Atlantic Cities

Eerie Truths and Hard Lessons From a 1970s 'Ecotopia'

Eerie Truths and Hard Lessons From a 1970s 'Ecotopia'
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Twenty years after Oregon, Washington, and Northern California seceded from the U.S. to form the ecologically-focused nation of Ecotopia, a New York journalist visits the hermetic nation for the first time. He quickly notes the downshifted economy; all corporate capital that was remotely portable fled the new country at secession, but Ecotopians are content with a slower, humbler pace, including a 20-hour work week that halved incomes but doubled the number of jobs. He notes the friendly, laid-back culture. Despite his prejudice against the new state, he soon admits he’s having a good time.

But his first big shock is the Ecotopian city. Here’s what the new regime has done with San Francisco’s Market Street:

Market Street, once a mighty boulevard striking through the city down to the waterfront, has become a mall planted with thousands of trees.  The “street” itself, on which electric taxis, minibuses, and delivery carts purr along, has shrunk to a two-lane affair.  The remaining space, which is huge, is occupied by bicycle lanes, fountains, sculptures, kiosks, and … little gardens surrounded by benches.

The bucolic atmosphere of the new San Francisco can perhaps best be seen in the fact that, down Market Street and some other streets, creeks now run. … So now on this major boulevard you may see a charming series of little falls, with water gurgling and splashing, and channels lined with rocks, trees, bamboo, ferns.  There even seem to be minnows in the water …

This is the future of urbanism as Ernest Callenbach imagined it in his 1975 classic novel, Ecotopia. Private cars are gone, as you'd expect from Ecotopian planning, but what happened to all the transit? Here it is:

Scattered here and there are large, conical-roofed pavilions, with a kiosk at the center selling papers, comic books, magazines, fruit juices, and snacks. … The pavilions turn out to be stops on the minibus system, and people wait there out of the rain.  These buses are … battery-driven contraptions, resembling the antique cable cars that San Franciscans were once so fond of.  They are driverless, and are steered and stopped by an electronic gadget that follows wires buried in the street.  (A safety bumper stops them in case someone fails to get out of the way.)  … To enable people to get off quickly, during the 15 seconds the bus stops, the floor is only a few inches above ground level … These buses creep along at about 10 miles an hour, but they come every 5 minutes or so.

Doesn't this sound like an ideal street in an ideal city? Apart from some details of the minibus, this vision is almost identical to many of today's proposals to turn urban streets into pedestrian space. Even the transit – very pleasant and very slow -- reflects a popular strain of Disneyland-inspired urbanism espoused by architects like Darrin Nordahl, reflecting a conscious valuation of slowness that's become an important undercurrent in ecological thought. 

But this happy vision of Market Street is designed for a dying San Francisco, in a nation that plans to scatter its population to "minicities" of 50,000 or less.

What will be the fate of the existing cities as these new minicities come into existence? They will gradually be razed, although a few historic districts will be preserved as historic museum displays. … The land will be returned to grasslands, forest, orchards, or gardens.

Market Street can be a bucolic village green only because San Francisco itself is shrinking to village scale. A few pages later, a happy band of hunters arrives on Market Street (by minibus!) carrying a freshly killed deer. Urbanists take note! If you’re remodeling busy streets into village greens, and you want to integrate local eating into your design values, consider including communal butchering space. Be sure to provide drainage for the blood.

Nearly 40 years old, Ecotopia remains a powerful book on choosing an ecological life, partly because it’s an easy and lively read. To reread it now is to discover two essential things: First, what we know about ecological living has barely changed since the 1970s. Second, the contradictions in what we now call "sustainability" are as raw as ever – especially around the question of cities and their infrastructure.

Let's start with how little has changed. Most of what we know now about how to live "sustainably" is  laid out in Callenbach's book. Remarkably little of it sounds dated. We have newer buzzwords, but the technologies and concepts invented since 1975 are minor elaborations on a theme. Callenbach's Ecotopians oppose all processes and products whose production, use, or decomposition degrade the biosphere or are harmful to health. Like Bhutan, they have abandoned Gross Domestic Product, which values economic activity regardless of its destructiveness, and live instead for forms of joy and engagement that fit with our nature as finite creatures in a finite world. Most Ecotopian practices are exactly what we see promoted now for a happy and "sustainable" life: cycling, recycling, eating locally grown and recognizable food, and seeking energy from wind, sun, earth, and sea. The book purrs (like its minibuses) with these familiar guides to ecological virtue.

Callenbach's speculations about social organization will raise more eyebrows, though they are drawn mostly from other successful cultures. Households may contain a mix of blood-related families and friends, sharing duties including parenting. The society remains peaceful by creating vast space for safe but intense conflict. Arguments are considered spectator sports, where onlookers intervene only if they move toward violence. Ecotopians believe that younger men in particular need a certain amount of competition and risk; they have invented a mildly dangerous "war game" ritual for the purpose, also a spectator sport.

The most profound Ecotopian innovation, however, is the rule of the local. Taxes are paid to your town or region, which then forwards some of the revenue to the nation. Decisions are made as locally as possible, and all things giant – both corporations and governments – have been banned or minimized. The national government is small: a coordinator and inspirer rather than a ruler, making decisions only on the few things that must be done at national scale. National defense seems to be based mostly on bluffing, but the Second Amendment's "well-regulated militias" are a key part of it; people own guns for that purpose as well as for hunting. There are ideas here to excite a Tea Partier, not just an ecologist.

Ecotopians love competition but they want all companies to be worker-owned and no bigger than 300 employees. Government should not do anything that the private sector can do better with correct incentives, but they reach surprising conclusions about which functions are which. Mass transit, intercity and urban, is a government function because of the efficiency that arises from integrated networks and the need to manage big environmental impacts. Education, on the other hand, has been fully privatized into teacher-owned cooperative schools with tuition grants for low-income kids. Local schools compete vigorously for the parental dollar, with outcomes controlled by just a few standardized tests. Ecotopians figure out what works regardless of whether we would call their solution "liberal" or "conservative." Buzzwords rarely constrain their thinking, perhaps the most utopian of all their ideals.

Still, Callenbach can't dodge the question of cities, which forms the book's most enlightening contradiction. Most of today's urban theorists argue that cities use land efficiently, leaving more for agriculture and natural processes, even as they require big infrastructure and big organizations. Much of this infrastructure can be relatively sustainable, such as the electric infrastructure from dams that powers transit systems. You can question the ecological impacts of a city's construction, but the longer it lasts the smaller those impacts are compared to the benefits of its functioning.  

But the Ecotopians don't buy it. As they gradually downsize their big cities and move to much smaller and simpler ones, they express a value that we now find across the political and intellectual spectrum, from the market-driven ideals of Joel Kotkin to the post-petroleum visions of James Howard Kunstler. Can technology replace the kind of insight that arises from constant, surprising contact with the diversity of the human race – a thing that humans have always gone to cities for? Callenbach thinks so, but today the consensus leans toward no.

How can a flight into small communities not be a journey to parochialism? Was it really easy to route a national high-speed rail system through hundreds of local jurisdictions, all more sovereign than ours? The only possible answer is to view the ecological imperative as requiring a "war footing," generating the same presumptive support for national action that a major war requires. But as localism inevitably leads to divergence of local values, how long can that attitude be sustained?

We have the same ambivalence about cities today, and indulge similar kinds of confusion, never more than when talking about urban transportation. Speed and placehood are always in Mars-Venus conflict. You can create great places by banning speed, as on Ecotopia's Market Street, but unless speed is accommodated elsewhere, you're also banning the freedom that speed provides, the freedom that combines a bunch of villages into a city.

Ecotopia's Market Street (minus the dead deer) looks exactly like what many urbanists would design today. But today's San Franciscans also want to protect their one-to-three-storey residential landscape, so the city is growing denser mostly on its formerly industrial eastern edge. This lopsided density pattern will generate heavy east-west travel demand that may overwhelm the real Market Street of the future.

Do we want cities or don't we, and if we do, are we prepared to do what we need to do – including allowing corridors for high-volume movement, accommodating some bigness, and thinking about transportation as we think about land use – to make them work?

As we face these struggles, the simplified contradictions in Callenbach's dream can help us see the absurdity in our own. A gleaming high speed rail system delivers his hero through a transbay tube to an intimate, shrinking village called San Francisco. But real transbay tunnels and high speed rail require major cities to create the demand around their stations. Those cities need the big infrastructure of power and water and transit. That infrastructure may sometimes require cutting down some trees, accepting the impacts of a dam, building densely where somebody already lives, or creating space for efficient movement on a street that could otherwise have been a park, a creek, a kiosk, a gathering place. 

Fortunately, the West is vast. There's room for city and town, bigness and smallness -- just not in exactly the same place. So what do we want, really?

Top image: Pablo Scapinachis /Shutterstock.com

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit planning and policy. He writes the blog Human Transit and is author of the book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. All posts »

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