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From Traffic Jams to Ecocities – Interview with Richard Register, President of Ecocity Builders

Marcin Gerwin: In many cities there are problems with traffic jams. The streets are clogged with cars and as a response mayors build new roads or widen the streets. Old buildings are demolished to make way for new lanes so that a highway running through the middle of the city could be built. Would you say that this is the right way forward?

Richard Register: Definitely not. Money for public transport is a good idea but widening the roads is not a solution in all but the rarest cases and often does great damage. The real answer is to deal with built infrastructure such that people live and work closer together and do other things in life closer together. We call it access by proximity. In this way people get to where they need simply by walking about, by taking a bicycle or by using public transit which service much more people more efficiently than automobiles. Widening the streets is the worst thing you can do in almost all cases. Public transportation is a good idea but it has to be coordinated with the built arrangement of the city.

Regarding transport, there is a transportation ‘hierarchy of health’, you might say. The healthiest transportation system is the one that is dominated by pedestrian accessibility, with nice pedestrian features of all sorts like public plazas once in a while and plants along the streets. In fact I would encourage orchards in a city maintained by people who normally take care of just ornamental trees. You can have fruit trees and people can harvest fruit right in the middle of the city, so the street becomes a much nicer pedestrian environment.

The second transport mode down our transportation hierarchy list would be bicycles, which are magnificent inventions for getting around the city – riding a bicycle uses approximately one eighth the energy required for walking on a flat surface and you get something like eight times the range if you go three times as fast as walking. It makes much larger the area of the city that’s easily accessible, without burning any fuel.

After that is public transit, especially the streetcars and second among transit modes would be buses. And then finally, last of all would be the single passenger vehicle. Taxis are pretty good, better than regular cars. Also shared cars are a good idea, like in car clubs. The absolute bottom on our transportation hierarchy list is the private car as a transportation system.

MG: Tallinn in Estonia has recently introduced free public transport for its residents. Do you think it’s a good idea?

RR: I should think so, though the economics would have to be thought through deeply. First there is the question: what is the total environment the free transport ties in with? The city is a like a whole living organism with its “organs” or basic functions – housing, jobs, shops, offices, manufacturing, education, recreation, financial services, gardening, food supply, and so on – that the total picture needs consideration. The city might save considerable amounts of money to not service cars and inefficient transportation, which is possible with our “access by proximity” approach of designing integral activities close together. In that case free transportation is a cost but a small cost that savings, due to best total plan for complementary uses that work together easily, more than covers.

Especially if people love being in the pedestrian areas, using bicycles and feet, cities can save money on services that don’t have to be built and maintained that are actually damaging, like building freeways and big parking structures, spending remediation money on damage from car-generated smog and so on. Free public transport then becomes a reward for building the ecocity style city of multiple benefits.

MG: You are the author of the book entitled “Ecocities”. How would you describe what an ecocity is?

RR: An ecocity is just an ecologically healthy city. The thorough ecocity, the really strong one, would help to build soils with kitchen waste, human waste, food production and agricultural waste, waste from urban forest, as well as urban orchards. You can build soils by putting all the organic waste into the soil. There’s no reason to be destroying soils.

Another thing you can do is to support biodiversity. When I was in Central Park in New York I actually walked over a hawk. I’ve never seen something like this in my life and here it was in the middle of the city. What they have there are these nice curving bridges with a really steep arch and I was walking over one of these bridges and a hawk flew right under my feet. It was amazing! Nature comes back into the city if you have a design that has fairly large areas for nature, like orchards for example.

When you realize that many European cities run on about a third as much energy and land as consumed per person in average American cities you can see the impact of cars, sprawl, paving and dependence on massive amounts of cheap energy – mostly it’s been gasoline from oil. Yet most European cities are contaminated severely, especially the big ones, by automobiles and their infrastructure, pollution, noise, death and injury in accidents and so on. What if we built cities on one-fifth the land of typical American cities per person and used one-tenth the energy to run such cities — not a radical extrapolation from the European model if we go to full-on ecocity design.

Such thorough ecocity design would be not only according to the dictates of the pedestrian-first transportation hierarchy but would recognize the value of density at very high levels of functional diversity – access by proximity again. But also, ecocity design would be involved, not green building design, though that’s a good idea too, but design of the relationship of clusters of buildings to open spaces like plazas, parks and community and allotment gardens, to proper transport, renewable energy systems, sun angles, views to nearby nature, restoration of natural waterways and so on.

Streets according to ecocity thinking should be mainly built to the scale of pedestrians and accessible by bicycle, though some streets should be primarily for bicycle. Eventually there should be no cars in the ecocity except small emergency cars, carts for the disabled and family shopping in foul weather. Rental cars on the fringe would be OK. Venice, Italy is car free, beautiful and prosperous, which should let people know that car free cities are possible – many think they are not. We need car-free areas established in all cities and expanding over the decades until cars only appear at the fringes — until their use is reduced to the range of 5% as numerous as we see today.

For ecocity design my organization, Ecocity Builders out of Oakland, California, promotes rooftop and terrace accessibility and, in higher density areas, bridges between elevated publicly accessible spaces, say at the third, fifth and seventh story levels, perhaps, and again, depending on just how populated and dense that part of town is. The idea is extreme pedestrian accessibility, creation of a spectacularly pleasant space friendly to people and natural plants and animals – the city to avoid future extinctions while helping people flourish in their own creativity. I believe environments like that can be designed and built if we try.

MG: Are there any cities around the world that you would call ecocites?

RR: No, not even Tianjin Eco-city in China, which even has ‘eco-city’ in its official name, and to which I’m adviser of sorts. I wrote a long assessment of the project last year for their administrative committee, the organization building the city. It has a lot of nice details, but it’s not thorough enough and I wouldn’t call it an ecocity by highest standards. It’s being built right now on the coastline for 350 thousand people. There is a lot of restoration work with marshes and bringing birds and fish back into the area. It will have a really good transportation network. Interiors of the blocks are sometimes designed very well for the pedestrians, but the superblocks have very wide streets which look like they’ve been designed for cars, so that’s not a very good idea. They have lots of good technologies already in place and more coming – geothermal heating, solar and wind energy, excellent recycling, cogeneration of heat and electric energy in some buildings and so on. They are heading in a right direction, but they are certainly not integrated enough in the whole ecocity pattern yet.

Some cities like Curitiba in Brasil have an integration of many elements but still are dominated by automobiles. Europe has many wonderful cities and Venice is even entirely car-free, as I just mentioned. Zermatt in Switzerland is also car-free and Gulongyu, China. There are all sorts of places that have good features – solar greenhouses, rooftop gardens are coming in, some university campuses have bridges between buildings. Bologna has this wonderful walkway with a shelter that extends out into the countryside for two miles. There are streetcar systems, rental bike systems that are cheap, there are many great things happening also with solar and wind energy, but there’s no place where they all come together in a full design. That would be the world’s first real ecocity.

MG: Why do you think there aren’t any ecocities so far?

RR: Well, people like comfort and they are afraid of losing it. You don’t have to wait for a bus if you have lots of money and you can buy a car. A lot of people are afraid to try new things, they want to hold on to the car and they don’t want to see their neighbourhood change. But the way we are living now is destroying the planet. It’s wrecking the climate, it’s destroying agricultural land by covering it with asphalt and concrete.

Once you realize the connection between the shape of the city, its dependence upon asphalt, concrete, automobiles, gasoline and massive amounts of energy, if you really take that seriously then you should stop and say maybe it isn’t so good, shouldn’t we change it? Maybe it could get better? And it could get much better. I mean it’s fun to live where I live in Oakland, where I can just walk around and get to all the places really easily. And if I want to rent a car for a rare trip out to the country – I do that five or six times a year – I just go down and rent a car. But that doesn’t wreck the shape of the city. It’s daily commuting and running around the town for many errands and business and social purposes that ruins the city by requiring a low-density scattered infrastructure created by infrastructure supporting the car.

The built form of the city is a major problem in the world and it’s important to understand its connection to climate change and species extinction. Cities are the largest things human beings create. Leaving out cities from debates on how to deal with climate change is absurd. You can’t just say I don’t want to change my neighborhood, I don’t want to get out of my car, let’s stop talking about city design, because you have to improve city design if you want to stop wrecking the climate.

MG: What can you do to turn a regular city into an ecocity?

RR: There are several things that would have to happen simultaneously. First you have to learn about the problems and you also have to develop the language. The word “ecocity” helps in that regard. You also have to understand proportionality. Usually what happens is that people say: “you know, it’s going to be hard to get rid of the car, so let’s just talk about bicycling around the infrastructure we have now”. What they’ve done is they have avoided dealing with the larger question which is the land use pattern, the fact that density and diversity actually work together to solve most of your problems. Most people say: “let’s postpone that because that’s difficult and let’s do something easy first”. That’s a very bad decision, because you should face the difficult things that make a difference as first priority and not procrastinate. No one ever successfully defended their country or won a sporting event by shouting out: “Relax!” If you’re being invaded by another country then you don’t have any choice and you actually do the difficult things. When the challenge is less obvious and people don’t even talk about it, we’re basically doomed.

Then you get down to real specifics like the zoning. We can be changing the zoning, and the taxing system too, such that we encourage people to live and work closer together. We can allow development that has higher density and the right design — you just don’t allow any high density — it has to be the right mix of uses and a right design. You get all those little pieces together and you have a piece of the ecocity inside a regular city, something that in our ecocity language we call an “ecocity fractal,” a fraction of the whole ecocity with all the essential parts and functions present and well arranged. And that becomes something people can look at and understand as an example.

You also need people who say “we need to learn how to build ecocities”. And nobody says that. We need departments in government at city, county or regional, state, national and United Nations level that would be called Departments of Ecological Development, so that people understand that development can be ecologically healthy. Most environmentalists in the US say: “oh, development is bad and ecology is good”, but when you’re a developer you say, here where I live, that the environmentalist is my enemy. But the developers and environmentalists can work together and come up with something that is healthy.

MG: In some cases tall buildings or higher density may not be welcomed by residents, especially in the historic towns. Not everyone would like to live in a skyscraper.

RR: You can design mixed use buildings that are kind of like hills. They could have design features that fit with local architecture and rises up into a hill. You can also construct bridges that connect the high buildings, which I mentioned earlier. I would push for high buildings if you have terracing on them. And when you have several blocks where it’s all pedestrian you can cover over the street like in Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. It’s only two stories high but the interior of that street is wonderful with beams of light falling through skylight windows. It creates a great commercial environment with cafes where people sit around and chat. It’s full of life and it’s a street. You can look at an entire area and ask how can we make this whole area really vibrant, and go to the best integrated design we can come up with.

In Berkeley California, where I lived for a very long time, everybody says: “If you build taller buildings you don’t have a view”. And then I say: ”Wait a minute, nobody in Berkeley has a view anyway.” Why don’t they have view? Because they all have the same height buildings. Every building is in the way of every other building. Trees are two or three stories high and buildings have one or two stories. Other than downtown that’s the way it is all over the city. So let’s be honest – you don’t have a view in that city. If you have a taller building you have a view from that building. If the building is really attractive, if it has a fantastic interior and it rises like a hill instead of like a box with acrophobic cliff sides, then everybody is a winner.

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