Look who’s Talking…

…about sustainability, what it means, what it can be, and how we think about our place in nature.

In September, Green Ground Zero—a non-partisan group of organizations, including Metropolis—hosted an evening event that outlined its plans for a worldwide competition centered on greening those contentious 16-acres. Bill McDonough gave the keynote address. The program also included a wonderful presentation by Randy Croxton, chief judge of the competition and head of the Croxton Collaborative, a New York architecture firm pioneering green design practices. Randy’s extensive knowledge of the subject, his beautifully realized maps and charts of everything from wind and tide patterns to a dramatic shot from space documenting the flora of the eastern seaboard (Manhattan Island has disappeared!), showed how far the green movement has come since those awkward photovoltaics appeared on suburban roofs in the 1970s. Bill, as usual, charmed and energized the audience with his penchant for phrase-making, including the now familiar “waste equals food,” “cradle to cradle design,” and a local variant on the importance of being natives to the places we inhabit. “What does it mean,” he asked, “to be a native New Yorker?”

Though unvoiced, that same question hovered over us all morning during a round-table discussion, also in September, called “Sustainability: Defining the Concept for Manhattan’s Far West Side” This ongoing dialog—organized by Kimberly Miller, director of planning issues at the Municipal Art Society (MAS)—is a response to the plans of the city’s power elite to build nearly 40 million square feet of space (residential and commercial) in a distinctive area of Manhattan. This is where some of our world-famous theatres (large and small) are located, as well as the garment district, and 12,000 politicized residents in the mixed-income and mixed-use Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. An illustration of the proposed massing of the new blocks, extended transit, and generally more of everything seemed to us as misguided as the first schemes for the World Trade Center site were. It offers the old vision of Manhattan, someone pointed out, as a vampire sucking the lifeblood of the region. Apparently no one who lives there was asked about this change coming to their backyards, and so far there has been little talk of how it fits with the region’s needs.

If the same area were planned according to sustainable principles, it would take into consideration what Randy Croxton calls the three E’s: environment, economics, and equity (someone that morning added a forth, education). Diana Balmori presented a very practical, easy-to-understand idea of sustainable planning: “We must start with questioning the basics, such as building typologies. If we apply the rules of sustainability to these, everyone inside those buildings will have daylight, no separate office and living spaces, buildings that can morph over time in response to new life and work needs.” As we adjourned, we charged the MAS, an advocacy group for livable cities, to take a stance and say “No” to the city’s plans by providing a detailed alternative that brings people closer to the natural environment.

A sustainable metropolis supports its inhabitants at many scales, and the teachers at Parsons’ product design department got a chance to learn how they can be part of the solution. On a luminous September Saturday we gathered, with the blessing and support of department chair Tony Whitfield, for a full day program called “Eco-Design for Educators.” Organized by two teachers (David Bergman, an architect and teacher at Parsons, and Erika Doering, an interior designer and teacher at Pratt), the event set out to show that schools have the ability to educate their educators. (According to Metropolis’s 2003 survey of design educators, only 14 percent of North America’s schools have any such programs). Armed with scientific, anecdotal, and experiential information—as well as a well-researched source book—the teachers went away with ideas they could integrate into their fall syllabi due a week later.

This afternoon I’m off to Santa Fe, where architect Ed Mazria (October 2003 cover story) and I search for the “Key to the Global Thermostat,” as we call our symposia on architecture and climate change. Talking, we hope, will lead to action.

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