Tag Archives: cities

When sustainability is not enough.

Sustainable. Barely a day goes by without hearing something about “sustainability.” The City of Los Angeles has a Chief Sustainability Officer. Most large corporations have a sustainability plan. And goods from furniture to wine tout their sustainability credits.

But is it enough? I don’t think so. At it’s simplest, sustainability means meeting today’s needs without compromising those of the future. Sounds like a good thing to strive for. Trouble is, we have been borrowing from the future for generations and at some point we need to pay it back and leave the world better than we found it. I believe we’re past that point.

A quick example. If you were given a lump- sum of cash to invest and live of the interest for the rest of your life how would you feel? Pretty fortunate if you were given $10 million. You could live a rich life on $500,000 a year. If you were given $100,000 you’d be scraping by on about $5,000 a year.  You’d struggle to keep healthy and fit at that level and life would likely be short and brutal.

Well, the same is happening with the natural capital of our planet. Every year we are borrowing from the future to sustain our standard and way of living. It’s time to start paying back. To move from the goal of having a a sustainable society to one that is regenerative.

This is starting to happen in pockets around the world. In the redwoods, groups like the Mendocino Redwoods Company are rebuilding the productive capacity of the forests even while they manage them for timber today.  In places, these forests used to have in excess of 200,000 board feet an acre. Today, many have less than 5,000. Sustained yield on a forest with 5,000 board feet an acre is insignificant compared to the potential of these forests.

In the ocean, Marine Protected Areas are being established to restore the productive capacity of the ocean.  In these set-aside zones, there are more fish, they are larger, and more fecund. They also stray and rebuild the fish stocks of the rest of the ocean.

We need to multiply these efforts around the world. With more than half of the world living in cities, these efforts are going to have to come to cities as well. Rather than striving for a sustainable city, we need a regenerative city.  One that is striving to leave the world a better place.

Do you have any examples of cities adopting bold goals that go beyond sustainability? I’d love to hear from you!

Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks

Green Design: White Elephant?

Growing up the son of an urban planner and an architect I have seen my fair share of buildings, plazas, housing estates and urban centers.  Some have been innovative, ground breaking, awarding winning and stood the test of time. Others were innovative, ground breaking, award winning and are now desolate, derelict and leaky (think of all those flat roofed, glass and concrete buildings from the 1960s…..).

Vertical Forest in Milan
Vertical Forest in Milan

That’s why a recent article in the Atlantic Cities website caught my eye when my father forwarded it. It reports on a new green building proposed for Milan. These twin 250 foot and 360 foot high residential towers will be clad in shrubs and full sized trees — rendering them a vertical forests the height of a single giant redwood. It’s certainly an eye catching idea. Reminds me of a great talk I heard a few years ago by Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute. She challenged the audience to imagine a building like a redwood tree — able to capture its own water from the fog, clean itself, recycle the material, and make the air in the city around it cleaner for all the inhabitants. At the time it was a provocative idea that is now starting to go mainstream. I am not sure she had in mind a building clad in trees however…..

If it’s ever build I am sure it will win awards and be heralded as the way forward for green design. My hunch is that if I returned in 20 years it would have the feel of these previously award winning and now derelict spaces I visited with my parents. Time will tell!

What I do know is that some tried and true ways of greening are cities work. For instance,  bringing trees into urban areas at a human scale along the sidewalk and medians will always make sense. It’s good for the air, for  controlling storm water, moderating temperature and a host of other things. And who doesn’t feel better walking down a tree-lined street? But a tree lined tower? I say white elephant.

Photo credit: EliasSchewel courtesy Flickr and Creative Commons.