Low-rise Urban Ecology - Click for Close-up
by Franklin Thomas
(Article first published in 1974)  

   Approximately seventeen percent of the world's present population is urban. If existing growth rates continue, by the end of this century the world will have a population of about six billion people - sixty percent of them living in cities. This means that in less than thirty years the earth will have an urban population equal to the total population of today. In a logical, rational manner how are we going to accommodate 3 billion new urban dwellers in the next 26 years?
    Canada, even with her vast land area and relatively small, concentrated population will not be immune to the critical and complex problems created by this massive growth. By the year 2000 over 90 percent of Canadians will inhabit less than 2 percent of our land mass - and one half, 17 million, could reside in only 9 centres, each with a population of over one million people. Within the next three decades Canadians will likely have to create more urban residences, more commercial and industrial facilities, more parks and recreational areas, more transportation, more power and other utilities than have been constructed in the entire history of our nation. It would be disastrous to continue through this enormous growth period by duplicating our present city forms.
    The lives of most of us in all of the large industrial cities daily crawls by in a polluted atmosphere of routine and frustration. These cities are constantly draining our psyches. Tension, hate, desperation, and sadness have distorted our faces as we wait for buses that never arrive on time, battle through dally traffic jams, and bump against each other on the obstacle courses of narrow sidewalks walled in by speeding cars. Crime is prevalent and perversion rampant, barely kept in check or forced underground by a police system that daily seems to be reaching the proficiency of the one described in George Orwell's book "1984".
    The credit card world, our jobs, our high rise apartments, our television, our governments and our standards of behaviour, have created the cages and padded cells in which we spend our lives monotonously pacing from cover to cover, living longer, getting fatter, and weekly depositing money in our savings account hoping for escape.

The city as an urban ecology

    Virtually every city on the crust of this planet is upsetting the delicate balance of our biosphere. The scientific evidence proving the above statement is conclusive - a fact beyond a shadow of a doubt.Click for Close-up We as Global Man have not yet constructed an industrialized city in harmony with nature. Transforming the human habitat into a workable, liveable, urban ecology is the greatest challenge facing mankind today.
    An urban ecology is a city in balance with nature. It does not pollute. It is easily assimilated by its surrounding natural environment. An urban ecology implies a complete, life-support city system, much Iike a space ship that gently lands upon the surface of the earth. Its urban technologies circulate through the arteries of a total recycling system - a closed machine in which all sewage, gasses, garbage, and chemical and material by-products remain forever enclosed within the system and re-used over and over again. Such technologies are not science fiction - they are real, and have already been partially developed by the N.A.S.A. Space Programme in the United States.

Man and his urban shell

    Understanding the direct relationship between our environment and our social behaviour is paramount to the designing of a new urban environment. We will find peace, security, and happiness only in an environment that stimulates our social responsibility. For the most of us, our closest environment Is the surrounding city shell - the physical container we live in. In the short history of man, it was only yesterday that we grew up surrounded by nature: plants, birds, flowers, trees, snakes, horses, bugs, grass and fish. Our bodies were moulded through millenniums of living with Nature. The colour of the sunset affects the colour of the forest - both affecting the colour of our minds. Nature is abundant with colour, and so must be our city shell.Click for Close-up
    Nature is alive, making sound as it lives and breathes. Most of nature's noise is quiet: the gentle rustle of the wind through the forest, the splash of a wave against a sandy beach, or the sound of a mountain stream rushing towards the sea. When Nature thunders crashes, or screams, our bodies automatically become tense. We are on guard; our serenity vanishes. In the industrial city our machines are constantly bombarding us with noise: roaring trucks, belching buses, 300 horsepower V-8 engines, screeching police sirens, and Boeing 747s blasting off at 6 a.m. For most of us it's inescapable; and after a few years, we don't notice what it has done to us. It is obvious that we need a quiet urban environment.
    Some people think that the city should be beautiful. In Montreal the government provides grants for the painting of murals on the bare sides of brick buildings. What is ugly must be made beautiful - a lot like symptomatic medicine. You're sick, experiencing pain, so you go to the doctor. She provides a cure - hopefully not just to kill the pain. To stop the symptoms without curing the cause is worthless and illogical. We must not follow this pattern of thinking when designing new cities. We must prevent problems before they occur. A structure that creates pain and ugliness must not be built in the first place.
    But what is ugly to one person can be beautiful to the next. Who in our new cities gets to say what is ugly and what is beautiful? It is simple. We must all get into the act of making the decisions of who builds what.
    Urban planning games have been developed at the University of Oklahoma. These have been tested in existing communities. Anyone in the city is invited to take part in the "game". There is a model of the town as a playing board with moveable pieces that are scale models of future developments.

    One person carved his initials in a large oak tree 15 years ago, and he refuses to allow the tree to be removed. Everyone agrees and the tree stays. Another thinks that a gasoline station's neon signs will shine in his window at night - the neon signs go, but the station is required because it saves a 20 minute drive into town. One housewife thinks the shape of Acme Inc.'s new warehouse is too square. The majority agree and suggest that Acme Inc. must find a more pleasing shape. Coffee and donuts are abundant and the townspeople are enjoying the learning experience. It's a game; it's fun; and they found that it works.Click for Close-up
    The results of the gaming tests showed that superior new towns were the result. Cultural interaction in the decision making process resulted in better cultural interaction in the city. Doctors, lawyers, architects, urban planners, truck drivers, farmers, sociologists, school teachers, factory workers, housewives, bankers, butchers, mechanics, students, philosophers, we need everyone of you to play the game for a better city. And if you don't bother to play the game at least once a month don't complain about an ugly, polluted city.

A quantum jump into a new age

    What are we waiting for? Let's do it. Let's roll up our sleeves and design and build a new city - a space ship city, wherein we can quantum jump into a new industrial age of living in equilibrium with the universe. Click for Close-upLet us first study, carefully, what has happened up to now.
    The ground of Borealis will be exclusively devoted to people. The air will contain the transportation system. We won't need internal combustion automobiles It will be the first time this has occurred since Henry Ford massClick for Close-up-produced cars at the beginning of the twentieth century. The city will have one exclusive transportation system: elevated Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) - probably the same type that will be in operation In Toronto next year. PRT is one to six passenger monorail vehicles that soundlessly whisk at speeds of up to 60 mph over electromagnetic force fields. Each PRT terminal is located in an urban cluster within a 6 minute walk from each residence.
    Our urban clusters are located at the intersection of two PRT lines except in the 'core" of the city where all moving arteries converge into a concentrated nucleus. These urban clusters will be similar to large present-day shopping centres like Sherway Gardens in Toronto or Fairview Shopping Mall in Montreal, except they will be more complete communities. In addition to retail commercial living space, we will design in a cross section of community services. Imagine Sherway Gardens in Toronto with schools, offices, day care centres, YMCAs, PRT terminals, libraries, nurseries, and whatever else we need .
    Borealis, as a City of the North, implies climate controlled public spaces for the long, dark, freezing months of Canada's winter. Our residents will be able to travel anywhere in the city during that season without wearing a coat. With the integration of hydroponics gardening throughout our inside spaces, we can create a veritable garden - a never ending succession of discoveries and perspectives. Living plants create oxygen from carbon dioxide becoming an integral segment of our total life-support city.
   Click for Close-up We begin Borealis with our Stage I Experimental Urban Module (see Total Urban Plan). It has a population of up to 5,000 persons and is a complete life-support system when completed. This is the Earth City Foundation's entry into the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements. It consists of two future PRT intersections (PRT is not economical for cities under 100,000 people). It is a live-in university; a 24 hour environmental experience. Along with modular cluster dwellings it has the complete cross section of university disciplines. Adding a community centre, cottage industries, day care centre, bazaar, hydroponics gardens, total recycling systems, and a winter garden complete with swimming pool, tennis court, sandy beach, and tropical gardens, the Research Centre becomes a complete mini-community. Located near a Provincial Park we can attract Tourists for skiing in winter and canoe trips in summer. We want it to become an example of one alternative to present cities.
    From our learning experience in the Stage I Experimental Urban Module (Research Centre) we expand with the construction of the central core, as well as adding on in the four directions of the continuous pedestrian malls. If we run into a mountain we leap-frog around it with PRT, thus altering the shape if the spirals. In the end, Borealis might not be a perfect circle. No doubt it will reflect the natural contours of the site. Bulldozing will be minimized. We have already scarred the earth too much. Very few trees will come down, The soft, natural carpet of the forest must remain intact. If we find that the forest is dying or the lakes and streams are aging, construction stops. We already know that Mother Nature can be pushed only so far before she pushes back.Click for Close-up
    As the city grows, she will attract industry. Naturally each industry will have to "fit" into the city's total recycling systems, so that nothing more than hot air (and we'll work on that) escapes. The industrial section is located in the direction of the prevailing winter winds so It somewhat heats the city in winter and is blown away in summer. It contains the northernmost high-speed MAGLEV (magnetic levitation) transportation terminal, heavy dotted line in the Total Urban Plan). With 300 mph trains to the Mother City, say Montreal or Ottawa, Borealis thus becomes a satellite city, and even with a one hundred and fifty mile green buffer zone between an existing metropolitan city, travel time is only 30 minutes by train - less than the time it presently takes to drive across Montreal by car.
    Borealis is electric; a quiet humming; the whisk of electromagnetic transportation; the whir of electric engines. Where are we getting this energy without polluting the planet? The answer is minimum energy architecture combined with soft technologies. The modular skin of Borealis will collect solar energy and convert it into power.
    We initially design the city to conserve energy - we don't need a cluster of commercial neon signs, lighted highways, countless doors open to the winter winds. We'll catch the wind with wind generators. Methane from our sewage will be collected and channelled into our industries. What remaining energy we need we'll tap from hydroelectric sources, only from small dams near the city. The environment can assimilate small dams with less than 2 mile reservoirs. The fish can climb spawning stairs. We won't need James Bay. In fact there is a lot of garbage that we just won't need in Borealis, and this means using less energy more efficiently and still maintaining a high technological standard of living. 

The future now

    We have just traveled from a completed Experimental Urban Module - Research Centre in 1976 to a finished satellite city of 150,000 people in the year 1985. Borealis sounds like a big project, but in perspective to our present growth rates, it is not. Borealis, when completed, is approximately only two-thirds of one year's growth in Canada.
    It is difficult, if not impossible, to fully explore the incredible potential of new cities in the short space of this article. Borealis is only one city form - there are hundreds of other possibilities. This has not been a science fiction story. All of these technologies now exist. We need now to organize, sort through the existing technologies, and combine them into workable alternatives.
Click for Close-up

    We have momentarily glimpsed into the future and seen a city - a city without pollution, noise, automobile accidents, large areas of sterile concrete, smog, prisons, traffic jams, and endless tangles of neon signs. A city, where we can settle into a quiet night's sleep knowing that our existence is part of a system consistently checking and balancing itself in a search for more harmonious alignment with the natural forces Nature. What are we waiting for?
    The factor that brings the future forward is our willingness to give up some of our day-to-day material and social pleasures and expend them for what the future has to offer. If we want a ski chalet in the country, we might have to buy a Volkswagen instead of a Cadillac. If we want an education, we might have to live in a dormitory instead of an apartment. And so it is with man's transfer into the new urban-ecological era. We have to roll up our sleeves and work for the convictions of our philosophy. A city starts with people - no other way. Until people become concerned and involved, change does not occur.
    The urban shells of cities throughout man's history have only reflected their level of cultural evolution. Our biggest task, therefore, must be to enlighten one another, to quest for knowledge in the hope of wielding it wisely for the benefit and evolution of global man. Perhaps Borealis, the living University of the North, will become an example of man in understanding with his Universe?

End of article 


    Webmaster's Note:  This is the text  and some graphics of an article that was written in 1974 and published in Universal Man Magazine.   It was part of an Educational Program developed by the Earth City Foundation for the 1972 Stockholm U. N. Conference on the Human Environment when the world was first discovering that their civilization was drastically altering Earth's Biosphere.  
     At the time a Science Council of Canada report indicated that many students were very pessimistic about their future.  The Program received notoriety in the media, because it showed people a sustainable, prosperous, and exciting future.  Later the Program received world acclaim at the 1976 Vancouver Habitat U.N. Conference on Human Settlements - the biggest U. N. Conference in history whose theme was Saving Planet Earth. [Link to History of the Borealis Educational Programme]
     A few hundred Collectors Copies of that issue of Universal Man Magazine (also including the first article ever written on the '76 Habitat Conference) are still available and are included with each new Peace Environmental Research Foundation Membership. [
Link to Foundation Membership Application]
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