Terrain.org Essays.
View Terrain.org Blog.


Originally appeared in Issue No. 9



How Green is Jerry Brown? An Oakland Ecopolis Memoir

by Ernest J. Yanarella

The American left has long had a problem with ecological issues. Marxist residues about the necessity of capitalism producing economic affluence and the bourgeoisie's responsibility for building a technological cornucopia while digging its own grave have often hobbled leftist thinking about the existence of natural limits and the dangers of "socialist" technology. Nondoctrinaire leftist progressives, on the other hand, have been more inclined to integrate ecology into their thought and practice.

A case in point is Jerry Brown. Exasperating as his eclectic approach to new political and cultural ideas can sometimes be, the former California governor has prided himself on rubbing shoulders and trading ideas with virtually every innovative and iconoclastic thinker of the late twentieth century. Since the sixties, he has found time to hobnob with people like Ivan Illich, Paolo Friere, Stewart Brand, Fritjoff Capra, as well as other avant-garde theorists of substance who hves captured the interest or fancy of New Age followers or political leftists in his retinue.

Brown's concern to be "neither left nor right but forward," as the German Greens like to say, has been one of the few constants in his intellectual and political odyssey. Even at the age of sixty, he keeps reinventing himself by continuing to go to the well of new cultural and political ideas and testing them out in intellectual dialogue in public forums often of his own creation. Moreover, because of his tenure as governor of California during the seventies, he has found real opportunities to affect change in public policy and the quality of the lives of his constituents in ways that Jesse Jackson, his nearest political cousin, has not.

After relocating to Oakland a couple years ago, Brown set up the We the People Foundation in a converted waterfront warehouse where he lived and worked. Until beginning his successful bid for the post of Oakland mayor, he also delivered his We the People radio talk show there. On any given day, he might be interviewing Paolo Soleri on the latest design ideas for solar architecture or William Irwin Thompson on the newest issue in global ecology or Wes Jackson on breaking developments in sustainable agriculture. While I never had the opportunity to be interviewed on his radio program, I spent the better part of six months via e-mail and postal service acting as his consultant on his green plan for Oakland. As a political experience, it was enlightening, if sobering. As an exercise in critical policy studies, it was downright discouraging, if not depressing.

"This is Jerry Brown." "Who?" "Jerry Brown!"

In early June of 1997, Jerry Brown contacted me to obtain more information about the Center for Sustainable Cities, where I serve as associate director, and its "Sustainable Cities Manifesto." Although the departmental staff assistant couldn't believe it was him, Brown managed to suffer through the confusion of the first minute and stay on the line while I was called from a student conference. He told me that he had seen the Web page for my recent seminar on sustainable urban design and was intrigued with how our center was approaching issues of sustainable development. His deeper political reason for calling lay in his design to become a candidate for the mayoralty position in Oakland, California. According to him, he had begun to explore the idea of a green plan for Oakland—Oakland Ecopolis—as a centerpiece of his campaign. He said he wanted to renew the Oakland downtown with arts and crafts shops, but that was the extent of his thinking at that point.

When he asked if the Center could help draft such a sustainable city program, I took him up on his invitation. As a result, three graduate students and I formed the Green Team, as we called ourselves, and spent a good part of the summer putting it together. As the document took shape, it included a statement of vision, key principles, guidelines for promoting urban sustainability and then offered tentative recommendations for enlisting Oakland's racially and ethnically diverse community in charting out its own course to a green future. Rejecting the usual outside expert tack of trying to impose an overarching vision and detailed blueprint upon a community, the team researched the history, social demographics, and recent politics of Oakland, looking for a way to generate wider public debate about the particulars of a sustainable vision.

My collaborators and I were well aware of the inferiority complex that many Oaklanders experience as a result of its no man's land status between San Francisco and Berkeley—captured by Gertrude Stein's acerbic comment that "there is no there there." We were buoyed by the prospect of working for a former activist governor who during his administration had poured millions of public dollars into Oakland for economic renewal megaprojects and had been considered a friend of Oakland by many African-American, Hispanic, and white voters. We most definitely thought we were doing consulting work for a politically savvy and ecologically attuned public figure capable of turning what we produced into an important tool for politically educating the community into the new realities of ecological scarcity and the promise of the idea of urban sustainability coupled with an agenda promoting social justice. It took a long time for us to realize that on the last count we were wrong.

Oakland Ecopolis: Media Myth and Political Reality

Over the course of the summer, the Green Team met weekly to craft of the vision of Oakland Ecopolis by drawing upon the principles of urban sustainability outlined in the Center's key statements. Despite Brown's expressed desire to be an integral part of the formulation process, his active interview and speaking schedule meant that we received scant guidance or input from him on the developing document. Early drafts of different sections of Oakland Ecopolis were met with brief, but positive feedback. As a result, we proceeded pretty much independently.

Two aspects of the developing document are worth underlining. First, we decided that it would be arrogant to try to could come up with a detailed sustainability plan for Oakland, given our relative unfamiliarity with the city and its history and our commitment to democratic process and grassroots participation. An Ecopolis for Oaklanders would ultimately have to be an Oakland Ecopolis of, for, and by its citizens. As we stressed time and again, Oakland Ecopolis would be at best "a plan for a plan."

The other notable feature of the document was that we regarded the vision piece as essentially a draft subject to careful scrutiny and revision by Jerry Brown and his people in light of their knowledge of Oakland's political landscape and the politically possible. Indeed, when the final draft version was transmitted, I explicitly asked Brown and his staff to review the vision plan carefully, since it offered tentative recommendations and made implied commitments to policies and programs that they might not wish to embrace. To our surprise, the next communication from Brown's office informed us that the document (as it turns out, without a single change or deletion) had been uploaded onto the We the People Website. Initial apprehensions were transformed into sheer delight at the apparent unqualified endorsement of the vision statement by Jerry Brown himself. This conviction was only reinforced when, in the context of announcing his candidacy, Brown pledged to transform Oakland into "an ecopolis of the future—a city that is both in harmony with the environment and in harmony with itself." For a few weeks, we entertained the illusion that Knowledge had come to Power and been enfolded in Power's loving arms!

The day after Brown's formal announcement of his candidacy, Richard DelVecchio, a San Francisco Chronicle metro reporter, contacted me to discuss the Oakland Ecopolis plan, which he had discovered on the We the People Website. His questions were extremely leading and, while their character put me on my guard, I was not prepared for the way he shaded the information I had offered. In the following day's Chronicle, DelVecchio's by-line column carried the headline, "Jerry Brown Foresees a Greener Oakland: Eco-proposal Modeled after Italian Hill Town." While the article carried the customary trappings of straight news reporting, its effort at balance was upended by its thinly veiled allusions to the long-term caricature of Brown as New Age philosopher and political free spirit cemented decades ago by Chicago columnist Mike Royko's characterization of him as "Governor Moonbeam." Completely misinterpreting my interview comments about the Center for Sustainable Cities' use of Italian hilltowns like Todi and Perugia as models of past sustainable cities and paragons of future eco-cities, DelVecchio twisted those remarks into the allegation that "Brown would contrast not Oakland and a comparatively healthy city such as Pasadena, but Oakland and the Italian hill town of Perugia—an urban community that has sustained its integrity over hundreds of years." So began the familiar mass media process of straining the initiatives and ideas of the Brown campaign through the accumulated cultural biases and political stereotypes of the sixties and beyond.

DelVecchio's news article was soon followed by a bitter political salvo by self-acknowledged conservative voice Debra J. Saunders in her weekly opinion column. Titled, "Oakland: Ecopolis or Egopolis?," the column recycled DelVecchio's misrepresentation of my remarks about the inspirational origins of the Oakland green plan, while simultaneously clarifying the underlying basis of her attack.

Derisively linking Brown's mayoralty candidacy and Oakland Ecopolis with Oakland's ebonics resolution, Saunders' tirade sought to pillory the vision of a green Oakland as a manifestation of Brown's inflated political ego and to deride some of its main eco-economic proposals as counter to Oakland's pressing need to turn back the clock and replenish its supply of good-paying, blue-collar jobs in the (shrinking) manufacturing sector. The green draft's efforts to be lyrical in its imagery (perhaps overly much in places) were simply put down as a "brain-dead flower-child mantra" and manifestations of "cyber-ascetics." Whether her characterization of its authors as "Brownies" was a calculated, but veiled ploy to associate its ideas with brownshirted Nazism is not clear. What is apparent from her attack is that any ideas antagonistic to her rightwing mythology of the free market and her no-limits-to-growth mentality—whether Oakland Ecopolis's indictment of mindless consumerism or its effort to foster a local economy built upon local sustainability principles and resources—were viewed as simply beyond the ideological pale and worthy of sarcasm and contempt.

Encouraged by the Brown camp to take the lead in responding to the column, I fired off a rejoinder to the San Francisco Chronicle only to learn that its editorial policy forbade publishing direct responses to opinion page columns. I was invited though to write a more general op/ed piece defending the plan. My guest op/ed piece, titled"Jerry Brown's Vision of an Oakland Ecopolis," appeared a week-and-a-half later.

It argued first that while the Center for Sustainable Cities looked to medieval hill-towns like Todi and Perugia, Italy for insights into ingredients for model sustainable cities, "Oakland is not and can never be Todi or Perugia since each path to sustainability by cities like Oakland will be carved out of the local resources and the collective intelligence of its inhabitants."

Another myth it sought to overcome was that Oakland Ecopolis lacked an economic program. Such a misconception, it observed, confuses mere growth with genuine development. "Many aspects of Oakland's growth have impoverished the downtown with outlying mega-commercial sites, shattered neighborhood communities by building more freeways, and turned much of what is unique and special about Oakland into an increasingly homogeneous geography of nowhere (and everywhere)." If true sustainable development is about quality, then eco-urban plans like this one must be built upon a solid economic platform, but one quite antithetical to Saunders's "no-limits-to-growth" strategy.

Finally, the op-ed piece concluded the Oakland document was above all a call for a participatory design process to generate a community vision of the ecologically necessary and political possible. As it elaborated: "to develop that vision and to craft those specific recommendations, Oakland citizens of all ethnic and racial stripes have to be empowered to participate actively in its formulation. That is the essential democratic core of the procedural recommendations underlying this unfolding document."

Pointing to what was central in the mayoralty race, the piece concluded that "Jerry Brown's mayoralty campaign should be seen as important not for the political leadership it will bring to office. It is important for the creative popular energies it will unleash and the elegant solutions its inhabitants will produce. As citizens intuitively realize and politicians are learning, those democratic energies are the taproots of a community's true and only infinite resource."

Unbeknownst to the Green Team, the central premise of the piece (i.e., that Brown continued to regard Oakland Ecopolis as a key element of his campaign platform) proved to be in error. Stung by criticisms of the document and himself, Brown was not only beginning to backpedal, but was setting in motion a dramatic shift in the substance and tone of his campaign. This transformation in campaign strategy and tactics was signaled by the closing of communication lines between Brown's Oakland staff and the Lexington Green Team and by indications in the area newspapers that Brown had begun to shift gears. Within three weeks, Brown completely abandoned his erstwhile progeny, leaving it (and us) to hang slowly in the wind.

Admittedly, Brown's political situation in the crowded race posed serious problems. For one thing, he had to contend with formidable African-American opponents like county council woman Mary King, urban planning professor Edward Blakely, and local NAACP president Shannon Reeves, who had built strong power bases in the Oakland black community. He also had to confront charges that he was a political outsider to Oakland who really knew little about the city and its needs. That our plan for a plan did not go into specific recommendations that were well grounded in Oakland's political and economic circumstances did not help. Under siege on this issue, Brown retorted, "People need to talk about the big vision. This is just a starting-point. But people are going to try and hang me with this document. But it's just a first step." In the face of relentless criticism of the document and insistent calls for him to operationalize its principles and guidelines, Brown turned to more staple issues of city politics—crime in the streets, downtown deterioration, and a scandalous public education system.

Interestingly, this was not the first time Jerry Brown had pulled the rug from under an ecological program originally touted as his inspiration and supposedly dear to his heart. A year or so earlier, while working out of his waterfront warehouse Brown invited two supporters to initiate a novel program called the School of Sustainability, which gained much favorable press and journal commentary from progressive reporters.

The school was actually the brainchild of Laura Cutler, a Bay area lawyer lured to Brown's new waterfront home in 1996. Promised space and assistance from the We the People staff, Cutler worked to realize the ambition of instituting an adult education center for neighborhood citizens. But Brown's attraction to the concept of the school and its long-range goals quickly lost steam once he turned to the other idea that beckoned. The other shortcoming of the school's operation was the chaotic nature of the We the People organization—something that became readily apparent to Tam Beeler, architect of the ecology school's curriculum. In her words, "The basic reality anyone will say objectively about Jerry Brown is you got Jerry and the big organization, but there's no middle management, there's no integrated team of people." To be successful, grassroots organizations must be institutionalized in order to weather tough times and stay focused on the long-term goals. Brown's leadership style seemed to Cutler and Beeler to depend upon the inexhaustible energy and administrative skills of volunteers, presuming that administrative backup was unnecessary and routinized planning sessions would simply happen by themselves.

A conflict of interpretation of the scope and direction of the School of Sustainability ultimately prompted Brown and the school's teachers and volunteers to part company. Brown wanted to push the school in the direction of examining the social and political conditions frustrating ecological lifestyles, while Beeler and Cutler sought to take the school's curriculum to average citizens in surrounding neighborhoods and to link up the school's program with environmental studies programs at area colleges and universities.

Invitation to a Funeral

Over the course of the rest of the mayoral campaign, Oakland Ecopolis virtually disappeared from the political and media radar screens. Having been consigned to limbo by Brown, it sat there in cyberspace on Brown's We the People and Oaklanders FirstWebsites—untended, unnurtured, undeveloped. Debra Saunders couldn't resist taking a sideswipe at it in a succeeding column. Later in the campaign, when George Will dropped by Oakland to give a reading of the campaign as another chapter in California politics and Jerry Brown's place in it, Brown dismissed the document as the academic meanderings of "two professors from Kentucky."

With this abrupt shift in campaign themes to more tested issues of local politics, Brown turned to a heavy schedule of going to the people. His strategy alternated between attracting national media attention around the country, heralding the refrains that "all politics is local," and taking to the streets to visit local citizens in their homes and lure ethnic and racial voting blocks at neighborhood and church festivities. The strategy worked exceeding well, as he bested his nearest rival by over 40 percent and won an absolute majority of the votes in the primary, making a November run-off election moot.

With this impressive victory, Brown turned his attention to garnering signatures on petitions to place a Measure X—a "strong mayor" amendment—on the November ballot. Although his predecessor, Elihu Harris, failed a few years earlier to amend the city charter with nearly the same amendment, the measure of Brown's electoral success was demonstrated by his ability to mobilize Oaklanders by a wide margin to pass it this go around. Brown had apparently tapped a strong current among voters for a departure from traditional politicians who had governed Oakland in the recent past, and as well had convinced them that fortifying the mayor's office was a necessary step in getting Oakland moving again. While Oakland Ecopolis had rejected any "strong mayor" measure as antithetical to grassroots democracy, Brown may have shown better political instincts in believing that Oaklanders were looking for a recentralizing of powers in the mayor's office as a springboard to vigorous leadership.

But in other respects it is not at all clear that Brown's political intuition has served him well. For one thing, his seeming reinvention of himself as a "beyond-ideology centrist," according to one political observer, has prompted him to adopt some of the technocratic strategies of the eclipsed city manager: rooting out inefficiency in government, beefing up the police force, and forcing out of office political cronies of old powerholders. He has antagonized traditional supporters of the public school system by championing charter schools. While he has virtually won over rightwing columnist Debra Saunders, who has dubbed him the "downtown mayor" for his efforts to lure 10,000 new residents to Oakland's center city, some black political and religious leaders have questioned Brown's commitment to downtown residential redevelopment and artistic renewal. They fear the gentrification of the downtown will simply crowd out black residents and turn it into a haven for white upper-middle class professionals seeking surcease from high San Francisco rentals.

In spite of his launching of a one-day Great Green Sweep, which dispatched thousands of volunteers to plant trees and community gardens, promote school and neighborhood beautification, clean streets and streams, and create environmental art, his interest and commitment to sustainability—the core concept of Oakland Ecopolis—has flagged. As he acknowledged in an interview nine months into his local administration, " I don't talk about 'sustainable development,' I talk about downtown development."

Lessons Learned

So what can we learn from this brief and sobering foray into the world of political consulting and rough-and-tumble politics? What does this case study say about the state of the sustainability dialogue in American politics today and the prospects for ecological cities and a conserver society tomorrow?

The Requirements of Green Consulting

Consultation from a distance feeds stereotypes and misunderstandings. This attempt at introducing a measure of ecological reason into the political process was vitiated by the great geographic distance of the Green Team in Lexington from the would-be ecopolis of Oakland. The efforts of the Green Team to compensate for its unfamiliarity with the place and space and storied struggles of the city called Oakland could only partly be compensated by careful research into the history, culture, and politics of Oakland and the Bay area. Proximity to the Brown campaign team and the local media would have done much to dispel misunderstandings and stereotypes, allowing better coordination and communication on the limits of the possible in Oakland's political and social climate.

Make sure the ground is prepared for innovative ideas and backed by your client. In many respects, Jerry Brown is a moving political target, constantly absorbing new ideas, continually remaking himself. The Green Team, including myself, presumed a great deal about his commitment to the Oakland Ecopolis idea. After all, he did make it a top priority of his We the People organization. He did contact me and commissioned me to prepare a draft of the document. On the other hand, he seemed to struggle with the issue of content, substituting other organizations' manifestoes and declarations on sustainability, links to green city programs, and evocative ecological poems on his Web sites. Despite his significant work as California governor in funding solar and other energy efficiency demonstration projects and heralding the dawning of the post-petroleum age, he seemed content both before and after the successful mayoral campaign and election to oscillate back and forth between bold and nonspecific visions couched in eco-moralist language and liberal nostrums mobilizing volunteerism among the citizenry guided by the "Reduce Reuse Recycle" slogan of environmental incrementalism.

Cultivate local organizations and build networks of sympathetic mediating groups and organizations. Physical distance from Oakland, undue focus on Brown as seedbearer of eco-city transformation, unfamiliarity with the constellation of forces organized around an ecological platform, and the hit-or-miss nature of our involvement in Oakland Ecopolis all conspired to keep us at arm's length from the taproots of local ecological and social justice organizations. These groups could have played a genuinely catalytic role in becoming true stakeholders in the plan for a plan process and popularizing the idea in progressive circles and grassroots forums.

Too late did I learn of Urban Ecology's involvement in Bay area ecological planning and politics and the location of its headquarters Oakland. Indeed, Urban Ecology had already designed a Bay area ecological plan that played no part in the Green Team's deliberations. It is too easy to point out that Brown never felt the need to galvanize support for his inchoate Oakland Ecopolis idea before inviting us to articulate our own. Perhaps the one major contribution of the document to Bay area discussions of eco-city planning among area activists was its role in energizing ecoplanner Richard Register's Berkeley conference on green cities after the election.

Recognize the mediating influence of the cultural apparatus and its role in propagating, disseminating, and perpetuating stereotypes, biases, and hackneyed images. Though I tried to keep up my defenses with newspaper reporters, I was not prepared for the strength and tenacity of hardened stereotypes that would shape the image and character of the discourse on Jerry Brown, Oakland Ecopolis, and the Green Team. Teaching about the cultural apparatus is one thing; being strained through its filters is quite another experience! As if that was bad enough, the speed with which Brown backed off of the ideologically distorted portrait of Oakland Ecopolis (and even contributed to the process!) surprised me more. For all the conversations and interviews Brown has had on radio and in informal settings with ecological and New Age intellectuals, his grasp of sustainability and issues of sustainable development tends to be not so much deeply grounded theoretically as it is anchored in an intuitive homing device that leads him to flit from one hot issue to another. Royko's labeling of Brown as "Governor Moonbeam," earned in part for his proposal while governor advocating that California put up a communications satellite, has proven a convenient handle for rightwing columnists like Debra Saunders and George Will to approach ideas like Oakland Ecopolis as the next signals being beamed from Brown's antennae.

Lessons from the Candidate

As is all politics, timing is everything. Brown's impatience to get into the campaign fray in Oakland and to demonstrate that he had a green plan for the community were key factors influencing the early unveiling of Oakland Ecopolis and its becoming something akin to a skeet shooting contest, with the document serving as the clay pigeon. The green plan for a plan really required close scrutiny by the Brown camp and a more carefully prepared delivery into the political arena—conditions that we could propose but not impose. Ironically, precisely because it was publicized so early, its hasty release proved a net advantage to Brown in his bid for Oakland mayor. Since the countermobilization against the document from his political rivals and from the media rightwing occurred so quickly, Brown had enough time pick himself up, dust off his clothes, put distance between himself and the document he commissioned, and adopt a more traditional campaign strategy while never abandoning his "Oaklanders First" banner.

Politics and winning: victory is its own reward. The old political saws that "Nothing succeeds like success," and "Victory is its own reward," carry their measure of truth. And political victory is what Jerry Brown craves. The purpose of this reflective piece is neither to perform a hatchet job on Jerry Brown nor to defend the unalloyed virtues of the original green plan. With the possible exception of Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown has long been the American left's best hope for a presidential candidate pushing the Democratic party in a left progressive or left communitarian direction. His post-election refrain, "all politics is local," which replaced his pre-campaign theme of Oakland Ecopolis, captures a measure of his ability to gravitate and articulate inchoate cultural and politics ideas seeding avant-garde intellectual circles and to tame them in the process of making them his own.

On the other hand, Brown's singular role in the American party politics points to the big hole in the American ideological system that in Europe is populated by social democratic and democratic socialist and other left parties. That gaping hole, analyzed some years ago with great subtlety by Walter Dean Burnham, is crowded with disaffected, generally alienated citizens who in France or Italy would be drawn into parties on the left. Jerry Brown stands on the precipice of that deep crater, now shouting into the chasm and hearing his echo, then raising his voice and pointing his antennae to those nonmainstream cultural and political elements huddled around him. In the absence of a viable and institutionalized left in the United States, his behavior is not really so bizarre.

The two Jerry Browns: Governor Moonbeam and Mr. Governor. One must be careful not to sell Jerry Brown short as a politician or political leader. The political record clearly demonstrates that there are at least two Jerry Browns. One is the perennial candidate-in-waiting who so often fosters the image of himself as Governor Moonbeam. The other, Mr. Governor, is the seasoned politico and administrator who surrounds himself with people of creativity and administrative acumen capable of running with his ideas and organizing his administration so that that novel ideas and bold concepts can be translated into dramatic initiatives and successful programs. Brown may never return to the ideas that animated his initial intuition about Oakland as an "ecopolis of the future." But it is likely that most Oaklanders will conclude after he leaves office that he made local politics seem interesting and vital to their everyday lives and that he placed Oakland on the national political map,thus redeeming it from the stigma of Gertrude Stein's rude characterization.

The high costs of repudiating a vision—Oakland's sustainability agenda after and without Oakland Ecopolis. Still, the metamorphosis of image and partial reality of Jerry Brown from Mayor Moonbeam into Mr. Mayor has not been accompanied by a restoration of the holistic vision underpinning his call for an Oakland Ecopolis. Nor has it issued in a return of the language and rhetoric of sustainability and sustainable development. The former has been supplanted by an embrace of an 'urban pragmatism' extolled by Debra Saunders and Dashka Slater and a championing of a green cultural aesthetics that has informed his plans for the artistic revival of the downtown presaged in his inauguration ceremony, where he issued a call for greater artistic "festival and celebration in Oakland."

Lacking a coherent and holistic framework, Brown's plans for renewing Oakland come across as so many discrete and unconnected programs having no center or overriding logic. Today, he promotes the Great Green Sweep, tomorrow he calls a technology summit to woo high-technology firms and to integrate Oakland's economy into the developing networked global economy of the new millennium. The next day he is inviting Oakland artists to display their cultural works as part of a happening to focus attention on the need to transform the downtown into a magnet for artist colonies. A day later he is reinventing citizen security by promoting new technology that plots crime patterns on a computerized map and posts the information on the Web so any citizen with a computer and internet access can view it.

As his chief confidant Donald Perata put it, "I don't think Jerry plans. He's so quick and he has such presence that he just sort of moves by instinct. What Jerry wants to be is sort of a rainmaker for urban government. He wants to be able to show how cities can regain front stage in America. He wants to be a big-picture guy."

The trouble is that big picture has proven elusive. Like Nietzsche's idiot who redoubled his effort when he lost sight of his goal, Jerry Brown gives the impression of being a political dynamo intent on tearing down old political alliances and initiating new programs here, there, and everywhere. Having abandoned the particular substance of Oakland Ecopolis, which could only have been realized as a plan for a plan through an open, participatory process influenced in part by a mayor as political educator, he now seems to have discarded the idea of Oakland Ecopolis as an integrating vision—substituting a truncated vision of a revitalized downtown characterized by "elegant diversity and mixed-use vibrancy." As a result, the fragmented and scattered initiatives, programs, and plans he has activated in office fail to cohere, and strike one as surrogates for the procedures and proposals offered in the original Oakland Ecopolis as starting points toward an ecopolis of the future.

For all the lampooning it suffered, a second reading of the document, I believe, shows how well it stands up as a process for crafting a democratically generated green plan for Oakland. Unfortunately, hardly anyone felt compelled to read it independently of the biases, prejudices, and preformed images of the putative authorial figure who commissioned it. Sadder still, the one figure who could have fought for that vision has traded in the possibility of an embracing and persuasive vision of a sustainable city across the Bay for the political expediency of building a political portfolio of impressive victories and downtown development schemes and revitalization programs. As he admitted to me in an early phone call conversation, he has one more presidential bid in him—most likely, in 2004.


While it is easy to count Jerry Brown out as an agent of left progressive change, given his current centrist-pragmatic mooring points, it is dangerous to underestimate his potential for remaking himself and articulating emergent ideas and political possibilities looming on the political horizon and surfacing on the margins of the countercultural discourse. The inhospitable nature of the American social and cultural setting to holistic programs working against the powerful mainstream of growth-oriented corporate-capitalist assumptions and nostrums is longstanding and well known. On the other hand, no magic formula exists for instituting sustainable cities, suggesting that there can be no detour around the difficult and often frustrating pathway of hardball politics. This tough political road can be traversed more easily by determined and democratically inspired leaders buoyed by a multi-racial and multi-issue coalition of popular forces operating at the grassroots.

This ecopolis as the true home of humankind must one day arise if we are to live at peace in harmony with nature and one another beyond the tides of globalization, economic concentration, and high-consumption patterns that exploit nature's gifts and rob a quarter or more of the earth's growing population of a decent living standard, meaningful and rewarding work, social justice, and real political enfranchisement. While Oakland Ecopolis may have been stillborn, the needs and conditions that gave rise to the idea of the city as ecopolis beckon others to take up and activate this ancient verity and new millennium vision in their hopes, their dreams, and above all in their collective actions.


Special thanks to Hugh Bartling, Bob Lancaster, and Christopher Rice, members of the Green Team and comrades in arms.


Ernest J. Yanarella is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. He currently serves as Senate Council chair, Environmental Studies co-director, and Center for Sustainable Cities co-director. A contributor to Terrain.org in past issues, he continues work on sustainable urban design with UK architecture professor Richard S. Levine and studies of the costs of prison recruitment as an economic development strategy of small rural communities with Susan Blankenship.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Oakland Ecopolis: A Plan for a Green Plan

We the People

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown

Oaklandnet.com - Official Website of the City of Oakland

University of Kentucky's Center for Sustainable Cities

Urban Ecology, Inc.



Brown, Jerry. "Inauguration Speech [January 4, 1999]."

Delgado, Gary. 1993. "Building Multiracial Alliances: The Case of the People United for a Better Oakland." In Robert Fisher and James Kling, eds. Mobilizing the Community: Local Politics in the Era of of the Global City [Urban Affairs Annual Review # 41]. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

DelVecchio, Rick. 1997b. "Jerry Brown Foresees a Greener Oakland: Eco-proposal Modeled after Italian Hilltown." San Francisco Chronicle. October 30: A18.

DelVecchio, Rick. 1998a. "Brown's Focus on Issue: Short-lived Green Project Symbol of Leadership Style." San Francisco Chronicle. February 17: A12.

DelVecchio, Rick. 1998d. "Jerry Brown Returns Triumphant: Oakland's Next Mayor Wins by Huge Margin." San Francisco Chronicle. June 3: A1+.

Huss, Mary. 1999. "Oakland Scales Technology Summit." San Francisco Business Times. 14, 15 (November 19): 62.

Saunders, Debra J. 1997. "Oakland: Ecopolis or Egopolis?" San Francisco Chronicle. November 7: A27.

Saunders, Debra J. 1999. "The Downtown Mayor." San Francisco Chronicle. November 7: 9.

Will, George. 1998. "Gov. Moonbeam Looks to the Hills." Louisville Courier-Journal. April 30: A11.

Yanarella, Ernest J. 1997. "Jerry Brown's Vision of an Oakland Ecopolis." San Francisco Chronicle. November 18: A21.

Yanarella, Ernest J.; Bartling, Hugh; Lancaster, Bob; and Christopher Rice. 1997. "Oakland Ecopolis: a Plan for a Green Plan—Finding the Grassroots Resources for a Sustainable Vision for Oakland."

Yanarella, Ernest J., and Richard S. Levine. 1992b. "The Sustainable Cities Manifesto: Pretext, Text, and Post-Text." Built Environment. 18(4): 301-313.



Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.