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Gil Friend & Jane Byrd: Have mercy, I cry, City!

hanginggarden.jpgSystems ecologist and consultant Gil Friend runs Natural Logic, and is a regular contributor to our Sustainability Sundays feature. He wrote this piece for our 3000th post celebration along with his wife (and director of Natural Logic), Jane Byrd.

As the recent World Environment Day events recently reminded us, we now live on a majority urban planet. Back to the land? Ain't gonna happen, folks - and probably shouldn't, since six or 10 or 12 billion people spread out across the landscape could make many aspects of the human footprint worse instead of better.

Which may be why "density" is on the lips of so many world changing types lately. Infill and smart growth strategies are doing worthy battle with both traditional developers and well-intentioned NIMBYs (who sometimes seem to think that people shouldn't go anywhere...)

But as with so many world changing initiatives, the exciting - and often most practical - work lies in profound challenges to both the lock-in of status quo and the incremental palliatives of "reasonable" measures; Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti, Richard Register's EcoCity Berkeley, Institute for Local Self-Reliance's self-reliant communities, and the Zero Ecological Footprint city that keeps colonizing my imagination.

The key to surviving urban density: photosynthesis, economy, convivality.

So much surface area. So little time. But what if cities weren't desolate badlands with hard hot surfaces and minimal plant life. What if native plant life could colonize city surfaces, roof tops and walls? And what if it wasn't that hard to do? And oh so easy to live with/within?

What if cities - the inventors of agriculture, according to Jane Jacobs - could once again (or for the first time) be net producers of food, energy, clean water and clean air?

A flowering of projects - some new, some quite venerable - address cities as living systems. Living systems with metabolisms - flows and transformations of energy and materials into product and non-product, desired and undesired results - that, if understood, can perhaps guide us to creating cities that, like living systems, produce net value, powered by sun and wind.

My first "environmental" project, 30 years ago (after a mind-bending month immersed in Bucky Fuller's "World Game Workshop" - at that time a month-long design charrette for "a world that works for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone"), was rooftop agriculture a little past shouting distance of the White House at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

ILSR's 20 Year Track Record Promoting Sustainable Communities is up to 31 years now, and the Insitute remains a unique resource for linking the visions of environment, economy and social weal long before that was coined the "triple bottom line."

Every year since its founding ILSR has researched the feasibility of communities generating a significant amount of wealth from local resources and has worked with the increasing numbers of communities interested in moving in that direction.

In 1974 our conceptual framework was novel. ILSR was the first to systematically apply the concept of local self-reliance to urban areas. A 1975 PlowBoy interview in Mother Earth News with ILSR's founders presented this concept to readers who had been exposed only to the notion of rural self-sufficiency. ILSR offered a vision of sustainable, self-reliant cities that extract the maximum value from their local human, capital and natural resources. That vision cut across traditional environmental, economic development and community development lines.

Can we imagine cities married to their native plant communities and the bioregional agroecosystems upon which our lives depend. Cities that integrate commerce and ecology in mutual support. Cities as living architectures, oases for soil and souls. Imagining it, visualizing it, calling for it, are the first steps to having it be so.

It's "sex in the city" but even better: buildings revisioned as substrates for soil and plants, as fertile homes for birds and bees and other endangered pollinators thriving on native plant communities climbing walls, hanging garden watersheds, filling pools and waterfalls, green bridge corridors from roof top to roof top garden. Color, commerce, culture, food production, soil and wild habitat creation, thriving together in biodiversifying, climate buffering cities.

As living architecture designer Paul Kephart puts it: "What is the purpose of incorporating natural day light, healthy environments, and energy efficiency if, as professionals, we don't simultaneously design for beauty, for ecology, and for culture. "

Ecologist Aurora Mahassine, Kephart's design collaborator, combines her experience as a mosaic artist contemporary materials, structural engineering research, and scientific understanding of the bio-region, to turn barren vertical walls - not just rooftops - into beautiful homes for indigenous plants, insects, and birds.

Green roofs? Sure. (And be sure to check out the gorgeous green roof bookfrom EarthPledge.) But beyond industrial lawn green roofs to integrated city-nature systems that weave a sweet symbiosis between people and planet.

What if native plant communities could colonize the vertical walled cement surfaces AND horizontal roof tops of our cities? What if we unpaved parking lots and put in some paradise? What if buried creeks and forgotten watersheds were brought to the surface to nourish city ecosystems with life giving water? What if rainwater was captured with both roofs and permeable paving, and cleansed on site before recharging aquifers all around us, unburdening the oceans of toxic runoff? What if urban life - our inescapable human future - were an ecological delight, as well as - at least come of the time - a cultural delight as well?

Some of this future will appear in brand new cities designed do it right the first time - like the seven new cities in China for which Bill McDonough is developing the planning templates; some from the new high-density infill cities that some of us are developing in North America; some from the re-habitation in place of the structures and infrastructres we've inherited - like Vancouver's 500 acre sustainability district - rebuilding the plane in midflight.

Which ever it is, Dylan (Thomas) said it well:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower;
Drives my green age...

Comments (2)

Dear Authors,
The topic is enchanting, but this is only a theory so far. how much is implemented and who is really involved?

why do we build the cities at all. is it only for connectivity or togetherness. when the communication age is in advance, popullation concentrations can be reversed.

Jack Sam:

Dear Daniel Raju,

I can't answer your first question but as for the second, I refer you to Jane Jacobs just as Gil Friend and Jane Byrd have.

If we look at a city and its economic acitivities, ideally it should be like a natural ecosystem that is sustainable. It should be able to be produce more than it uses.

An example of an unsustainable city that Jacobs uses in The Nature of Ecomies is how Detroit used to be a thriving city due to its car industry but now isn't. As car manufacturers got larger, they could produce more parts in-house instead of buying them from small local companies. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

The point of a city is to focus all of its energies to producing something for another city to take in and add value to, ad infinitum. When the communication age is in an advanced age, we'll still have a need to produce and transport physical things like food and communications equipment.

Also, I will probably going to have a lot more close friends than I do now and we're all going to want to have a drink together in the same space; not in the 'comfort' of our respective computer rooms.


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