Dixie LaGrande picked me up at the Sacramento Airport, fifteen minutes before midnight. “About the conference,” she said, “what was the one big thing that stands out for you?” A natural question, right to the point, and it took me about one second to say, “Youth representation.”
There she is, immediately below, from her broadcast to the big screen, Xiye Bastida, native American community of the Otomi Toltec from the mountains of Mexico. After a colossally destructive rain and flood her family moved to New York City only to be swamped again by “Superstorm Sandy.” What’s wrong with this picture? She was saying to herself – and decided she had to deal with climate change. Three years later she is an influential environmentalist in the international eye, speaking at many events and co-organizing demonstrations. Several speakers there at the Vancouver Ecocity World Summit, also known as the 13th International Ecocity Conference, referred to the new claim of youth on the future, speaking out on their own behalf. Thinking back, to find a movement of such spontaneity and force, it seemed to me we’d have to unscroll history to the peace movement during the American war against Vietnam. This new environmental youth movement has its history, beginning with Severn Suzuki at the age of 12, now Severn Cullis-Suzuki, delivering her famous address to the United Nations at their 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.
More recently Greta Thonberg has shaken up the adult world of environmental activism confronting climate change and global heating. Diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when a young girl, she found it extremely difficult to speak – at all – unless she absolutely had to. And then it was always totally truthfully, come good vibes or bad or just some random facts – exactly what she thought true and real. More recently, when Greta went public with her serious-faced laser-focused wake up message she shook up the adult world of environmental advocacy. Soon she realized her problem was in fact, as she came to see it, her “superpower.” And now Xiye brings the youth environment movement to our ecocity conferences.
In Beautiful Vancouver…
It was another big one, at attendance approximately 1,100 in the almost palatial Vancouver Convention Center. Only the San Francisco 7th International Ecocity Conference had more participants at 2,000. The number of nations represented by presenters was the most ever at 33, or if you listed Hong Kong, not as China, but as in our printed conference Program, Independently, 34. Ecocity 1 in Berkeley in 1990, starting the series with twelve countries represented and with 775 total participants, had the slightly presumptuous title of The First International Ecocity Conference when we had no idea if anyone else would carry forward and begin an actual series of these events. A blessing it was then when Paul Downton and his partner Cherie Hoyle stepped forward with the second in Adelaide, Australia, 1992… and the rest is history in our niche at the confluence of our larger city and environmental story. Though we had only 12 countries represented at the First, it was a great start because we had two planets, or more correctly, a planet and its moon. That’s a legit claim since we featured Edgar Mitchell prominently, who had walked on the moon in 1971. There he was, one of our lead off plenary speakers. (A strange sensation shaking the hand of the feet that walked on the moon. Imagine being him.)
Noteworthy at Ecocity 13: most of the speakers from Vancouver began their talks thanking the First Nations people of the region for their care of the land and waters, the animals and plants long before the Europeans arrived and launched the rapid city-building now called Vancouver. “We are gathering on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the Coast Salish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations…” began a dozen talks.
Adding greatly to our experience in Vancouver were the several interludes provided by Squamish Elder Bob Baker on stage, telling us of his culture’s history and traditions on the ground directly under our feet and the foundations of our Convention Center. His singing the songs of his people and drumming their rhythms at several points in the proceedings grounded us all to where we actually were, in that beautiful city on the inlets of the great ocean sea, with small seaplanes occasionally buzzing off the calm waves and into the sky and later floating back down again. They were landing or taking off leaving thin strips of white spray, the dark wooded mountains rising beyond under a glorious fall blue sky, trees in plumage of bright yellow-greens, yellows and reds. Elder Bob Baker also held forth, joined by four dancers in traditional costume, the five together leading us off into joining them in their dance becoming the more recently traditional for many of our conferences: a real rock-out, dancing into the night. Our Squamish leader drummed off the stage and a great band took over. Then, dancing for those of us who like such evenings. Just plain beautiful good fun.
As with any conference as large as Ecocity 13, it is hopeless in a short report to “cover” the event. Instead I plead reporter’s prerogative to simply provide a sampling and hopefully convey something of the feel of the event. And so, my quick list of the memories that are now zipping around in my mind, a few I will show as a selection from available photos. Then I’ll mention my main topics which I regard to be of great importance and seldom emphasized in any conference series I’m familiar with but ours.
But first I’ll mention David Pereira’s wonderfully informative and energetic tour of the Burnaby area of Vancouver and the headquarters building of Metro Vancouver, the coordinating body for policy development for twenty-one municipalities and one Treaty First Nation in regional planning. David is Sustainability Manager of the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s sustainability policies and practices, BCIT being, with the City of Vancouver, the official hosts of Ecocity 13.
There was the world holiday idea I introduced to the plenary gathering that I will return to in some depth later in this newsletter. Then a presentation of a creek restoration project by Shannon McElvaney on a scale amazingly outstripping any of our own efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area. His talk was truly a highlight as waterway regeneration work has been my favorite of my activist life… ever.
The Kathmandu Valley is rapidly rebuilding after the 2015 devasting earthquake, we learned. The fantastic temple architecture, ornate with sculptures of dragons, elephants and many-armed gods, wasted in that disaster are almost completely restored: good news!
Chao Yuan reported on his doctoral thesis for a new sustainable hyper-dense urban projects and plans for Singapore, especially interesting to me after three visits to this remarkably dense and humane, rainy, hot city centered one degree south of the equator, with a bar named One Degree South, where they serve – of course – Singapore Slings.
A good deal was also said about progress in developing Vancouver’s own set of Ecocity Standards, an initiative of Jennie Moore at BCIT and others, and at our conference described in a polishing up stage for influence there in the city officially aspiring to be “The Greenest City in the World.”
Nothing could be more important and many are beginning to acknowledge that climate change with its associated heating of the planet is the brewing catastrophe of all catastrophes almost conceivable, right up there with nuclear war. Proportionally speaking, few people realize that we cannot only slow global heating but we can return to the much more normal patterns of slower change normal to Earth’s evolution. The key is drawdown. Try harder! And you will discover between the pages of the book by that title (capital D), so much can be done by so many of us who are on the right track already drawing down carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the skin of the Earth’s surface, the depths of its waters.
We were honored to have had as our keynote speaker for the opening night session of the conference, Paul Hawken, author of many books on environmental solutions as well as trenchant social criticism qualifying him as one of the world’s most accomplished and leading futurists, a futurist with the best of the values we need at the core of his quest and mission.
Global heating only ten or so years ago was considered so terrifying and well assured to those that knew much about it because when people began to realize that the world’s best scientists – and all of them – definitely had the real data and logical thinking on the problem, a kind of rolling shock spread round the world like a tsunami. The scientists saw it as beginning already and well on its way. The watch word was, that it was already “too late” to avoid some enormously damaging happenings from severe draughts to colossal floods, even the rising of the World Ocean whose waters heave against the shorelines of all our continents.
I thought the “too late” could be interpreted as a bit “give up the ghost, try something but we are all basically doomed. Our children anyway.” But we have not begun to put all the pieces in place to confront this problem and I wasn’t hearing the scientists doing that either. But along came Paul Hawken and he proves to show that, as he says, climate change is not a problem. It’s an opportunity. To do what? Get our scene together with some real coherence and energy for not only dealing with the problem but fully realizing the realistic powers in… our power.
You gotta read the book, Drawdown. It may be too late for some very serious problems to come, but if we can summons the power of our best ideas and if we realize that some of them are absolutely phenomenally healthy such as the idea of the ecocity, then Paul Hawken will prove prophetic because we can, as he hints, even do better facing this problem on behalf of a healthy future than we would be likely to do if the crisis had not presented itself to us eyeball to eyeball. And nowhere it is, to steel our courage and spark the most imaginative depths of our creativity. This wake-up call may be our most auspicious opportunity we will ever get.
Last in my short list, reserved for the very last word at our conferences, the announcement of the next International Ecocity Conference. It will be #14 and will be held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in the summer of 2021.
My Big Three for the Conference
But first, “let me take this opportunity…” to say thanks to Jennie Moore for taking the baton and hosting and playing the key organizing role for this magnificent event. She deserves every credit for committing to and executing and succeeding with another in this the ever so important string of ecocity conferences. There are no things larger than our cities among the products of us humans, and few things have such room for improvement. Thus, she’s helping us greatly in building a far better future. But back to our main stream of discussion here…
One always hopes conferences can lead to marvelous progress in the real world: projects launched, policies written, new ideas generated and spread… Often times, if no stirring declarations and official launch of committed action, nonetheless the word goes out around the world and does have a serious and beneficial influence. What I put out for consideration this time around were three ideas I think have beautiful potential for world-changing applications. Here are my three emphasized offerings.
First there’s the perhaps seemingly un-related world holiday idea. Then there is a clear pattern in a particular kind of map that can guide ecocity transitions. And finally, there is the idea that we need a coordinated institution-level ”full court press” to back ecocities in design and development, something like I witnessed in my career in China, details short-listed soon below. Can we visualize such a project and create it?
The world holiday is an idea I was playing with in 1969 that led me to get to know Denis Hayes who at that time was early in working on a “Spring Teach-in” for 1990. Shortly after meeting him, it got its official name: Earth Day. Since then a few Earth Days have approached or topped a billion participants around our planet.
In 2020, Earth Day might step consciously and explicitly into the swirling world conversation about its content in a way that would constitute the birth of a true world holiday, the world holiday. Topping two billion participants is even in the realm of the possible. (A lot of those people studying, talking about, in reality should be actively inventing ecocities, I’d hope.) We might see in April of 2020 the birth of an event for not just people of a particular religious tradition or nation state but an event self-consciously for all humanity, and not only that, but also for all other living beings on the Earth and even for the Earth itself: the health of its soils, its ocean currents and its climate system, all subject of appropriate human contemplation, learning, teaching and appropriate physical activity at that time. Its specific date is April 22 by tradition but in fact Earth Days are something like Christmas in taking place in a short season of several days celebrating a whole set of related themes and actions.
As the 50th Anniversary Earth Day, it is getting particularly strong efforts from Denis Hayes and others self-organizing to make it in all likelihood the human event of greatest participation in all history to that time, it could, with the simple inclusion of the notion that we need now a world holiday for all life and the planet, actually become the birthday of The World Holiday and genuinely functioning as such.
For Earth Day to be clearly understood as the world holiday being born is an enormously big deal. Happy birthday Earth Day!
Holidays are particularly powerful for not only addressing important themes and telling stories of our human history that promote the values of our highest aspirations, but holidays also involve us in all sorts of physical actions, our minds learning from the practice of our bodies, as well as vice versa. From fasting and/or feasting, gift giving, organizing active recycling events, tree and garden planting, and other physical activities to involve our bodies as well as minds and in being so… demonstrative, holidays help us latch on to memory far better than just reciting what it is we are trying to learn to create as a healthier future. They not just add, they multiply, thought and action together.
I’m convinced and can mount a reasonable defense of the idea that the world holiday constitutes the most powerful educational and action-oriented tool conceivable for environmental health and even healthy evolution on our planet. That is something we can all do together. As we can build the physical tool and cultural context for so much of human creativity and problem solving when we go about designing and building cities, so can we create this very specific communications tool of immense power: the world holiday. Maybe it already exists and only needs more emphasis: Earth Day.
Then there are the maps that serve to anchor ecocities, that embody ideas, plans and literally the cities themselves to our so real and (mostly) solid grounding in soils, sediments and hard rock layers of geology. And of course, add in the waters, fresh and salt, flowing and in lakes and sea basins.
Take a city or metropolitan area map and find the downtown(s), the major district centers and the vital neighborhood centers and mark them ecotown centers, each unique in scale and “uses.” Add density of residence, business, education, food availability and so on, such that each “center” or “spot” of future development is meaningfully supplied with most of what we might call our necessities and most important urban features and functions. “Mixed uses” or “access by proximity” is the guiding notion: variety close together, everything practicably nearby, “uses balanced.”
Now imagine zoning and other positive incentives and regulations written to open waterways and expand open space between those centers, moving away from automobile dominated low density development.
On the ecocity map the centers become more three-dimensionally integrated, especially in the higher population and density areas with bridges between terraces of the buildings above ground level and the whole of the centers of various scales are reformulated, not as basically two-dimensional infrastructures dependent on cars but three-dimensional infrastructure mainly for legs and feet. Proper sun angles for heating and cooling are figured in and special natural local features incorporated, such as creeks revived and filled with natural life as well as enriched urban life. Cherished local views need to be featured in plaza design and high points of overlook of the natural setting of the community exploited. The views of the surrounding landscapes and water features need to be seen as important, in fact essential, indispensable.
The main physical guidance of such maps for cities is that the centers of “mixed use” activities need to become much more three-dimensional arrangements and mainly for the person on foot, for the pedestrian rather than the driver. I often call this the “anatomy analogy,” “cities like complex living organisms.” The transportation hierarchy that fits is this: feet first, then bicycles, then light (streetcars) and metro rail in urban centers and heavy and fast rail between cities’ major centers, then busses. Last and discouraged vigorously in all areas but truly rural, cars. The “ecocity” or “ecotropolis” map can guide future development in a way that is about as powerful a tool as can be devised for the benefits of city redesign.
It’s so powerful it scares the hell out of many people who glance at it and immediately go to the location of their homes and neighborhoods on the map. They frequently proceed to freak out as if the skyscrapers and bulldozers were about to move in and destroy their world with overwhelming towers, or the opposite: spreading cow pastures patrolled by marauding cayotes. The problem is that immediately time speeds up for the person with a place on the map. In fact, the planning and building process takes a very long time allowing the debate and the opportunity to create a much healthier long-term future.
Al Gore, Paul Hawken and company never said it would be easy to deal with our most trenchant problems like climate change; it will take a lot of very serious work and the ecocity map calls forth changes that will take very serious work indeed. But these maps are crucial in defining exactly what that work entails. What the ecocity mapping process gives us is the specificity absolutely required to migrate from dreamland to effective planning for a far better future for our built communities.
The last of the “big ones” I brought up to a number of people at Ecocity 13, but didn’t talk about it in my official speeches is the notion maybe best called a “full court press” or maybe just “a big serious institutional basing of a committed effort to build ecocities.” My meaning is slightly different than the basketball term for the defensive strategy in which all members of a team apply maximum pressure on the opposition to stop or hinder the other team on the full court as compared to, say, near the opponent’s basket. It’s considered a defensive strategy when the other team has the ball. What I mean is more general: everyone engaged at the top of their performance, alert, active, effective, coordinated everywhere in the field of action, and that very meaningful word: committed.
That’s what we need to solve our environmental problems, and largely if we do solve those problems, we will have committed a full court press for reshaping cities. Remember that this reshaping of cities, towns and even villages is dealing with the largest creation of our species: the built community at all sizes. The scale of the enterprise is so gigantic it needs to be confronted very explicitly, with clear specificity.
While reshaping cities for people instead of cars, remember also the absolute imperative if we are to have both human health and happiness as well as ecological sustainability. Titles are great mnemonic devices as well as summations. They become like fractured mantras repeating over and over. Ours was spelled out thus: “The Ecocity World Summit, Vancouver, 2019 – for Socially Just and Ecologically Sustainable Cities.”
The term ecocity, aka eco-city, has come to its greatest success in China. I’ve had a rich experience there in my 25 trips, most of them involving not one but sometimes more than six or seven talks per trip starting in the year 2000. My amazing meeting with Wang Rusong (last name first in China) the man for the whole country in ecocity innovation, was little short of miraculous.
The day after the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990 I popped into our office, which was abandoned at the beginning of the conference six days earlier. I was on my way to recover, to sleep in the sands of Bolinas Beach on the coast. I was at the office for about one minute to glance at the chaos we had left behind when we headed to our six or seven downtown Berkeley venues – and never looked back.
In that one minute at the office after six days absence, the phone rang and Wang Rusong immediately said after my, “Hello,” a bit panicky I thought: “Is the conference still happening?!” “No, I’m afraid it was over yesterday.” “Oh no, I feel so lonely.” I say to myself, who is this guy?”
He said he was from China getting a doctoral degree in Washington state and that as far as he knew he was the only person working on ecologically healthy cities in the world and, “There was a whole conference full of people talking about it. And I missed it!”
“Well why not come on down and visit me. We’ll put you up in a little hotel room. You sound pretty interested. We could talk and I could tour you around some…”
Here’s the answer to who he was: the Director of the Research Center for Ecological and Environmental Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, at the time Visiting Professor in Mathematic at Washington State University. Is this a cosmic coincidence or what? Though one of the kindest and gentlest people I’ve ever known he was a man with a will of steel for ecocities, of boundless energy and essentially a magnificently successful agent for my work in China as well as his and ecocities in general there. He was also elected to the national legislature of China a few years after we met. Whenever he hosted me, we’d travel all over the country speaking at conferences, university classes and city planning departments. After a couple years at that we added Paul Downton and Kirstin Miller to our entourage. Through Rusong, national polices were instituted to create a national “Eco-cities Program” that is still in place building several pretty good “eco-cities,” as they like the spelling in English there.
Their flagship project is called Tianjin Eco-city 90 miles east southeast of Beijing, between the megacity of Tianjin and the Bohai Sea. It was founded in 2007, five years after Rusong managed to get my book Ecocities – Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature published there in Chinese. It became the China source of the country’s use of the world “eco-city” in preference to “green city,” “sustainable city” or the likes of “Low Carbon” or “Carbon Neutral City.” I considered the use of the name a major victory because “eco” as a prefix is all about life, and life considered as the subject of the science of ecology, of living organisms in their environments, a much stronger term than “green” or “sustainable” when we can have cities of a rainbow of colorful possibilities and not just sustainable but able to thrive like natural environments in amazing diversity participating fully in the healthy changes of natural evolution. That has to be the goal.
I’ve been to Tianjin Eco-city seven times including as one of its honored speakers, part of their Tenth Anniversary Celebration of the city’s founding. Currently its population is approximate 100,000 and destined for 350,000 by around 2025.
Meantime, with Rusong busy making crucial connections, and with Kirstin Miller also joining me in my travels there, we found another major host in architect Fan Bin, President of the architecture firm A & P Architecture, offices in Beijing and Tianjin. Both Rusong and Fan Bin ended up also hosting Kirstin traveling on her own to a number of talks in China. Rusong added Paul Downton to these lecture tours, who joined us in six or seven trips around China. A & P also contributed an inspirational young architect named Ruby Yangxue, as an enormously knowledgeable guide, competent in English, endlessly helpful and soon a good friend. In fact, in our travels she mentioned she didn’t have an English name yet. “Do either of you have a good idea?” Paul suggested Ruby, she liked it and such it has been ever since.
The three of us, and often Rusong, and sometimes regional guides, became part of an active entourage that would roam China’s universities and city planning departments several times a year. Most importantly, and with the help of the Vice Minister of Housing and Urban Rural Development named Qiu Baoxing, the ecocities ideas settled into the development policies of the whole country.
But… as I made clear in my talks in Vancouver, ecocity progress in China has been good but also greatly compromised by the country’s mania for cars, not too different from the automobile’s impact on American psyches and cities two generations earlier. Those two charts on page 13 of this newsletter speak volumes.
But in China, in what looks like a serious contradiction – it is! – they are generally building a bizarre thing you could call high-density sprawl for cars at the same time while making some leading progress for ecocities. How did they attempt that? With ever widening streets and roads and with gigantic parking structures, some in new buildings and some located in somewhat macabre locations: in the vast underground bomb shelters the Chinese built when their relations with Russia had gone sour and both countries were producing hydrogen bomb – fearing attack from not the US but another Communist country. US politicians at the time were portraying a unified Communist threat when the two big Red ones were most worried about each other. It was spooky when down there in what later became those underground parking lots… with their gigantic floor to ceiling radiation repelling doors, now always open, swung back against the walls.
So, it has been intriguing to imagine: could some very positive elements of this experience of mine be a model of some sort to try to take the idea from the largest population country on the planet to the whole planet itself? Could we brainstorm that into the future? What did it take to get the attention of the right officials while engaged in the kind of educational efforts organized under Rusong’s leadership and late night homework face to face over little restaurant candles sinking into the last of their hot liquid wax? Could we engineer a full-on effort a-new, finding the educational institutions to take part as they did in China but internationally, finding tendrils into all sorts of civil society organizations, governments and businesses as Rusong managed to do, but once again, on an international level? I’m sad to relate however that Rusong died four years ago and is no longer around to share his wisdom and immense dedication and imagination.
Using that experience as a challenge for debate and a strategic core for bringing ecocities to world attention and then on to design, zoning rules and building… Can it be done?
Last words, this newsletter
Can I offer a summing up? As said at the outset here, in a short rendition it is difficult to do more than present some highlights from my experience at the International Ecocity Conference 2019 Vancouver and to share some of the hopes I have moving on into the future. So that’s the end of the above article.
Let me add just one thing in closing: my undying gratitude and thanks to Jennie Moore and all those others who have taken up responsibility to continue our sacred trust job to reshape cities for ecological health and vitality and for social justice. Unlike in most of my newsletters, I won’t list our Ecocity World support group, our advisors and an appeal for memberships and patronage. That’s because I my next newsletter I plan on getting organized in a more business-like way for my next big project: much better distribution of my books already written, plus my new short book The Galápagos Islands, Evolution’s Lessons for Cities of the Future, coming up next and partially funded by the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation. Imagine getting grants from a foundation with a name like that? It’s, as they say in some circles, a perfect match. There are powerful ideas in my books that are not getting heard outside my small circle. So it’s my obligations to do them the best I can.
These books are stuffed with solutions well ordered.
They can all be purchased on the Internet.
Ah the wonders of modern technology…
The first three pictured above can also be ordered from bookstores, if you ask them to do that for you.
Bye for now…
Richard Register – firstname.lastname@example.org