Friday, February 19, 2010

The greenest city in the U.S.?

Justmeans co-founder Kevin Long recently asked me what I thought was the greenest city in the U.S. and without too much hesitation, I responded with Portland, OR.

I’ll admit, I’m biased; I can’t help it; I heart Portland.

Everyone hearts Portland, or they should. It’s a great place – beautiful, clean, not too expensive, good food, great beer, free public transportation. What’s not to like? Okay, I know, somewhere out there I’m sure there is a contingent of Portland haters -- people who probably think the city is too yuppie or too upper-middle-class-white or too rainy. [First of all, let me just say that I live in Boston and by this time of the year, February, I’d take rain over frigid arctic temps any day. Second, you can complain about the yuppiness of a place like Portland all you want, but let’s face it, deep down you kind of like it.]

Anyway, Portland was my knee-jerk reaction, but then I got to thinking…why is it that I think Portland is the greenest city in the country? Is it really because of the various sustainable development initiatives put forth by the city? Or, is mostly because Portland is, simply, a nice place to live? Is a nice city with a high quality of life a sustainable city?

After a little googling, I found some “objective” support for my case. I am definitely not the first to attest to Portland’s greenness – the city’s progressive planning and land use, urban innovation, air and water quality, and impressive number of green buildings make it an easy choice.

But there’s more to it than this. When I think about why Portland feels like a green city, it’s not these measurable qualities that come to mind, but instead, something much more difficult to articulate…something about the culture of the city and the priorities of the people who live there.

It’s not just that you can walk out your door and sample locally-brewed beer at any one of the many microbreweries, or go for a trail run in the city’s 5,000-acre city park, or ride your bike everywhere…it’s that the people you meet in Portland really care about these “green” urban features and want to talk to you about them. Portland’s “greenness” is embedded into the culture of the city; people move there because of it and there’s a palpable energy that comes from this collective environmental enthusiasm.

People heart Portland. They care about the city they live in and because they care, they work to improve it, even though it’s pretty darn cool already. Maybe that’s not the way we typically think about “greenness” but it sure makes Portland a nice place for the environmentally-minded to call home.

Share and Enjoy:
Digg Technorati Stumbleupon Blinklist Reddit Furl Yahoo Spurl Simpy

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pride, Denial and Development

Confronting the pride and the denial that are besetting the world's 'greatest superpower': redefining development.

The problem with being a super power is you tend to think highly of yourself. You are, after all, both super and power. The pride that comes with thinking of oneself as highly developed, or civilized, or at least a great Empire is undoubtably one of the major reasons why it has taken the United States - and other Western countries - so long to fully admit to and appropriately deal with dangers such as climate change and with the challenges of sustainable development and to normalise green growth.

Take the area where the United States should excel: renewable energy. The US has the old auto factories that easily become wind turbine factories, it has the massive of unemployed, many of who are blue collar workers, it has a social movement (Green for All) that is supporting the transition, it has excellent examples of poverty-energy-growth- win-win-win sustainable solutions, it has global reach, industrial prowress, excellent access to markets, generally favorable trade policies, etc. You know the drill. Who is excelling? China. They are becoming the leaders in green energy - as you probably knew.

There are a lot of reasons why. But pride, prejudice, and a dangerous degree of denial are right up there. Not that the United States is new to any of those characteristics - particularly the denial aspect. Which is dangerous for any market entity - it is essential that the US keep its head above water, something its having an increasingly difficult thing doing.

There needs, now, a reconceptualisation of development in order to enable sustainable development. With China owning much of the US, and with it clearly racing ahead on what is surely some of the most important emerging markets for this century, we can not longer say that even though China is poor, it is clearly undeveloped. And given the dangers of pride and prejudice, I would be loath to call any country that includes them as 'developed'. Instead, all countries should be seen as developing. That would enable a greater degree of humility - and the chance for learning. And such humility is essential for sustainable development.

Share and Enjoy:
Digg Technorati Stumbleupon Blinklist Reddit Furl Yahoo Spurl Simpy

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hope for the jobless?

I tuned into NPR the other day and Tom Ashbrook was leading a panel discussion where he and several guests were summing up the events of the past decade and discussing what they mean/have meant for life in the U.S. There was a lot to talk about, obviously, but I tuned in just in time for a debate about joblessness, particularly as it is affecting young people in this country.

I bring this up because there has been a very similar conversation taking place recently on, amongst two of the Sustainable Development writers, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Sara Wolcott. Kendra and Sara have been discussing the high number of young and well educated people who have recently found themselves out of a job, and pondering the shortcomings of higher education, in general.

Tom Ashbrook had a caller, James – an unemployed, 27-year-old graduate from a fancy university – who phoned in to say, basically, this:

“I’ve spent the last decade doing everything I was told I was supposed to do. I did well in high school, went to a good college and studied something that I was passionate about that had real-life applications; I worked internships to get experience and went to another good school to get a graduate degree to set myself apart. Now, I’ve been unemployed for over a year and can’t make my student loan payments. Where is the world that I was promised?”

I was at the edge of my seat by the time the caller got to this point. I was thinking about how many people I know who have found themselves in a similar situation recently and I was desperately awaiting what I knew would be Tom’s reassuring advice to James. I was waiting to hear: “the economy’s tough right now, but hang in there; everything will be okay; you’ll find work; you’ll do great things, etc.”

No such luck.

Tom and two of the other panelists basically told James that they felt his pain over the crappy situation [I don’t think they actually said “crappy” on the radio.] Then, they agreed that everything – the economy, the climate, the way we live our lives – was changing so fast that there wasn’t really any way to anticipate what was going to happen or what skills/jobs/careers would be necessary over the short or long term. Basically they just told James that he was right, that it was very possible he wouldn’t find the world he had been expecting.

Really? That’s it?

In their posts, Kendra and Sara addressed some of the unsustainable aspects of our educational system. I guess all I want to add is that we can’t wait for the system to fix itself. We all know that the world is changing really fast and we’re all looking for better ways to do things – more sustainable ways to live, work, and act. It’s hard to think about big picture things like changing the system when you’re worried about day-to-day things like paying your rent.

Yet, at the same time, maybe the rough job market is an opportunity – a chance to avoid getting sucked into the unsustainable ways of old and to experiment with different lifestyles and different priorities.

Who knows, maybe we couldn’t do it any other way.

Share and Enjoy:
Digg Technorati Stumbleupon Blinklist Reddit Furl Yahoo Spurl Simpy

Monday, February 8, 2010

Empowering women - but don't ignore the context

Practitioners and preachers of sustainable development generally adhere to the importance of empowerment. Especially the empowerment of women. Give a poor woman in a village a cow, and she will lift not only herself but her family and many friends and neighbours out of the depths of poverty. If you set up micro finance, set up microfinance with women. Then you will have sustainability.

But what does this really mean? Can we really buy into that common narrative? In different places, empowerment means different things. In Ramallah, Palestine, some women feel that the term 'empowerment' is something they associate with a Western, neo-liberal agenda that seeks to give women material things rather than help them face the inherently inequal, unfair and deprived political situation that keeps them away from land and justice.

Self-determination is impossible - an extra goat won't do a lot of good in dealing with the underlying problems of Israeli occupation.

Other ways of enabling women to be empowered - establishing quotas for women in parliament, for example, can disempower certain groups of women with more radical ideas than 'the system' would allow. Technologies, especially movile phones and the internet, for example, have opened up new worlds and enable them to stretch to new horizons. But technologies can also be seen as sources of moral dangers. Similarly, NGOs, which are 'supposed' to empower civil society, are often far removed from the community and grassroots concerns that people have. In a situation like Palestine, empowerment of women needs to confront Israeli occupation. Which may or may not empower women in Israel - depending on how it is done. Regardless of their Israeli sisters, dealing with the hot political potato of Israeli occupation is something that many many NGOs and their donors are very reluctant to do. Sustainable development may well include empowerment, but empowerment means different things to different people in different contexts. Let's not forget the complecations - and that empowerment means dealing with power, and power means dealing with politics, and sometimes those politics are very complicated and very difficult and not, primarily, about gender.

Share and Enjoy:
Digg Technorati Stumbleupon Blinklist Reddit Furl Yahoo Spurl Simpy

Monday, February 1, 2010

Why Architects Hate Sustainable Development

What sustainability means for architects, and what we can do about it. Also included is a look at the changing meaning of “footprint” -- from to plan drawing to carbon counting.

Okay, you’re right. Architects don’t really hate sustainable development; no one hates sustainable development.

I mean, if we take the Brundtland Report’s definition of sustainability -- “a process or act that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”– then sustainability is basically a premise that is impossible to oppose. You can’t hate it. Hating sustainability would be like rejoicing in mass destruction…or hoping for environmental apocalypse…or wanting to kill kittens.

This said, the premise of sustainable development poses some really tricky issues for architects, i.e. people who are in the business of designing new buildings…people whose job it is to make things that use lots of natural resources and consume lots of energy…people who build new office towers for wealthy corporations, replacing open space [“nature”] with overly-air-conditioned cubicles. See the problem?

Let me illustrate the dilemma a little further by explaining a change that has taken place with regards to the architectural conception of “footprint.” Pre-sustainability, a building’s “footprint” was simply where [and how] it interacted with the ground – the surface or space occupied by a structure. Today, the understanding of an architectural “footprint” has expanded to incorporate the much more abstract notion of the building’s impact and demand on the environment at large – the embodied energy it consumes and the carbon it emits. This change was initiated in part by ecologist William Reese’s book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Impact on Earth, and has been expanded by the recent media emphasis on carbon counting and offsetting. Whereas the first type of footprint can be represented by a drawing of the building [a “plan”], the second requires a vast array of scientific modeling and measurements, life-cycle analyses, data tables and excel spreadsheets.

The premise of sustainable development carries with it a moral imperative to “minimize footprint.” Taken to its logical extreme, this injunction is incompatible with the very act of building – not building always has a smaller footprint than building. Architects, from the outset, find themselves in a compromised position. Unable to achieve the ultimate goal [“minimize footprint,” “leave no trace,” etc.] they must constantly weigh various options, trying to anticipate which undesirable option will make their work the least bad.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The outlook doesn't have to be so bleak. Architects can simply do their best to minimize the environmental impact of their buildings. The result may not be perfect, but with new technologies and different strategies, it can be more sustainable than what we’ve got right now. Of course, you are right, and let me assure you, there are lots of architects who are working in this way. There are even more architects who are making lots of money pretending to do so, but that is another issue altogether.

Let me just leave you with one thought. In my mind, it’s not enough to blindly accept the premise of sustainable development -- to assuage our guilt by offseting carbon in an effort to minimize our collective footprint. We shouldn’t be afraid to be critical of the premises of sustainable development and our critique shouldn’t be interpreted as a dismissal of the problems at hand. We should embrace today’s tone of looming crisis as an opportunity to reevaluate our priorities and to think really carefully about what it is, exactly, that we’re interested in sustaining.

As an architect, I guess what I’m searching for is a way to carve out a position for myself that’s somewhere in between loving kittens and hating sustainability.

Share and Enjoy:
Digg Technorati Stumbleupon Blinklist Reddit Furl Yahoo Spurl Simpy