To hear Richard Register tell it, the city of the future will look more like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon than like the crime-ridden, blighted expanse often referred to as the inner-city.
Register and Kirstin Miller of Ecocity Builders, who facilitated last weekends slideshow and workshop Willits in Transition, Building a sustainable tomorrow, today, painted the picture for more than 100 attentive participantsincluding city officials.
The workshop was sponsored by the City of Willits, Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL), the Renewable Energy Development Institute (REDI), Willits Action Group, the Economic Development and Financing Corporation, and the Mendocino County Railway Society.
Transformation of the city is essential, Register said, because the suburban modeland even the back to nature ideal of a small cabin surrounded by deerhave become a recipes for environmental disaster.
Given an ever-growing population, he said, residential expansion into the country eats up the land needed for farms and wildlife habitat. Given the anticipated end of affordable fossil fuels, long-distance vehicle trips arent sustainable. Even such plant-based transportation fuels as bio-diesel and ethanol wont solve the problem, say oil depletion experts, since the land required to grow the related crops will be needed for local food production.
Making use of his background in fine art, Register presented the eco-city alternative:
Gardens would grow on the rooftops of multi-unit housing clusters. Sky bridges and terraces would connect upper levels and provide space for more vegetation. The totality would be oriented toward the power-producing sun and elevated to provide both safety in flood-prone cities like New Orleans and a magnificent view for residents. The lowest floors would contain storage units for goods currently trucked in from elsewhere, retail outlets for distributing them, and restaurants and cafes for enjoying them.
Even the natural view, Register said, would be written into the plan. He called for daylighting the creeks that were often covered over when cities were developed. Once exposed, the waterways would be restored with rock and creekside vegetation, attracting fish and other wildlife. In short, city dwellers wouldnt have to drive out into nature. Nature would come to them.
Several such clusters would then combine to shape the city. They would be oriented along active rail lines, bus lines, trolleys or other means of frequent mass transit, freeing much of the land currently used for parking lots. Car and truck sharing systems would serve those who must use separate vehicles for professional and other reasons.
Judging by the slides Register and Miller presented, elements of that vision are already being developed in cities around the world.
In San Louis Obispo, where huge pipes enclosing an underground waterway were beginning to crumble, taking the land down with them, Ecocity helped arrange for the removal of dilapidated housing and the related resurrection of the long-buried creek system.
The result is a sparkling waterway with creekside vegetation and new restaurants along the banks. Children from low-income families splash happily across on large, flat rocks just below the waters surfacejust like kids in the country. Register said such restored waterways will quickly resume their natural character, attracting birds, fish, and other forms of wildlife.
Other sites need only to be left untouched to produce a rich environment in unlikely places. The heavily mined DMZ (demilitarized zone) separating North and South Korea, for example, has become a sanctuary for birds and other creatures without sufficient weight to trip the subsurface land mines. The same is true along the border between Israel and Jordan, which has become a migratory stop for small African storks.
In Berkeley, where upper stories are linked by bridges on the University of California campus, a parking lot was recently torn out and replaced with a neighborhood garden. In Vienna, plant life grows on the terraces of a low to moderate income housing project, which also incorporates 11 retail shops.
Register and Miller said it should be no problem for cities, which general spend money on park landscaping, to include food-producing vegetation, cherry and apple trees, for example.
In Missoula Montana, the Gold Dust Apartments, designed by the low-income women who now live there, includes elements of fine art, a high terrace overlooking the hills, and contracts in which tenants in several of the units agree they will not own vehicles. If one is necessary, residents can use the commonly owned car and truck in tiny parking area below.
In Curitiba, Brazil, a city of 1.6 million master-planned in the 1960s, all of the citys residential districts are supplied with adequate educational, health care, recreational, and park areas. Commercial and service sector growth runs along two transit-rich arterials radiating out from the city center. A pedestrian network in the downtown area covers an area equivalent to nearly fifty blocks.
As a result, Curitibas gasoline use per capita is 30 percent below that of eight comparable Brazilian cities. Other results include negligible emissions levels, little congestion, and an extremely pleasant living environment, according to the website www.dismantle.org.
Other resource savings in such cities, Register and Miller said, are likely to include heating costs offset by the compact spacing of residences. The warmth of a human body, they noted, is equivalent to that of a 100-watt light bulb. Far less energy is also required for transportation from one building level to another than from block to block; that is, elevators use far less fuel than cars.
An ecocity, Register concluded, can operate on about a tenth of the energy now used in conventional cities. Can it be done here? So far, the City of Willits requires a fixed number of parking places for new residences and commercial spaces, but City Manager Ross Walker, Community Development Director Alan Falleri, and City Councilman Ron Orenstein were all at the workshop taking notes. So was Pamela Townsend of the countys planning department.
What about the cost of redevelopment?
Register said the key is transfer of development rights (TDRs), that is, a system in which the right to develop a property can be sold and applied to a different parcel of land in a more appropriate location.
The owner of a dilapidated or poorly located house, for example, could receive enough in the separate sale of land and development rights to purchase something much better elsewhere. The developer purchasing the TDR might then be able to add additional homes to a project elsewhere in the city.
Register said TDRs have been used to save historic properties, including New Yorks Grand Central Station, which was once on the short-list for bulldozing.
In other examples, a land owner can continue to live on the propertyand receive income from a TDR at the same time. The owner of an historic house or a working farm, for example, would be selling only the right to transform his or her property into a housing development.
The proper use of TDRs and other tools of transformation, Register said, begins with green mapping, that is, planning that incorporates natural elements and innovative, development clusters into an overall city vision.
The first step toward a green map of Willits was taken at the workshop when participants were invited to work with Anthony Trilli of the citys new engineering department, who is already in the process of producing map overlays of city resources.
Other groups established at the workshop will be working on reactivating the rail lines for both in-city and regional transportation; and presenting the eco-city concept to service organizations, schools, builders, the business community and others with a stake in Willits future.
Theres a lot of innovation here, Register told the participants. You could become the green small city of the future.