I chose to read Chapter 2: The City in Evolution because I wanted to learn more about the belief structure within which Richard Register understands cities. Speaking about time and evolution, both as it has transpired and in predictions for the future, Register creates pseudoscientific arguments for understanding the form of cities and how they relate to the natural environment. As important biological forces, cities currently interact with nature in a way that impoverishes the Earth. To move beyond marginalization of natural resources and biodiversity, cities must be rebuilt to better serve humans and therefore the natural world as a whole.
Throughout Ecocities chapters 1 and 2, Register speaks adamantly about the changing shape and role of the city over time. His idealizations for what cities could be bear surprising resemblance to Clarence Stein’s regional city plan. With many villages, towns, and cities dotting the landscape, of which size restrictions preclude the megalopolis, Stein envisioned a more dispersed, easily traversable landscape of interconnected nodes. So too does Register plan the cities of the future as compact, but dispersed developments: “millions of contiguous acres of the metropolis will have been broken up into smaller, more compact settlements” (19), with “major downtown and smaller neighborhood centers … small enough for most people to easily traverse them on foot” (21). All of these new centers would be surrounded by ribbons of green space. But, the impact on the landscape of such decentralization is questionable, and whether such a regional pattern would produce more or less urbanized land was not calculated by Register, only asserted.
In Green Urbanism, Timothy Beatley describes numerous European cities that have combined high levels of density with green space preservation successfully. All of these cities rely not on the dispersion of urban cores, but on their intensification. Through increased density and continued agglomeration, green space is preserved at the urban edge, and the chopping up of nature so feared by Register – but possibly promoted by his ecocites plan – is actually prevented by this alternate route to city design.
Register fails to note the effects of intense top-down planning exercised by European countries in the shape of modern cities; he instead resorts to an old is good, new is bad rhetoric. Granted, idealizing history makes it easier to point a righteous finger at the problems of the modern world, but it is ultimately a useless charade. The modern city symbols of “money, security, consumerism, and control” (16) are readily apparent in the cities of yore, even as described by Register. Money and consumerism manifest in the “imposing residences” and “fancier administrative building,” security in the city’s wall, while control is undoubtedly the “church, or cathedral spire, spear-like” (15). Was this habit of existence an ecocity? I would argue that the form of the historical city was a function of necessity rather than a reflection of the attitudes of the residents, and that their cities were not ecocities at all, but the best they could do to survive a banal existence.