Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ecocities: Cities Can Save the Earth

Could it be that the root causes of our environmental crises are linked to the biggest things we build - cities?

So argues Richard Register, founder of SF Bay Area's Urban Ecology, author of Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature, and activist urban planner, writing in a recent Foreign Policy in Focus brief. Our automobile dependence has many direct ecological and social costs, but the most insidious consequence is how cars have reshaped our cities over the last 100 years. Register writes: "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 too low to allow efficient, affordable transit."

The challenges are significant, but Register has reason for optimism:

We can change our cities. In fact, our cities have already changed. Portland has frequent transit that’s free in the downtown area, and has designated a “urban growth boundary” to limit the expansion of the city’s urban area and preserve nearby farmland and other open spaces and a thriving and very dense new residential and “mixed-use” center in the Pearl District. The rooftops in Tel Aviv, Israel and dozens of Chinese cities sparkle with solar hot-water panels. Copenhagen’s pedestrian street, the St√łget, has been growing steadily since 1962 and now stretches more than two miles.

But we can do more, much more, to redesign our cities 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 by pedestrian connections between rooftops and terraces above ground level, making city centers intimately accessible to people on foot. As we add population and ecological architecture in pedestrian/transit centers, we can gradually eliminate the unsustainable suburbs.

We'll need to start rebuilding our cities to incorporate Register's ecocity concepts - pedestrian/transit-oriented infrastructure, replacing sprawl development with nature/agriculture, and integrating renewable energy systems - if we are to meet the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss, and dwindling (cheap) fossil fuels. Rethinking our cities as places that both humans and non-human nature can call home is a place to start; cities that are friendly for pedestrians and cyclists are likely to welcome trees, restored streams, and urban wildlife as well.

Read the whole article at Foreign Policy in Focus, and learn more about the ecocity at Ecocity Builders.

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