Oakland Ecopolis: a Plan for a Green Plan

Finding the Grassroots Resources for a Sustainable Vision for Oakland


Ernest J.Yanarella, Hugh Bartling, Robert Lancaster and Christopher Rice

Oakland Ecopolis: Where Green Means Gold

A Vision

The gold rush of 1849 gave birth to Oakland as a bustling town. The second gold rush of World War II made Oakland into what is today: a magnet for industry and commerce, a social cloth of many colors, a political tapestry of many ideologies and new ways of acting in the world.

As a new millennium approaches, Oakland can become the site of yet another gold rush. Oakland Ecopolis beckons, where the promise of a green future holds forth the hope of transforming the crumbling gray concrete of its streets and highways and the deteriorating brown blocks of its downtown into a verdant garden mixing steel towers and tree-filed parks. Oakland Ecopolis calls out from the future, where its blue estuary filled with sail boats meets the rainbow of colors of passersby walking amid the farm kiosks and craft bazaars of citizens whose handiwork reflect the rich diversity of its populace. Oakland Ecopolis , where its citizens once again take back the design of their city and fashion neighborhoods, schools, enterprises, civic organizations, and communities of buoyant hope and creative imagination, of multi-cultural customs and traditions, and of love and tolerance.

Finding the resources to build a city beyond fear and intolerance, beyond mistrust and prejudidce, Oakland Ecopolis shines like a beacon of hope to its neighboring cities and neighboring cities' cities, casting a light to the state, the nation, and the world symbolizing the dawn of a new day in our relations with others and with our environment. In a place where men and women and children of all colors and ethnic traditions build that new city brick by brick and block by block, the promise of the Oakland of the past and the realities of the present meet the possibilities of the future.

There, a baby smiles and a flower grows. There, solar generators quietly hum, producing power to run machines and to light homes. There, area eco-farmers grow food and sustainable fishermen catch fish to feed its populations and to sell their surplus to a wider market. There, the new professionals and specialists and workers of the new information economy are educated into the requirements of the increasingly decentralized workplace of the new millennium. There, the many cultural traditions of racial and ethnic sub-communities mutually enrich one another in the new ecology of diverse popular culture spanning street theater and alternative film and Internet entertainment and ever multiplying digital television stations produced locally and around the world. There, local citizens meet and petition their representatives in person, on the Web, or in public squares, pressing their demands and dissatisfactions in every forum and thus restoring some the closeness and intimacy of old-style town democracy.

Oakland Ecopolis is both far away and very near. It is a place called home.

A Preamble

"Oakland Ecopolis is far away" : In this anything-goes/everyone-is-in-it-for-himself world, in this main course for the wealth and privileged and left-overs for the rest of us society we live in, the hope of the kind of urban renaissance that would bring Oakland Ecopolis into being seems slight, even laughable. Powerful social and economic interests shape urban policies to line their pockets while the middle and working classes pay the bills for their enormous projects and programs. Tens of millions of dollars get channeled into public education for our children who face insecure jobs and bleak futures. Inner city youth find some solace in gangs and in street crimes as their brains fry on drugs and their minds languish in a sense of hopelessness. Politicians build careers on empty promises and porkbarrel policies tied to two- or four-year election cycles. Small wonder that growing numbers of citizens protest the injustice of these conditions and the sham of formal elections by not voting.

"Oakland Ecopolis is very near" : It's time to take back the power stolen from everyday citizens by the politicians, powerful interests, and corporate fatcats who have eroded the public trust and sapped the common will. It's time to raise our voices in opposition to the theft of our children's futures, the degrading of the life-giving environment, the jeopardizing of our individual and collective health and well being, the pollution of our politics, and the destruction of our communities and our binding traditions. It's time to bring the people back into the political process and breathe new life into an ancient dream and a modern necessity: popular democracy. It's time to construct a future where people and nature matter, where wealth is based on the things that count rather than merely the things that can be counted. It's time to find the means for putting our urban house in order by planting seeds that will establish new roots of our urban community and subcommunities in nature--connecting citizens of every race and color in relations that not only sustain us a members of a larger urban commonwealth, but enliven and enrich the nourishing soil on which we depend for human life itself.

"It is a place called home": Oakland Ecopolis can and should be our natural home. And it can be accomplished; it can be built. Our founders watered the tree of liberty with new ideas and seditious thoughts, with ageless dreams of freedom and new visions of a just community. So must we muster the imagination to rethink and redesign the built environment of our community, working with both the power and potential of nature and within its limits. In the car culture we live in today, one that is literally suffocating us, polluting our cities, and degrading our environment with noxious poisons, we know there must be a better way to transport people and commerce. In the consumer culture we inhabit that bombards us with messages to buy beyond our budgets and live beyond our means, we know that we can live better and more happily with less if we could but get off of the habit of buying too much and consuming thoughtlessly. Hiding our unhappiness by frolicking in this consumer paradise, we eat too much, drink too much, and waste too much time on the things that don't matter. Along the way, we contribute to the plunder of nature's depletable capital and the theft of our children's future.

Principles of a Green Plan

Oakland Ecopolis is founded upon a few perennial ideas that have been the basis of sustainable city life at least since human beings began to gather together into the first urban settlements dotting the ancient and medieval worlds. Today, these principles call upon citizens staring at the door of the next millennium to seize ancient truths and embrace new realities with courage and boldness. Among these principles, both very old and absolutely contemporary, are these:

The city is the largest place and the smallest political unit where the disorder of the contemporary world can be rebalanced and the many aspects of sustainability can be put together and connected. In a certain sense, global thinking about sustainability is a futile exercise for the average citizen, whose individual acts and changed behavior is likely to be overwhelmed by immense forces and towering and far-flung organizations tending toward unsustainable, nature-destroying consequences.

Each sustainable city--Oakland being no exception--will find its form and resources in the unique place which it occupies and the special assets that nature and geography give to it. As John Todd once put it, "elegance of solution will be founded upon uniqueness of place." So too will community and policy solutions to Oakland's formidable social and environmental ills be discovered from the special insights of its multi-cultural traditions and unique gifts and talents of its ethnic and racial subcommunities.

Sustainable Oakland is based on the commitment and goal to export none of its industrial wastes and environmental pollution, none of its social problems and economic ills, to its neighbors or to its future citizens. Sustainability begins at home--our urban household. Fouling our neighbor's land with our garbage or passing our environmental burdens onto succeeding generations only postpones that day of ecological reckoning by transferring our mountains of waste and mushroom clouds of pollution elsewhere.

In place of quantitative economic growth that rewards the few and impoverishes the many, Oakland Ecopolis substitutes environmentally benign sustainable development that enriches the social lives of the body politic and enlarges the public treasure of the commonwealth. Exchanging the pursuit of more and more fleeting wants for the quest for public needs and community goods charts the way toward replacing mindless consumerism with active citizenship.

The vision of Oakland Ecopolis grows out of open debate and unfettered community dialogue over the meaning of the good life by the widest possible number of citizens of our fair city. At a time when the increasing rule of political and economic elites in every sphere and at every level of governance threaten to reduce the voting franchise and citizen democracy generally to a sham, the design of sustainable Oakland requires the involvement, input, and insights of all its citizens in town meetings and public forums working toward true and unmanipulated consensus.

In making peace with nature, the quest for Sustainable Oakland at one and the same time involves gratefully taking from nature those precious life-sustaining resources necessary for the good life and giving back to nature those essential elements that perpetuate the good health and well being of Nature's dynamic life-giving processes. What will it profit us if we plunder the riches of our earthly home and in so doing destroy the very foundations of all life on this planet?

The diversity and balance so critical to the stability and well being of Nature's water, forestry, soil and other ecosystems must be reflected in the diversity and balance of the many aspects of community life of Oakland Ecopolis. Just as nature thrives on the many contributions that its elements bring to its dynamic processes of growth, death, and renewal, so the life of Oakland's community is enhanced by cultural mosaic of its subgroups and the striving to negotiate a common life of equity, balance, and tolerance.

While all the components of a dynamic, well-balanced sustainable city are important, the renewal of the economic health and public vitality of the downtown is the starting place for beginning a process of transforming and restoring Oakland into a true sustainable community where what is common to all of its inhabitants and what is different and unique to each group becomes building blocks a developing blueprint for Oakland Ecopolis. If the core is ruined and in shambles, the whole of the community--even the suburbs and outlying regions--experiences all of the consequences of that urban disorder at its center--i.e., drugs, crime, violence, family breakdown, moral drift, etc.

A Plan for a Plan

The Green Plan for Oakland requires not a finished blueprint for putting the city into balance with its environment, needs, and resources, but a plan or strategy for generating a vision, a series of recommendations, and a consensus for such a plan from the interplay of grassroots ideas, energy, and enthusiasm and top-level perspectives, resources, and commitment. The following suggestions offer an action plan to establishing a base on which to mobilize a critical mass of support to undertaking journey to Oakland Ecopolis.

1. 1. Constitute a sustainable city charrette drawing upon visionaries and planners, experts and practitioners from around the country dedicated to, and knowledgeable about, the requisites for sustainable communities.

2. 2. Follow up with instituting a task force on Oakland Ecopolis, serving as an inclusive committee charged with gathering ideas from the city and formulating a vision and set of policy recommendations building the sustainable city of the future.

3. 3. Establish an Oakland Ecopolis chat-line to encourage proposals, criticisms, and recommendations for the task force. Have the staff monitor the chat-line. Set up a schedule such that the mayors, city council members, task force members. Etc., regularly participate on the chat-line.

4. 4. Utilize a variety of electronic tools--particularly Sim City 2000--in the schools to foster the education of future citizens of Oakland into downtown and neighborhood sustainable development.

5. 5. Foment community and business discussion about appropriate downtown (and other) sites for brownfield development along sustainability lines.

6. 6. Establish an annual Oakland Ecopolis Day, highlighting progress toward urban sustainability and involving the larger public and especially young people in activities like role-playing games and mural painting relating to a Green Oakland.

7. 7. Launch plans for local economic development designed to grow or attract ecologically friendly industry and plants producing environmental/ecological products.

8. 8. Formulate components of a sustainable agricultural program that incorporates the urban-rural interface of sustainable development--i.e., urban gardening, sustainable farm practices, local farm cooperatives and markets, etc.

9. 9. Develop a public education campaign promoting greater awareness of Oakland's "ecological footprint" and why and how to shrink it.

10. 10. Undertake economic, cultural, and social development in areas serviceable by efficient and low-cost public transportation to less our burden on the planet's scarce non-renewable resources.

11. 11. Press for changes in the city charter that would promote the creation and political mandate for strong neighborhood alliances composed of citizen volunteers to keep city dwellers informed on the urban issues affecting them and their neighborhoods.

12. 12. Create an Oakland Ecopolis public education curriculum from local seed by holding a conference of local education officials, area ecology groups, Oakland Ecopolis member, neighborhood association representatives, etc. to build a curriculum that is "homegrown" and encourages participants to be "stakeholders" in the larger educational enterprise of building a sustainable future for Oakland.

Proposals

Local Sustainable Development Sector Proposals:

We must keep in mind that all growth is not development and that mere economic growth as an end in itself has brought us to our ecological ills (acid rain, air pollution, global warming, hazardous toxic waste sites, etc.). The alternate course of sustainable development at the local and regional levels requires the pursuit of economic policies that enrich the qualitative aspects of our social and political lives and that do not add new burdens to the carrying capacity of our locale and thus enlarge Oakland ecological footprint.

In charting out this new course, Oakland Ecopolis must look within and search for economic opportunities that can grow businesses and economic activities supportive of true economic development. As a port city with a rich history, the future of shipbuilding--particularly sail boats--should not be dismissed as a possible avenue for labor-intensive economic production. Since the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, an entire environmental abatement industry has grown up to respond to the consequences of humankind's disturbance of the natural flows and self-balancing tendencies of the Ecosystem. In this respect, California's forward legislative record and innovative programs in environmental protection and repair assures city's like Oakland that this burgeoning segment of the state (and national) economy will continue to grow.

The quest for sustainable economic development will also challenge local citizens public agencies, and area businesses to find ways to produce economic value that works within Nature's economy and limits and does not generate negative byproducts (externalities) in the first place. Before a fully sustainable economy can be achieved, though, industries, with the assistance of governmental agencies, will need to find ways to turn the negative externalities of one industry into the resources of another industry. In this scenario, one firm's garbage becomes another firm's gold! With often informal coordination and modest policy planning, industries in other regions of the world have found successful formulas for doing precisely this.

In this scenario, one firm's garbage becomes another firm's gold! With often informal coordination and modest policy planning, industries in other regions of the world have found successful formulas for doing precisely this.

In an era where cities and states have often gotten involved in fiscally ruinous bidding wars with other cities and states, the record points to a future where former winners will become tomorrow's losers. By looking within to unique assets and special talents residing in its business community, its labor force, and its public leadership, the citizens of Oakland Ecopolis are capable of steering an alternate path promising fiscal responsibility, sustainable economic practices, and a shared abundance in the treasures of their commonwealth of ethnically and racially diverse sub-communities.

Transportation/Alternate Energy Sector Proposals:

The city shall provide an example for fostering alternative energy sources by introducing into the city motor pool a fixed and cumulative percentage annually of electric and natural-gas burning vehicles.

Pedestrian and bicycle lanes will be given prominent consideration in road rehabilitation efforts. Additionally, the city will support area-wide initiatives such the Bay Trail, which seeks to integrate Bay area communities through pedestrian and bicycles trails.

The development of small commercial and park space and pedestrian pockets will be encouraged through block grants whose design will emanate from surrounding neighborhood and area residents on the model of the Fruitvale BART Project.

The development of small commercial and park space and pedestrian pockets will be encouraged through block grants whose design will emanate from surrounding neighborhood and area residents on the model of the Fruitvale BART Project.

Public accountability will be actively sought from BART when its administration make decisions affecting public transportation in Oakland and the great Bay area.

Public Education Sector Proposals:

An "Oakland Studies" course/elective/unit will be brought into various grade-levels to educate students on: 1)the principles of sustainability; 2) the history of Oakland as a unique place, with a particular geography, and an unfolding history of diverse groups, signal events, unique assets, and possible futures; 3) distinctive, layered patterns of architectural styles in its built environment; and 4) the contributing factors to its "ecological footprint" drawn from the imbalance of its population, present natural resource demands, and pollution and waste loads on the environment.

A "walkabout" program will be put in place to encourage walking field trips to diverse areas of Oakland, whose purpose will be to promote an intimate knowledge and abiding love for the city and its development as a complex organism over time. Such "walkabouts" might lead to student projects highlighting the distinctive qualities and unique assets of Oakland.

Urban simulation programs like SimCity 2000 will be widely distributed to schools and community centers, particularly in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, to involve youth in the process of urban design and urban-ecological interconnectedness. An Oakland Ecopolis team member would work closely with Maxis/Electronic Arts to prepare a companion Oakland Ecopolis" text and one or more simulated Oakland scenarios in SimCity 2000 games sent to schools to focus student attention on problem-areas of their community.

Community education programs will be instituted through community colleges, night schools, churches, community centers, newspaper series, etc., using the same principles of the walkabout, Oakland Studies curriculum, and city simulations program to foster active interest in the transformation of Oakland by its citizens.

Annual Oakland Ecopolis retreats for local public officials, area environmental and historic preservationist, and business representatives would take place to build understanding and consensus around the meaning of sustainability and its operational principles. Visioning activities, role-playing sessions, and agenda-setting sessions would comprise important elements of the retreat.

Residential Sector Proposals:

Instead of permitting the construction of substandard apartment housing, apartment complexes, and freestanding houses, the city planning would seek to enhance opportunities the building of "superblocks" proposed by Lewis Mumford. Bearing closest resemblance to the "row house" of old and brownstones and townhomes of today, the superblock faces both outward to the street and inward to a courtyard, thus providing a larger common greenspace for use as community gardens, park or gathering areas. While maintaining the American ideal of individual home ownership, this design model increases residential density, quality of residence, and a sense of neighborliness and community.

Urban planners interested in sustainability will also look to the principle of mixed zoning as an alternative to current zoning practices that lea to the segregation of work, commerce, and residence. When combined with the "superblock" principle, mixed zoning creates a wide variety of urban areas with a higher quality of life, reduces the dependence on auto and other forms of transportation, cuts the pollution impacts of heavy interzone transit, and thus lowers Oakland's fossil fuel imprint.

Political Infrastructure and Strategic Sector Proposals:

As against the thrust and impetus for Measure F, Oakland Ecopolis demands less the strengthening of the office of mayor than it does the empowering of the grassroots in any plan and process for realizing the goals and ambitions for a green Oakland. Key feature of the above Plan for a Plan identify key steps that can be taken to mobilize from the bottom-up the resources for generating a vision of urban sustainability for Oakland Ecopolis. Recognizing Oakland's strong city manager/weak mayor system, these steps call for an end to politics as usual and an end to elite manipulation as the bases for this new vision. The strength and vital of local democratic institutions grown and nurtured at the grassroots can be the greatest resource for an activist mayor bent on meaningful political change that does not take behind the backs of the people, but is in fact carried out by those institutions of local democracy themselves.

An activist mayor must assure the residents of the city that sustainability is a policy committed to changing its life processes, socially, economically, politically, to meet the fundamental needs that politicians and public servants have pledged to serve; further, such a mayor will emphasize that business, as well as politicians and bureaucrats, will be called upon to demonstrate its recognition and commitment to the health, social service, and other legitimate needs of city residents, on whom the conduct of business in the city depends.

Oakland Ecopolis as a political theory of governance is grounded in the assurance of its citizens that sustainability is a policy that mandates the return of government and governing power to individual citizens in dialogue with each other about the common good and the genuine goods of different sub-communities. Thus, it is concerned with removing power from the hands of the wealthy and politically influential few whose interests are all too often narrow and selfish. To do so, Oakland Ecopolis calls for socio-political accountability of its political leadership to those who elect them and mandates a continuing forum in public space and cyberspace to discuss, debate, and seek creative solutions for the political and economic direction of the city and for maintaining the health and well-being of the urban commonwealth and its natural environment.

Guided by the principles of sustainability, Oakland Ecopolis as an sustainable economic development policy will be promoted not as a plan for "taxing and spending" nor as a mere program for "tax-cutting and dismantling the public household" of its legitimate and necessary social programs and services. But while government costs money and residents have a right to partake of the city's basic services (fire and police protection, garbage collection, public recreation facilities, etc.), Oakland Ecopolis will strive to be a model of effective and equitable government that does not squander taxpayer money, but eliminates waste and duplication of services in the twin causes of cost-effective government and environmental preservation and resource stewardship.

Conclusion/New Beginning

Much more could be proposed in the areas not covered by these representative proposals. In fact, these recommendations are less concrete proposals than catalysts for discussion in the many forums in public chambers and neighborhood school auditoriums, across radio and television airwaves and electronic chat-rooms in cyberspace. Oakland Ecopolis is not the vision of a single politician or the blueprint of a great thinker. It is outgrowth of the pooled intelligence, the collective commonsense and good will, and the combined energy of thousands of Oakland residents saying no to the sterile politics and unsustainable economics of yesterday and today and yes to the grassroots democratic politics and sustainable economic practices of tomorrow. Its vision is less a dream or an endpoint or--more fancifully--an unrealizable utopian existence out there somewhere in the future. It is instead an unending process to promote social justice and economic well-being among all its residents and to work toward peace with nature and that enveloping Ecosystem which sustains life on our little planet and is the true source of our natural capital.

Just as our forebears banded together to break from the yoke of royal tyranny, Oakland Ecopolis offers itself as the gathering point of a new generation of democratic rebels intent on inaugurating that process to social justice and peace with nature. A new millennium is about to begin and destiny beckons us again to a new revolution of the heart and hand and mind. Let us begin!


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