Early environmentalists believed that limiting population growth was the foundation for all efforts to preserve our natural world. Today’s urban environmentalists have a different view. Green is not literally green anymore. It does not mean grass, trees, open space or anything resembling nature but is a code word for increased population density; an accommodation of limitless population growth.
The lack of vision in the current green movement is grossly apparent in Berkeley. As “progressives” and “environmentalists” congratulate themselves on their achievements, more and more people are crammed into smaller spaces with less trees, birds, and sunlight.
The big idea behind the “green movement” is essentially correct. People should live in proximity to work, entertainment and services. Denser housing in urban areas on transportation corridors makes good sense as does building with recycled and low carbon impact materials. But simply constructing somewhat environmentally friendly big box buildings near bus lines does not create a greener future and undermines the livability of our city.
Berkeley should rethink “green” adjusting the details to actually create a greener future. Changes in zoning requirements could establish a new type of city that integrates nature into the urban environment rather than merely paying homage to it. We should begin by requiring building set backs to create actual green (trees, grasses etc) corridors along walkways and streets. Ironically as the city “stood with” tree sitters to protect oaks at UC it fails to establish new tree canopies around town. We should create squares, gardens and stands of trees in downtown and throughout neighborhoods—a network of green sanctuaries. Our city could be re-created with green belts, gardens and “cooling areas,” groves that convert some of the CO2 produced by urban environments.
City politicians often opt for symbols rather than meaningful change as is demonstrated by the ironically named “Gaia Building” and “Brower Center.”
Plants draw down carbon dioxide cooling the atmosphere. This is the most fundamental green system on Earth. Concrete, buildings and roads do the opposite. It’s a no-brainer. When we build new structures we need to mitigate their impact with actual greenery. The current “in-fill” in-group considers this thinking naive.
In-fill advocates are often unwitting accommodators of unrestricted population growth. They accept the population explosion as irreversible fact. Once this seminal problem is embraced all “green” policies that follow are at best intermediate “solutions” that merely slow the tide of environmental degradation.
In 1968 Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb argued that all environmental problems stemmed from over population. Because many of his time specific predictions did not come to pass his ideas faded from mainstream dialogue. Economic success during the Reagan and Clinton years combined with profound technological innovations supported the notion that humans can procreate endlessly and will always survive and thrive. Though Erlich’s apocalyptic vision was overstated the slow trudging path towards declining quality of life due to our sheer numbers continues.
The idealism of the 1960s gave way to pragmatism and a convenient “environmentalism” epitomized by Berkeley’s Green movement. This in vogue system discounts nature in exchange for the ideology of urban planning promoted by academia and enacted by urban greenies, planning department bureaucrats and large-scale developers.
The Brower Center is a perfect example of the end product. Political coalitions marched forward to achieve what Mayor Bates referred to as his “legacy,” ironically “honoring” David Brower, co-founder of Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. Brower viewed over population as the root cause of our problems and doubted our ability to mitigate its impact. “All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent,” he said. He viewed economic pragmatism a suspect philosophy cautioning; “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.”
Yet our local leaders in coalition with urban “environmentalists” and big developers borrowed Brower’s name to create a building that insults Brower’s values.
There are two environmental movements. One accommodates limitless population growth, maintaining small museum like areas of nature to be viewed from the observation deck of a well planned urban world. The second, values nature in its wild state for both its eco-sustaining quality and its spiritual or aesthetic value. This group seeks to protect the wild while the first seeks to redesign and contain it.
Today’s environmental movement is dominated by those who wish to impose a plan on nature and accommodate endless human expansion. They see raw nature as “quaint” and its aesthetic value a primitive throwback, the naive sentiment of poets and romantics discounting its fundamental value to the psychic health of our specie.
A great opportunity was missed when developing the Brower site. Instead of creating a visionary structure nestled in a enclave of actual greenery, a symbolic building was built that neither serves nor reflects nature but rather and only pays homage to the forces and philosophy Brower opposed.
The cure was simple and required only a bit of imagination. With less density we could have had a center that biologically served the environment, integrating nature and urbanity and awakening inspiration in those who might of wandered meandering paths beneath a canopy of trees adjacent to a structure reflecting naturalistic elements.
Instead we have a strikingly sterile building that resembles nothing in the natural world and grants no significant space to actual greenery. It is a bulk of glass and steel in a field of concrete. Nothing about it even alludes to our native environment—no open soil to absorb rain, no grasses to house insects, few trees to shade passersby or provide shelter for birds. It is without mystery and beauty. It’s ominous concrete mass, galvanized steel gates and imposing scale is reminiscent of a prison. It has no relationship to Brower’s life or ideals.
At its main entry on Oxford Street there is a small raised planter made of native stones containing red leaf maples and a few ferns. It is a laughable gesture, tiny and out of place in the shadows cast by steel, stucco and glass. It is less nature and more an awkward and cluttered display of what someone who has never been in the woods might imagine them to be.
Urban “greenies” will tell you this critique is naive and uninformed claiming that the Brower Center is green because of construction methods and materials used. Perhaps “greener” methods and materials were employed but that does not excuse excessive density, sterile style and the absence of plants, soil and natural spaces.
This building reflects a cynical vision of the future wherein people are warehoused in cubicles surrounded by concrete, justified because the cubicles are near work, shops and entertainment. It fails to recognize human “spiritual” or aesthetic needs. The Brower Center may turn out to be Mayor Bates’ “legacy” but it will be a legacy of dulled imagination born of popular hype.
The current infill movement attempts to protect nature elsewhere by destroying it here. But it is not enough to protect land far away. We must seek to reestablish the mystery, beauty and awe nature conveys, even in our cities.
The Brower building insults the name it bares. We cannot let another project like it to be built. We must commit ourselves to a green policy that is actually green. We must commit to open space, parks, tree corridors, and networks of wild places throughout the city. We should increase set backs to establish garden corridors and create a public agency to buy dilapidated structures and vacant land to convert to small wild spaces. Such an approach would go a long way to cool our environment and sooth our souls.
It is common sense. Green really is green…trees, plants and open earth. These humanizing ingredients become ever more important as we increase urban density. It is time to let vision and imagination take precedent over symbolism and dull bureaucracies.
John Koenigshofer is a Berkeley resident.