Housing Policy and Us


Jeff Stein

News this week from the NEW YORK TIMES. Their Sunday editorial, “Americans need More Neighbors” is a clear way of restating Arcosanti’s central theme, something we’ve been trying to describe by example in the Arizona desert for two generations. That is, there are all sorts of reasons – from human evolution, to our own mental and physical health, to the health of the rest of life on earth – that we should stop living as hermits in a thin film of single family houses spread-out over miles, miles that can only be traversed by machines. 

As the TIMES states, “That’s why a recent breakthrough in Minneapolis is so important. The city’s political leaders have constructed a broad consensus in favor of more housing. And the centerpiece is both simple and brilliant: Minneapolis is ending single family zoning.” According to Minneapolis (and according to us, too) single family houses contribute to climate change, constrain the economic potential of cities, and they drive up the cost of housing.  

Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey points out that, “cities are in constant evolution,” and single family housing limits that . “Residents – especially younger residents –  want to live in a different kind of city than did their parents,” mayor Frey says. “Dense, diverse, vibrant.” 

And coming next: the Oregon legislature is considering a statewide ban on single-family housing / zoning. Understanding  (rightfully so!) that at the very least duplexes and triplexes are cheaper to build and more sustainable in terms of energy and resource use and sociability. 

After that, of course, someone should be building more neighborhoods like Arcosanti’s East Crescent, designed for a bit more complexity than mere housing can provide.  Segregate the performing arts in so-called Cultural Centers on the edge of a city? Why not integrate the arts in the middle of your own urban neighborhood!

There’s a lot to look forward to, both at Arcosanti and, you know, pretty-much everywhere else, too.  Remember the work you have done here? Do some more, will you, wherever you are! Recall that Hopi saying: “Bloom where you’re planted.” And please, lets hear how you’re doing that.

By the way, we’re listening to the wonderful FORM | Arcosanti performer Julie Byrne right now, and you can, too:




“The word itself, automobile… it is a total misnomer, you know, “ said Paolo Soleri. Humans are truly auto-mobile, we can go anywhere, and we can pretty much go there under our own power. But cars can only move around on expensive, specially prepared surfaces – roads – and even then they need a human to drive them, to start and stop them. A believer in truly descriptive language, “Nothing about cars isauto…!” was Soleri’s point.

The road part of that equation still holds true, and of course, we as a species have become really good at making roads for cars, and we continue to make more and more of them. Here in Arizona, we have the sprawl of Phoenix, 60% of which is covered with paved roads; and just recently, at America’s 4th largest city, Houston, a big rainstorm falling on 16,000 lane-miles of impervious pavement laid over swampland has led to disastrous flooding for the third year in a row… an unintended consequence, and a story for another time.

But now: crowding those roads, here come actual auto-mobiles, ready or not. Google’s Waymo is bringing 600 self-driving Chryslers to AZ in the next little while; Tesla, after its big accidents in China and Florida, continues to plow ahead with self-driving cars; Uber self-drivers are moving along in our state, even after a recent accident in Tempe.

And it gets more interesting: Daimler has licensed the first self-driving Freightliner semi-truck in Nevada, and Tesla is currently testing robotic semis in California.Oboy…

None of this is entirely surprising. Senseless, perhaps, to those of us at Arcosanti, working here with ideas of urban containment and complexity; but not really surprising. The Landscape Urbanism pioneer Charles Waldheim, when he was chair of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design just a few years ago, said “If you have a culture that is fundamentally automobile-based, then an urban model that is anti-automobile is counterintuitive at best. There’s a strange precept these days that asserts that people will abandon their cars if we simply build cities that don’t accommodate them.” At Arcosanti we buy into that precept wholeheartedly, but Waldheim may be right. If so, here’s a troubling corollary about driverless cars: we’re likely not going to abandon our cars (or our idea of walkable cities, either) if a few companies simply build cars that drive themselves.

And that’s the interesting situation that we are about to confront in Arizona: not just driverless cars, but roads and streets that are shared by both drivers and robots.

Arthur St. Antoine, an editor at large of AUTOMOBILE, had some worries about this in the magazine’s recent issue. “Self-driving cars? Do we really need them?” was his first worry. There’s no good answer to that, except to say that they are shiny, those in charge seem to have a preference for technology over simplicity, plus we already have roads and driving habits, and a small class of people steering the culture who, separated from the rest of life on earth, could safely get work done on their phones while sitting in traffic.

But while those folks are texting in their robot cars, many of us are still going to be driving our own, and we have different personalities than the robots. For one thing, as drivers, we’re more aggressive than the robots are programmed to be, and that is already making for interesting problems.

For instance, so far in the several accidents involving self-driving cars, the robots themselves have not been found at fault. As St. Antoine points out, self-driving cars are programmed to be polite, to avoid accidents. If one comes up to a 4-way stop intersection, its computer will take note of who was there first, who was second, and so forth. When it is the robot’s turn to proceed, it will do so, unless a driver aggressively pulls out in front. Then the robot will stop to let it pass. Once every aggressive driver starts to do that the driverless car could be sitting for a long time. Or think about driverless cars trying to merge onto bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. With no clear space to drive into, robots will just stay parked on the ramp.

Welcome to the new world, one with warmer temperatures, stronger storms, higher tides, fewer fish, more people, and more cars of all sorts, even auto-mobiles. And more people than ever living in cities, too, a design issue that driverless cars will not solve, and one that we continue to work on here at Arcosanti. For us, a car-less city is counterintuitive only if you are a car company. Come for a visit, join us here on the edge of the beautiful high Sonoran desert, let us show you what we mean.

In a recent ARCHITECTURE magazine, Aaron Betsky described a series of magnificent new performing arts centers in Europe and in the US, each one built out on the edge of a metropolis. Their location means, of course, that these things pull civic life right out of the city, and also, they are not for poor people, i.e. not for anyone who cannot drive a nice car to a performance.

Meantime, at Arcosanti (where, we know, you have to drive a car to get to the place) our East Crescent amphitheatre, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, has been busy! A couple years ago, someone attending a concert here said this: “The level of immersion of the performing arts in this community surpasses anything else in America.” He was correct, and at our annual FORM Arcosanti festival of music, art and ideas, we demonstrated just what that immersion means.

Here’s how we introduced the wonderful Hundred Waters at FORM Arcosanti a couple Sunday evenings ago, right in the middle of our community…


“I want to be ready
I want to be ready
I want to be ready
To put on in heaven those long white robes…”

“I’m Jeff Stein, a president of the Cosanti Foundation, the urban research institution that – with its founder the late architect Paolo Soleri – invented this place, Arcosanti. I live right over there. So, Welcome to my neighborhood.

“I’m here, onstage for just a minute tonight, to give an introduction to Hundred Waters, so I thought I’d sing. That’s quite a song too, looking ahead to the next life. I want to get that sentiment out of the way, cuz while a lot of people feel like that these days, that’s not what we’re doing here.

“We are getting ready for something, alright, all of us gathered round this amphitheatre; but were not getting ready for heaven. We are not getting ready for the next life; Instead, what we’re doing everyday here at Arcosanti, that Hundred Waters is doing everyday all ‘round the world, we’re trying to make things happen…in the present…in this life. Our lives.

“This is our time, not some far-off future. Right here. Right now. And we want to make the most of it, to do the best work we can. Work as my colleague Mary Hoadley said on a panel discussion yesterday morning, work is LOVE MADE VISIBLE. That is what Arcosanti is. That is what FORM Arcosanti is right here in this amphitheatre tonight: we are LOVE MADE VISIBLE.

“That love needs to connect us, profoundly, the way this architecture has connected us all these past three days. The way Gregory Bateson has described it. Yes, anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Syllogistic Reasoning. You know, Aristotle: A Major premise;  Minor premise;  Conclusion

“Each subject is the object of the next statement. That’s how, historically, we have divided our world: into subjects and objects. Actors (us) and acted upon (everything else!). Life and not life. Man and environment.  Separate.
Here’s Aristotle:

Men Die.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates will die.

“No word about the tens of millions of other species – besides men — on the planet; and this is the very basis of Western Civilization: men DIS-connected from anything else. A way of thinking that has led to science, cars, tall buildings made out of completely dead materials….

But what if we reasoned this way? Still the syllogism, but not Aristotle, instead, the way Gregory Bateson suggests:

Men Die.
Grass Dies.
Men are grass.

“Sounds funny, but on the molecular level, on the level of carbon atoms, this is actually the case. It’s a case made for connection: of people, places, things. There’s no us and them in Bateson’s logic. It’s only us, life. And it is what this place, Arcosanti, and what Zach, Tre, Nicole, Hundred Waters is all about.
“These are people for whom making things – making music –  allows them to connect to something larger than themselves, allows them to connect to us, to these surroundings, to what it means to be fully human. They are doing as much as they can – as we all are at this place – to make this world a more beautiful, a more connected place today.

“And as Gregory Bateson expresses it: Everything is connected.
If you leave here having experienced this, through the universal language of architecture, through the universal language of music, believing it, ready to live your lives as if this is true, some things are going to change in the world.

Let me stop now with a story by Italo Calvino from his book INVISIBLE CITIES.  (It might seem familiar.)
“Those who finally arrive can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles.  If you ask, “Why is construction taking such a long time?” the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer, “So that its destruction cannot begin.” And if asked whether they fear, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, “Not only the city.”

“If dissatisfied with the answers, someone puts his eye to a crack in a fence, he sees cranes pulling up other cranes, scaffoldings that embrace other scaffoldings, beams that prop up other beams. “What meaning does your construction have?” he asks. “What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?”

“We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now,” they answer.  Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. ‘There is the blueprint,’ they say.”

“So. Ready?
Ladies and Gentlemen, HUNDRED WATERS.”

To honor the legacy of Corolyn Woods Soleri, Paolo Soleri’s late wife, the 34th annual Colly Concert at Arcosanti this year provided an extraordinary evening of choral music by the composer Morten Lauridsen. An audience of 250 filled the East Crescent Amphitheatre to hear combined choirs of 240 voices performing an integrated program of music, poetry, dance, projected imagery, devised by artistic director, pianist Lynne Haeseler. You really had to be there….

But the single most powerful moment of the weekend with Morten Lauridsen at Arcosanti presented itself earlier in the day, on Saturday afternoon, 3:37PM, prior to the concert itself, in the process of a Choral Workshop. The great NAU Shrine of the Ages choir was stationed on its curving riser, its members dressed in jewel tones, shining in the angular desert sunlight, a perfect visual counterpoint to architect Paolo Soleri’s soaring, vaulted arches at Arcosanti. Conductor Edie Copley stood relaxed on the podium.

Following his generous custom, Morten Lauridsen addressed the afternoon audience, explaining a piece from his Madrigali that NAU’s choir was about to sing, a difficult unaccompanied composition entitled, “Ov’e, lass’, is bel viso?” At the end of his explanation, Dr. Lauridsen glanced at Edie and then at the choir as his hands gently struck the opening chord of the song on an electronic piano, giving the young choir its keynote.

That beautiful chord reminded Lauridsen of something more to say to prepare the audience; and he took the next few minutes to say it. When he stopped speaking, in courtesy he raised his eyes again to Edie Copley, his hands perched, about to strike the chord a second time.

Instead, “They have it!” the conductor whispered.

Lauridsen settled back in peace. Then, Copley inhaled, drew herself up, suddenly becoming inches taller, moving only her deep eyes to look intently at each choir member, every one of whom was already concentrating only on her, holding their collective breath in their lungs, their collective keynote in their minds.

Copley’s arms were crossed, hands folded almost in prayer, held close to her body, when suddenly her arms straightened, her clenched fingers flew open, and the choir exploded with music and emotion! ILLUMINATION!! No one witnessing this had ever experienced anything like it before. It was the Big Bang, the opening of a new universe, an amazing, dizzying moment in which even the composer, Lauridsen, was overwhelmed by the power and beauty of his own music.

At the end of the piece, as the choir whispered a final “…lass…” the whole of Arcosanti fell silent; the audience could barely speak, could hardly breathe. The entire experience lasted only a few minutes, yet those minutes – experienced so deeply by everyone who was there — will be carried and remembered for the rest of their lives.

There are conductors who command the stage, who understand a composer’s work and the needs of an audience; conductors whose gestures are grand, and who thus keep the attention of their choristers on the music. That’s one way: managing. It works.

There’s another way, one that is more rare: unfolding. On Saturday afternoon at Arcosanti, Morten Lauridsen’s music bloomed; it unfolded, opened right up through conductor Dr. Edith Copley and her Northern Arizona University choir. Here’s how:

When she conducts, Edie Copley is the music.

The efficiency and power of her minimal gestures seem hold each individual choir member in a kind of suspension. Yet they are all in this suspension together, as one. It’s in the eyes, really. Their eyes meet hers, an electrical connection is made, and for the time that connection lasts, we audience members, we mere witnesses, are all elevated to a realm of human potential, a realm of connection, that is truly extra-ordinary.  Thanks to the genius of Lauridsen and Copley, basking and framed in the spirit of Paolo Soleri’s vaulted arches, this is is how life unfolded at Arcosanti on a Saturday afternoon this past September, 2015.

“A hundred choirs have sung my music,” said Morten Lauridsen that day. “I’ve been in dozens of concerts with them, the music is recorded on 30 CD’s sung by some of the greatest choirs in the world, several of them nominated for a Grammy. The NAU Shrine of the Ages choir’s performance of the first MADRIGALI was the finest I have ever heard in my life. The passion and precision! What a gift.”  What a gift indeed.

This week, Jason Edelstein, a student at Florida International University, sent an inquiry via the web.

“Hello Arcosanti,” he starts. “I am curious as to what measures you all are taking to ensure water security for the people who live there. I will be giving a presentation and offering advice for conflict resolution in a resource-driven context and would like to cite input from your organization about the viability of Arcologies as a long-term solution to the threat of drought here in the US and elsewhere in the world. Thank you in advance for your time”

Water security. Conflict Resolution. Powerful and important intersecting research topics, sounds like, especially for the coming generation. And it’s true: Arcosanti is out here in Central Arizona by intention, on the edge of the Sonoran desert, a marginal landscape even without the current drought, trying to test ideas about architecture and urbanism and water use generally. We’re certainly on the water planet – 7/10’s of Earth’s surface is covered by water currently; and in our lifetimes that statistic is likely to grow even larger as quickly as glaciers, ice at the poles, the Greenland ice sheet, are all melting. On the other hand, about 1/3 of the world’s deserts have occurred since 1900, and that pace only seems to be quickening, so we’re certainly going to be the desert planet, too. And we humans, like all life, are essentially walking bags of water. All this might lead to real exploration.

Ensuring water security. At Arcosanti, of course, we do follow ADEQ / Arizona Department of Environmental Quality rules regarding the locking of pumphouses and restriction of access to tanks. That sort of security is very big deal at ADEQ. But, really, beyond that, in a larger context, there is no ensuring security of access, is there? You could call-out the National Guard, as an Arizona governor has done in the past, but California has a bigger National Guard presence (and they did, back then, too), so even that won’t help that much to ensure continued flow to Arizona’s cities and farms.

OR: You could move to Minnesota, “Land of 1,000 Lakes”. And this suggestion is only partly facetious; the issue might in fact be this: where should you build cities (not just arcologies)? Urban design itself has only been an academic discipline since WWII; and even though most cities now have planning departments, no city has been designed by an urban planner, or by an evolutionary biologist, or by anyone who knows how earth’s systems actually work. Pretty much all of them have been created for short-term profit by real estate brokers/developers. As a result, Phoenix might not be in an ideal location; nor is Miami or Boston, it turns out…

Our attitude about water — and much else — at Arcosanti is one of conservation. Now, this in itself might not be enough to ensure water security; but we’re not just talking about turning off the tap when you brush your teeth. Because of the three-dimensional, multi-storey nature of the proposed arcology, our plans are to do away with expansive lawns, open-field agriculture, car-washes, individually-owned swimming pools for huge savings in daily water use per person. We are perched on an underground aquifer; we harvest rain water from the roofs of our buildings (although it’s the Sonoran desert and our average rainfall these days hovers between 12 and 15 inches per year); we attempt to slow the rain runoff in washes on our site to help recharge our aquifer; and while we do indeed have a swimming pool, and water does evaporate from it, we have just one for our entire community.

Also because of the proposed 3-D, dense urban pattern of arcology, we intend not to pollute the water resources we have. With no need for cars in town, the place where most American car trips occur, we are removing a central source of water pollution from the culture. Brake dust, tire particles — you get new tires for your car every 50,000 miles? Where do you think all that carbon/rubber/petroleum product that was your tire tread has gone? Washed down storm sewers into the water supply, is where. 260 million cars registered in the US x 4 wheels = over a billion tires…interesting!

Then, too, America’s current method of growing food on open-field farms with rain-runoff of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is responsible for turning many of our rivers and water sources — like the Mississippi by the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico — into toxic flows. As we experiment with greenhouse growing at Arcosanti, and propose more of it integral to the idea of arcology, a couple of important solutions to water use occur. First we use less of it. (Farming and agriculture in the seven river basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California — currently take more than 70 percent of all the water that flows from the Colorado River.) Evaporation inside an irrigated greenhouse can be naturally recycled, and thus conserved. Second, since food-growing is within the settlement – not segregated in some distant unseen location — we are careful to use organic horticulture techniques. And while we do have flush toilets at Arcosanti, all of them are low-flush; and we utilize ultra-low-flow water faucets in kitchens and bathrooms as well. We are just now in the midst of installing a grey-water system in our East Crescent integral urban neighborhood at Arcosanti that will allow us to use the same drop of water more than once.

Finally, the mere fact of urban density, knowing your neighbors, seeing them everyday,working and socializing with them, allows for a sense of community, of shared ideals, of understanding one is part of a larger culture and has a responsibility to the whole. The pattern of inhabitation proposed by the very idea of arcology holds the promise of raising consciousness, being aware how everything on earth is connected and actually experiencing that connection. This very fact led Arcosanti’s Strategic Plan Steering Committee a week ago to invite Jim Holway PhD, onetime coordinator of Arizona State University’s Arizona Water Institute, and more recently the Assistant Director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, to offer a seminar on Water Resources Sustainability that the entire Arcosanti community took part in.

The core values we are pursuing as we move ahead with Arcosanti’s design and construction, include the following:

• Ecological Accountability: The Cosanti Foundation continues to develop human
habitat that protects its surroundings to address Ecological Accountability.
• Limited Footprint: We see that Urban Density as opposed to unbounded sprawl allows more activities in less space, providing access for all to the social essentials of city life.
• Resourcefulness: We continue to foster Resourcefulness, a careful, thoughtful approach to planning, building and daily life that is experientially rich and materially frugal.
• Experiential Learning: The Cosanti Foundation remains dedicated to Experiential Learning, committed to the power of Demonstration as a dynamic, grounded educational experience.
All these influence our relationship with water.

Want to read more about water and the Southwest? My recommendations include the following:

Paolo Bacigalupi’s brand new, THE WATER KNIFE
Craig Childs’ classic, HOUSE OF RAIN
Andrew Ross, BIRD ON FIRE