Earth Day Legacies

We offer timely tribute to some of the forerunners of today's sustainability movement, including architect Paolo Soleri (RIP) and Republican politicians.

By Kristin Belz April 16, 2013

Paolo Soleri, proto-green architect, died April 9 at the age of 93. He is best known for his work in the Arizona desert at Arcosanti, the utopian community which was his life's work.

Earth Day is April 22, and it's worth recognizing not just as a celebration of Mother Earth but as a point on the historical timeline marking how far we have – and haven't – come. The first Earth Day was 1970, enacted during a Republican Presidential administration (Richard Nixon's) with the support of Congress. Imagine that scenario now; hard to picture, isn't it?

In 1970, Nixon was pre-Watergate. Republican Tom McCall was Governor of Oregon. Portland's habit of environmental progressiveness was in its nascent stages; people and pols alike were creating the legacy we enjoy (and the laurels we rest on?) today. Where would we be without those leaders?

We'd probably be sitting behind the wheel of a car, driving on the Mt. Hood Freeway – certainly not riding light rail or streetcar lines. We'd be living spread out in sprawling suburbs, unencumbered by any "urban growth boundary," enjoying the green space of private backyards behind our single family homes; we wouldn't be meeting up with friends for a run or bike ride in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, or hanging out with the kids and dogs in Jamison Park or anywhere else in the Pearl District, because these places likely wouldn't exist.

Portland would be a different place, of course. Not that all of what we are today results from Earth Day 1970, but we do have a lot to thank the generation of forty years ago for. Paolo Soleri was another of that group of early environmentalists. He was an Italian architect, born in 1919, who came to the U.S. in 1947 to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at both Taliesin (in Wisconsin) and Taliesin West (in Scottsdale, AZ). 

Arcosanti, begun by Paolo Soleri and followers, had its beginning (and heyday) in the 1970s. It was meant to house 5,000 people, but never was home to more than a few hundred at a time (some 7,000 have lived there, but over 40 odd years).

Soleri fell for Arizona, and stayed, establishing his own practice there and eventually building his life's work, a utopian community in the Arizona desert north of Phoenix. Soleri was the proto-green architect, decades ahead of William McDonough or LEED or "sustainability." His big concept was "arcology," a neologistic hybrid of architecture and ecology, a theory which he put into practice at Arcosanti, the compact "urban laboratory focused on innovative design, community, and environmental accountability," as its website describes. Arcosanti was designed to house 5000 some residents, but never grew beyond a few hundred. As is often the case, real life, including personalities, got in the way of utopian visions and theories. 

Soleri died April 9, 2013 at age 93.

There's much more to be remembered (and learned) about our green pioneers. Check out:

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