A world tour of car-free cities, sustainable housing and gigantic ecological restoration projects that heal people and landscapes without austerity.
Some of the early feedback I've been getting on the show is that Edenicity is a great idea, but it's never going to happen: “People love their cars. People are slow to change the ideas too big, you're too small,” and so on, and so on and so on.
But look, this show is evidence driven. I'm anchoring every concept to projects that have already proven themselves for years, or even centuries, or to current projects by major innovators with amazing track records of success.
Three things that real places with high density all have in common are audacity, environmental ethics, and economic growth. Fortunately, such places exist. Today, I'll introduce you to some of them.
Cities designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Welcome to Episode 3, where I'll discuss the Edenicity of some real world projects.
Many environmental activists distrust giant financial and government institutions. Small is beautiful. The title of a 1973 book by British economist EF Schumacher has been a rallying cry and intuitive goto for lifestyle activists ever since. But what about big fast change? Could that be beautiful, too?
Loes Plateau, China
John D Liu's online film Lessons of the Loess Plateau answers this question with an emphatic "Yes!" China's Loess Plateau is an area the size of France with mineral rich soils up to 300 meters thick. For most of the 1.5 million years that people have lived there, it was lush and fertile. Its rich forests and grasslands could absorb and hold rainwater for over 100 days. Many of China's most prosperous dynasties including the Han flourished there. Gradually though, the region's fertility waned by 1000 years ago, most of the wealthy had fled. To make ends meet, locals had to graze their sheep and goats ever farther from home and scale the hillsides to cut firewood.
By the 1960s. The plateau was so barren that when it rained, 95% of the water ran off immediately without soaking in. Floods carved vast gullies and carried away so much silt that their outlet became known as the Yellow River. A permanent rotation of floods, droughts and dust storms hammered the region. In 1995, the Chinese government set out to reverse these trends in a 3.2 million hectare portion of the plateau. That's about the size of Belgium. It hired ecologists, economists and hydrologists from the World Bank and others other agencies to identify the land use practices that were or weren't working in the region.
After about four years, it had a clear strategy: reforest the hilltops, terrace the gullies, pen all of the grazing animals and allow farming only on relatively flat lands (I'll have much more to say about these practices in Episode 15).
At this point, many locals weren't happy. They stood to lose hillside farms and pastures their families had used for centuries, some 40% of the landscape. Never mind that these lands were now 90% bare. The project needed their cooperation to succeed and they weren't budging.
Two things brought them around. First, the government drew up contracts so that every parcel had a family to look after it, and every family had long term rights to use it. Second, the project hired the locals to survey and partition the land and then to implement the project. This provided full employment while it was underway: no handouts required. 10 years later, the region was lush and green again, and farm incomes had increased tenfold (two to three fold after adjusting for inflation). In Liu's film, it's amazing to see the transformation in the land and people.
John D. Liu has gone on to consult on similar projects in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Jordan. He's also opening a worldwide network of ecosystem restoration camps. I posted some links in the notes. Our big takeaway from the Loess Plateau project and the following projects elsewhere is that big can not only be beautiful, but it can be economically bountiful, as well, while restoring the landscapes to full health.
Now what about that other aspect of Edenicity, the dictum that there be no cars or car infrastructure? Can such places actually exist in the modern world? Well, in fact they already do.
For example, there's the island of aedra in the Greek Isles. This is a very popular tourist destination. And in fact, I was there in 1994. It was quiet, as you might expect, which was one of its main draws.
Mackinac Island, MI
The same can be said of Mackinac Island, Michigan, population 600 people with 20,000 seasonal visitors, which lies between the Upper and Lower Peninsula. I was hoping, actually for this broadcast to talk with Margaret Dowd, who's been mayor there since 1975. My questions included things like:
"What's it like living without cars? And what does that do to your sense of money? (I mean, you're saving a lot of money.) Your sense of time, your sense of convenience? What's it like having it be so quiet and clean? I'm wondering at what age are people mobile and able to travel on their own and visit with their friends? What's it like being a kid in a car free place? And without cars or trucks, I'm wondering how do people move house? How do you handle emergency services such as fire and ambulance? I wondered what the locals think of other cities with their cars and traffic, and for that matter what they think of rural areas with cars and traffic. I'm wondering about local food production on the island. And since most of the population of the island has visitors, I imagined that a higher portion of the meals are in restaurants and cafes, and whether this translates to less solid waste and more recycling per capita, including the visitors, and this would be a parallel to the farm to cafe culture in Edenicity. Anyway, I hope to bring Ms. Doud to the show in a future episode.
Now, Mackinac island has been car free since it was founded in 1780. But there's a much bigger, much older car free place. Just about everybody's heard of, and that would be Venice, Italy, population 262,000 people, which was founded 1500 years ago.
This is a city of footpaths and canals, but no streets and no cars. Venice was one of the major inspirations behind J. H. Crawford's book, Car Free Cities. A lot of what he's written about car free living boils down to his personal experiences in that city. So I would highly recommend that book for further reading.
Now, there are also hundreds of cities that have car free zones and car free days. And I've posted a set of links to those in the notes to this episode.
Culdesac, Tempe, AZ
And finally, there's Culdesac, a developer building a 1000 unit housing development in Tempe Arizona, that will be car free. And although I couldn't get them on for an interview for the show you Go to their website, I've posted a link in the notes. And it will tell you about their plans, which include having a small area for car sharing schemes such as zip cars. And the idea behind these is that you might have one car for every seven or eight families, but you get to have the car that you need when you need it. So when you need a pickup truck, there's a pickup truck, when you need a van, there's a van, when you need an economy car, one of those is available as well. And since you're getting around by rail, most of the time or by bike, for the most part, you don't need the cars except in those rare cases where you have a big trip or something big to haul. So I think you can see how Tempe's excellent public transit system, especially its rail, made their development possible. Anyway, they have really big dreams for the future. And I encourage you to check them out in the link that I provided with the notes to this episode.
Village Homes, Davis, CA
Beyond ecosystem rescue, at the large scale, and building completely car free, there's another subtler element to Edenicity which is best exemplified in the Village Homes subdivision built between 1975 and 1981 on 70 acres in Sun baked Davis, California.
When I visited Village Homes in 2017, it was a green oasis surrounded by brown and yellow farmlands, weathering in dry season. Village homes comprises 225 homes and 20 apartments. It was designed by Michael Corbett to build community and conserve energy and natural resources. The streets run east west and the lots run north south. This lets houses use passive solar designs to make full use of the sun's energy, which given how expensive photovoltaics and solar water heaters were in the 1970s gives you some idea of how pioneering the original residents were.
The streets are narrow, curving cul de sacs. They're about 7.6 meters wide with very few sidewalks. This is narrow enough so that all pavement is fully shaded by trees during Davis's hot summers. The main transportation in town, from what I could see, was pedestrian and bike paths that alternate with the streets running through common areas between the houses. These are generally lavish food gardens; people can snack their way through the neighborhood. According to the Village Homes website, which is linked in the program notes, most houses face these common areas rather than the streets, so that emphasis in the village is on pedestrian and bike travel rather than cars. Probably the most striking feature of village Homes is the natural drainage network of creek beds, swales and ponds through the common areas that allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground rather than carried away through storm drains. This drastically reduces the amount of irrigation and has built extremely rich soils.
Geoff Lawton, the famous Australian permaculturist, has commented on how incredibly sweet the peaches growing there are due to the quality of the soils that they've developed. According to Corbett, the cost of landscaping was far less than what it would have cost to build concrete storm drains. However, the town of Davis required the developers to post a bond for putting in the storm drains should the natural drainage fail. This did not prove necessary. The drainage network has held up all these years and even absorbed overflows from the rest of the town during floods.
When I was there, I was surrounded by a profusion of edible landscaping. According to the Village Homes website, fruit and nut trees and vineyards form a large element of the landscaping in Village Homes. More than 30 varieties of fruit trees were originally planted, and as a result, some fruit is ripe and ready to eat nearly every month of the year. I can vouch for that: the place was just the festooned with tangerines when I visited and they were delicious. The website continues: "In addition to the common areas between homes, Village Homes also includes two big parks, extensive green belts with pedestrian bike paths, two vineyards, several orchards, and two large common gardening areas. The commonly owned open land comes to 40% of the total acreage, 25% in Greenbelt and 15% in common areas, a much greater proportion than in most suburban developments. 13% of the developed land area is devoted to streets and parking bays, and the remaining 47% to private lots, which generally include an enclosed private yard or courtyard on the street side of the house."
Many of the houses were built by their owners using solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels long before these were popular or cheap. Houses were small with big shared yards.
Michael and Judy Corbett condensed their experiences into a book called Designing Sustainable Communities, published by Island press in the year 2000.
Green Neighborhoods Fetch a Premium
One of the things that really jumped out at me in that book was a comment on page 79 that "over a 20 year period, the community's reputation has changed from 'that hippy subdivision' to 'the most costly place per square foot to live in Davis,'"
That really struck a resonant chord with my own experiences in co-founding the Green Acres eco village in Bloomington, Indiana in 2007.
Now, you may recall that 2007 was just at the height of housing prices. That's when we bought: before the housing crash of 2008. And we were in the depths of the housing crash in 2010 when, unfortunately, we had to sell. To my great surprise, the house sold for 27% above market value when we left and we hadn't done anything particularly special. That left me wondering whether maybe the increase in value was because we were also in the process of rebranding the neighborhood as a eco village. We'll talk a lot more about Green Acres in Episode 23.
But still, I got to wondering if this was a fluke, or something that was generally true about neighborhoods that go green. So I looked up green neighborhoods in Mother Earth news and found developments in Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, Illinois, Virginia and Arizona. Then I compared their prices to surrounding neighborhoods and Zillow, and found that they were all more valuable than surrounding homes. I'll talk a lot more about that in Episode 24.
Today, I've identified three big trends that I think are not intuitive to traditional environmentalists.
First, that large scale ecological restoration is not only possible, but very desirable. (The thing I forgot to mention about the list plateau project was that it was very inexpensive to implement even in the context of China's economy.)
Second, that there's a huge growth in car free urban development throughout the world.
And third, that green residential development tends to fetch a premium price rather than being downmarket like a lot of people had previously assumed.
New green cities: a wide open niche
Now, it also turns out that there's a lot of new cities being planned throughout the world, because the UN forecasts that the urban population of the world is growing by 200,000 people a day every day from now through 2050. So that's a huge opportunity. Now, you might imagine that some of these new cities would incorporate these three elements (ecological restoration, being car free, and ecologically sound design). And sadly, you'd be mistaken.
When you go to the list of new cities that I put in the Notes for this episode, you'll see that none of them follow these principles at all. Even the greenest among them fall far short of the criteria that I've set for Edenicity. So the niche for what I'm talking about is wide open. The future, I think, will hold some really big surprises.
I read today that China is shipping used cars to Nigeria in a strategy to build a local market for car parts and maintenance. Smart leaders among the developing nations would do better to aim much higher. Technology dominates economic growth in the modern world. So to stay competitive, they should follow Apple brand guru Guy Kawasaki's mantra and jump to the next curve. This means at minimum, designing for the post car era.
Cities with high Edenicity will have much better access to services and people, which I'll discuss In Episode 12, a much lower cost, which I'll discuss in Episode 6, with much greater health and longevity, which I'll discuss in the next episode. By restoring their surrounding bioregion, Edenicity developments are better buffered against floods, droughts, and wildfires, as I explain in Episode 16.
Each of these factors will accelerate the city's economies relative to the rest of the world by several percent. Let's suppose that the combined total is 14%, though it could be a lot more. Maybe you've heard of the rule of 70 for how long it takes an asset’s value to double at a given appreciation rate. It's just 70 divided by the growth rate. If Edenicity's economies grow 14% faster than the rest of the world, that's the number of years it will take for prosperity in Edenicity to double compared with the rest of the world. Doubling times as small as five years are almost inevitable with bold Edenic design.
The Loess Plateau, Village Homes and other efforts only implemented a small portion of what's possible with Edenicity. And they saw phenomenal economic gains compared with their surrounding areas.
I'd love to see American Edenicity development, because I think the US still just barely has enough brand position to motivate the rest of the world to stop copying our car culture, if we make a sharp pivot now. But chances are the first Edenic cities will be built in the developing world, which doesn't have so much legacy infrastructure that can be so costly to abandon or replace.
If you thought the economic rise of Japan and Southeast Asia was fast after World War II, wait till you see what happens when Edenicity franchises get going in Africa, South America, and the former Soviet states. The early adopters could eclipse America's per capita wealth within 15 to 20 years unless my home country gets with the program now.
If you enjoyed Episode 3, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. If you haven't already done so, please visit the news link in Edenicity.com to download a copy of the reference design. And join me for Episode 4, when I'll discuss how going green can add healthy years to your life.
I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.