Sunday, September 30, 2007

Blog on Ecocities by Richard Register Chapter 8: Plunge on in!

In my usual rush to get to a grasp on the fundamentals of this book without having the time to read it all, I tried to read the final chapter (12: Toward Strategies for Success). Again, I found myself unable to properly absorb some of the conclusions without having a proper understanding of the previous chapters. I therefore chose to go back and read Chapter 8 because it focused on the “four steps to an ecology of the economy.” (p.213-15)

Before Register listed his four steps to the ecology of the economy, he said that we must let natural systems be the overarching ruler of our economy. As one of the basic methods of looking at our economy, the author borrowed on, among others, Thomas Berry’s idea that “nature’s economics are primary, humanity’s economics derivative.”(p.211) Using the example of the doomed Easter Island society, we are warned not to use up all our resources on our selfish Western lifestyle.
The idea that there could be step by step methods for building ecocities sounded very comforting and easy-to-follow. Register’s steps were (1) to map out how a city’s land would be used and where it needs infrastructure, (2) next to list all the services, products and technologies that could be useful for the building and maintaining of the ecocity, then (3) to provide incentives for people and organizations to build it, and finally (4) to gather the people to live, work in and politically support the ecocity.

Our very own Joan Bokaer and the Ithaca EcoVillage were given as a shining example of how the four steps can be implemented in real life. Citing Joan’s Green Fund municipal investment strategy and the Urban Growth Boundary to help the city curb sprawl, Register points out how these two initiatives provide incentives for building the ecocity and redraws the city map to follow a more sustainable future plan. In following with step 2, Joan also named the type of work and technology required to make the EcoVillage happen. Of course, Joan also covered step 4 by getting a willing ensemble of people together to live in the EcoVillage.

In the section on economics, Register also points out that the term “post-industrial world” is a misnomer. We are blinded by the frame of our Western “office to the world” that is responsible for but never sees the heavy industry going on in other parts of the globe. With this in mind, we must remember that our resources are finite and that nothing can keep growing indefinitely, not even our economy. Less is now more.

In order to combat corporate control, buy and boycott lists are suggested as effective means toward personal empowerment. Ethical investing is another way to put your money into sustainable initiatives and keep it from funding detrimental ones. The author also thinks that we must increase taxes on fossil fuels (while we still can) in order to help fund new sustainable energy strategies. Finally, Register suggests that sustainability could even unify politics as people from both conservative and liberal parties agree that ecocities are the best future for the economy and the environment.

I enjoyed reading Chapter 8 because it was another positive and constructive approach to present and future sustainability. It was rewarding to read because it discussed some very impressive steps toward ecocity development that have been made right here in Ithaca. There were also helpful suggestions as to how both individuals and governments could make positive, meaningful changes through buying power, bylaws and political support.

In walking around Ithaca today, I saw many wonderful examples of how the community is at the forefront of the American sustainability movement. For example, I walked around (and volunteered at a booth) the Ithaca Apple Festival where I witnessed many vendors selling local products and celebrating local produce. By choosing to purchase from local vendors, people were able to support their local economy and keep their money circulating in the community, which was one of Register's strategies for personal empowerment.
Many connections were being made as droves of people enjoyed the beautiful weather and took advantage of the commons as a true center of the community. I was happy to see both composting and recycling going on during the festival, but this should be happening every day, in every home and workplace. As far as I am concerned, this is not an option but should be a legal requirement all across the nation, including the industrial sector.

Register made it clear that our economy should follow nature, and that it cannot work the other way for very long. That being said, I found plenty of examples around Ithaca where the landscape seemed forced and in a perpetual struggle against nature. Why fight nature? It seemed to be primarily in the name of aesthetics -and not usually very good ones. For example, the city plants trees in small wells in the sidewalks, but many of the wells are just mulched and then expected to remain weed-free forever. While I applaud the use of mulches and the protection of the tree root zone, mother nature seems to prefer to be covered in plants. Compare these two pictures of city tree wells:

One is covered in bindweed and the other is just bark mulch. According to the laws of weeds, plants will invade open ground whenever possible, so why not beat them at their own game and put in a cover crop of our choice. Many groundcovers are attractive and can actually harness nitrogen from the air to help build up soil nutrients. The health of our soil is very important and should be addressed as a serious issue of sustainability. Why not use deciduous vines to cover hot west and south facing walls in the summertime? Besides, soil and walls covered in plants looks better, will sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, trap pollutants, as well as buffer urban temperatures and humidity levels. This is an example of how we can use nature to our advantage instead of throwing resources away to fight an endless fight.

In keeping with the move to work with nature and not against it, reducing our car use will also allow us to reduce our need for hard, asphalt surfaces. The prevalence of concrete and asphalt throughout Ithaca and all other cities creates problems with urban heat islands and radiating heat, but it also wreaks havoc on our soils and natural water systems. Ithaca has made some move to use bricks around the commons, which is a little more permeable than asphalt. If we can reduce our hard surfaces, including our hard roof surfaces, then we may use soils and plants to capture, filter and slow down precipitation run-off, and thus reduce pressures on urban waste water systems. Hard surfaces should be minimized. All new buildings should be built with green roofs and many old buildings, such as these, could be retrofitted with green roof systems.

While I was walking around, I noticed that many of the older (pre-airconditioning era) houses had wonderful porches that encouraged their inhabitants to sit outside and be a part of the community. Porches also give people a place to go to escape the heat of the summer while still feeling sheltered.
New homes should include porches in their designs whenever possible instead of just having yards that are focused on the backyard and privacy. Many Ithacans in Fall Creek seem to enjoy being out on their front porches. This is good for them, and is good for the neighborhood at large because it makes it safer when there are more people watching the streets.

As an additional incentive, if we had less radiating heat from all our asphalt roads and driveways, then houses like this might be able to reduce their need for so many airconditioning units:

I took over 50 pictures on my walk around Ithaca. I intended to post as many as possible to create a photojournal, but I am finding to be very long and tiresome when it comes to importing photos. I got some of my group members to try to help me with this, but it seems like blogger doesn't have the same functionality with macs as it does with pc computers.

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