An Interview with Richard Register

Richard Register


Part one
Part two

In this third of his three-part interview with ecoTECTURE, EcoCity designer and builder Richard Register discussed his efforts to rebuild his home town of Berkeley, California, as an ecocity.

(To learn more about Richard Register and his work in EcoCity design, see Part One of his three-part interview with ecoTECTURE in our January / February, 2000 issue.)



ECOTECTURE: Let's go back a few years. When and how did you first get interested in working in the field of ecocities and ecological design?

RR: It was a coincidence. I had just started an organization called "No War Toys." I was upset with the Vietnam war. I was 21 years old, in 1965. I went back to Arizona (from Berkeley, California) to try to raise money at my old high school-a very liberal school called Verde Valley. They would understand that something was very wrong in international relations; people were being murdered.

I wanted to look more deeply into the reasons people would accept violence, and it struck me that war toys, violent comics, violent movies, and TV might well have something to do with it. I wanted to investigate that, and protest war toys and get people thinking about it. So, I went back to my high school, raised some money, and caught a ride across Arizona. My ride said, "Would you like to meet Paolo Soleri?"

I said, "Who is that?"

"He is a radical architect down in Phoenix, Scottsdale, actually."

I said, "Sure," -wasn't my car (laughs).

We went straight over to Paolo's place. My father was an architect, so I could appreciate a lot of things architectural. But, I was quite puzzled by Paolo's drawings and his mission. At the time he was trying to find land for Arcosanti, which he started (building) five years later. Then I started reading his materials, and he just made plain sense.

The flat, two-dimensional city was the wrong shape. It wasn't only in bad shape, it was the wrong shape-flat and two dimensional instead of three dimensional: it wasn't compact enough-scattered all over the place-needed cars.

So, that's where my thinking started on ecological city design. Also, I grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico, which was founded in 1608, as a pedestrian city, of course. I always loved that aspect of Sante Fe, the narrow winding streets, the mud houses, the compactness, even though it is only one and two stories for the most part. It is very rich in its pedestrian areas. It just seemed natural to me. Santa Fe was a set of answers that needed exploration.

At the time, I was also doing sculpture, along with running this anti-war movement fringe group. Soleri's ideas struck me as sculpture or playground equipment for adults that you actually live in. To me it seemed like an adventure. I immediately thought about our ancestors living in the trees where we developed our prehensile fingers and our binocular eyes, over the course of 20 million years. It seemed very natural to me that cities could be more compact and pedestrian oriented. I started thinking about it, writing articles about Soleri's ideas.

In 1973, I decided to actually start an organization, and within two years about six friends and I started Urban Ecology, originally called Arcology Circle. We were interested in transforming existing cities, not just building new towns from scratch, as Paolo would like to do. So, we diverged from Paolo, with complete good will, and changed the name. He felt that the term Arcology really didn't apply to an existing city that was being transformed toward ecological health.

ECOTECTURE: So, you started to diverge from his approach and create your own approach to reviving existing cities?

RR: What we tried to do was isolate the actual principles at core. The big principle is that there are fit ways of working with evolution or going counter to evolution. The flat city goes counter to evolution. The three dimensional city seems to go along with it, providing more complexity and better integration over time. You have a lot of problems if you start scattering the built community over vast areas.

ECOTECTURE: Would it be fair to say that when you started Urban Ecology you were the prime mover, or were there other people involved.

RR: I'm not positive how it all came together. A professor named Lester Mazer from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, came out here with a group of his students for a winter quarter field studies workshop. He wanted to plug into Paolo Soleri's work in some way and found out about me promoting Soleri's work through a slide show I was taking around at the time. I had been doing that since 1973. Lester came out here in the winter of 1974-75.

ECOTECTURE: "Out here" meaning...

RR: . . . to Berkeley. He brought some students with him for that winter quarter and we were investigating the possibility of building an Arcology, one of those single-structure cities, in Northern California within an hour or two of San Francisco maybe as an academic exercise but maybe as a real project if things went well. Soleri had no problem with the us trying to build another Arcology besides Arcosanti. We were close with Soleri then, trying to help each other's work. I think he saw it as complimentary to Arcosanti. He knew many people interested in Acrologies would rather try applying the ideas in existing cities.

So, we started with the Hampshire class, and a few people who had worked at Arcosanti. By March of 1975, we decided we wanted to form an organization. I was elected the first president. I was one of the people who worked very hard at making it happen. There were nine or ten of us at that stage and many stuck around for about five years. Then, over the next few years, they drifted away. I remained focused on it, and tried to keep the project alive.

We undertook many projects. We were working on an integral neighborhood project in West Berkeley, helped write two Berkeley energy ordinances, organized workshops to build several solar greenhouses...

ECOTECTURE: These were solar greenhouses attached to people's homes?

RR: Yes. This was around 1980. We also let people know about Arcosanti and some students went back and studied with Paolo as a result of our work. We also started organizing conferences.

ECOTECTURE: Were you not also involved in the restoration of Berkeley's Strawberry Creek?

RR: Yes, but the people in the Urban Creeks Council were more involved. Two key people there were Carol Shimmering, she is still the creek fanatic that she became in those days, and a woman named Ann Riley who went to work for the water resources department in the State of California. Ann helped write legislation with (former State Assemblyman) Tom Bates that funded a lot of creek restoration projects around the entire state. Many of us got started fighting for the restoration of Strawberry Creek in the late 1970s. The creek was actually opened and the culvert removed in 1981 and 1982.

One thing I could say about most of this work-it is a lot of fun working with a lot of people in the community.

I actually like working with a lot of people. I don't like working on private gardens. I'd rather work on community gardens and projects like our creek restoration in West Berkeley, where we brought back one block of Cordinesis Creek and a planted a little orchard. Mostly with picks and shovels, we created a small canyon with 375 volunteers working off and on during weekends over three years. I manage it now. I go there every Sunday with several other people, water the orchard, plant new plants, and do the weeding.

ECOTECTURE: Would it be fair to say that the Berkeley Strawberry Creek project spurred the energy that got the state law passed?

RR: Both efforts happened around the same time, the activist and the legislative helping one another. The state law spends money not just for opening creeks but, to clean up creeks, remove invasive vegetation, plant natives, and sometimes make fairly major redesigns.

But, my passion is to try to create creeks from scratch, dig them up from underground culverts. One interesting thing we've learned: in about 17 or 18 years we managed to get 600 feet or Berkeley's creeks open in three different projects. At that rate, it will take us 5,025 years to restore the creek system in Berkeley (laughs). So the lesson here is we need to think in terms of the land use issues, and, once again, "are we going to have a compact, pedestrian oriented city that makes room for the creek openings, or are we going to continue with the land use patterns we have now?"

Strawberry Creek
Strawberry Creek Drawing by Richard Register

Berkeley citizens don't think of their town as a particularly sprawled community, but the reality is that one and two-story houses cover 90 percent of the city. They cover creeks, they are right up against small public parks and community gardens. The community gardens are over subscribed by four people to every one who gets a plot. There are lots of reasons to open up landscape here and get rid of a few of those little individual houses.

Recently, I've discovered that there is something called transfer development rights, or TDRs which could open up those creeks and gardens.

ECOTECTURE: What are transfer development rights, and how did you discover them?

RR: I read about them in a book called Saved By Development by Rick Pruetz, who has since been involved in (our Heart of the City) project (see below). In this legal, real estate maneuver (TDRs) the developer can buy the rights to develop at a particular site and then not develop there. Instead, he or she can transfer those rights somewhere else, and build something bigger (than would normally be allowed) at that new location and, therefore, make more money.

The original property is sold, and a deed restriction is attached to it from that time on. The seller gets the money but can no longer build there. No one can build there. In the meantime, if there is a height limit of, say, four or five stories at the new location, the developer might be able to use the development rights to build six or seven stories and make more money.

There's a very promising TDR program at South Lake Tahoe (in California.) Sixty buildings have been removed there-sixty small houses that were built in the sixties that created a lot of runoff into the lake, silting the lake and helping reduce its clarity. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency identified "stream environment zones" in which developers can buy and demolish buildings for a considerable bonus opportunity in a more appropriate location.

ECOTECTURE: So, for example, they could buy these buildings, they could demolish them if they want to...

RR: They have demolished them, 60 so far...

ECOTECTURE: They have demolished them. . . . and the incentive for them to do that is that they will be allowed to make a more profitable development elsewhere than they would have been allowed to do under the normal zoning restrictions.

RR: Exactly. In a place like Berkeley, for example, the developer would purchase the rights to develop a higher density project in the city center by purchasing a property over a creek and removing all "improvements." We are not talking about eminent domain and forcing people out. It's all strictly free market transactions.

I'd like to see my (Ecocity Builders) organization be able to purchase such property and sell its development rights to a developer. The original nest egg would come from concerned citizens and foundations interested in bringing the ecological or wildlife experience into cities again. When we sold the rights, we would be able to do the a similar transaction elsewhere.

There are many reasons to do it. In a place like Berkeley, the developer would be empowered to build more housing closer to transit. Housing would work better, energy would be conserved. In the more automobile dependent areas where the development rights are purchased, the "sending sites," an occasional house would disappear and a creek would grow longer by one property or a garden or park would expand a little from time to time. The transformation of the neighborhood probably would take generations, or at least decades. It would get quieter, instead of busier and nosier. Traffic would thin out. It seems like a wonderful deal, in my mind, for someone who wants to have a peaceful, surburban life close to the town center.

So, that is what I have been bringing to the City of Berkeley and putting forward to the City Master Plan people, City Manager, and City Council. It's getting an interesting reception, I'll say (laughs).


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