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?

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Make Ecocity Visions Reality

Tawni Aaron is a colleague of Michael Gosney’s who will be visiting Arcosanti in the beginning of March.  She is trained as an architect and has worked with him producing the Ecocity Visions Preview, which was set up as an exhibit for the Green Pavilion at Burning Man 2 years ago.  She is working with Burners without Borders in Peru, on a green building/disaster relief project). She has a blog about her efforts to promote sustainability in the Bay Area.

On a related note…Libby Hubbard aka Doctress Neutopia recently sent out an email with regards to her work on promoting Arcology via her Lovolution framework. In terms of fixing the housing crisis she says, “President Obama seems to have a good heart in wanting to keep families in housing rather than having more people added to the homeless problem. But he doesn’t fully take a holistic approach to solving the crisis.”

While in a Mesa, Arizona Obama gave a speech on Feb 19. Libby notes that he talked about  how the “home mortgage crisis, the financial crisis, and the broader economic crisis are interconnected…” What he failed to mention she says is, “how underlying the economy is our life-support system, the ecology, which is also in crisis.”

The dilemma is that most people don’t know how to talk about the root causes of the housing/real estate/financial crisis without undermining any political legitimacy that one has in the political mainstream. This is one reason why exceptional leadership is needed.  There seems to be zero political courage among mainstream politicians to have a thoughtful discussion about the roots of American’s economic crisis which revolve around the fact that we “have exploited the natural resources of America in order to build an unsustainable lifestyle that has no long-term future.” And who can blame them – so long as we are convinced that people cannot really change or be persuaded that another way of doing things is truly possible in this world nation and indeed this world.

American’s wealth creation machine – which the mainstream media operatives were trained to marvel about incessantly – has created huge amounts of wealth for capitalist developers. They have she notes, “became rich and greedy by building urban sprawl making cities like Phoenix and its suburbs socially isolating,” so that people feel compelled to consume conspicuously to feel ok about themselves. So long as we can consume, we can tolerate things. Once the ability to consume is removed – watch out – because that is when the repressed rage that we have kept under wraps for years now begins to surface and impact American life. On a more tangible level, she notes the “transportation nightmare caused by the private automobile.” American cities led by the reductionistic thinking of mainstream thinking engineers, designers and economists (who were trained to see their role as enabling the integration of the car with the single family home, the television, the shopping mall and the freeway so that the American Dream could be most fully realized) has been misled by the idea that building more freeways would solve the problem of congestion. What has happened is that freeway growth has led to more people travelling more so that they can consume more stuff and resources. So the end result was that over the last 30 years people have been spending more time in their cars commuting and consuming and less time with their families and friends enjoying life.

Yet the business/economic development model that drove this rapid growth, just like the dotcom meltdown in 2000, was unsustainable. The problem was that the people who managed the economy convinced America that it was a sustainable model and the result was predictable: increasing numbers of Americans financed their unsustainable consumer lifestyles on their unnaturally inflated stock and real estate investments.

Libby says that Obama has the wrong idea on how to fix the multi-level problem:

We need a new paradigm in housing, economics, energy and transportation that redefines human life within cities. Such a lifestyle transforms the traditional American Dream housing model into a 21st Century model of ecocity development that creates a lifestyle based on sharing and conserving resources. To create such a profound lifestyle shift, the president needs an overarching architectural plan that inspires us to build cities in ecological ways. Architect Paolo Soleri calls such design arcology, a model that is car free, conserves water, shares resources, and encourages locally grown agricultural.

To construct an arcology requires ingenuity, innovation, and invention from science and engineering and cooperation, communalism and peace within the realm of sociology and experiments in egalitarianism. It demands that we find the social imagination and collective wisdom to build something entirely new and exciting with 21st Century technology. The arcology model could be a truly bipartisan project that creates a union of purpose for America and frees the world from a form of civilization that is doomed to war because of its ceaseless need for imperialistic markets.

With the collapse of Wall Street there is much talk about America turning towards socialism and the nationalizing of banks. But without a new vision of how socialism could transform our social and physical architecture in the way we design cities, the socialism we may experience might be of the type that caused the down fall of the Soviet state and created a hellish police state and nuclear arms race.

Now, with this new rise of socialism, it is time to visualize a new model of “People’s Palaces” or a people’s arcology by declaring sustainable housing a human right for all. In such a world, homelessness would be a tragedy of history. But to manifest such a vision requires clear thinking, social idealism, and the love for equality and justice. Call it a Lovolution, a revolution of the heart.

President Obama bails out the housing and auto industry, and advocates the concept that “economic growth” is good, he blocks out alternative possibilities. He will continue feeding money to a dying housing and transportation system rather than constructing a new architectural and social paradigm needed to save us from a hostile environment brought on by the American dream middle-class lifestyle that has caused global heating.

To read more about these ideas on how to transform American housing: see Arcology Phoenix and 12th Hour for Arcology

Her comments make me think about the recent TED conference video by Jill Bolte Taylor that my colleauge Joy Tang (founder and exec dir oneVillage Foundation) shared with me. Taylor talks about “Thinking from the Right Side of the Brain” and how her tragedy of having a stroke actually presented a tremendous opportunity to study the brain – her brain – from a bird’s eye perspective.

In this process of rethinking how the mind thinks, we also need to rethink how the collective “global brain” (first coined by Peter Russell the term “is a metaphor for the intelligent network formed by humans together with the knowledge and communication technologies that connect them.” It first came to my consciousness through my link to Howard Bloom‘s network via oneVillage who in 2000 wrote the book: Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century) operates within the humanity community. The social-psychology dimension of this process implies a complementarity in terms of seeing the individual/group interaction at the immediate and human scale level of our everyday lives as a fractal image of the larger human whole. So if it is true that we need to become the change that we want to see in the world, then a possible realignment of the progressive movement is needed in order to effectively promote the kind of “change vision” that led to Obama’s election.

In such a process of real and authentic transformation, we need to create a dialog between the naysayers and the technological optimists, to try to find a middle ground to prevent a complete collapse of civilization. Such a tragedy is in no ones real interests. We need to forward a dialog within the political and social mainstream of our society that puts forward the need for real and comprehensive change without becoming obsessed with assigning blame and pointing fingers. Definitely, we need to understand how we got into the situation we are now in and to understand the role of the key players responsible. The truth is however that we all share a responsibility for the mess our nation is now in.

The key of this struggle is learning how to live and proceed in an effort to create change with an open heart. There is great resistance to that even in the progressive movement. This is something that the Buddhists are aware of – to foster change by changing the very way in which we see and interact with the world around us. Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book Being Peace noted that the shrill, critical tone with regards to progressives and their peace efforts, was often counterproduce to their stated intentions. The Buddhists provide important wisdom that if we adopt as part of our living consciousness and being will I believe help us to have a greater impact in creating the world we want to see.

The more we can focus on being that Loving Kindness that the Buddhists like the Dali Lama talk about, the faster we can move towards the vision of sustainability that we seem to share. If we focus on being the resentment and hatred that is reflective of the society we live in, then we will only be a mirror of that wrongness. The power to make that choice is within each of us…

For Arcologies to Thrive you need Intercity Rail

One of the challenges of Arcosanti is that its building has not really proceeded very robustly. People have joked that at the current rate of development that it would take about 500 years to meet its current goals of having a population of 5000.

However regardless of the flaws of the project itself in developing an effective process to meet its larger goals of becoming a real prototype for sustainable urban development we need to consider the larger cultural, economic and political environment.

For a car free Arcology (or more realistically an compact Ecocity type development that reduces auto use) to function properly or even a network of them In America today or sometime in the near future, we need a intercity rail transport system to handle transportation between these sustainable urban centers.

Recently I came across a NPR piece that sought to “help figure out why the train system in the United States is so lame…” Writer Ben Jervey went on a cross-country Amtrak trip, New York to San Francisco. He wrote about it in the recent Good Magazine in an article titled “Train in Vain“.

Really there was nothing new about it. Basically Ben said the problem is with the rails. The rail lines that Amtrak uses are a joke and basically operate on 1920 type technologies and designs.

While Europe, China and Japan test out 300 mph maglevs, we fret with 5 mph curves that slow Amtrak’s flagship Acela to a snail’s pace.

It is really about priorities and a failure of leadership. While not wanting to engage in partisanship here, the Republicans have been particularly friendly with the auto and oil related vested interests and quite antagonistic with those who have suggested the need for more mass transit and rail based intercity trasport.

Now we are faced with outmoded rail infrastructure and a huge investment in a car transport system that at 4 dollar a gallon gas seem quite uncompetitive with Europe and Japan’s robust public transportation infrastructure. Possibly this is another sign of the failure of American leadership that has encouraged low density, high consumption type development not just in the USA but around the world through its particular brand of neoliberalism.