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Cities Can Save the Earth: the urban solution to climate change, species extinctions and peak oil

Note: Delivered to the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, September 7, 2006.

A bicyclist friend of mine appeared the other day in a T-shirt reading, “Ask me how I lost 3,600 pounds in a day.” By getting rid of his car, obviously! I’m going to be talking about some of the big things we are going to need to change. For example, designing cities around something that weights 3,600 pounds instead of whatever you weigh, is something that needs to change. I’m hoping you will have your sense of proportion honed some and will hear some useful ideas for making your own city and planet a little healthier, or in fact, a lot healthier.

I’m going to be talking today about something that sounds rather ambitious, namely solving the crisis millions of people are being alerted to by Al Gore’s new movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” In fact, beyond solving global heating, the subject of that film, I’m going to claim to have one of the most important solutions to that and the crisis of species extinctions and the crisis that is called these days “Peak Oil,” “Peak Oil” being the period of time when world oil production tops out and begins sliding away forever. If yesterday’s announced new Chevron oil field in the Gulf of Mexico proves to be a large one, the date of peak oil production will be pushed back only a very small fraction of the lifetime of this limited resource on this planet. And ironically, the longer we can feel secure in having the oil to burn, the worse for climate stability by way of CO2 build up in the atmosphere.

This conundrum can be avoided by building a civilization that runs on a small fraction of today’s energy requirements. For the small amount of energy it does require, though intrinsically more expensive than today’s fossil fuels, it can be renewable energy like solar and wind. Such a civilization would be one of ecologically healthy cities, towns and villages. Such built communities, a goal now since none actually exist, are ever more widely becoming known as “ecocities.”

Without too much elaboration I need to say now, for clarity later in my talk, that my information suggests that solar and wind energy will never be cheap in the way that oil has been cheap in the past. This is so because we will have to do the work that the biology and geology of planet Earth did for us in concentrating solar energy in the fossil chemicals over something more than 150 million years. Renewable energy sources are diffuse and need human work and developed technologies in order to be concentrated into useable form. The Earth’s endowment of oil and natural gas is going fast, replacements like coal and nuclear are more expensive, environmentally damaging and toxic, and even sources of energy like hydropower are more tenuous in the long run than we’d like to believe. Dams fill up with silt. Having grown up in New Mexico I’m familiar with dams that are already useless, surrealistic planes of sand with cottonwood trees and sage brush right up to the edge of the dry spillways.

Take ethanol, too, for example. That’s grain alcohol, mainly from corn in the United States. If the United States were to drive its fleet of cars on ethanol it would need to dedicate more than its entire agricultural land area to producing the fuel. The social equity and justice issue here becomes gigantic: would we really rather use farmlands to feed our cars than feed people? If that sounds like a distant possibility, perhaps a theme for a Blade Runner type movie, it is not. It’s actually here and now and growing rapidly. Already 10 million acres of land are given over to ethanol production for motor vehicles in the United States. That’s about halfway between the total land area of Maryland and West Virginia.

Again, what replacements we have for our recently cheap energy sources are either more dangerous or environmentally destructive or expensive. The solution is to build a civilization that uses precious little energy, or in other words, uses it very well. By use it very well I mean use it to bring civilization into harmony with nature for the long haul.

Returning to our crisis of the three linked crises in climate, biodiversity and energy, it is important to notice just how large it is and thus to give it absolute top priority for our attentions and efforts. It’s effects are changing evolution on the planet as much as any mass extinction in the Earth’s multi-billion year past, and therefore I’ll use the term “ultimate crisis” which a friend of mine named David Greenberg has been using for a number of months. It is a crisis of unprecedented scale and, as the melting of the Earth’s glaciers and the disasters of Hurricane Katrina illustrate, a crisis already well underway. Putting the contribution of ecological city redesign into perspective can give us a clear strategy, something very close to what Lester Brown has lately been calling a Plan B for surviving and thriving on this planet. However, there are major contradictions in his approach that I’ll discuss shortly, and Al Gore’s approach as well. Building ecological cities, however, resolves these contradictions and empowers what could be a truly effective strategy for, as Buckminster Fuller called it, “human success.”

Changing a light bulb and inflating your tires more, planting a tree and driving a little less, as Mr. Gore prescribes among his ten things to do to start solving the climate change crisis, is not going to do the trick. It’s going to require a truly fundamental shift in how we build our cities and live in them. In all honesty, how could solutions be easy when confronting a crisis of this enormous scale? How could we just continue living essentially as we are?

Yet at the same time I’m saying confronting this crisis and solving this overarching problem will be difficult, I’ll make the assertion that if we put in the real imagination, clear thinking and hard work required, our children will reap the reward of a world far more beautiful and lively than can be imagined by any extrapolation of the best of today’s ways of doing things.

I can say this, and it sounds good enough, but if you look around you notice cars dominate cities thoroughly in the rich countries and they are swamping the poor countries more every day as well. Car factories and highways are being built rapidly in China and India with massive investment from the big auto companies and loans from the World Bank. Many cities, like Berkeley, where I lived for 29 years, haven’t a single pedestrian street – and their citizens don’t even notice how completely given over to the car their towns are. Evidently, then, we have not progressed very far toward establishing the city for pedestrians and the city based on ecological awareness. It is also interesting to note that only one out of ten people on the planet actually drive cars (which is hard to believe in America and world culture big cities, though true) and they, through the automobile/sprawl pattern of development, are causing a vastly disproportionate share of planetary damage. The operative plan today is to vastly increase their numbers. Very bad plan!

The difficultly, I believe, is partially psychological: people are afraid of change (though I for one am much more afraid of what will happen if we don’t change). I say people must be afraid of change because the concepts behind the ecological city are fairly simple. Here they are: Switch to a pedestrian and transit oriented infrastructure with ecocity architecture built around compact centers designed for pedestrians and transit. Roll back sprawl development while vigorously restoring nature and agriculture. Attach renewable energy systems while making things recyclable and using non-toxic materials and technologies.

There you have it! Only three short sentences for the essence of it. Not so difficult conceptually. The whole pattern can be characterized as shifting development toward centers of high diversity.

There is another difficulty in communicating about and actually building ecological cities, too, and that is that we have built cities for cars for the last 100 years and thus many of us caught in this infrastructure find it extremely difficult to get around in anything but the car. The distances are just too great for bicycles, the densities just to low to allow efficient, affordable transit.

Nonetheless, there are tools available and we can start moving in the right direction immediately. Some of the tools that can help us actually build ecological cities I’ll mention at the end of this talk, but for now note that in may places, such as San Francisco, Chicago and Portland, and even better in Curitiba, Brazil, a certain amount of this “ecocity” thinking is already going on. While people feel dependent on cars, nonetheless even Americans greatly enjoy car-free environments such as the plazas and parks that do exist, malls and playgrounds, sports fields and fairs, festival and expositions. Also, creeks and urban waterways that do exist are much loved in places like San Luis Obispo, California, Boulder, Colorado and San Antonio, Texas.

I started out saying, “Ask me how I lost 3,600 pounds in a day.” Cars are big and the infrastructure that provides for them is even much bigger yet. On our way to doing a good job of prioritizing what needs to be done, this is an important point and I’ll flesh it out with a little more detail now.

If one designs an infrastructure - buildings, streets and open spaces and systems for supply, recycling and disposal – to go along with one set of things that are 30 time bigger and heavier than the other, car bodies versus human bodies, very different results are likely, right? What if the heavy things move about ten to twenty times faster than the light-weight ones when functioning in their usual way, accelerating and decelerating constantly, burning up energy the whole time? Basic physics suggests enormous quantitative and qualitative differences between design parameters. The mass/energy/spatial requirements of cars, as compared to human beings, is on the order of hundreds to one. What if one runs on a toxic fuel that is profoundly transforming the entire atmosphere into an artificial bubble of gasses with a substantially different composition than the planet had for at least 400,000 years, maybe even millions of years while the other eats cereal for breakfast? What about cities designed and planned to satisfy the requirements of such hurtling 3,600 pound objects, such requirements as massive parking structures and freeway interchanges. What about requiring “Big Digs” like Boston’s in which, for tens of billions of dollars, people one at a time in big steel, glass and plastic boxes, can rush from Suburb #1. over to Suburb #2. – which look almost just like Suburb #1. – right under the center of massive downtown buildings and very, very wet waterways? If it sounds a little insane, it think it really is. Especially at this time in history when we are waking up to the triple ultimate emergency.

Could it be that such automobile based cities would be substantially different from cities designed on the parameters of the human body, its speed and its requirements for food, exercise, physical space, rest, culture, inspiration and beauty? Absolutely. Maybe human beings even need and love nature itself, no matter how deeply such “biophilia” might be buried in our everyday world of asphalt, manufactured splendor and intervening suburban sprawl. Could in fact cities be built for humans on foot and for the healthiest conceivable natural world possible?

This is my starting point: I think cities can be built for just these purposes, but to accomplish such a positive goal, we will actually have to talk about it directly, openly, honestly and think it through like I am trying to do here today. We have to get past the psychological resistance to discussing it. On the positive side it is heartening to note that cities used to be built for pedestrians. The cores of some such cities remain in Europe and some in China, though in China they are being bulldozed to dust as we speak. Some cities like Venice, Italy, the Medina of Fez and a hilly Gulongyu, China are 100% car-free – and very successful. As they say in general, so it applies to car-free pedestrian cities: “If they exist they are possible.” We can build ecological cities and we will if we are ever to solve this looming triple ultimate crisis.

The Biggest Things We Build

Now this next part of my talk I’m calling “Cities – The Biggest Things We Build” because I want to emphasize dealing with the appropriate scale. If we have a big problem we need a big solution, simple as that.

Thus I think it is puzzling no end that almost no one connects the largest things we build – our cities – to the largest problems that we are experiencing, much less connects them to solutions to those problems. But that seems to be the case. Consider this story: I was the convener of the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990, followed by four more conferences, one each in Australia, Senegal, Brazil and China. Next comes India, number six, in December. At the first of these conferences our keynote speaker was Denis Hayes, chief organizer of Earth Day in 1970 and past director of the US Solar Energy Research Institute, dismantled by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Denis’ major point was that despite all the good progress we had been making in the environmental movement, all the battles we had won, all the good laws and policies, adjustments in lifestyles and better recycling and energy conservation and so on, somehow in regard to the largest problems of all - chief among which he cited climate change and species extinctions - we were losing the war. To “win the war” he proposed that we needed vision, and in particular the sort of vision we might attain by looking at the way whole cities are designed, built and function. Then, at another talk ten years later, I saw him say almost exactly the same thing as we were entering our new century.

His keynote at our conference was powerful and inspiring but a little vague, delivering neither an image of such cities nor the tools that might be used to built them. But my main point now is that we haven’t won that war for the health of the environment, and in fact are worse off now than ever simply because we never confronted the largest things we build. We said, “Let’s change a light bulb and fill our tires up more,” rather than, “Let’s face the big one.” We still have not looked the city dead in the eye and said, “Hey, what’s really going on here? How is this thing structured? Why does it consume so much land and energy and cause so much environmental and human damage?”

If we do look fairly closely at cities we can see they are what is known as “whole systems,” and that they function something like living organisms. Their main organs are linked together complementing each other’s services for the benefit of the whole and relating the whole to its environment, its resource base if you will, in a way that could be of reciprocal benefit to all organs and the whole organism. The city’s organs include structures for living and working, education and shopping, recreation and entertainment, manufacturing and distribution, transportation and, there are the various networks of nature and resources that connect with and support the city.

If we take this view we can notice immediately that the whole organism of the city we’ve been constructing for the last 150 years has been built on the basis of linking functions through ever lengthening strands of connection. First there were rails and trains and streetcars, then much more massively, highways, cars and trucks. Now, in the wealthy world, our cities are whole systems made up of low-density development called suburbs, largely “single use” downtowns called Central Business Districts, and cars, asphalt and paving covering vast areas of land. This was all supported by an oil infrastructure that stretches from our local gas stations out to our 725 American military bases scattered around the world and heavily concentrated in and around the Middle East and Central Asian oil fields. This scattered city of suburbs is very, very big. With its far flung support systems, says social critic and author James Howard Kunstler, it constitutes “the greatest misallocation of resources in history.” This diffuse structure of the city has been based on fossil fuel energy that became cheaper and cheaper for a long 150 years. Now is getting more and more expensive as it is approaching peak oil production, and after that, it will slide into oblivion and higher prices due to scarcity – for such is the fate of any non-renewable resource that is burnt up instead of recycled.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Cities can be designed for pedestrians and bicyclists, taking up very small areas of land in more compact development. Taller buildings with rooftop gardens and solar greenhouses can be linked to other buildings with pedestrian connections between rooftops and terraces above ground level, making city centers intimately accessible to people on foot. While we are adding population and ecological architecture in pedestrian/transit centers we can be gradually removing low density development farthest from those centers and opening up landscapes for restoration of buried creeks, expansion of parks and community gardens, preservation and recovery of open ridgelines with beautiful views, open spaces for recycling and so on.

If one imagines today’s typical metropolis of low density development and scattered higher density city centers linked by freeways it is possible to imagine a transition in which city centers, district centers and neighborhood centers are becoming much more “mixed use,” as planners say, with more people moving closer to jobs and commerce in areas that can be served well by bicycles and transit. We can imagine city centers in which creek restoration projects open up landscapes beside public plazas as counterpoint to the taller buildings, and we can imagine that the presence of nature in this form is celebrated in conjunction with the gathering places for people. Here, culture and nature link and reinforce one another in this manner. People acknowledge the healthy union of both culture and nature in their architecture and layout of public open spaces. Higher places in buildings celebrate nature by bringing people up into the beautiful views provided by higher elevations in the city. Having public accessibility to rooftop terraces, restaurants and cafes, shops, promenades and mini-parks elevated into the view where we can watch weather developing and rolling across the landscape and enjoy sunsets and sunrises is a powerful contribution to understanding our place in nature.

Meantime, while development shifts toward the centers, bicycle and pedestrian paths begin to reach into the suburban fabric beside formerly buried creeks that are restored, reviving natural plant and animal communities along with refreshed water circulation and filtration. Community gardens and parks appear and expand along these networks of waterways and bicycle paths. Where buildings are dilapidated or damaged by fire, termites, earthquakes, floods or dry rot in these areas, they are removed rather than replaced with new low-density, car-dependent development. With time, larger agricultural areas reappear, and nature can reach in to meet citizen rather than citizen having to drive for half and hour or more through the suburbs to get “out” to nature. In addition, real wilderness expands into areas now invaded by sprawl, and some far-flung patches of exurban sprawl find their centers, add ecologically informed development there and become vital towns and villages with a real connection to the land. They become beautiful, lively, productive places to live in and visit.

Contrary to this vision I’m asking you to contemplate now, many architects and planners claiming to represent something they call “good urbanism” say that city is city and nature is nature and never the twain shall meet. Creek restoration projects I’ve been involved in have been opposed by such architects and planners.

I think this is one of the worst ideas in vogue in architecture and city planning circles today. If we don’t dramatically celebrate nature as brought into cities in small but rich ways, such as by way of waterway restoration with some actual living critters such as fish, crawdads, dragonflies, humming birds and butterflies, then we are in serious trouble. We are already in trouble as evidenced by global heating and species dying all around the planet, and we are in worse trouble if we continue to extend into the future ideas that banish nature from city dwellers. If the biggest things we build are our cities, then it is one of the biggest mistakes we can make to exclude the experience of nature from people who live in them. But if we learn from nature and we come to understand our cultural foundations in nature, we can then understand what sort of foundation in land use patterns and design we need for so-called sustainable cities.

Prioritization

Now in this section of my talk I’d like to make a special point of prioritization. Denis Hayes says we need vision, but equally importantly, maybe even more importantly, I think we need a sense of proportion and the ability to prioritize very, very well. After all, a spectacular vision can be corrupting and corruptible and is generally harshly criticized as utopian. So a fairly good vision will probably be good enough and we can improve on it as we go. I think ecocities are one such imperfect but very adaptable vision. Former Mayor Jamie Lerner of Curitiba, Brazil, perhaps the worlds most advanced practitioner of ecological city design, building and administration has said that city planning is “a very forgiving process” – you learn along the way and if the feedback is negative you amend your plan and continue on. That’s an applicable vision, a practical one.

But to prioritize the must-do-now things, in times when time itself is getting short, is of crucial importance. I’ll illustrate this with the following set of observations:

Recently at a book store I saw a title advancing 1001 ways to improve our world in difficult times. Shortly after, a friend said he’d like to subtitle a book of his something like “One Hundred Inconvenient Truths.” This is, of course, taking off from the current interest in Al Gore’s recent movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

I responded saying that 100 different scrambled problems and solutions was too random, too lacking in a system or order, wasn’t cognizant of the way ecological systems really work and would perpetuate not doing anything effective while precious time slips away. The number 100 was too big, much less the number 1001, the differences between the “truths,” whatever they might be, muddled by the grab bag quality of mixing oranges and apples - much less throwing in blueberries and watermelons and poisonous and medicinal fruits to boot. People tend to take the easy one and think they were making progress - while postponing the difficult ones as precious time slips away.

But there is one approach that looms far larger than anything else I can think of: getting a sense of proportion and learning to prioritize. If we can do that then we will see there are 5 big inconvenient truths under which all others are subsumed. Understanding this approach we can sort out the real solutions in the confusion we see seething about us now. We can eliminate the paltry and the contradictory steps and get on with doing something relevant and powerful. I’ll propose these as the five big inconvenient truths we have to deal with. They expand beyond ecocity building, but they outline the larger picture and provide the larger context very well I believe.

#1. Inconvenient big truth number one. Humanity is overpopulated and must reduce its numbers, and do it peacefully since violence replicates and amplifies itself. This is not a racist statement in the slightest as often claimed by people victimized by actual racists making the statement in the past or still making it today. It is instead relevant to the species-ist humans driving other species into extinction by way of taking almost all of the land of the planet for their own utility and pleasure. Species-ism is even larger and ultimately more destructive than racism, as horrible a scourge as racism has proven to be. That we are overpopulated is massively evident in the fact that human beings constitute more than 100 times the biomass of any other species in our general size range to ever inhabit the planet. That’s too big and all of us need to face it. Inconvenient truth #1.

#2. The built infrastructure - my subject of specialization and main subject of this talk. You’ve already heard about this inconvenient truth, that we needs to shift from cars, sprawl, paving and cheap energy infrastructure to pedestrian oriented ecocities that fit by design perfectly with renewable energy systems.

#3. We need to eat lower on the food chain. Among the changes that imply enormous savings and amount to re-investing in long-term sustainability, agriculture for meat needs to be recognized as highly inefficient. Costing five to ten times the land and energy of eating vegetable foods directly, a diet high in meat is a big part of the geopolitical and energetics problem on Earth, and a diet very low in meat is a big part of the solution. This isn’t a call for a ban on meats but to face the inconvenient truth that a substantial shift away from meats holds very large benefit for life support and biodiversity on the Earth. Small amounts of meat for ample protein and flavoring in mainly vegetable dishes, common in Chinese cuisine for example, is a very different thing from the giant slabs of meat as stakes and big burgers and other large meat portions.

#4. Need needs to replace greed, as Gandhi said. That means we need to invest in the future health of the world – not just in our wealth as individuals – by way of supporting solutions to the problems identified by the big inconvenient truths. We need a new wave of generosity, especially as expressed in giving back to the Earth. In other words we have to tax ourselves more and the wealthier folks even more yet, and do a much better job of spending the money for the general good. We need to prioritize for the best investments. What's new these days in this situation is that finally, with the ultimate crisis beginning to enter our lives in ever more disruptive ways, it is soon to become conspicuous that the children of the rich as well as the children of the poor will inherit a poverty stricken, chaotic and violent world if everybody doesn't contribute substantially to addressing the 5 Inconvenient Truths with real investment and action. Since the wealthy have much more, they need to give more. The fantasy option of holing up in a gated community or super-rich castle retreat with armed guards, with the middle class turning into peasants to harvest our gourmet food and wine, is soon to go out the window if we don't act more generously now.

#5. Education needs to stop chasing the money for its own sake and promoting growh, growth, growth. It needs to shift away from supporting "whatever's coming down the road to maximize prosperity" (at the expense of nature's prosperity) while attempting to make the whole enterprise a little “greener,” for real or for PR reasons. It has to powerfully educate about the four big inconvenient truths, just mentioned. Also, we as individuals need to realize that we self-educate ourselves for nothing in particular if we are staring at television for billions of hours collectively every year or otherwise, literally, distracting ourselves, distracting ourselves from crucial learning and work that needs attention now. Education can help preserve or destroy natural systems and biodiversity depending on what is being learned. Beyond “reading and writing and ’rithmetic,” education is not per se a virtuous pursuit in itself. It depends on what it addresses and what it creates. The content is all-important. Again 100 random things is not a good idea. We need to prioritize and not put the big things on hold.

I assume with near certainty that former US Vice President Al Gore knows the ten steps he puts forward in “An Inconvenient Truth” for taking action are very small up against the coming crisis. I am almost positive he is hoping to give people a chance to start off small and graduate to bigger, more effective, more basic things later. His movie is a great wake up call, and if rather late in the game relative to already collapsing climate stability, biodiversity and cheap energy, it’s an essential step, and much better late than never.

The problem is this, though: it is hardly the first step. Back in 1970 on Earth Day we were actually ahead of where we are now in strategic approach. By now humanity has eaten up most of our energy and biodiversity options that were plentiful those 36 years back. We did not do a good job of facing the Five Big Inconvenient Truths in the meantime and we still are not. We haven’t built a very good foundation for reshaping our physical civilization upon ecological principles. We had every opportunity to get started with the smaller steps to solving world environmental and resource problems and to use that as a kind of first grade schooling for higher education and more fundamental education and practice in the future. But rather than move on to those fundamentals we were satisfied to stick with the easy first steps. To start off again with those first steps and not address the more difficult ones, is to attempt again a strategy that has failed once already.

Lester Brown’s “Plan B” is another important touchstone for coming to understand what we need to do. Certainly a program by which we can change policy around the world is needed, as he suggests, and he lays out copious good information and many good ideas about what to do. His writings, however, have certain major contradictions that need to be resolved before his plan is ready for application. His strategy is once again to give people the idea that they can get moving with some small but substantial actions. He does in fact face population and meat eating head on, but unfortunately among his most vigorous promotions is the promotion of the energy efficient car, which completely subverts ecological cities, by promoting sprawl development and avoiding whole system thinking, and makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to move forward with a well conceived plan.

Unfortunately, other scientist friends are not helping as much as they could either. You’d think they’d be there ready to rescue us with their superior information and theories, but many of them are lost in the details and don’t see the larger pattern and are not helping us connect the dots and prioritize. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, while providing excellent information and numerous suggestions for government policies to combat global heating, such as promoting trading pollution credits, has practically nothing to say about policy to move cities away from car-oriented and cheap energy design and toward infrastructure based on the measure of the human body and the dynamics of ecological systems.

It seems everyone trying to help avoid global heating is afraid of fear itself. The notion is, “The people can’t handle it. They’ll panic, close down, act in fear and nothing else. Give them something easy and non-threatening. Later we’ll up the stakes, raise the bar.”

But we all have to wake up sometime. At some point you just have to put your faith in people and trust that they can handle the truth of the matter. When you finally get it that Paul Revere has warned you and the British are coming for real, you don’t get out your boots and coat, set the alarm clock for 7:00am and go back to bed. You realize there is a clear and present danger, pick up your weapon (or tool, as our comparison might have it) and move out now!

I’m saving the best news until last. I’ve said earlier that the tools exist with which to build ecocities. You’ve heard my thoughts on prioritization – and that we need it probably more than anything else – and you have a basic idea what an ecologically healthy city might look like. Though I don’t have time to develop what the ecocity-building tools are in any detail, I can at least introduce you to some of the stronger ones.

First there is Ecocity Mapping. It amounts to literally mapping your city so you have a clearer sense where you centers of most vitality are. The map portrays where to increase density and diversity of development, which is in those centers, and where to best open up the landscape for such features as restored creeks and expanded community gardens and parks, which is in the areas farthest from those centers. Thus it directs change, along with the ecocity general plan that lays out policies for ecocity transformation.

The Ecocity General Plan, like any other general plan, lays out policies for the development and maintenance of the city’s physical expression and its functioning. But in the case of the Ecocity General Plan, many policies are described that facilitate an ecocity transition. Those include policies calling for Ecocity Mapping, just mentioned, Transfer of Development Rights, which I’ll mention next, and many others. Those policies have to also include specific reference to financial investment in making sure the action policies are carried through. If the City does not allocate money for the transition, its plan is just symbolic window dressing, an exercise in pretend. No serious money spent, no serious progress made.

Transfer of Development Rights, or TDR, is a powerful real estate investment and development tool. It provides a height bonus for developers willing to put higher density housing or other structures in exactly the right place according to an ecocity transition plan. The developers pay for the purchase of development rights that are transferred from one part of town to their taller buildings in the growing pedestrian transit centers. At the sites where the development rights are purchased, the buildings are removed and no more development can be built there. This tool is a willing seller/developer transaction – when the seller wants to leave, a ready fund is there to buy his or her property. After the sale the building is demolished and recycled and open space such as creek restoration or community garden is created, thus shifting the patterns of development from the fringes and off of natural features and toward the pedestrian transit centers.

There are many other tools, such as car-free by contract housing which encourages building apartments and condominiums with zero car parking provided because their residents don’t need or want cars. Any policy that establishes and expands the pedestrian environment is a tool for building ecocities. Such policies can be used to shape buildings to utilizes the sun’s energy, provide for social equity by eliminating the necessity of having to pay for a car to get access to the city’s benefits, to helping restore natural features. Such tools produce pioneering transit systems fit to low energy infrastructure in Curitiba, Brazil, and provide free public transportation in downtown Portland. There are many, they work beautifully and I write about them in my books, but it’s time to stop.

After one last story anyway. A year ago I took a long ride on Amtrak. It came in eight hours late. It’s conductors and dining car waiters were so embarrassed. They just couldn’t really complete, they said. Those sad Amtrak employees shook their heads and said they just couldn’t function without government subsidies. They couldn’t afford upkeep on rolling stock and had to search around to find available cars. They couldn’t afford their own tracks and so they were operating on Union Pacific’s freight tracks and had to pull over whenever Union Pacific’s trains came through.

Wait a minute! The entire federal government budget for the national passenger rail system for the United States of America, no small Balkan backwater, in 2005 was $1.2 billion. Do you know what the cost of one and a half miles of replacement freeway in West Oakland was for the section of the Cypress Viaduct structure that fell down in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989? Almost exactly the same amount! Does anyone talk about “subsidies” to car drivers when government gives them these gigantic public works to keep them driving and driving and driving? Those proportions are way, way out of balance, and in the wrong direction at that. These expenditures should be seen as investments, and should be called that, whether they are for passenger rail that fits perfectly with ecologically tuned cities or investments in perpetuating our trajectory deeper into the ultimate crisis.

But what this tells us is that, late though the hour may be for dealing with the triple crisis of climate, extinctions and energy, and flood of money and resources and potential it represents is colossally enormous. It’s like a giant fire hose aimed in the wrong direction, accomplishing in many cases exactly the opposite of what it should do. Imagine shifting that intense stream gradually in the right direction. Little by little, then ever more quickly we’d have the transition to a kind of city that can bring CO2 in the atmosphere down to below what it was at the beginning of the industrial area. Maybe it really can.

Editorial Notes: Richard Register is president of Ecocity Builders Inc. and author of Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (New Society Publishers). From Richard's blog profile:
Born in El Paso, Texas, 1943. Many years in New Mexico, many more in Califonia. Have a seedling in my window box whose parent is the oldest living thing in the world - about 4,700 years old.

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