Land-use at Arcosanti: A confluence of Cultures
I’ve often joked with friends and students about how disappointed I was when the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999, and the Arcosanti mothership did not rip from the mesa top and ascend into the cosmos where it belongs. Perched atop a mesa at 3600’ in the high-desert grasslands of central Arizona, overlooking the Agua Fria River canyon lined with cottonwoods and mesquite-covered floodplains, Arcosanti is a sight to behold. It’s hard to tell if you’re a thousand years in the past, or the future. It’s built of concrete, with dramatic three-story vaults and apses, terraced dwellings, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool seeming to float above rocky cliffs and washed-out roads.
It was never meant to be a picture of permaculture design as we know it, but a model of a development pattern that could house the growing billions of humans on the Earth and beyond. The father of Arcosanti is Paolo Soleri, the Italian architect and former student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Paolo’s design paradigm is called Arcology, blending architecture and ecology in building sustainable cities. In Paolo’s words: ”Arcology recognizes the necessity of the radical reorganization of the sprawling urban landscape into dense, integrated, three-dimensional cities in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture.”
Land-use in the Arcology model is the concentration of cites into massive vertical structures housing as many people on as small of a footprint as is possible, like a termite mound that rises from the desert. These are carless cities, built on marginal lands and surrounded by parks and wilderness. Imagine hyper-dense interconnected human beehives dotting the Arizona landscape with wilderness and agriculture in between. Access to nature is just beyond the boundaries of the complex, and arable land is reserved for farming.
It is the opposite of suburban sprawl, the implosion rather than explosion of the urban environment. The scale of Arcologies allows for a minimal amount of material infrastructure providing for a greater amount of people. Frugality is also encouraged by design, with the private residence as more of a bedroom and the public spaces of the city as the living room.
Billions more people?
Paolo Soleri and the development pattern of Arcology present a solution that isn’t predicated on population decline for equilibrium to be reached in the ideal scenario. It is the only plan I’ve ever encountered that actually considers a human population continuing to grow by billions into arcologies, while still preserving nature and farmland.
In contrast, many visions of a future civilization built upon permaculture principles see an emergence of a permanent culture occurring after energy and population descent. This can be seen in David Holmgren’s book:“Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability”, where the energy descent side of Hubbert’s curve is also shown as population decline (reference). This is the result of the Earth reaching its carrying capacity without cheap energy. The often unspoken element of this future scenario is the horror of losing 75% of the current population to starvation, war, and disease.
Is there space in the permaculture model to avoid expansion of the human footprint without halting population growth? Is it feasible to retrofit the Arcology model within our existing infrastructure? And most importantly, are we willing to sacrifice the dream of owning a piece of land on which to build a personal paradise if it means modeling a truly sustainable development pattern which ideally could avoid widespread suffering? As permaculturists we struggle with these questions. For Arcologists the answers are clear. They have rejected the rural development aspect of permaculture because it doesn’t densely concentrate humans by design.
The Arcosanti Gardens
Down from Arcosanti into the valley where the gardens reside it’s another story altogether. When I arrived in 1998 I found a farm design resembling the very sprawl so antithetical to Arcosanti’s mission. While they had focused on concentrating human resources in the city, they had left the biological resources of the farm scattered and dispersed. The chickens were left hungry in the suburbs while gardens in the inner core were assaulted by gangs of bugs and Bermuda grass. Fresh from my studies with the Permaculture Drylands Institute, I sought to make some sense of the scattered elements, baking bare ground, and determined weeds that plagued zones 1 &2. My goal was to bring it all in and create a functional center where the components of the system: chickens, orchard, gardens, bees, and greenhouses were no longer isolated high-maintenance operations but integrated, making it easier to manage so expansion was possible.
The chicken house was reined in from the far perimeter, where it was subject to predators and neglect, and was rebuilt and wrapped around a wind-swept and weedy garden. Now the Bermuda was kept at bay and grasshoppers had to cross through a chicken “moat” to get to tender veggies. The garden was now nested by the chickens, who themselves were nested by a swaled windbreak of forage plants. This provided shade and food for fowl, food for humans, habitat for beneficial insects, and pollen for our bee-hives. The same benefits of energy efficiency that are achieved by the stacked architecture in the Arcology are accomplished by following permaculture principles of stacking on the farm.
Culture, along with architecture and ecology, is stacked in the Arcosanti gardens. Just as the pueblo ruins up-canyon from Arcosanti are perched on the mesa between the river and an entering drainage, so is Arcosanti perched, oriented towards the south for solar gain. Just as the Puebloans cultivated the valley and diverted the river for irrigation, so does Arcosanti cultivate and irrigate. And just as corn, beans, squash, and melons were planted in the river valleys by ancient puebloans, they are still planted in the fertile valley soils of the Arcosanti farm. Some fields are grown every year by a Hopi elder, who harvests the irrigated corn and beans as his early crop. He brings seed and an ancient knowledge of drylands farming, perhaps without realizing the cultural cross-pollination that’s occurring.
The other cultural pollinator that was visiting the farm was an old-world Croatian beekeeper and master agriculturist. He is a wizard of grafting, prone to religious overtures about how God put Adam and Eve in the garden, and schooled us in the European paradigms of agriculture.
Then there is Paolo Soleri, the old-world Italian architect with a vision for the sustainable development of the Earth and beyond, who has built an ancient-future town dotted with olive trees and Italian cypress perched atop a mesa. Paolo has his own ideas about what should happen at the Arcosanti farm, including a Paulonia tree plantation and an early attempt to dam the river.
Imagine now working with this stew of influences. There is a Hopi elder carrying the ancient indigenous spiritual faith that revolves around the cycles of the land, sharing information both esoteric and practical. Then there is this zany Croatian with a very European nature-dominating viewpoint and a world of stories and anecdotes to prove his points. When he saw how the Hopi planted his corn he was astounded. “You can’t plant ten seeds in one hole!” he gasped. He was proven wrong when the harvest came in.
The Hopis said: “Don’t water the peach trees too much. It makes the fruit watery and tasteless. We like it small and sweet.” The Croatian said: “Cut, cut, cut!!! Need lots of cut and lots of water for big fruit!” The peaches only produce one in four years anyway, planted in the cold air drainage at the bottom of the valley. But the rich cultural edge between European and Native American farming practices produced an educational yield that I’m still harvesting today.
Permaculture is the Glue
I cannot imagine another place where this peculiar diversity of land-use practices converge. Myself and the other Arcosanti farm managers and workers learned to live in the space between those paradigms, borrowing pieces from each to create a functioning and productive system. For me permaculture is the glue. It is the structure in which divergent land-use practices can be implemented in right-relationship to each other.
Here in the arid mountains and valleys of Arizona, ancient and modern techniques are merged in permaculture systems. Native seeds along with more recent heirloom varieties are planted in sunken beds and watered from cisterns of roof-runoff. Native plants are harvested while hardy fruit and nut trees are kept close to houses. Chickens abound and forage from ancient native food crops like wolfberry, whose presence indicates early settlement. The edge between Native American and European knowledge is richly cultivated.
And nowhere have these two paradigms been merged more than at Arcosanti, where the settlement pattern of Arcology so obviously reflects the settlement pattern of the Pueblo culture mixed with the modern industrialized world. To dream that we can shift into new ways of living never before imagined as civilizations cross-pollinate. Where Paolo Soleri has stacked his city, cultural land use practices interwove to create a unique blend of the ways of the White and Red races. Permaculture provides the path where European and Native American methods can grow together in a guild. Arcosanti is one of those places where new paradigms emerge, and it may prove to be an important model in our future. To think that where we’re going could be so similar to where we’ve been.
Andrew Millison teaches permaculture at Prescott College and the Ecosa Institute in Prescott, Arizona. He managed the Arcosanti farm from 1998-2000. He is also a residential Landscape Contractor and is currently transforming his neighborhood into the “Eco-Hood” He can be contacted through his website, www.millisonecological.com