Q&A with Richard Register
What could prevent the disastrous debacle you fear?
We need to learn how to get a sense of proportion and how to prioritize. We have been building with no sense of proportion. Take a human body: if your eyes were hooked to the bottom of your feet, you won’t be able to see. If you attempt to build a community with the pieces scattered all over, it won’t work.
And if you can’t prioritize and you have no sense of proportion, you’re lost in a swirl of detail that goes nowhere. We end up making bad decisions or pursuing things that are not helpful. For instance, energy-efficient cars are bad when you look at them closely. The Prius is not a very good car, but even if it were, it contributes to sprawl.
In New Orleans, people are building new houses with some green features. But they’re still single-family homes out where they’re dependent on cars—and where they’re below sea level and need levees to protect them. Everything points to the fact that we’re very, very late in the game. We don’t have time to keep doing it wrong, yet we continue to do things that are really bad. We don’t rezone cities for pedestrian zones or to prevent sprawl.
Since I came to Berkeley in 1974, there’s been very little change in land-use policy. We have not rezoned Berkeley in the critical way that would shift density into city and neighborhood centers.
If you were monarch of the Bay Area, what would you do?
I wouldn’t want to be a monarch. But if I were providing some basic thinking that people were adopting, I would find centers of towns and cities that are the most lively already and develop them to be very pedestrian-friendly and close to transit. On these new, dense structures, I would include lots of terracing and rooftop gardens. So about a third of the Bay Area would be growing in population, and about two-thirds would see buildings disappearing along creeks, next door to community gardens, on ridgetops. Ridgetops are important because wildlife moves along ridges; they help maintain a high level of biodiversity, as do creeks. So you’d take that investment and shift it to town: expand gardens throughout the city and restore ridgetops and marshes and shorelines.
Oakland has already identified its lively neighborhood centers: there are about a dozen scattered around town. There’s a strong residual from the days when our cities were pedestrian and we had transit from neighborhood to neighborhood. We could modernize to run on building materials we have now.
There used to be a logic inherent in our building policies. In New Orleans, the old sections are built on higher ground. In Berkeley we grew along Strawberry Creek. But our logic became contaminated by very cheap energy. Gasoline is incredibly powerful stuff. And after peak oil it’s liable to become unavailable.
I’ve been involved in creek restoration since 1980. Since then there’s been almost zero progress in Berkeley in terms of creeks. People are afraid to deal with shifting population densities or engaging in battles with so-called NIMBYs. The assumption is that people like the way Berkeley looks and want to keep it that way.
What can change this picture?
A really crucial thing that is a positive is climate change. In Al Gore’s movie (An Inconvenient Truth), he’s showing us weak things to do about it. Driving less is good. But you need to drive a whole lot less. He wants people to actually do something, and he has this attitude that Americans won’t do much of anything. But if people get the attitude that changing light bulbs is doing something, they’ll stick with that. We need to do difficult things.
We need smaller, taller cities. Eventually four-fifths of the land area around the bay could be opened up. We’d live in an environment that looks more like European cities but is a lot more interesting, with bright neighborhood centers coming to life.
How would these centers be supported?
It’s all a matter of proportion. Areas or towns might specialize in value-added technology and ship it off in energy-efficient trains. Gardens and farms can cover a fair fraction of your needs, and then you might import in another 40 percent. My vision for the Central Valley is that half goes back to natural swamp and half to agriculture. We should start evacuating some cities that are there. You want to consider proximity and get the heaviest stuff locally, like building materials. Except for steel. Instead of putting steel in cars and freeway off-ramps, we should be building steel structures. If you keep it from rusting, it’ll last for hundreds of years. That way you really are investing in a long-term, energy-efficient future.
In Berkeley, we had a vision for transfer of development rights. For instance, people who owned properties along Strawberry Creek could sell to a land trust. Developers pay into the trust in order to build a higher building downtown. We got a grant to show what we’d need to open up Strawberry Creek one or two buildings wide from downtown to the bay. In 2002, it was $26-$31 million. These things are doable.
It’s not a mitigation, it’s a win-win strategy: the creek wins, downtown wins. We brought this to the City Council, backed by 103 organizations, and Kris Worthington, Donna Spring, and Linda Maio voted against it anyway.
Linda Maio’s answer is to get federal funding to put in subsidized housing. So then you have a token number of low-income housing. Why not allow higher density downtown and near Ashby? Both ways make sense, but you get more housing the other way. And along with it you bring in transfer development: creeks, community gardens.
Human beings constitute 100 times the biomass of anything in our size category in the history of the planet. When you factor in all our development and our things, we probably account for 1,000 to 10,000 times the impact of anything that’s ever been on our planet. We need to structure the city so it doesn’t demand so much.