Cross Section Rendering of Arcosanti - Urban Arcology

I grew up listening to what my friends and I called "punk rock" music. But somewhere along


As Counterculture Goes Mainstream, It Could Rebuild Our Nation


Cross Section Rendering of Arcosanti - Urban Arcology

I grew up listening to what my friends and I called "punk rock" music. But somewhere along the way, punk was rebranded as "alternative" music and embraced by the mainstream. Though it came with debatable artistic merit, punk's co-option by the mainstream is a good example of how elements of our counterculture--whether alternative lifestyles or alternative forms of energy--are given a shake by the mainstream.

As the Obama administration makes plans for a giant economic stimulus program--which could hit one trillion dollars--we may finally see some eco-conscious elements pulled into the mainstream. This is a once-a-generation opportunity. If the Bush years were about nation-building, the near future promises to be about nation-re-building--namely, our own. The funds are slotted to pay for repairing roads, bridges, and rail systems, and constructing or retrofitting buildings to meet modern green standards. This means that solar and wind energy, gray water collection, conservation, and green building concepts--once the realm of eco-hippies and other alt-types living off the grid--is finally ready for prime time.

Hopefully this will mean more buildings will be built like the Washington Public Utility District Association's new headquarters in Olympia. The WPUDA building includes the largest solar rooftop installation in the state. Not only does Western Washington's notoriously cloudy weather not affect the solar cells, but they produce more power than the building uses during the day, the surplus sold to Puget Sound Energy!

The building's construction also includes low vapor emitting materials and high efficiency glass; even the Northwest's abundant rainwater is recycled. The building received a LEED Platinum rating, the highest possible mark from the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization that encourages the construction of buildings that are healthy for people and their environment.

Green construction need not be limited to individual buildings. There are ideas on how to integrate our urban areas with eco-consciousness that city planners and engineers would do well to consider when spreading around the billions soon to funnel down to local projects.

In the mid-'80s, I lived in Phoenix. I left Washington, which was in the midst of a recession, to look for a job. While browsing through an old Whole Earth Catalog, the bible of alternative living, I discovered the  Arcosanti project, and I made the 60-mile trip north for a visit. (I've been back several times since.) Arcosanti is a laboratory for arcology (architecture + ecology). The term was coined by visionary architect Paolo Soleri. Construction on Arcosanti started in 1970, and when completed it will be a city of about 5000 inhabitants. Soleri takes a cue from organized creatures like ants, termites, and bees. Instead of amoeba-like sprawl, the city has a vertical component, and everything is in walking distance. The compact footprint maximizes human interaction and cooperation. It's supposed to have less impact on the surrounding natural area. The design of the city itself harnesses passive solar energy. Soleri has a great aesthetic: His structures have a sculptural quality. Soleri's ideas can be applied to the urban density that will rise around expanding mass transit.

The Obama stimulus isn't going to be the vehicle to achieve Utopia--if such a thing even exists. But it has the makings of a massive collective effort, with the promise of building ourselves a nation and world with an efficient, sustainable infrastructure for the 21st century.

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