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Synthesis/Regeneration 49   (Spring 2009)

12th Hour for Arcology

by Doctress Neutopia

Truly it is the 11th hour for humanity, so when the 11th Hour documentary came out, I rushed to see it. I wondered if the film would show me how humanity could overcome our multi-layered crisis of fossil fuel depletion, global warming, the lack of adequate housing around the world, and agricultural failure. Politicians don't seem have plausible solutions. Would the experts in the documentary 11th Hour?

Great ideas in creating a new ecological paradigm are presented in the film such as John Todd's idea of building living machines and William McDonough's ideas of building cities as efficiently as nature grows a forest. The film shows us the latest developments in hybrid cars and solar-powered single family houses. It shows us a way we can retrofit our present civilization with renewable energies. But is this the whole vision that we need? Biomimicking nature, building structures the way nature designs the biological world, is a key point in the film. But is retrofitting the old pattern of detached buildings and endless sprawl the best way to biomimic natural systems?

Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be "fixed" or retrofitted...

Architectural critic James Howard Kuntsler calls investing in suburbia the "greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." He writes, "The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins. In any case, the suburbs will lose value dramatically, both in terms of usefulness and financial investment. Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be "fixed" or retrofitted, in particular the residential subdivisions." For Kuntsler, the era of suburbia is over. Our natural wealth went into building a pattern of housing that had no future because it is unsustainable. So, as we wake up to the fact that for a half-century our national wealth and identity went into an economic black hole, what comes next? I knew that architect Paolo Soleri was one of the experts in the film. Since I knew his work on arcology, I was eager to see what he would say. Arcology is an architectural design approach that unites various parts of the city into an intregrated whole system. It is an energy efficient, pedestrian-centered development that integrates the living, working, social, commercial, industrial, and artistic aspects. In a car-free arcology, transportation networks connect parts of the city as easily as blood vessels and arteries circulate blood throughout a healthy human body. Natural landscapes are accessible within a walkable distance. Arcological design saves natural resources used in traditional transportation, heating/cooling and land use schemes because it brings biological and social systems together under one roof, a new realistic model of sustainable development for the world.

Arcological design saves natural resources used in traditional transportation, heating/cooling and land use...

The practicality of building arcology is integrated yoga or union in that it fuses all societal disciplines together into a coherent whole. It is a framework in which intellectual disciplines merge in a way that creates harmony with the global ecology. Arcologies are designed into the watersheds and ecosystems within a particular bioregion. Each arcology is uniquely suited to its particular climate and surrounding landscape.

Using agricultural greenhouses as part of the heating and cooling "energy apron," arcology localizes food production. The energy apron envisioned as part of an arcology has a step-down terrace topography draped around the habitat. "Tree columns" support a taut membrane structure to cause a usable greenhouse effect. It delivers energy in three forms: warm air, hot water, and green food.

Experiments in arcology are being conducted in places around the world like the United Arab Emirates, which is building Masdar City, a $22 billion zero-waste, zero-carbon community. Another low-carbon city being built is Dongtan, an island off Shanghai.

Soleri, who has been building his own arcology Arcosanti for 25 years in central Arizona, was included in the 11th Hour, but his idea of arcology wasn't brought up. In fact, on the 11th Hour web site, they don't even list him as a designer, even though in 2007 the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum's Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to him at the White House. So, I was puzzled why Soleri appeared in the film but didn't talk of his evolutionary city design that has been the driving force behind his life.

Retrofitting the American dream

I further noticed on the web site that Kenny Ausubel, founder of the Bioneers conference, was a central adviser to the film. The Bioneers deal with retrofitting our civilization with green technologies much more than with the idea of building a new pattern of ecocity design.

Using such an ideology allows life as we know it, the American Dream, the McMansion and the consumerist lifestyle, to go on with an upgraded national energy grid. One characteristic of capitalism is that it can mutate in order for the money to continue to flow to the power elite. Big oil tycoons such as T. Boone Pickens, who is investing in giant wind energy farms, will continue to control the grid as they have controlled the pipe lines to the oil. They may receive huge government subsidies for building the infrastructure while they personally prosper from the profits of cleaner power.

Electric cars might replace fossil fuel motors and suburbia could be lit to some extent by solar power panels installed on top of green roofs of two car garages. "Greening" current models, the old civilization gets a face lift. In many cases, these green developments become gated communities for those who have the money to live within the green zones of class war-torn megalopolises.

The superrich may have access to the green technologies filtering air and water to themselves and to their offspring who might have to be conceived through the new reproductive technologies, while the poor continue suffering from life in toxic waste zones, existing on food that is innutritious. In a world where a billion people don't live in adequate housing, the parking garages for new hybrid cars attached to single-family houses is far better housing than many may every experience. Living outside gated-communities and green zones, the poor's precious DNA is being rapidly destroyed from the toxic environment, giving birth to what may become a future generation of devolved mutants.

The capitalist solution is for consumers to buy smart: buying organic foods, natural fiber clothes, eco-friendly carpets, beddings, and furniture. But the poor masses have no purchasing power within Green capitalists' market solution to the crisis of "smart growth." And, the middle class is being slowly but surely squeezed out of existence by a diminishing supply of renewable resources.

...the poor masses have no purchasing power within Green capitalists' market solution...

The old civilization designs are not a viable means to house everyone sustainably because there are not enough building materials to go around using traditional building methods. Even to the extent that these materials can be procured and produced they are further degrading the habitablity of the environment.

As much as it is an environmental crisis, it is a moral and spiritual crisis deep within the human heart that has created class warfare. The environmental crisis is only a reflection of inner, spiritual turmoil of living in an unsustainable, unjust civilization.

It is time we take notice of the homeless and poverty stricken people around the planet and take care of them. Such care is an evolutionary necessity. At best, the approach that the 11th Hour advocates just buys a little time for an ever decreasing minority before catastrophic destabilization causes their fa‡ade to crumble. Thus pursuing the old archetype of civilization that allows the masses to live without adequate shelter is useless folly.

On the seal of the United State Interagency Council on Homelessness, it reads Domicilia Omnibus Americanus, "a home for every American." When the environmental movement co-opts this slogan as our underpinning principle, then mobilizing to build a network of solar-powered arcologies to house everyone sustainably seems possible. In this spirit, architecture becomes a container for compassion, a home for all. To make the new model happen, common sense demands that we convert the one trillion dollar a year military budget away from intimidating weaker societies to give up their resources and into building a livable future by producing arcologies on a massive scale. During World War II, the government put a moratorium on building new cars. It is time to do so again, placing a moratorium not only on cars, but on new housing construction that falls within the framework of the old architectural paradigm. The war we are really confronting is not with other tribes within our own species, but with an increasingly hostile environment of our own making.

During World War II, the government put a moratorium on building new cars.

In addressing the solution to global heating, we could scarcely do better than to follow some of the aspects Buckminster Fuller outlined in his book Critical Path. Unless people fulfill a critical service that requires them to be at a certain location, he says it is time to temporarily pay people to stay home from work until a complete evaluation of the current economy is conducted to determine how to retool the economic system. Such an evaluation is called for because most jobs in our society just waste the energy (especially fossil fuels) needed to construct or sustain a livable model.

With many Americans commuting two hours a day from their homes to work, paying people to stay at home is a fiscally responsible way to begin our severe conversion efforts, because many jobs go into destroying the ecology rather than healing the ecology. This would be done in conjunction with implementing comprehensive public transportation and a fair permit issuing process to regulate travel and transportation outside the public system.

Simultaneous to the conversion plan is the beginning to the building a network of ecologies. Physicist David Goodstein says in A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, "Cities will have to be rebuilt form scratch practically to have more efficient, reasonable form of mass transportation." If the way we have designed cities has created the monoculture of suburban waste and a global shopping mall and is the source of our crisis, then designing ecologies that restore wholeness is our answer.

So the question we can not ignore is should we use up diminishing fossil fuel reserves to patch up the old, gluttonous decaying civilization or do we re-direct the energy to build a new one that works.

Lovelock writes in Revenge of Gaia that if we have changed the chemistry of the biosphere through the burning of fossil fuels in an irreversible direction, we have two choices: go back to a more primitive lifestyle or move forward into a sophisticated, high-tech civilization. He indicates that "sustainable development" is wrong-headed since what we should be thinking about is a "sustainable retreat." Such a retreat means that we start doing something "about changing where we live and how we get food, about making plans for the migration of millions of people from low-lying regions like Bangladesh into Europe; about admitting that New Orleans is a goner and moving the people to cities better positioned for the future."

..."sustainable development" is wrong-headed since what we should be thinking about is a "sustainable retreat."

Arcology is not a step backward in time to reshape sprawl into the images of home town, Main Street, USA as the New Urbanisms visualize. It is a quantum leap to a new civilization pattern.

Lovelock writes, "We are the species equivalent of that schizoid pair, Mr. Hyde and Dr Jekyll; we have the capacity for disastrous destruction but also the potential to found a magnificent civilization." Arcology is that magnificent civilization.

Our global crisis is not individual in nature, but collective, which means the crisis requires public resources and a collective solution. Because arcology requires a steady-state economy, it is based on allocating resources, not privatizing them. Thus it may be difficult for some to comprehend the way an arcology works without accepting a collective point of view. Such a view point is diametrically opposed to the American dream lifestyle of 4% of the world's population consuming 25% of the planet's resources. The arcology model utilizes efficiency, frugality, and mutualism. Using a fraction of the landscape of traditional farming practices and city designs, the arcology model saves landscape for forests, wetlands, and for other natural areas to go back to the wildness needed for Gaia to regulate the climate. Lovelock writes, "The natural ecosystems of the Earth are not just there for us to take as farmland; they are there to sustain the climate and the chemistry of the planet." When adopted, the arcology model becomes a healing biotope within the planetary super organism.

...the arcology model becomes a healing biotope within the planetary super organism.

The government needs to be prodded into backing arcology with the effect that went into the Manhattan Project, except this project builds the container for a whole new kind of society that engenders and ensures peace. Whereas the Manhattan Project was a top secret nuclear project in the battle for victory in World War II, the Arcology Project must be public, inspiring a whole generation in our battle to regain our precious global balance with Earth.

As the 11th Hour so vividly portrayed, the ocean is dying and, with the death of important oxygen producers - the phytoplankton - so are we. Yes, this indeed is the 12th hour! Will a network of arcologies be born or will eukaryotic cells, the cells that make up the human body, suffocate in the CO2 polluted air?

Lester Brown makes the point in his book Plan B that "Saving civilization will take a massive mobilization, and at wartime speed." Sociologist Paul Ray's statistics show that 70-80% of American people want a plan to bring about social justice, a sustainable economy, and care for the ecology. They are willing to take action on global warming. Building arcology is the plan of action that can mobilize the masses. If the new administration doesn't respond to the arcology solution by funding urgent urban laboratories on federal or state public land, then design/science teams will have to go directly to the people with educational campaigns, town meetings, etc. for civilization to avoid the converging catastrophes.

Doctress Neutopia (EdD, Future Studies, University of Massachusetts) worked at Arcosanti with architect Paolo Soleri.

[26 sep 09]

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