Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Recents concern about the impact of global warming upon the world's climates and increased pollutiion and despoilation of natural habitats have introduced the concept of environmental and ecological sustainability as a criterion against which to judge all human activity. Sustainable design and urban and regional planning is the philosophy of designing and planning the human-built environment to comply with principles of economic, social and ecological sustainability. Originally first articulated as a criterion for urban design and planning back in the 1970's by Richard Hopper (then Hawaii's State Environmental Planning Coordinator) both in an article published in the magazine of the American Planning Association and as part of an effort he led to develop a "Quality Growth Policy for the State of Hawaii," sustainability is no longer a concept limited to the field of biology. Instead, as Hopper articulated back in the 1970's all natural and man-made systems have an inherent carrying-capacity that can either be: (1) used as a limit for growth; (2) ignored and exceeded with the consequence of thus degrading the system; or (3) expanded through new technologies and method of design and planning. As such, applying the concepts of sustainability and carrying-capacity to the design of our man-made built environment helps to protect the quality of both our man-made and natural environment.
One of the first individuals to arouse concern about the impact that modern society was having on the environment was Rachel Carson in her book "Silent Spring." In her book, she described how chemicals such as DDT could have a cumulative negative impact that was not immediately recognized, and how we could use various animal species such as birds to predict the impact that chemicals would eventually have on humans. Meanwhile, in the 1970's, a group called the Club of Rome published a book titled "The Limits on Growth" that predicted some of the long-range negative impacts of increasing human population growth. The creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of various pollution control laws in the 1970's reflected the public's increasing awareness of the quality of the environment at that time. It is only recently, however, that the problems of global warming and climate change have caused the general public to be aware that the design and planning of our built-environment can either lock us into a pattern of energy wastefulness and pollution -- or can be part of the solution to increased energy conservation and pollution control. As a consequence, urban design and planning has come to the forefront of public policy in helping to find a way to a more sustainable future.
One of the first principles of sustainable design and urban planning is to recognize that we are all connected, and what one of us does affects us all. As such, sustainable design and urban planning is about creating sustainable "communities." This means that we need to be concerned not only with the direct and obvious negative environmental impacts that can be traced to our individual actions, but that we also need to address the collective and cumulative impacts of our societal activities. That is where urban and regional design and planning comes in. Urban and regional design and planning is how we as a community or society can work cooperatively to build sustainable communities. Urban and regional design and planning consists of three components: (1) research to identify problems; (2) brain-storming through design charettes and other means to develop alternatives; and (3) public participation to reach consensus on proposed means of implementation. Urban and regional design and planning, however, does not replace the political process in making the ultimate decision on implementation actions such as revised zoning, public infrastructure funding, etc. What urban and regional design and planning does is to help promote informed decision-making and a long-range vision to guide development. In this context, what sustainable design and urban planning does is to include sustainability is a criterion to help guide development decisions.
Sustainable design and urban planning is guided by several principles borrowed from biology or the natural environment. These include the concepts of: (1) connectedness; (2) renewability; (3) efficiency; (4) minimization of externalities or negative impacts; and (5) carrying-capacity. Urban planners and designers that are interested in achieving sustainable development and communities use a variety of new urban design and planning principles and techniques to help achieve these concepts or goals of sustainability. These include smart growth strategies, new urbanism designs, sustainable urban infrastructure, new green building codes and designs, and new strategies to bring the natural environment back into our urban man-made environment. Following is a discussion of some of these techniques, beginning with new technological and building-design techniques and ending with sustainable land-use management techniques.
WASTE REDUCTION -- Waste is the ultimate externality or pollution produced by humans and all other living organisms. In the past, humans have dealt with waste primarily by simply discarding it upon the land. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, however, waste that is simply thrown away upon the land becomes a primary cause of disease and water pollution. Also, landfills generate methane, a gas that contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide. Also, we have to use carbon fuels to transport garbage to more and more distant landfill locations from our urban cities. Finally, the more technologically advanced we become as a society, the greater percentage of our wastes that come from chemicals and thus are hazardous wastes. All of this requires a new concept where we need to learn to design our built environment in ways that eliminate waste (or that starts to look at what were traditionally wastes as renewable resources). Because of tough pollution control laws in developed nations, many companies are already doing this with their wastes. But we need to do a better job of waste reduction where we incorporate this as a "sustainability" criterion in everything we do.
RECYCLING AND RESOURCE RECOVERY - Recycling and resource recovery is the other sustainable method of dealing with waste. In the 1970's, the U.S. EPA took the lead in helping to promote recycling and resource recovery. This included funding demonstrations of curb-side recycling and the construction of resource recovery plants that separated waste and burned what remained as a form of waste-to-energy. The U.S. EPA even funded the construction of a pyrolysis system which converted municipal garbage to oil. This was after the first Earth Day and the Arab oil embargo under the Carter presidency. Unfortunately, despite what other positive accomplishments that President Reagan might have achieved in helping bring about the end of the Cold War, Reagan eliminated the federal government's involvement in municipal garbage, including recycling and resource recovery programs, and furthermore eliminated all alternative renewable energy programs. Reagan even removed the solar panels on the roof of the White House that had been installed by President Carter. The consequence is that all the advancements in recycling and resource recovery since then have been undertaken by the individual states and municipalities. In this regard, while most cities in Europe and Japan have since then built waste-to-energy resource recovery plants as an alternative source of energy, the United States with its up-to-now cheap sources of energy has not built any new municipal waste-to-energy plants since the early 1980's (though industry has built many such plants). Instead, the focus in the United States has been our source separation and recycling. This still leaves, however, the greater bulk of municipal waste that has to be landfilled. As such, to make our cities and urban areas more sustainable and to decrease our dependence upon foreign oil, perhaps it is now time to renew our research and other efforts to find clean ways to convert waste to energy. One promising technique would eliminate all carbon emissions is plasmas gasification. Pyrolysis has also been used not to simply burn garbage, but to convert it to charcoal. The charcoal is then used in agriculture to enrich the soil. This has an added benefit of serving as a carbon sink to capture carbon and put it back into the soil.
Above is a schematic diagram of a successful municipal solid waste resourc recovery/waste-to-energy plant being operated to process the waste of Fairfax County, Virginia and the surrounding jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. Ironically, Richard Hopper who had previously developed a "Quality Growth Policy" for Hawaii and applied the concept of carrying-capacity to urban planning, went on to serve as the Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Resource Recovery Division of the Office of Solid Waste of the U.S. EPA. In this role, he helped to encourage communities such as Fairfax County to implement recycling and resource recovery programs (i.e. before the federal government's recycling and resource recovery program was eliminated during the Reagan administration). This included his authoring numerous magazine articles and publications about resource recovery.
GREEN BUILDINGS - A new approach to building sustainable urban environments are green buildings. Actually, this is an approach that might have been utilized to help cool one of the first cities in ancient times -- i.e. the hanging gardens of Babylon. Green buildings help reduce the "heat island effect" created by all the concrete of our urban areas that cause cities to be hotter than the surrounding area. This, in return, reduces the need for air-conditioning and energy usage. Green buildings also can help to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Both can help reduce global warming. In this regard, there are several approaches to designing green buildings. One is to hang vegetation from the side of buildings. This is a particular attractive way to design parking garages to be more eco-friendly. For existing buildings, however, the preferred approach is to build green roofs. Not only can such green roofs reduce the heat of urban areas, but they also can catch and filter rain runoff, thus reducing the contaminated stormwater runoff that otherwise flows into our rivers and bays. In this regard, on Earth Day of 2009, the City of New York announced incentives and regulations to actually require the conversion of buildings to green roofs where there can be shown to be an economic benefit. Chicago is another city to aggressively promote the conversion of buildings to green roofs. What makes green roofs attractive today are new plastic membranes that are laid on the roof to collect the rain water run-off. A special soil is then put on top of the membrane in which plants are grown. The plants in turn absorb much of the rain water, thus reducing the stormwater runoff produced from the building. Above is an example of a green building built recently in Fukuoda, Japan.
Another variation on a green building is known as "vertical farming." This is a new concept to build high-rise farms (i.e. food grown in specially designed high-rise buildings) so as to reduce the transportation costs of bring food from the countryside to cities. In the proposed building shown above, wind turbines are installed on top of the building to provide energy for the building. Instead of growing the plants in soil, the proposal is to grown the plants using aeroponics. This is an approach where plants are hung in the air and a fine spray containing water and nutrients is sprayed on the roots of the hanging plants. The proposal is to collect rainwater and to store it in water tanks to supply the water. After spraying the roots of the plants, the excess water is then collected and re-used.
SOLAR BUILDINGS - Another approach to the design of sustainable buildings is to install on buildings either passive solar systems to produce hot water or solar photovoltaic panels to produce electricity. Above is a photograph of the K2 sustainable apartments in Windsor, Victoria, Australia that are built with not only both passive solar and solar photovoltaic systems, but also are made of recycled materials and include rainwater collection on the roofs.
NEW ENERGY-EFFICIENT BUILDING MATERIALS -- Most individuals do not realize that the heating and air-conditioning of our buildings accounts for over 50 percent of all our energy usage. One way to reduce such energy usage and to make our urban environments more sustainable is to construct our buildings with more energy-efficent materials. This includes better insulation for our homes and using new types of glass to regulate the amount of light allowed into buildings based upon the season of the year. For the construction of the swimming stadium for the Beijing Olympics, this same concept of regulating the amount of sunlight allowed into the building was used - but instead of glass, the exterior of the building was constructed of a special plastic "bubble-wrap" that could be electronically controlled so as to allow or restrict light into the building.
INSTALLATION OF WIND TURBINES ON BUILDINGS -- Another approach to making buildings more energy efficient is to install wind turbines on them to generate electricity. The most radical example of such wind turbines installed on buildings is for a building recently built in Bahrain as shown above. Meanwhile, a new innovative type of wind turbine for buildings has been invented by Bil Becker of Chicago who has designed a special type of DNA shaped wind turbines to deal with the variable direction of the wind on top of buildings. His wind turbines are being tested on several buildings in downtown Chicago.
MASS TRANSIT -- Next to the energy used to heat and cool buildings, the greatest amount of energy we used is in transportation. As such, any sustainable design and planning of our urban communities needs to incorporate the use of mass transit and other innovative forms of energy efficient transportation as they are invented. In this regard, we need to be careful that our zoning and building codes do not lock us into outdated technology. As an example, today buildings and mass transit are designed separately. As a consequence, it is often a long walk outdoors to access mass transit, thus discouraging the use of mass transit. What is even worse is that too often mass transit stations are only accessed by driving to them by automobile and parking. A better design would be to allow residential and commercial use all within walking distance of transit stations, and to construct major civic and other buildings where mass transit is immediately adjacent or connected to the buildings. Also, if we want to encourage mass transit, we need to find better ways to accommodate the needs of the disabled so that mass transit is available to all. Finally, in today's "information age" we need to find a better way to use information and smart technologies to better manage traffic flow so as to help the wasted energy of individuals sitting in congestion.
"NEW URBANISM" AND "SMART GROWTH" LAND DEVELOPMENT -- In the 1920's, landscape architect John Nolen designed a new suburb on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. This new suburb was named Mariemont and was meant to be a "National Examplar" of how suburbs should be designed. It was connected to Cincinnati by streetcar and by Route 50 which ran through its center. As such, it was the first transit-oriented suburb. It also was designed with all the schools and town center to be within a five or ten minute walk from all parts of the community. As such, it was designed to be promote walking and bicycling. To make the community even more pedestrian-friendly, numerous small to medium sized parks were scattered evenly throughout the community, park benches were built on street corners, streets were designed to be narrower than the typical modern suburban street to slow traffic, and large shade trees were planted between the sidewalks and streets to provide shade for pedestrians. Also, the garages of homes were set even with or behind the homes acccessed by alleyways. Through his planning of Mariemont and other subsequent communities and cities, John Nolen is credited with being the "father of modern urban planning." Ironically, the demand for housing after World War II caused the nation to abandon the planning model of John Nolen and instead to develop sprawling residential only suburbs in the model of Levittown, New York. These newer suburbs were designed for the automobile as opposed to pedestrians or mass-transit. They also abandoned the concept of integrated mixed-use as John Nolen had designed for his Mariemont community. Today, however, the 1950's style of suburban sprawl after the model of Levittown is understood to be energy efficent, wasteful of land, a contributor to air pollution and global warming, destructive of the natural environment, and destructive of of the sense of community. For this reason, urban planners and designers are increasingly turning back to the model of Mariemont as designed by John Nolen. When employed in for a suburban development, this model is typically referred to as "New Urbanism." When employed in the design of a closer-in and more dense semi-urban development, this model is typically referred to as "Smart Growth." In fact, both emphasis the same principles emphasized by John Nolen -- i.e. pedestrian oriented, transit-based, mixed-use development, with the purpose of both being to make urban and suburban development more sustainable and compatible with both the human and natural environment (as opposed to emphasizing the automobile). These two models for land development and zoning have become the primary methods of urban planners to make urban land use more sustainable. One of the first examples of "New Urbanism" is the community of Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland -- while two of the more recent and best examples are Celebration in Orlando, Florida and the King Farm in Rockville, Maryland (with the latter being initially designed by Richard Hopper, who is referred to above as having initiated the concept of sustainable design in urban planning and development back in the 1970's and who then went on to also become one of the pioneers in promoting recycling and resource recovery). With respect to the concept of Smart Growth, perhaps the best known example of efforts at "Smart Growth" is Montgomery County, Maryland (with the King Farm referred to above being part of Montgomery County, Maryland's efforts to promote "Smart Growth").
Above is a site plan for the "New Urbanism" community of the King Farm in Rockville, Maryland. The gray colored line running through its middle from left to right is a road where the center right-of-way is reserved for light rail, to connect the subway to the right where the road runs also runs into Rockville Pike. Until the light-rail is built, the center right of way is being used for a special bus to take residents to the subway, which then goes to downtown Washington, D.C. The King Farm is a mixed-use development with a town center and schools that consists of 3,200 residential units and 3.2 million square feet of office. It has received numerous national awards for its "New Urbanism" design.
Monday, April 20, 2009
PRESERVATION OF URBAN "NATURAL ENVIRONENT" -- Until recently, the approach to urban planning and development was to pave over natural environments and to replace streams with concrete pipes. This increased stormwater runoff and pollutants and sedimentation that ran into our rivers, bays and estuaries. With sustainable urban design and planning, however, the new approach is to preserve and protect as much of the natural environment as possible in our urban areas to filter stormwater runoff, preserve wildlife habitat, and to reduce the "heat island effect" of our urban areas. In summary, the new sustainable approach to urban planning and design is to preserve the "green" in our urban man-made environments.
THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY -- Ultimately, the most important solution to sustainable design and urban and regional planning is yourself. There is not one solution to sustainability that is the best fit for all communities. Each community has its own unique needs and potentials. The key is citizen activism and commitment to the principal of making their own community sustainable. Out of such citizen activisim around the world are coming the most wonderful solutions. An example is the Danish island of Samso. Covering an area of 46 square miles, or approximately the size of the island of Nantucket, the citizens of Samso decided that they were going to make themselves totally energy self-sufficient. By constructing wind turbines, solar panels, and burning their biomass to produce energy, not only has Samso become totally energy self-sufficient -- but it now exports energy to the Danish mainland! Following the Samso example, the entire country of Denmark has now committed to energy self-sufficiency and produces 20 percent of its total energy needs from wind turbines, and has become the world's leading manufacturer and supplier of wind turbines. This compares to the United States where only 1 percent of our energy comes from wind turbines. Isn't ironic that a country has vast as the United States with its huge potential for wind turbines has to buy wind turbines from Denmark to install in Texas, California and elsewhere throughout the country. Denmark and the people of the island of Samso have learnt the basic lesson that not only does sustainability make environmental sense, but it also makes economic sense.
IN SUMMARY, SUSTAINABLE DESIGN AND URBAN PLANNING IS NOT ONLY GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, BUT ALSO HAS A POSTIVE ECONOMIC COST-BENEFIT -- Non-sustainable development assumes that it is too expensive to factor in the impacts of development on the natural environment and the livability of the overall community. Experience in the development of new urbanism communities like Mariemont, Ohio, planned communities such as Reston, Virginia and the re-development of downtowns such as Portland, Oregon, however, demonstrate that property values increase when the natural environment and the quality of life of a community are protected. People and businesses eventually flee unsustainable communities for a better life elsewhere. Sustainable communities, however, retain their populations from one generation to another and from one economic period to another. Also, experience shows that ultimately unsustainable development costs more. Unsustainable buildings become outdated as energy costs rise while residents flee cities that have allowed sprawl and pollution overtake the human and natural environment. And eventually air pollution regulations might limit new development in regions that have allowed themselves to be dominated by sprawl while business and residents move to the suburbs or to other cities that do not have the costa and problems of urban regions that were not designed to be sustainable. Sustainable design and urban and regional planning is not only earth-friendly and helps to address global problems such as global warming and climate change, but it makes economic and social sense as well.