Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sustainability is a Context

Manhattan as the model for sustainability. When people think about sustainability, images of Manhattan typically don't leap out. But consider this - - Manhattan residents rank first in public transit use and last in per capita greenhouse-gas production. They consume gasoline at a rate the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-1920s. All of this from the most densely populated place in North America. The urban environment as sustainability model versus what most people think when New York City comes up -- the images of an ecological nightmare and wasteland.

Author David Owen, in his book Green Metroplis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (2010), makes a compelling case that Snowmass, Colorado is not the model for sustainability - - it is New York, New York. Owen admits that New York is not the only or best urban sustainability model - - it however, is a useful example to discuss the linkages between sustainability and density.

Sustainability is one of those ideas that seems to have very fluid definitions - - one thing to a highway engineer, one thing to an architect, one thing to a corporate executive - - they all seem to talk about sustainability in the context of their narrow areas without any linkages to a system or complete idea. It is sustainability in the micro extreme, where the sum of the parts never seems to add up to the whole - - any whole. Owen does a great job explaining this in the following paragraph:

The crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a "sustainable" house, office building, or household appliance, for the same reason that there can be no such thing as a one-person democracy or a single-company economy. Every house, office building, and appliance, no matter where its power comes from or how many of its parts were made from soybeans, is just a single small element in a civilization-wide network of deeply interdependent relationships, and it's the network, not the individual constituents, on which our future depends. Sustainability is a context, not a gadget or a technology. This is the reason dense cities set such a critical example: they prove that it's possible to arrange large human populations in ways that are inherently less wasteful and destructive.

Engineering faces two fundamental risks with implementation of sustainability practices. The first is a lack of focus or attention to the system aspects of our built environment. The primary issue should be about systems - - not parts of systems. The other risk - - at the end of the day asking the question, have we made people feel better without accomplishing anything substantive? Installing solar panels and adding bamboo flooring to 12,000 square foot McMansions - - home to 2.2 people and 5.3 automobiles - - it is hard to image how this meets any definition of substantive.

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