Putting It Together

In the past 25 years we’ve identified some pieces of the sustainability puzzle. It’s time to find the rest and make the picture clear.

The first cover of Metropolis called for solar architecture in urban environments. The year was 1981, when those horseback-riding showbiz ranchers, the Reagans, occupied the White House with their Hollywood and industrialist friends in tow. The administration, like the country itself, was happy to be rid of the quaint peanut-farming folk of Plains, Georgia, the Carters, with their cardigan sweaters and burning social consciousness. Turn down our thermostats to save energy? Wear layers of clothing indoors? No, that wasn’t for Americans—though we had to know even then that our hyperconsumer ways would have to change sooner or later.

In January 2006, the warmest on record, we continued to say later, as we bought 1.1 million cars and trucks that month, up 7.5 percent from last year. Bush the Younger talked of switching from Mideast oil to homegrown ethanol to fuel our burgeoning fleet of vehicles. But for millions facing chronic traffic jams it’s been clear for some time that our transportation system is ultimately unworkable. Build more roads, fill them with more cars, and keep repeating the same expensive and polluting solution over and over. Is this the way we want to live? An increasing number of us say no. We know there are more sustainable solutions to land use and transportation. And now we have the ability to test our theories with the aid of software, the new tools of architects, engineers, planners, and designers. We also have laws to guide us to a human-centered, environmentally clean world.

In the 1970s we already knew that our modern consumption habits were wasteful, careless, and even dangerous to our health and well-being. During that decade, farsighted and comprehensive environmental legislation was written amid oil and gas shortages, and in reaction to the degradation of our air, land, and waters. The National Environmental Policy and Clean Air Acts of 1970, the Clean Water and Coastal Zone Management Acts of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, and the National Forest Management and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts of 1976 were all passed by Congress and—except for the Clean Water Act, which was enacted over Nixon’s veto—signed into law by Presidents Nixon and Ford, both Republicans. Environmental regulations were truly a bipartisan initiative.

Although these legal protections for the environment have undergone six years of assault by an administration determined to undermine them, they still provide a strong ethical framework. And coupled with our unprecedented access to emerging technology, they continue to offer us opportunities for progress. Architects and engineers can now document with greater speed and accuracy such information as a building’s heat gain and wind loads, the movement of sunlight inside rooms, the behaviors of local vegetation, and the geothermal energy of the land that buildings occupy, among other things. Numerous Web sites brim with useful facts, available instantly, all helping to bring our natural and designed environments into harmony. Today there is no excuse to design anything—whether room or cell phone—that does not sustain life and community.

Who would have thought this possible 25 years ago? Only a few NASA scientists, engineers, and industrial designers had an inkling of the ways technology would change us. Now anyone with access to a computer can find satellite views of a city, a neighborhood, or even a building. For instance, I can examine in graphic detail the disappearing wetlands along our Gulf Coast.

Media outlets across the country publish stories (often read on our computer screens) about smart growth—intelligent uses of energy, technology, and materials. This fall came news from Building Design & Construction magazine that the Richard Meier-designed San Jose city hall, a high-rise, uses natural ventilation that takes advantage of the Northern California climate. The Oregonian reports that some of the state’s public schools are experimenting with architecture that brings in natural light and air, reducing energy bills by as much as half. National Real Estate Investor states that in Southern California some buildings are designed with high-mass walls (to insulate their interiors from dramatic temperature variations) as well as screens to bounce light into rooms while keeping its glare out and, incidentally, provide the added health benefit of stimulating production of cancer-fighting vitamin D. According to the Bergen Record, a New Jersey hospital has “rooftop meadows” and a school uses rainwater to flush toilets.

Each of these reports represents informed design decisions, with the designer striving to put one small piece of the sustainability puzzle into place. As I read further, I begin to envision the puzzle nearing completion. A bit of news from New York City strengthens my belief for a moment: the newly established Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School is building an environmental studies undergraduate curriculum with an emphasis on research. It aims to encourage cross-disciplinary learning at a university where liberal arts, public policy, urban policy, social research, international affairs, design, and architecture are taught in close proximity but never before came together for the benefit of humanity.

But as I go on reading, I realize that the puzzle is still in serious disarray. The Miami Herald relays one disturbing fact from South Florida, a region in the midst of an unprecedented building boom: per capita water use is 170 gallons per day (the national average is 100 gallons, already 15 times more than what people in developing countries have access to). And a New York Times op-ed reports that by 2009 some 250 million computers will become obsolete, and many of those could end up leaching their mercury and barium into soil and water in China and other underdeveloped countries. In the United States no workable national recycling program for e-waste exists—though we certainly could use the glass, plastic, lead, copper, and gold embedded in these products. When industrial designers and manufacturers put their considerable creative and financial resources toward solving the problem of e-waste, a large piece of the puzzle will click into place.

As it turns out we have the technology, information, laws, and growing will to put the sustainability puzzle together. Add to these assets the wisdom of our elders. Like our Nobel Peace Prize-winning former president, Jimmy Carter, they teach us to use our resources wisely. As we learn to look back to history while respecting our laws and employing our technologies, we stand to create new opportunities, solutions, and visions. The growing body of evidence in the new ways of sustainable thinking—appearing daily on my computer screen—leads me to hope, with some confidence, that our designed environment will be fundamentally different in the next 25 years.

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