By Peter Berg *
There is an undeniable and urgent new reality concerning the
relationship between human beings and our planet. We have become aware
that the ways we live are seriously affecting the rest of life. With
increasing environmental catastrophes such as worldwide pollution, global
warming, extinction of species, over-population, and destruction of
natural habitat, it is necessary to actively undertake ecological
sustainability in order for our own species and other life forms to
survive. At the same time, cities are increasingly becoming the most
populous sites where people live, and will become even more numerous and
crowded in the future.
The vision of making cities ecologically sustainable should have a
foundation in ecology itself. To accomplish this, "greening"
must mean much more than just having parks with grass and trees, picking
up trash in the streets, or other measures that simply make city life more
pleasant. Cities must be seen as intersecting with natural systems in all
of the basic functions and activities of urban life. Urban areas must be
reconceived so that they can assume a responsible and harmonious position
in the actual web of life that is Earthís biosphere.
The most useful starting place for this transformed view of a city is
to recognize the particular bioregion in which it is located. A bioregion
is defined by the unique natural characteristics that occur throughout a
particular geographic area, such as climate, landforms, watersheds, soils,
native plants and animals, and other features. Every bioregion also
includes human activities that should be carried out to join with these
features in sustainable ways. Human inhabitation should be an interactive
part of the ongoing life in a place. Bioregions differ greatly from each
other, such as the contrasts between a coast on the ocean, a rain forest,
an interior desert, or the Arctic Circle. Because of these vast
differences bioregions require different ways for societies and
individuals to relate to them in order for life to be sustainable. The way
people live in New York, Beijing, Tokyo, or Berlin should reflect the wide
bioregional variations that exist between the places where these cities
In order to plan, design, build, or direct human communities in ways
that will achieve bioregional sustainability, we must consider the
preservation of natural systems that are native to the place to be the
basis for successful human inhabitation in it as well. People are
ultimately dependent on the life of the place where they live. This isnít
an incidental aspect of human life but instead must be adopted as a
central and primary social fact.
The Bioregional Approach
The basic goals of a bioregional approach are as follows:
- restore and maintain natural systems,
- develop sustainable means for satisfying basic human needs
such as food, water, energy, shelter, resource materials, waste
handling, and cultural information,
- create and support a broad range of activities which make it
possible to fit better into the life-place.
These goals need to be attained in all human communities, but cities
are especially important because of their large human populations and
significantly high consumption level of resources. Restoring and
maintaining natural systems in a cityís bioregion is an urgent problem
in both industrialized and developing countries and should get a high
priority. An example would be rehabilitation of Tokyo Bay by restoring
native ecosystems of aquatic plants and animals. Developing sustainable
means for supplying human needs will require becoming as bioregionally
self-reliant as possible rather than importing necessities of life, and
recycling all wastes rather than creating refuse dumps and pollution.
Creating and supporting ways to fit into the life-place needs to be done
in a great number of ways ranging from encouraging small local businesses
that recycle materials to reviving seasonal festivals.
Initiating Bioregional Sustainability
Here is a guide for starting the transition to achieve bioregional
sustainability in any city. It covers main areas of human needs and
community functions, and lists examples of basic policies and actions
which need to be undertaken.
- Support development of small-scale agriculture by individuals and
groups, within the city as well as in surrounding rural and suburban
areas. Create open spaces for gardening within city neighborhoods,
renovate former manufacturing and storage spaces for growing food,
build structures for rooftop and balcony gardens.
- Initiate public programs to actively involve adults and school
children in growing some of their own food. Provide gardening
facilities, tools and equipment for use by all private citizens.
- Restore water purity of nearby rivers, creeks, lakes, wells, and any
other local means for providing fresh water.
- Reuse filtered grey water (used once previously for light purposes
such as washing clothes or bathing) a second time for heavy uses
including flushing toilets, cleaning buildings, and watering
landscapes. Develop dual water piping systems for pure and grey water
in offices and homes.
Convert garbage collection
and disposal into a recycling agency to separate and distribute reused
Designate organic material
from markets, restaurants, and households to compost facilities that
create soil for agriculture.
Treat liquid waste by biological means for use in irrigating parks
and other public uses.
Compost solid wastes to create soil for agriculture, park and garden
plants, and individual garden use.
- Produce electrical energy locally through non-polluting renewable
means including wind, solar, water currents, and so forth.
- Construct rooftop solar collectors to provide hot water for office
buildings, factories, and residences.
- Reconstruct and retrofit all buildings (offices, manufacturing, and
residences) to conserve energy through efficiency devices, insulation,
and other means.
- Renovate building designs to utilize construction features that
provide cooling (rather than relying solely on electricity powered air
- Mandate use of some portion of locally recycled materials in
production of goods and construction projects.
- Use low-cost loans, tax reductions, and low rent public facilities
to encourage new sustainability oriented companies that use recycled
materials (solar collectors, park benches from recycled wood, etc.).
- Emphasize use of local, sustainably derived resources and materials
whenever possible. Require replacement of natural resources that are
consumed (restored fisheries for fish caught, new tree plantings for
each tree cut, etc.). Assign precedence for using locally produced
goods for public purposes.
- Convert public and government vehicles to use renewable
means of energy such as solar-produced electricity.
- Encourage greater use of alternative energy in private transportation
through lower license fees for non-fossil fuel automobiles and trucks.
Limit private automobile use to only major highways and streets, and
prohibit their use in downtown areas. (Rebuild downtown streets as
- Teach bioregional information and sustainability as required
subjects at all levels of local schools and universities.
- Develop public sustainability information for citizens in public
places such as agency offices, libraries, bus stops, etc.
- Create celebrations, public art projects, identification markers for
natural features, and other cultural information about natural
- Redesign parks and open spaces as habitats for ecosystems of plants
and animals using wild places as models. Develop municipal nurseries
for growing indigenous plant species. Use local native plants and
trees whenever possible in public parks and landscaping
- Develop corridors between existing parks and open spaces by
acquiring land currently occupied by buildings.
- Adopt sustainability principles and goals as the central purpose for
considering land use, construction, zoning, development, and other
planning decisions by city and surrounding local governments.
- Assign a priority status for sustainability goals in all aspects of
city management and operation.
Some of these recommendations may seem familiar but they possess a
major distinction from typical environmental proposals for urban areas.
When measures such as recycling or renewable energy are usually undertaken
they are seen as serving only a few purposes. For example, recycling is
perceived as a way to reduce landfill fees or other disposal costs, and
alternative energy measures are a way to reduce air pollution from fossil
fuels. However, from a bioregional perspective these policies and actions
are means for providing sustainability for both natural systems and human
communities while creating local self-reliance. They can relate to the
whole bioregional complex of life.
An Example of the Bioregional Approach to Ecological City Planning
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador is a small-size Pacific coastal city of less
than 50,000 population that has initiated a by-law to transform itself
into a bioregional Ecological City. The cityís Ecological Plan was
developed with a bioregional approach that is rooted in harmonizing with
local natural systems. These include Pacific Ocean influences (storms,
currents, tides, sea and estuarian life forms, etc.), equatorial seasonal
conditions, winter-wet summer-dry climate, the Rio Chone river watershed,
clay soil, and dry tropical forest plant and animal ecosystems.
The Recycling Plan was initiated through a project that composts
household wastes to make soil for growing gardens and fruit trees for
participating residents, and to provide material for public parks and
gardens. (In Bahia de Caraquez organic waste of this kind constitutes
fifty per cent of all garbage collected, a much higher and more
significant percentage than in industrial societies.) Begun to serve a
small neighborhood, composting of organic household wastes is now being
expanded to include the whole city and surrounding communities. The entire
plan will eventually include glass, plastic, paper, metals, and all other
household and business refuse.
The city was struck by two natural disasters in 1998. Rainfall from a
severe El Nino continued throughout the entire year causing hills to
collapse in mudflows, and in the late summer there was a 7.2 Richter Scale
earthquake that leveled many buildings over a few stories high. A major
part of one of the hardest hit city neighborhoods had sixteen deaths and
thirty or so homes completely destroyed by mudflows. To keep this area
from eroding in future rains, it was replanted using only native grasses,
bushes and trees. Local people were employed in growing seedlings and
The area was next declared a park named Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas
(Forest in the Midst of the Ruins) and steps leading into it were built
using only recycled materials. Paths were made through the area and
markers were installed to identify plants.
A self-guided tour pamphlet was printed for use by both local
residents, schools and visitors. Children who live nearby are receiving an
environmental education using the park as an example.The neighborhood
people have created an association to maintain and guide people through
the park. They erected a large sign pointing in its direction and are
developing plans for a museum and other instructional means to teach about
the ecology of the bioregion.
Since the park was completed revegetation activities to reduce erosion
have gotten underway in most other neighborhoods. A much larger project
has begun to revegetate hillsides for six kilometers along the river in a
suburb leading into the city. It will reduce erosion with native fruit
trees that can also be a source of food and economic. The examples of
composting garbage and revegetation can be undertaken in any city and show
how directly involved people can become with restoring and maintaining
natural systems while creating human benefits.
Bahia de Caraquez has plans for a biological sewage treatment system
that will use wastes to create habitat for native plants and animals.
There is also an extensive renewable energy proposal to construct
facilities to provide hot water from solar rooftop collectors and
electricity from local renewable sources.
The bioregional approach is intended to simultaneously include many
aspects of the natural and human life in a community. It will have a
different emphasis depending on the conditions and location of the place.
In Japan, the city of Aomori occupies its own bioregion that is separate
from that of Osaka in the south even if they are both on Honshu Island.
The bioregional approach to ecological planning for these two urban
centers should stress the different conditions in each place. Creating a
sustainable bioregional city requires active participation by both
government agencies and private citizens. Involvement of everyone is
necessary for the ecological survival and success of future human
*Peter Berg is the Director of the Planet Drum
Foundation, Box 31251, San Francisco, Shasta Bioregion, CA 94131.