How Green is my City? 

The future of Berkeley according to Richard Register

Richard Register holds a latte in front of his face and stares at it as if preparing a toast to the sky. He is sitting in the luscious vine-covered patio outside of downtown Berkeley's Jupiter pub on a Thursday afternoon waiting for his cheese pizza. Register can often be found here; he lives right across the street in the Gaia Building, which opened in August amid much controversy.

A lifelong environmentalist (and frequent subject of controversy himself), Register convinced the building's developer Patrick Kennedy to incorporate several green features into its design. But what Register considers the most environmentally friendly aspect of the building is not its rooftop garden or its ventilation system, but a concept that might more likely come out of the mouth of a real estate agent: location, location, location. That, and its size: the 91-unit building, which houses roughly 200 people, is a crosswalk away from the downtown Berkeley BART station. That's 200 people who don't live in single-family homes spread out over numerous city blocks, and hence 200 people who don't drive all that much. In fact, only nineteen cars are parked in the building's garage.

"Solar technology is good because we get more light and warmth inside, but it saves a small amount of energy compared to what a mixed-use building located by transit saves by people not driving," Register explains, adding that just adding solar energy is "like putting a smog device on your car and driving farther."

Register believes the Gaia Building is a big step in the right direction. Urban sprawl contributes to pollution and species extinction more than anything else does, he says, so build up, not out. That is the central tenet of the "ecocity," a concept he came up with to change the way we build cities and to achieve ecological balance.

Opponents of the Gaia Building, like the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CNA) and some members of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, argue that the structure is too tall, an affront to good taste -- and illegal. They claim that Kennedy waylaid established public process to sneak in extra floors (if mezzanines and lofts are counted). For months before its completion, critics speculated freely in newsletters or the letters pages of the Berkeley Daily Planet about the impending doom the building would bring. Predicting that residents would be perpetually snarled in traffic while traversing streets on which the sun never shines because of the gargantuan shadow cast by the building's 106-foot bulk, opponents complained about the "Manhattanization" of Berkeley.

So far none of that has turned out to be the case. In fact, on this lunch hour as Register waits for his pizza, he and other diners bask in an uninterrupted blanket of sunlight. He holds the latte glass up to eye level to demonstrate how, if the steam rising from the glass is hot enough, and the light from the sky bright enough, and the cup held at just the right angle, you can see a rainbow shimmering through the steam.

He notes this latest discovery on a list he calls his "alternative r?sum?," an ever-evolving document that chronicles the many inventions, discoveries, and concepts that have sprung from his mind since 1955. When he forwards a copy of this list to a reporter, he includes a handy key: "P" equals projects, like the "Vegetable Car" garden he planted within the body of a Pontiac GTO in 1979 or the 1983 "Berkeley Fruit and Nut Brigade"; "T" stands for terms he has coined like "squeakywheelocracy" and "megamonobuildings"; "B" indicates books he's written such as Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future, published in 1987, and his latest book published this month, Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance With Nature. Register's alternative r?sum? does fairly describe his life; reading it, one might conclude that he is a genius ahead of his time -- or perhaps a pixilated nut.

At age 58, Register is a most nonthreatening-looking human being. His gray hair seems to have recently plopped upon his head; thought lines traverse his forehead. He is a man who has settled comfortably into his lanky frame. He is modest, exceedingly polite, mild-mannered, and gentle, but he is also passionate and persistent. He has been talking virtually nonstop about ecocities for most of his adult life.

When Register first arrived in Berkeley in 1974 with his talk of the virtues of density, many dismissed him. Now he has struck a chord (or a nerve) in a great many people. Over the years, he has managed to promulgate his ideas throughout the world and has given talks on every continent except Antarctica.


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