The Wicked Simplicity of a Sustainable Built Environment

03/09/16

Thinking differently about the form and function of cities is an industry unto itself. Acting differently – actually changing the process of city building and the outcomes – takes work, and is perhaps the greatest challenge of the 21st century. We know that it is possible, and that people who make buildings, neighborhoods, cities and countries can shift to a new perspective that accommodates the complex interactions of all of these parts – systems thinking. Thinking in terms of systems leads to good decisions, and in the case of buildings and cities, good decisions optimize resource use, and make for healthier communities and vibrant local economies.

The problem is complexity, or, perhaps more accurately, the difficulty of choice. Never mind the many moving parts in the urban ecosystem. Thinking differently about the future is a recipe for anxiety. What can and should the city of the future be? Who will decide? Who is responsible?

We can agree that:

  • The city of the future will be a vertical megalopolis of garden skyscrapers.
  • No, wait – the city of the future looks like Paris: human scale, durable and timeless.
  • Or try Masdar City : passively regulated, environmentally integrated, powered by the sun.
  • Perhaps, the city of the future will be “intelligent” and allow buildings and cars to talk to each other in a never-ending stream of optimization.
  • Or, biomimetic – organically grown, biodegradable, adaptable and recyclable.
  • The city of the future will not be a city at all, but a return to small towns and rural life.

The truth is, it may be all of the above, and it could be something we haven’t yet imagined. Cities of the future will be as diverse as cities of today. The only sure bet is that people will always design, construct, and inhabit cities.

We tend to think of cities as places of hard lines and edges – separate from ourselves – but cities are habitats made by, for and of people (with apologies to the uninhabited City Lab in the desert of New Mexico). Our flesh and bones absorb the hard edges, and shape the forms – there is interaction.

So, if cities are for us, designed by us, and used by us, why are they most often destructive to human life? We think of our cities as separate from nature, and in fact they are disruptive to natural cycles. We use energy and water carelessly, in the process damaging the natural resources that give us life, threatening our very ability to exist. We fill the air and our lungs with pollutants from fossil fuels and toxic materials.

Choosing a different way to build cities is hard, because we’re used to doing things a certain way, and change is difficult unless forced. The limitations of conventional thinking, including the terms of institutional capital and building codes, are rules rather than tools used in service of an optimal outcome. We’ve forgotten the point: While designers often joke that buildings would be perfect if not for people, the truth is that buildings exist only because of us. Without recognition that all components (people and things) of the urban system are interrelated and interdependent, systems are incredibly inefficient. In the worst cases, things fall apart.

We need to think in systems – to enable people to embrace complexity and the unknown, and make good decisions. Here’s what needs to happen (I’ll explore each of these points more deeply in subsequent posts):

First, accept that there is no silver bullet. Systems are complex, and a variety of activities are necessary to address each component, actor and interaction within the system of a city. Key to this is effective stakeholder engagement, and leaders focused on managing complexity.

Second, focus on outcomes. A paradigm shift in policy-making and regulatory controls requires deep engagement with stakeholders and commitment to stewardship of often messy processes. Leaders must facilitate communications that build trust, and guide proof-of-concept pilots and demonstrations.

Third, stop making excuses. Here, the role of leaders is to ask scary questions – to not let excuses rule the day. Ask not, “Why should we do this?”, but rather, “Can anyone give me a reason we should not do this thing that will allow life to happen?”

Humans have proven that we can solve almost any problem that is complicated – that is, difficult or deep. We seem to have trouble with complexity – problems with many moving pieces, so-called “wicked” problems, systems problems. Buildings and cities are complex systems. The key to optimizing a system is communication among the actors within. Sustainability is not difficult. It’s that simple.

Ric Cochrane
Ric Cochrane

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