Ecotopia: The notebooks and reports of William Weston by Ernest Callenbach

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Posted 2007-06-02

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

You could dismiss it as a hippie pipe dream: free love, drugs, organic clothing, and government-guaranteed minimal subsistence payments. Or, you could look to its characterization, published in 1975, of: interconnecting local and regional transit systems, neighborhood retail stores, affordable housing, traffic calming, mixed use development, transit-oriented development, sustainable agriculture, broadcast of public affairs (sort of like C-SPAN), automated freight handling, comprehensive waste reduction strategies, intensive recycling, clothing made from advanced fibers, and--most of all--public policies that place people first.

Callenbach's world works on a small-scale, dispersed fashion with flexible, local organization and control. Rather than seeing the built environment as a series of megalithic monuments to the egos of the elites who build it, Ecotopia asks us to look to a world in which individual human beings matter and the fine-grained eccentricities of people are allowed to flourish.

Why look at a work of science fiction for ideas? The answer is this: precisely because fantasies have influenced the designs of the world we live in today, and many of the fantasies chosen previously have, unfortunately, been ones in which human beings are not placed first. For example, in Ideal Cities, Eaton shows fantasies of rationalist dogma that were influential in the urban disasters of the last half of the 20th century. This rationalism was adopted by architects and urban planners without question, based on no evidence, was without human precedent, and has produced a record of disaster that the world reels from now (Kunstler 1993, Kay 1997, Drew 1998, Davis 1998, Orum 1995, Norquist 1998, Duany 2000, Neuwirth 2005). In contrast, Ecotopia shows an imperfect world based on the human, non-rational, emotional, and even chaotic behavior that has been demonstrated by human beings throughout history (and will likely continue). The contrast could not be more stark. The rationalist being inhabiting Ideal Cities is not seen, does not have a life, and is doomed to transit, housing, and city layouts that seem designed to consume as much resources as possible. Ecotopian life, in contrast, is very conservative in its use of resources, supports individual freedom and entrepreneurship, fosters socially-responsible values, and embraces technological progress in the service of human needs.

The transit system of Ecotopia works seamlessly to support human mobility. Towns are each "centered on its own rapid-transit stop" and retail and other services in each town make it a "self-contained community" (p. 30). The arrangement of stations is such that you can "walk five minutes to your transit station, take a train within five minutes to a town ten stops away, and then walk another five minutes to your destination... [leaving behind] parking, traffic, and of course the pollution." (p. 30). The transit system includes:

It may be that its hippie sensibility turns people off to the very idea of some of the ideas of Ecotopia. Some may read this book as a paean to communism, communes, or government control, yet there is rigid social control inherent in the resource-intensive and automible-centric public policies of today. Callenbach's vision contains some violence and human relations that some may find troubling, but completely dismissing the choices Ecotopia imagines would be yet another tragedy on the altar of the false political dichotomies dragging down public policy decisions on the built and natural environment. Callenbach's world may be strange, but this is precisely the quality cities may shine best when supporting. I think Ecotopia is an important work because it shows an imaginative contrast to the rationalist urban planning and architectural approaches that have a record of failure.

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