.
  • James Hanusa has been active in the Bay Area Sustainability community. We crossed paths via the Global Summit 2010 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Currently he is CEO of the Urban Innovation Exchange a SF “economic development organization that co-creates innovation ecosystems rooted in sustainability and culture with an experiential approach.” Most recently according to their website, they enabled a design charette between Rio and San Francisco for the Bay2Rio+20 Group. Hanusa is doing work that seems to fit well with Michael Gosney’s presentation to TEDxMission at an earlier event: “Designing the Control Panel for Spaceship Earth.

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Arconauts Mull Pros and Cons of I-17 & AZ 69 Intersection Construction

The Arizona Department of Transportation decided to  “honor” of Arcosanti and Paolo Soleri by impressing his art on a large public works project design to improve traffic flow at intersection where Arizona state highway 69 forks out from Interstate 17 in Cordes Junction. Arcosanti is a tourist draw close to the interchange and so putting Soleri’s art on the concrete is really a no brainer. Not everyone will realize that the art is Soleri but it helps to reinforce and canonize Arcosanti as a tourist must see in Arizona.

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Experimental Greenhouse Collapses in High Winds at Arcosanti

Sometimes we Gain Wisdom by Learning “How NOT to do Something”

So this was the month in which the ”experimental greenhouse“ (I name it this for lack of a better or more formal name of the project) was supposed to be completed. After two years of looking at a uncompleted hull of a project, many here were expecting and anticipating closure…But not so fast…As we are to see in the story described in the post below.

The 2nd Annual Russell Ferguson KCAI Field Trip
The Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) students that came 2 years ago – their efforts need to be honored – as do the efforts of the 18 wonderful, creative, visionary and beautiful, people/students coming here in this latest KCAI field trip organized by KCAI Associate Professor and Arco-alum Russell Ferguson.

Building the Structure and Finishing the Work of the 2009 KCAI Group
The students spent several days working to tighten the PVC pipe frame. The frame was originally constructed out of new PVC pipe, which deteriorated rapidly in the hot Arizona sun over the last two years. They also removed all the rocks and stripped the land of any brush that might be an impediment to the firm attaching of the structure to the ground. A trail was made of rock by the rock wall and trail master Mr Ferguson, from the Arcosanti Low Road to the experimental structure.

Once the “pad” for the structure was secured and the structure itself hemmed up to compensate for the warpage of the PVC pipe after sitting in the sun so long, it was placed onto the cleared area/pad and then secured using rebar and metal bars hammered into the rocky ground that were connected to the structure using rope.

Finally, the plastic membrane was added and secure to the membrane and the instrument housings were added to the inside and outside of the structure.

A Sense of Accomplishment and then…
I do feel the students had a real sense of accomplishment. For a lot of us it was reassuring to see the PVC skeleton finally covered and looking completed. However that sense seems to have a bit premature, looking back now to the beginning of this week.

Sometimes things are not permanent and do not last, but what is important is that in the process of creating, WE DO LEARN. Just less than a week after the students left, a fierce wind came up and put the project to a test.

Some of us in the community had concerns about whether this structure would hold up to the high winds we sometimes get in the area. Unfortunately, those concerns were proven correct as the high winds mercilessly and quickly laid the structure to waste, breaking several key hoops and leaving only the middle section partially intact and standing. Now we are left with the question how and when to clean up the mess?

Lessons Learned
While the total budget was not huge for this project, probably around 300 dollars or less, how we can learn from the process to prevent this kind of outcome from happening again, and again and again….? I think this kind of self-critical examination is vital, because we have very limited funding and we can’t afford spend the little money that we have unwisely.

What can be identified as obvious issues is first the allowing of the PVC pipe to be used in the first place. We know that PVC is vulnerable to weakening in the hot sun and we also know that the structure showed signs of severe warping that had to be corrected by using ropes to secure the ends of the hoops together on the ground. There is a belief that painting PVC can help it resist the effects of the sun but I don’t think the PVC was painted to protect it. And while painting may help prevent damage to the PVC from the sum, these materials are not designed for solar exposure. The stop-gap strategy tying the structure together with the rope did not address the core problem – the general tendency of PVC to weaken under high solar heat/radiation conditions.

We also can not be sure whether the structure was properly anchored. However, it seems the problem was that the structural stresses of the wind on the plastic overwhelmed the ability of the PVC to hold the hold and the pipe completely broke in two in several places, leaving the structure in what appears to be in failure state and a resulting significant loss of time and resources.

Salvaging the Project Materials and Effort
In terms of analyzing the project in terms of materials and time we can infer the following:

  1. The broken and weakened pipe could possibly and hopefully be used for another project.
  2. In theory, the project could be rebuilt on the pad that was excavated, but the fact that the wind took this structure down so quickly would make me very skeptical of any further efforts without significant and well thought out design changes.
  3. The students gained a experience in construction, path building and the clearing of the land.
  4. The membrane hopefully suffered minimal damage and can be reused.

Conclusion and Possible Remedies
Forget about the potentially bad PR that we might risk when people walk or drive by such unfinished and collapsed projects, the real lesson here revolves around the need for better accountability. Who can expect those who have a passion for the project and who want to see it move forward in a way that is consistent with its founding, to really make investments in moving the project solidly and decisively forward, until there is a trusted and proven accountability structure in place. Nothing can proceed here in an effective way here, until we develop a better way to build trust, collaboration and accountability amongst ourselves.

The challenge thus is how to improve the accountability structure at Arcosanti so that no matter who you are and how long you’ve been involved with Arcosanti you are still accountable to the project and its
stakeholders in terms of what you do. The main stakeholders are the 7000 or so people who participated in the building of Arcosanti as work-shoppers and in many cases as residents. These are the people we should polling and asking about the future of Arcosanti. They are ones we are ultimately accountable to when we do work at Arcosanti, especially work that involves scarce Cosanti Foundation resources – as they put their blood and sweat into this project.

The main lesson that can be drawn from this project demonstrates the need to be accountable not only to each other as part of a community of people called Arcosanti, the visitors who come to eat, see an event or take a tour and also the alum who gave a part of their life to make Arcosanti what it is today.