The world is growing at a rapid pace. According to the U.N.’s most recent estimate, 50 percent of the world’s 7.7 billion residents live in cities today, with that number expected to increase to 75 percent by the time the population reaches 9.5 billion in 2050. 

So, what should people do in order to maintain the love for city dwelling while also protecting the planet? Is that balance even possible? The people living at Arcosanti, a community in Mayer, Arizona believe they have the answer. 

Arcosanti, also known as the Urban Laboratory, began construction in 1970 and was inspired by the ideas of the Cosanti Foundation. Established by Italian architect Paolo Soleri in 1965, Arcosanti can be defined simply by its names, broken up into two Italian words: “Cosa” meaning “air” and “Anti” meaning “before things.” 

It was founded on the idea of “prototype arcology,” an experimental way of living that uses architectural design principles for very densely populated, ecologically low-impact human habitats that goes against the grain of modern-day urban environments.

The mission of the Cosanti Foundation is to seek equitable and sustainable relationships between human activities and the Earth’s ecology: an idea most architects did not have in mind in 1970. Soleri wanted to break the mold of city developers turning farms into parking lots that literally transform the earth. He wanted to create “urban implosion, rather than explosion.”

According to Arcosanti’s Director of Community Engagement Tim Bell, this site is more significant now than it has ever been before because many people in modern cities accept the norm of waste and consumerism and forget about how these approaches to living will affect the planet in the long run.

“We rarely, if at all, stop to consider where the things we consume come from, about our infrastructure and how it affects our life, about how our ‘built’ environment might be affecting us psychologically, physically and spiritually,” said Bell. “We seek to prove, through intelligent and thoughtful urban design, that people can live in a city and have a close relationship with nature.”

One of the core values of the Cosanti Foundation is a limited footprint, choosing urban density instead of “unbounded dispersion,” which allows for more activities in less space without eliminating the social feeling of city life. And with more than 8,000 workshop participants and 42,000 visitors per year, Arcosanti encapsulates an urban feel while incorporating unique architecture.

The framework at Arcosanti

physically expresses the principle of arcology specifically by creating a compact urban form with innovative ideas such as being car-less and making spaces for multiple purposes.

For example, its concrete apse – a semicircular recess often found in church buildings – is used for both producing ceramic wind bells and as a staging area for amphitheater performances. The east and west-facing housing allows residents to take advantage of the greenhouse effect on their patio which has 12-foot swinging glass doors. Visitors who stay in the guest houses can bask in the beauty of the views of the Agua Fria River Valley while swimming in their 25-meter swimming pool, which is cradled in a basalt cliff.

The 70 to 150 people who reside in Arcosanti (depending on the season) are able to devote their time working up to 40 hours each week, without having to commute to and from places, which city residents can spend up to 10 hours per week doing. 

“That extra time is a profound kind of freedom and can be used in a variety of ways,” said Bell. “Some people are artists, some people are entrepreneurs, and some people value leisure above all and just use that extra time to relax.”

The residents who are artists are employed making bronze and ceramic bells, which are sold to the public and provide about half of the funding each year for Arcosanti – making them a crucial part of the Arcosanti project.

One of the most crucial aspects of the community is the spaces where people have access to make art. There are many opportunities for residents to discover multiple art forms they may not have been exposed to before, such as a laser cutting, 3D printers, wood shop and a 24-hour music center.

There are many events hosted at Arcosanti, including the International Film Carnivale in April, which happened to be Arizona’s first all-documentary film festival, and the FORM Festival in May.  

As for the goals of Arcosanti, Bell believes that visitors should come and see the passion residents have toward stewarding the project with great care and continuing to spread their message.

“I can’t really think of a reason that someone shouldn’t visit Arcosanti,” said Bell. “We would like to see the site continue to grow and to be viewed as an educational and experiential resource in a world that is rapidly changing and oftentimes difficult to understand.”

Arcosanti welcomes visitors daily for tours from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

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