There’s a lot happening. A lot has happened. And some time soon I really must get a round toowit.
There’s a lot happening. A lot has happened. And some time soon I really must get a round toowit.
I’m an architect, my doctorate is in environmental studies and I’m a climate tragic. I believe that tackling climate change should be the number one priority of every thinking person on the planet – and that the obstructionist behaviour of climate denialists and their corporate backers is irresponsible to the point of criminality; so if you are one, don’t expect me to dignify your contrarianism with any kind of polite response.
But what would an architect know about climate? Who am I to be talking about it?
I was born when the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was about 311 ppm (which is why my twitter handle is PFD311) and by the time I was in high school (Wells Blue Grammar School in Somerset, England) I was designing houses that turned to follow the sun. I joined my first environment group a long time ago, in 1970 or thereabouts (it was called Abacus, but I always wanted to call it Googol, after the name for the insanely big number that inspired Google a quarter of a century later).
I was respectably ‘alternative’ at university (the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff, Wales) and was strongly attracted to what were then the more radical ideas about architecture and city making. I was a big fan of the inimitable ‘Street Farm’ and had a ‘Soleri’ phase for about 6 months as a student in 1973 (I told Paolo Soleri that when I was fortunate enough to have a meeting with him in 1990, cheeky bugger that I am, but I’m hoping that he can forgive me from whichever part of the heavenly firmament he now inhabits and in my 2009 book ‘Ecopolis: Architecture and cities for a changing climate’ I tried to fully acknowledge his absolutely critical role in birthing the idea of ecological cities).
I seemed to have been obsessed with climate from early on, and at the age of twenty-one wrote a paper called ‘Climate consciousness as a counter-cultural imperative’ in which I concluded that progressive social change was an essential pre-requisite to creating an ecologically viable and fully climate-responsive architecture.
That conclusion has stayed with me. If anything, it’s hardened over the years and the insanity of denialism has reinforced every reason I ever had for seeing human culture as both the problem and solution for creating a liveable planet.
My first full-time architectural position was in 1979 working for local government in the coal-mining valleys of South Wales. I traveled two hours a day by train reading – believe it or not – scientific papers on climate change.
At the time the coming new ice age was a popular topic and I even had some brief correspondence with Nigel Calder who was then its main advocate – but the more I read, the more it seemed to me that a human-induced warming would over-ride the ‘historical’ cooling patterns that were caused by the Earth’s orbit and inclination. The evidence was in the carbon dioxide measurements from Moana Loa and it seemed to me not insignificant that the drivers for climate change research seemed to be coming from the military and were based on concerns about international security. I’ll write some more about this in future blogs.
From the Middle East to Oz
To cut a long story short, I went with my family to the Middle East and spent 2 years teaching architecture in the unfamiliar, but hospitable climate, of Jordan – where they don’t have oil wells and the landscape has been shaped by city-making for thousands of years.
My family and I came to Australia in 1984. There were five of us.
In 1987 I published an article in the local architectural journal (which was edited and run by David Ness (now Dr Ness) and was at that time full of content rather than designers’ spin), here in South Australia, on the ozone hole and its implications for architecture (air-con and CFCs). I don’t think anyone noticed at the time (and I used the wrong acronym for CFC!) but it was my first foray into writing about climate in the public domain. Later on, in recognition of my writing about the impact of the ozone hole on Australia, in 1992 I was honoured to share an Environmental Journalism Award with Gar Smith, editor of the Earth Island Journal.
In 1988 the Hawke government’s Commission for the Future ran a national video-linked conference – ‘Greenhouse ‘88’ – and I made my first public presentation on architecture, cities and climate change. It went very well indeed – my first experience of floor stomping and cheering in response to a slide show!
The fantastic reception helped lead to the creation of one of the world’s first community organisations focussed on the issue of global warming. There were a number of people involved in that and I’ll write more about it in future blogs. We introduced ‘The Greenhouse Declaration’, an initiative that cut across political party boundaries, and a couple of years later we ran a national conference ‘Greenhouse 91’.
We focused on the built environment, which was quite an innovation back then, and within a couple of years I was speaking internationally. Meanwhile, I carried on working on the ideas of ‘ecopolis’.
Ecocity conferences and walking on the moon
Invited by ecocity pioneer Richard Register to speak at the First International Ecological City Conference in April 1990, I made the front page of the Berkeley Voice with the headline ‘Cities of Boiling Frogs’ – sat between the sixth astronaut to land on the moon, Ed Mitchell, and the founder of Friends of the Earth, David Brower. Another ovation had me convinced that this was the work I needed to be doing.
After I returned to Australia, a number of us concerned citizens, brought together by GASA, went on to create Urban Ecology Australia Inc, inspired, in part, by the energy of the First International Ecological City Conference held in Berkeley, California by Richard Register & his cohorts (Richard published the first book to have ‘ecocity’ in its title, back in 1987).
UEA convened the Second International EcoCity Conference in 1992 in Adelaide, South Australia. It brought together delegates and speakers from twenty-two countries and received a powerful supporting letter from a certain Senator Al Gore. To those of us who knew who he was, and about his work on trying to raise awareness of climate change and his superb book ‘Earth in the Balance’, that letter was magic.
At that ground-breaking conference, held at the Hilton International in downtown Adelaide and expertly organised by my wife and partner Chérie Hoyle, I presented the Halifax EcoCity Project – a proposal which we developed in concert with the community that made the preposterous claim that the community itself could drive uncompromising ecological development and create a piece of ecological city right in the heart of an existing urban centre.
The Halifax EcoCity Project (HEP) garnered an enormous amount of public support and became a semi-legendary project that inspired a lot of people to look at their own cities in a fresh light; it even found its way into overseas teaching programs and has become a standard case study – particularly in China – but at the time it was a mite too ambitious to be realised as a real, live development.
Pieces of ecological city
The HEP was a design experiment as well as a presentation of a possible future, and it included a bit of almost everything that might need to be considered in a sustainable urban future, including details like urban agriculture with hydroponic greenhouses as part of the semi-continuous green roof layout. Although the project itself didn’t happen it did spawn the not-for-profit co-operative of Wirranendi (meaning, in the local Kaurna language, returning to bushland) which, with EcoCity Developments, went on to complete the Christie Walk ecocity project. Working with some amazing, committed people (not least my life-partner Chérie Hoyle) Christie Walk finally provided the opportunity to create a small piece of what a ‘climate conscious’ city might be like.
Changing the climate
When you think about it, architects have always been trying to change the climate – the whole point of buildings is to modify natural conditions to make new conditions that are comfortable for us humans. And when you put all that architecture together in cities, you’re building the basic vehicles for the survival of civilisation.
Our challenge is to make these astonishing constructions, these urban ecological systems, fit with nature – including the nature of the planet in what is now a severely modified state. Cities are the key to dealing with climate change, as I wrote in the Declaration of Calcutta, adopted at the International Conference on the Architecture of Cities in Calcutta/Kolkata in 1989, “the City can save the World”.
This blog will tend to focus on that disarmingly simple proposition, so stay tuned as I wander down the alley and pick up on people, places and ideas that, IMHO, can make it happen. If I can’t directly change the climate, I figure, together we can at least change the climate of opinion and hold the world’s governments and corporations to account on the biggest threat that human civilisation as ever encountered. It’s make or break. It’s life and death. It’s about whether our children and grandchildren will survive.
So forgive me if you don’t find too many jokes in these pages, but I will try and look on the bright side from time to time.
Charter of Calcutta
We are at a turning point in history.
Our planetary environment is severely damaged.
Desertification is spreading, the globe is warming.
Entire ecosystems are under threat.
And the City is at the centre of the storm of destruction.
But that is the key!
We must cease seeing the City as a problem.
We must see the City as the solution.
For the City is our home.
It is what we make it to be.
It is where we live.
If we fail to seize the Future,
We will be consumed by the Past.
The Future begins NOW!
Let the Charter of Calcutta be simple and clear,
To be heard by all,
And filled with hope and vision –
The City Can Save the World!
‘Proposed by Paul F. Downton (Australia), endorsed by a panel consisting of Dr. Wale Odabasey (Nigeria), Prof. M. Christine Boyer (USA), Mr. Dean Ackerknecht (Switzerland) and Prof. Santosh Ghosh (India) and adopted in the Concluding Session of the International Conference and Exhibition on Architecture of Cities held in Calcutta on the 20th. November, 1990 attended by architects and planners from 28 countries and organised by the Indian Institute of Architects, West Bengal Chapter.’
A composite image using bits of Christie Walk and some Chinese street scenes to create a sense of what it might be like if the pocket neighbourhood concept were to be developed in China.