celebration of their 3,000th post,
our friends at WorldChanging.com have been posting contributions
from guest writers, and asked me to be one. They ran this piece which I
wrote with my wife (and director of Natural Logic), Jane

As the recent World
Environment Day events recently reminded us
, we now live on a
majority urban
. 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 live

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
‘s self-reliant communities, and the Zero
Ecological Footprint city that keeps colonizing my

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
– could one 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
” – 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

ILSR’s 20
Year Track Record Promoting Sustainable Communities
is up to
31 years now, and the Insitute (which I’m proud to have co-founded)
remains a unique resource for linking the visions of environment,
economy and social weal long before that was coined the “triple bottom

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

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

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

As living architecture designer Paul Kephart puts
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
, 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 book from 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

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

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

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