Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for Healthy Future

Ecocity Berkeley by Richard Register was published 1987 by North Atlantic Books of Berkeley.  Register grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico with an architect father, moved to California and in 1965 and started a wing of the peace movement called No War Toys.  The same year he met Paolo Soleri. By 1974 he had decided the impacts of cities upon the planet were so grave, yet had the potential to be so positive – a major theme in Soleri’s work – that he gave up the practice of tactile art and turned his attention to "ecocity" architecture and urban design.  Ecocity Berkeley was revolutionary in its vision to not only densify urban neighborhoods, but to liberate vast areas of natural and agricultural land from asphalt and lawns. This book coined the term "ecocity" and many of the architectural, landscape and urban planning ideas espoused in the book have since become familiar around the world.


Ecocity Berkeley

Ecocity Berkeley was written to demonstrate key urban design concepts by examining how one might re-envision the city of Berkeley 125 years into the future.  By applying ecological principles to determine a future urban form, Register then integrated architectural detail to optimize energy efficiency and social interaction.

Building on the evolutionary and ecological principles of philosopher Teilhard de Chardin and architect Paolo Soleri, and influenced by Berkeley’s 1979 Integral Urban House, Register began exploring a scenario for future healthy cities. In drawings and text he examined shifting infrastructure from car-dependent "scatterization" to compact pedestrian, bicycle and transit systems. City centers, district centers and neighborhood centers could become ecocities, ecotowns and ecovillages while nature allowing agriculture and natural landscapes to return to newly uninhabited land.

While much of Ecocity Berkeley explored urban design at regional and city scale, drawings in the book featured fine-grained architectural concepts based on solar gain, mixed-use buildings, and social interaction -- always with an eye toward eliminating sprawl-promoting automobiles and creating wildlife corridors and zones. Rejecting Corbusien housing blocks and parks, Register sought to maximize integrated uses (housing, commercial, industrial, agricultural and recreational) while optimizing views, renewable energy production and the pleasures of the city.


Implementation in Berkeley

From integral urban homes to integral neighborhoods, many of the concepts articulated in Ecocity Berkeley have since come to fruition, such as connecting buildings via bridges, rooftop gardens, community gardens proximate to residential areas, and daylighting creeks. Bicycle paths and bicycle rental programs are proliferating worldwide.

Not content to simply theorize, Register often took his concepts to the street.  In the 1993 photograph he is seen working with community members to "depave" a west Berkeley parking lot and sidewalk on the corner of 10th and University to create an urban garden for a homeless transitional program. 



Bay Area creeks have served as a focus for communities since the earliest human habitation. Twentieth century development sought to contain and channel creeks through culverts but had the consequence of destroying ecosystems, driving away wildlife, and threatening species such as salmon by removing their natural environment. Register was involved in the "re-naturalization" of a number of East Bay creeks.

In 1981 Berkeley became known nationally for being the first city to open a long-buried urban creek. Strawberry Creek was daylighted in central west Berkeley and waste concrete used to shore up its banks.  In 1989 Berkeley enacted the Preservation and Restoration of Natural Watercourses Ordinance. Later, in 1994, Register and 375 volunteers turned their attention to a block long section of University Village’s Cordornices Creek along the Berkeley/Albany border.


Heart of the City

From earlier de-paving and creek restoration efforts, Register and the newly formed 501(c)3, Ecocity Builders, sought to influence downtown Berkeley development promoting urban densification and increased integration of uses.  In ecocities, arrangement of functions is crucial and strives to operate "like a complex living organism."

Numerous concepts articulated at conferences from 1988-1998 on the Heart of the City project are echoed in Berkeley’s current downtown plan, but Register ultimately grew frustrated at Berkeley’s unwillingness to daylight Strawberry Creek downtown after a decade of work.



Turning his attention to neighboring Oakland, Register explored earlier concepts in the context of that city’s watershed and Lake Merritt.  Prior to the construction of the east span of the Bay Bridge, he suggested adding cantilevered bicycle paths to bridges.

Four-story height limits favored by many preservationists and New Urbanists made little sense to him, so he illustrated the limitation by removing the top of the Claremont Hotel. In attempts to illustrate change through time, Register sliced Oakland diagonally into past, present and future. And, for Mills College, he envisioned another creek restoration and a real town "downtown" on the campus.


San Francisco

Exploring the natural form of the city, wind patterns and re-naturalization, Register also examined ecocity concepts as they might apply to San Francisco.  Note the attention paid to enhancing the topography of the city, greening the densified built environment and recognizing the bay as the predominant natural feature.

The theme of cities needing to be a three- rather than two-dimensional structures is especially evident in cities with widely varying topographic features.  By increasing density, diversity and adding bridges the existing city can be linked internally for increased "pedestrian permeability" and transformed into an ecocity.


New Orleans and Detroit

Looking east, ecocity concepts were applied to the environmentally and economically ravaged cities of New Orleans and Detroit.  Katrina and massive de-industrialization provide opportunities for each city to implement densification and restoration of natural features to address climate and economic transformations. The physical devastation and vulnerability in both cities cries out for new solutions.



Numerous international speaking engagements have taken Register to 36 countries and allowed him to explore ecocity concepts such as keyhole plazas worldwide. Here we see design strategies and ecocity detailing intended to enliven the environment -- both "green" and social/cultural.



Register’s 2002 book Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature and a pirated version of Ecocity Berkeley were translated into mandarin and provided the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development a conceptual framework for espousing ecocities as an urban form.  By national policy, China is developing more than a dozen "eco-cities" including Tianjin Eco-city, for which several of these drawings were sketched.



As awareness increased about the impacts of climate change and sea level rise, Register’s coined the term "ecotropolis" to better explain his design interventions at the regional level.  His 2016 works, Ecocities Illustrated and World Rescue: An Economics Built on What We Build further develop the design and economic basis for cities and regions organized around a fundamental respect for our inherited natural environment and economic systems that support human activity.

An amusing image brings the space age down to earth in ecocity form to make the point that "we need to get it together down here first."