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2007 03 05
Distributing The Future: Designing Sustainable Cities

(This story was first published in the New York Institute of Urban Design Newsletter. It is an overview of the United Nation's "Sustainable Cities" Conference held in October of 2006. RT's Editor, Robert Ouellette, was a respondent at that event.)

William Gibson’s phrase, "The future is here, it is just not evenly distributed," is a worthy introduction to the "Sustainable Cities: Urban Design,” conference held recently at the United Nations in New York.

Audience members discovered that the future is here - at least in terms of sustainable development - and Architects, Landscape Architects, Urban Designers, and even Politicians are creating it. The task ahead is to distribute that future and make the systemic changes needed to preserve the environment.

What are designers doing to create sustainable cities in a market the Economist calls the greatest wealth-generating activity the 21st Century will offer?

Some, like Mario Schjetnan, of Mexico, are re-imagining the role parks play in a livable city. Anyone who has traveled to Mexico City knows that it faces population and pollution problems U.S. cities hope never to encounter. Officially, it is home to 20,000,000 people. Unofficial counts add as many as 10,000,000 to that number.

In spite of near overwhelming challenges – Schjetnan says that the worlds of Cortez and Montezuma constantly clash here – his parks provide a retreat from the city’s chaos. From a sustainability perspective, the parks are also waste-processing systems that cleanse local water and air. Imagine a modern version of Olmstead's Central Park. Now combine it with integrated water purification systems and you have an idea of how important Schjetnan's designs are. They improve the quality of life for the inhabitants of Mexico City.

Dr. Suha Ozkan, past Secretary General of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, has spent much of his career exploring how tradition can inform architectural innovation. To Dr. Ozkan, today’s sustainable development techniques echo architectural practices of the past. He sites Saudi Arabia's "Tuwaiq Palace," as an example. There, in a hot and arid environment, traditional forms improve the energy efficiency of a complex, modern building.

Sustainability is not only for big budget projects though. The Aga Khan Award has also gone to relatively simple designs that save lives in the world’s poorer communities. Examples of that work include Nadar Khalili’s “Sandbag Shelters.” Khalili designs emergency habitations that do not require costly materials to build. Instead, they use simple cotton bags filled with sand. The sandbags are the basic building modules for traditional single and double curved walls held in place by wire mesh. The resulting shelters resist hurricane force winds, earthquakes, and floods. Simple. Cheap. Effective.

Professors Tomonori Matsu and Junichrio Okata of Tokyo University showed what Tokyo, the world’s biggest urban aggregation at some 35,000,000 inhabitants, is doing to reduce the city’s environmental impact. Appropriating sports arena roofs to capture rainwater is one effort and redesigning typical Tokyo neighbourhoods so they are more sustainable is another. One fact about the country they shared had a profound effect on the assembled audience: Japan has retained about 67% of its original forest coverage for the past 200 years.

Take a moment to comprehend this. Two centuries ago, the Japanese decided to preserve their forests as a legacy for future generations. Since then, the percentage of the land’s original forests has remained constant. How many other nations can make that claim?

Closer to home, Mayor Christopher Coleman of St. Paul, Minnesota, is leading an initiative to green that city. He described something that I call the St. Paul paradox: Making that city more urban has also made it more natural. For Coleman, good urban design equals a greener city.

Many of us believe that the expansion of major cities is precipitating a global environmental crisis. What is less clear and does not receive nearly as much attention is that contemporary designers have workable solutions to many urban environmental problems. Our job now, and it is a big one, is to distribute them.

Bottom-up knowledge distribution systems like blogs can help get these tools to the people who need them but however we distribute these green solutions, we have seen the future and it is us.

[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 03/05 at 01:29 PM

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