"We can't ignore the very clear and very substantial fact that we cannot demand from the planet whatever we please."
Jeff Stein’s spiral-bound calendar is packed full of meetings and events. In 2011, he became co-president of the Cosanti Foundation with Mary Hoadley, Tomiaki Tamura and Roger Tomalty, and accepted the enormous task of continuing Soleri’s legacy.
“It was the building of this place and the projects at Cosanti,” he says. “It was the bell business and model building and publishing and — phew — it seemed like a lot to ask someone to deal with.”
“But I wanted to make a life that was useful,” he says, “so one thing led to another, and that’s that. That’s how I came to be in this chair in front of you now.”
Stein visited Arcosanti in the mid-1970s and has remained dedicated to the project ever since. In addition to promoting the workshop program, he and his colleagues are working on a plan to further Arcosanti’s development.
Their current proposal — titled the Critical Mass Plan — focuses on the construction of small-scale structures including a pizza parlour, hotel, additional residential apartments and a conference and exhibition facility. An energy apron will line the city, providing greenhouses, water collection systems and recycling amenities.
“Nobody can replace Paolo Soleri. He was an inspiration in himself,” says Tomiaki Tamura, who has remained focused on preserving the architect’s legacy since his passing in 2013. “We look for his leadership, in a way. But we are at a point now where we can recognize what needs to be done.”
Stein and his co-presidents are also focused on promoting Arcosanti at international discussions on climate change and sustainability, including Richard Register’s Ecocity World Summit series. “We are trying to position this place to have a much larger voice in the global conversation,” says Stein.
Their motivation is simple.
“Climate change has happened. This wasn’t something we were planning for, but tides are rising,” says Stein. “The polar ice sheet is melting faster than ever, faster than anyone could have predicted.”
Climate change is undeniably and irrefutably more serious than ever. The Boston Globe recently reported that “the messages are clear. First, global warming is not a future threat — it’s the present reality, a menace not to our grandchildren, but to our present civilizations.”
Last year was the Earth’s warmest on record; and at the beginning of March this year, the temperature in the Northern Hemisphere climbed two degrees above the normal mark, surpassing the line that global leaders gave themselves 20 years to avoid.
The South Pacific just experienced its strongest wind speeds ever, which destroyed villages in Fiji. A 2016 study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that oceans are rising at the fastest rate in 28 centuries. The study points to greenhouse gas emissions as the primary culprit and predicts that coastal cities could become inhabitable by the 22nd century.
The New York Times reported, “If emissions continue to rise unchecked, the risks are profound. Scientists fear climate effects so severe that they might destabilize governments, produce waves of refugees, precipitate the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in Earth’s history, and melt the polar ice caps.”
These factors are only a few examples of the devastating and irreversible destruction that will continue to occur if climate change culprits are not seriously (and quickly) addressed.
Jimena Eyzaguirre, a climate change specialist for the environmental consulting company ESSA in Ottawa, says that some global warming occurs naturally. However, humans are adding to the problem through the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of forests and countless other harmful activities.
“When I started working on climate change issues 16 years ago, scientists were saying that it’s probable that there’s been human influence on the climate. Now, 98 per cent of climate scientists agree that the warming we’ve seen is attributable to human activities,” she says. “The fact that our bad practices have changed something so fundamental as the Earth’s climate is mindblowing.”
Eyzaguirre says if we don’t implement solutions to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions — through green infrastructure, solar and wind power, planting more trees to absorb carbon and being more mindful of our individual actions — many of the predicted impacts will continue to come to fruition. “We will see a world that’s quite different from what we know is true today,” she says, “and the people who are least prepared to deal with it will suffer the most.”
Stein hopes that as individuals respond to the threat of climate change, they will finally turn to places like Arcosanti for inspiration. “There’s going to be a huge diaspora of coastal inhabitants building new places, so here’s a model for how they could be built,” he says.
Eyzaguirre appreciates Arcosanti’s efforts and agrees that city design plays a large part in combatting climate change. But she says constructing entire cities from scratch can be time consuming. There is a greater sense of urgency now than there was when Soleri first advocated for sustainable city design.
Like urban theorist Richard Register, Eyzaguirre suggests using Arcosanti’s basic principles as a way to improve the health of existing cities now . “Getting to action is what’s really critical,” she says.
“We need to avoid catastrophe,” adds Register. “Let’s figure this thing out and do it right.”