Art Cities

Ecocities Illustrated: The Art of Richard Register

Written by Sven Eberlein

2010ecocitydreaming_02I truly believe that art and creativity must play a vital role in inspiring the ecological changes we need to see in this world. 350’s Earth Art project goes to the very core of that, and it’s been amazing to see how powerfully this artistic approach to climate change has resonated around the world. And while it’s wonderful to see the efforts by artists and musicians to inspire politicians, policy makers and planners to envision and enact more sustainable ways of living, the only thing even better than that is when our politicians are musicians, our policy makers are poets, and our city planners are artists.

2010ecocitydreaming_04In the latter case, we need to look no further than Richard Register, brilliant and unwavering ecocity pioneer, whose work I have admired and followed since my first college Urban Ecology class back in the late 1980s. Aside from being one of the world’s great theorists in ecological city planning and four decades of on-the-ground experience activating local projects, Richard is a ridiculously talented artist who has used his creative juices to illustrate his vision for more livable and sustainable city design since he first met legendary Italian architect Paolo Soleri at the tender age of 21.

This might explain why I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about the mere possibility of a book being published. Ecocities Illustrated: A book on ecocity design is currently in its final design stage, and through a creative new approach to community-funded educational projects, Richard and Ecocity Builders are seeking to raise funds to enable him to finish his ecocity design sketch book. As a fun little side note, one of my solo guitar tracks, Sventimental Journey, was picked as the background canvas to Richard’s potpourri of ideas and drawings:


Richard coined the term “ecocity” about 35 years ago and has been steadily amassing a repertoire of sketches that seek to explore and describe the concept and design approach. The book will highlight about 150 of his original ecocity related drawings, both color and black and white. In fact, I’m the proud owner of one of his original early sketches that are part of the video and will be in the book — I snatched it up at a recent fundraiser for Ecocity Builders.


The sketches are arranged according to topic, including whole cities, plazas, transport, natural features, mapping, ecocity fractals, basic principles and strategies for communicating, among others. One thing I love about Richard is that all of his ideas for designing car-free cities aren’t Utopian fantasies but always backed up by concrete plans on how to make existing city infrastructures more pedestrian-friendly. From daylighting a creek and creating a pedestrian plaza in downtown Berkeley to developing a comprehensive international set of standards evaluating cities’ progress towards becoming ecocities, Richard is a hands-on guy. On any given weekend you may find him in Kathmandu working on sanitation, rainwater harvesting, and urban agriculture projects, or riding his bike to Codornices Creek in Berkeley, telling the story of how he liberated the creek from its concrete tunnel over 15 years ago, restoring native plants and starting the process of opening up and reshaping the city landscape.


ecocity-creek-richard register

The fact that a guy like Richard has to have a pledge drive to raise $3500 just so he can finish a book shows that we still have a long way to go in getting our priorities straight. It’s like that old bumper sticker, “It will be a great day when the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” All too often the stale old thinking that puts the car at the top of the transportation food chain and promotes suburban sprawl is still systemically rewarded, while those who’ve been imaginatively and diligently working on real solutions to our unsustainable fossil foolish ways are left standing on the sidelines.

However, the beauty of visionary artists is that they will carry on in their creative endeavors, because the motivation to explore life and all its possibilities comes from a deeper place not tied to the latest trends, societal rewards, or monetary interest. Safe for the most ignorant climate zombies and eternal oil supply dreamers we all know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity. If we’re really serious about addressing the multitude of ecological problems the planet is facing, we’ve got to focus more attention on our cities, where 70% of the world population resides. And who better to turn to than Richard Register, who — to borrow and tweak another famous quote — has been drawing the change he wishes to see in the world for over 35 years.


About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • People like Richard must feel like a tsunami is imminent and he’s standing on the beach. What is so moving is that he works his inspiration in spite of a world set in its destructive ways.
    Aren’t there eco-companies for whom $3500 would be a dot on their ledger, especially those in eco-construction? Talk about exasperating!

    • Yes, it’s amazing how much money is out there that gets spent on perpetuating the same ways of thinking that created our problems in the first place. Sometimes it almost borders on absurd that you have folks like Bill Gates who have more money than they know what to do with, and someone like Richard has to asking for nickels and dimes just to get his amazing ideas out there. Ha, maybe… Bill? Are you reading this? Now there’s an idea… 😉

  • Looking for Richard Register (Sculptor) who built amazing sand castles on California beaches during the Vietnam war. I think he stared the “No war toys movement.”