Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ecocities - Chapter 7, “What to Build”

Richard Register outlines an imaginative vision for what cities could become, and how they could function. He emphasizes starting to rethink cities by beginning with the land use pattern as the foundation for the “builders’ sequence,” by which to realize the vision of the ecocity.
He outlines five of his most important EcoCity principles:
*Build the city like the living system it is - “the organic city,” built in imitation of nature, city as an organism
*Make the city’s function fit with the patterns of evolution – Let the city be sustainable, regenerate natural systems, and support and express creativity and compassion, as well as justice, law and beauty.
* Follow the builders’ sequence: start with the foundation, the land use infrastructure
*Reverse the transportation hierarchy:
Pedestrians>Bicycles>Rail>”Flexible” transport (buses)>Cars & Trucks
*Build soils and enhance biodiversity

Register goes on to describe the potential for a New Synthesis Architecture in ecocities, an intricate weaving together of ecology and society, a “multi-species Mardi Gras.” He characterizes ecocities as tall, dense, complex “islands of civilization,” surrounded by belts of nature and agriculture. The Ecocity structure is based on walkable centers, cultural hubs, clustered dwellings and mixed-use buildings, with zero lot line development and shared facilities and rooftop public spaces. Connectivity is a critical concept of the ecocity, with bridges between buildings and at roof level, glass elevators, and primary emphasis on pedestrians and bicycles. Perhaps the epitome of the ecocity is the arcology concept proposed by Soleri – a single-building city, with areas open to weather, vegetation and animals. The ideal ecocity provides habitat, occupies a small land area, uses little energy, is full of dense mixed-used buildings, carefully limits and recycles waste, and approaches a closed-loop system that is integrated with natural systems.

Register’s mixing and integration of functions, commitment to connectivity, importance of city centers, and mixture and diversity of life and activites, ties directly into Beatley’s Green Urbanism discussion, even so far as the mention of green belts as boundary-like rings around development, the use of district heating, and stormwater collection. These seem like concepts that are logical to strive for. His ecocities concept makes sense when considering his Impact = Population x Affluence x Land Use & Infrastructure x Technology formula.

My question is: How do we get there? While Register’s vision is great for inspiration, the chapters I read were lacking in suggestions for how to get from the current urban situations toward his idealized ecocities. Looking at our land use patterns is a great place to start, but where do we go from there? In dense areas that have great connectivity potential, as in New York City for example, it seems possible to convert towering skyscrapers into mixed use buildings, in order to relocate and more evenly distribute goods and services and help to eliminate the need for cars and empower the pedestrian and bicyclist. However, one of my first thoughts was what about emergency services – fire, ambulance, etc? Are these meant to be solely pedestrian-powered?

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