Invited to the Table

When design competitions reach for relevance, they can lead to discussions that move our thinking forward.

An intense group of men and a few women sit around a large table in a bright room at the Portland Art Museum while spectators take in the proceedings. This is the meeting of Metro, the regional government that serves more than 1.4 million people who live in 25 cities and three counties in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area.

As jurors of the Metro-sponsored Integrating Habitats competition, we have been invited to the table to share our observations with the council. We’re an interdisciplinary group representing architecture, landscape design, conservation, watershed protection, development, and the media. Coming off a full day of reading, analyzing, and discussing a large number of entries from six countries, we are welcomed as trusted experts in the areas of design, ecology, and development. The group is asked, for instance, how local codes need to change in order to realize the best proposals and what the council should do to make this happen. As the conversation gains momentum, I realize that we’re witnessing a breakthrough in the annals of design competitions. (You can even watch videos of winning designs on the Integrating Habitats Web site by clicking here)

The Portland effort seems light-years ahead of the usual beauty contests, where architects and designers muse over last year’s projects produced by their peers and then award the best-looking pictures. In its name as well as its mission, Integrating Habitats feels fresh, hopeful, and open to possibilities. It is an ideas competition meant to create a dialogue on ways humans can live in harmony with nature—arguably, the most important topic of our time.

Metro’s call for entries was prompted by an expected population growth of one million in the next 30 years, and the pressures this will put on land, water, and other resources. Mindful of the citizens’ abiding love of the spectacular natural environment that surrounds them, the council set out to explore the possibilities of low-impact and eco-friendly development. They enlisted the expertise and enthusiasm of two young University of Oregon professors: environmental designer and ecologist Josh Cerra and his coteacher in an urban-ecology studio, architect Brook Muller. Together they helped create a detailed competition brief that asked designers to work with wildlife habitats and existing landscapes (both endangered and thriving), and integrate these with dense housing, reconfigured big-box retailing, and mixed-use developments.

I read this brief on my flight to Portland, catching glimpses of massive clearings for new subdivisions below and thinking all the while how outdated such land-use and building practices have become. The scorched-earth policy I see from the sky seems so twentieth century—so wrongheaded now that we know the damage such massive intrusions can cause to earth, water, air, and people.

After the council meeting, the museum holds a public opening to celebrate the winning designs, displayed for everyone to study and comment on. The evening is raucous, full of smart conversation energized by good local wines. As each project is recognized by the judges, the packed room hears how a dense housing development could be a catalyst for restoring nature while giving great views of, but not access to, the nearby woods; how big-box retailing could be brought up to date when converted to a green-building supply center where online ordering, computerized tracking systems, and connections to mass transit are considered; and how homes built with green materials—among them roofs of recycled rubber and framing of FSC-certified cedar—could be arrayed around an oak nursery in a community made for easy access by wheelchair users.

Taken together, the dozen winning designs start to redefine best practices for development in the twenty-first century: permeable paving for water filtration, riparian regeneration zones, phytoremediating walls, green roofs, bringing prefabricated construction to the site to avoid tearing up the earth with heavy equipment, easy connections to transit, plenty of walking and biking space, climate- and terrain-sensitive sitings. These are just some ideas for bringing us closer to nature and supporting healthier, more active lives.

Two days later, I’m at the MIT School of Archi­tec­ture + Planning, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a member of another inter­disciplinary jury. We quickly settle in to the task of reading through large piles of folders that have arrived for the EDRA/Places Awards. Here, unlike in Portland where I witnessed a breakthrough, I’m part of something that has a 40-year history: the Environmental Design Research Association, founded in 1968 by design professionals, social scientists, and scholars, has been steadily searching to identify the kindest, gentlest places we can make. This research-based organization, in cooperation with Places, a peer-reviewed journal, works to get the word out on current best practices to the planning and development community. And the word this year is that the Pacific Northwest—Seattle in particular—is taking the leadership role in environmentally sensitive design. A park that revives a waterfront and invites citizens to connect with nature and art and a public library that sets the pace for environmentally friendly development in an up-and-coming neighborhood are two exemplary projects. They show clearly and beautifully that urban renewal’s destructive ways have been supplanted successfully by respectful solutions that put nature and people first. I don’t remember ever being able to draw similar conclusions from vanity design awards, no matter how much hoopla surrounded them.

As I write I take a break to read the inspiring story of the winner of our 2008 Next Generation prize. And I can’t help but feel that these three competitions are increasing the value of design. I see them as harbingers of a time when designers take their places at the decision-making tables in corporate boardrooms or in government offices.

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