The First International EcoCity Conference

© 1990 by Lee Altenberg

Published in The Prism, Chapel Hill, NC

Banning chloroflourocarbons, increasing auto fuel efficiency and switching to renewable energy, preserving old-growth forests, minimizing hazardous waste production, stopping population growth, recycling, encouraging "green" consumerism--these are the current calls for action made by the environmentalist community. In fact, it is straight off a direct mailing I received from Earth Day 1990.

What is significant is what is left off the agenda, in particular: sustainable agriculture, steady state economics, and ecological urban development. Like a sewer that is plugged up, environmentalists started with certain endpoint problems--pollution and wilderness destruction--and followed them upstream a certain distance to what they identified as the sources. But others have followed the problems further up stream, into these other areas that remain undiscussible and invisible in the public eye.

The idea that city design is a major cause of ecological devastation, and that cities could be built and rebuilt much more in balance with nature, has been the privately held vision of a handful of activists, architects, and planners around the country and world for some time. But it is Richard Register who has done the most to make urban ecological development into a movement. He founded Urban Ecology in Berkeley in 1975, and has organized a number of local conferences in his efforts to transform Berkeley into an "ecocity". But with the opportunity that Earth Day 1990 offered to get ecological urban development finally on the environmentalist agenda, he and Urban Ecology organized the first International EcoCity Conference, held March 29-April 1, 1990, in downtown Berkeley, California.

They pulled together a remarkable diversity of people working on ecological urban development from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, India and Australia. The conference had and over 500 conferees. We were greeted by Mayor Loni Hancock and other local officials on a stage bedecked with trees and plants. The main street downtown flew banners for the conference with the names of each of the creeks that runs through the city. After 80 presentations, panels and workshops over three days, the conference concluded in a park downtown where Strawberry Creek, which had been paved over, was now restored to the sky. Standing on a picnic table, David Brower (founder of Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute) told a green history of Berkeley and of the Redwood tree he had planted there 50 years ago.

I have followed the US Greens, and attended the National Green Gathering in Eugene, Oregon last summer, but I left with demoralized sense that too few of the Greens were "in the trenches" of real projects to focus the Greens on how to implement their visions. As one after another speaker at the EcoCity Conference told about their projects, however, a sense of vast possibility began to take shape. Here before ones eyes were ecological ideals concretely embodied, the fruits of many individuals working on specific development projects in their own communities.

There were a handful of "big names"--Denis Hayes of Earth Day 1970 and 1990, Ernest Callenbach of Ecotopia, Fritjof Capra of The Tao of Physics, and others-- but this having been an invisible movement, the most interesting contributions were made by "unknowns". Getting to know each other, of course, is one of the purposes of the conference.

The principles of the ecocity movement are fairly simple, Register points out. We are building shopping malls and suburbs that will last much longer than the gasoline we need to get around in them, and this is a tragic folly. In an "ecocity", people can live, work, shop, and play all within a short distance. "Transportation is what you do when you're not where you want to be," says Register, so the solution to smog, gridlock, greenhouse gasses, and the expense of owning a car is to gather together the places people want to be. The transportation of choice will be feet first, bicycles second, public transit third, and only then, the automobile.

Creating the ecocity is not so simply accomplished. "The solution is to think in terms of the whole matrix of life in the city," Register says. Thus he brought together speakers dealing with energy, transportation, trees, urban horticulture, zoning and legislation, financing and economic systems, recycling, air, development design, creek restoration, city history, work, race, participatory democracy, student activism, and whole systems thinking about society.

Writes Register, "Urban ecology includes protecting and strengthening vulnerable urban communities, as well as protecting endangered non-human species. It means locating affordable housing within walking distance of transportation centers." "If we add to the more diverse and compact land use patterns a hefty infusion of natural and agricultural restoration, and add to the whole matrix the `appropriate technologies' of solar passive building, effective recycling, widespread gardening, composting, creek restoration, building of lively city and neighborhood centers with plazas to host vital social and economic life and so on, we begin to visualize what ecological cities are all about."

I'll describe just a few of the presentations below.

Architect Peter Calthorpe has actually designed and built developments around the country based on ecocity principles. His slide presentation, "Transforming Suburbia" showed housing development designs with breathtaking common sense, where people could walk comfortably to most services they need within a quarter mile. He showed one project in Brooklyn that had been blocked by environmentalists, ironically, out of the notion that higher density would increase pollution, whereas the project would have allowed people to drive less for what they needed.

The most radical phenomenon presented at the conference in my mind was the "co-housing" movement in Denmark. Twenty to thirty families will get together and build or retrofit a facility into a complex where each family will own its own private house, but with reduced kitchen facilities and other utilities, and then they have a "common house" where people eat over half their meals together in a cooperative meal plan, and share other utilities in common. The houses are arranged with kitchens opening to a common yard which allows for cooperative day care, so that children needn't be sent away.

The photographs of dozens of families eating together every night, of spontaneous parties, brunches and picnics regularly emerging in the common social spaces, and the groups of children moving freely among the houses revealed a social fabric utterly reconstructed from the isolation and fragmentation of the nuclear family. The slide show was presented by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who are working to bring cohousing to the U.S.. The ecological import of cohousing is that by removing the "repulsive" force between families that eats up land in subdivisions, it allows for more compact development, and reduced consumption of redundant household capital.

I gave a presentation on "Education for the EcoCity Movement," about how "free spaces" within the university--student housing co-ops, "green" theme houses, student-initiated, action oriented coursework and student recycling businesses--had proven the most fruitful avenues for getting student involved in ecological urban development.

What overall impact did the conference have? The conference received a great deal of local press, and gave the public some exposure to the ideas of ecological urban development. Nationally, however, urban ecology remains as invisible after Earth Day as before; it is asking citizens to get involved in an area--urban development--that they have, with resignation, long since left in the hands of developers and City Hall. But the hundreds of people working on urban ecology now can have a better sense of themselves as a body. Their ideas have been collected in the EcoCity Conference Report, which Urban Ecology will distribute to municipalities around the country. And there is talk of creating an association for ecological urban development and a regular publication. It is a movement that can be strengthened and strengthening by the involvement of Triangle citizens who worry about into what sort of creature the Triangle is "growing".

Lee Altenberg is a research scientist studying evolution at Duke University, and served on the Environmental Advisory Council of Earth Day 1990.


The Urban Ecologist, Urban Ecology, P.O. Box 10144, Berkeley, CA 94709

EcoCity Conference Report, from Cerro Gordo Town Forum, Dorena Lake, Box 569, Cottage Grove, OR 97424.

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, K. McCamant and C. Durrett. Habitat Press, 1988. 48 Shattuck Square, Suite 15a, Berkeley, CA 94704.

EcoCity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future, Richard Register. North Atlantic Books, 1987. 2320 Blake St., Berkeley, CA 94704.

A Green City Program For San Francisco Bay Area Cities And Towns, P. Berg, B. Magilavy, S. Zuckerman. Planet Drum Books,1989. P.O. Box 31251, San Francisco, CA 94131.

Sustainable Communities, ed. Sim Van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe. Sierra Club Books, 1984.

Sources for quotes: New Options, Oct. 31, 1988; East By Express, 3/23/90; Planet Berkeley, 4/90; materials from Urban Ecology.


Traffic jam at the highway by Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, with Mall in background.

Traffic jam on I-40, or North Blvd in Raleigh.

Telephoto of "strip" at Hillsborough Rd. in Durham, with billboards, parking lots all around.

Pedestrians shopping on Franklin St. in Chapel Hill, as a contrast of pedestrian oriented, pre-WWII development.

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