October 29, 2006 at 10:36 pm (Environment)

I started a new job this week, so I haven’t really had time to do any blogging.  So you will have to make do with my latest (and last) one-pager for landscape architecture (they’re supposed to be short):

I have a problem with sustainability.  Not with the concept, but with the word itself.  It is  simultaneously one of the most widely used and most elusive words in the planning and urban design lexicon.  What is sustainability, anyway?  Taking the word literally, it implies a system that is self-sustaining, able to continue functioning with minimal additional inputs or human intervention.  If that is the case, then the word sustainability should almost never be used in the way that it is.

The construction industry is the most blatant example of the misuse of sustainability.  Buildings are constructed and billed as “sustainable” because they have more efficient water and energy systems, or grass on the roof.  But in the end, each skyscraping condo tower, office building, or college dorm is a net consumer of energy, land and materials.  Even a LEED platinum-certified building creates a negative impact on the environment that can not be mitigated.  “Marginally less damaging than the status quo” perhaps, but “sustainable?”  Hardly.

Construction that has less of an impact on the environment is an improvement, but such practices will always remain “alternative” and outside of the mainstream, as long as they are hidden from view.  A restaurant I patronize frequently recently installed solar panels.  I know this not because I can see the panels, but because there is a sign out front advertising it.  Many innovations take place in residential condominium buildings, where the public is not allowed.  Does the purchaser of a million-dollar condo really care about saving a few dollars each month on a his water bill?  “Sustainable” features are thus not only unlikely to be observable to the public, but also largely ignored by their beneficiaries.

Attempts to incorporate sustainable design into the public realm are a more sensible approach, if the goal is to both reduce environmental impacts and to increase public awareness of environmental issues.  Green streets may be particularly effective, both in the role they play at reducing untreated stormwater runoff, and their visibility.  Maintenance costs are minimal, and a small sign can educate passers-by of the value of the investment.  As the Berlin case shows, “sustainable” must not be something that will or even can be cut from the budget when financial times are hard.  I look at Tanner Springs Park, and while I enjoy it for the open space it provides, I wonder if it was really worth the investment.  It provides a source of water filtration, but as a potential habitat it is of dubious value.  The plant structure seems too engineered, and the pond, augmented with chlorinated city water, may not be particularly attractive to wildlife.  (Although, there are some goldfish in there that seem to be getting along nicely.)  I wonder if the money spent on the park could have been better spent, if more widely distributed.  If Tanner Springs remains only a refuge for Pearl District residents, it will do little toward the betterment of society, and will do nothing to move sustainability concepts away from the “alternative” and into the mainstream.


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