Rio Summit – 1992

The idea of sustainable development helped spark a second wave of environmental awareness.

Behind a sloppy assemblage of blue construction hoardings at the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, a $1 billion monument to what was imagined 14 years ago at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro is beginning to rise. When it’s finished in 2008, the 54-story Bank of America tower is expected to be the first Platinum LEED-rated skyscraper, with a gracefully tapered facade of folded glass planes, a 4.6 megawatt cogeneration power plant in the basement, a filtered under-floor air-displacement ventilation system, a gray-water recycling system—and a namesake tenant that declares on its Web site, “We commit to integrating environmental policy into our company’s operations at every level.”

The Kyoto Protocol may remain unratified by the United States, the Bush administration may be silencing climate-change scientists, and the suburbs may continue to sprawl, but on that Manhattan corner a large—perhaps primarily symbolic—sign of the world imagined at Rio has arrived: a world in which environmental responsibility and economic growth are no longer mutually exclusive. Rio was the moment when the notion of “sustainable development” catapulted to worldwide attention. For architects it was the moment when sustainable design reversed its Reagan-era retreat into obscurity and began a march toward the city.

Philadelphia architect Susan Maxman remembers it well. As the president-elect of the American Institute of Architects, she was part of a small delegation to Rio that included Bill McDonough, Randy Croxton, and Bob Berkebile. The 100-plus world leaders attending the official U.N. proceedings were ensconced at Rio Centro, the ill-named convention center in the outskirts of the city, while the NGOs, including the AIA contingent, gathered, discussed, and argued in an ad hoc tent city downtown. Between the two venues there were 30,000 people attending. Maxman collected speakers for the following year’s AIA conference, which would be the first dedicated to sustainability. McDonough passed out copies of his freshly drafted Hannover Principles, which would define the environmental guidelines for buildings at the 2000 Hannover World’s Fair—and in many ways set the terms for a decade of green building. Croxton presented his design for Audubon House in Lower Manhattan, a pioneering showpiece for combining energy efficiency and improved indoor air quality. Paolo Soleri told anybody who would listen that the suburbs should be wiped out and begun from scratch, while Jaime Lerner trumpeted sustainable development through the combination of industrialization and urban planning.

For everyone Rio was about reconciling sustainability and economy—about welcoming industry into the world of environmentalism and welcoming environmentalism into the world of industry. The official manifestation of this idea at Rio was “Agenda 21,” the so-called “blueprint” for sustainable development that arose out of three years of discussion in smaller meetings around the world. It grandly begins, “Humanity stands at a defining moment in history,” but ostensibly nothing would come of it. Unlike its descendent, the Kyoto Protocol, Agenda 21 was a nonbinding document that was forgotten by the governments of the developed world nearly as quickly as they realized the multibillion-dollar cost of its adoption.

And yet the momentum Rio created was real. Senator Al Gore returned from Rio and, barely a month later, became vice-presidential candidate Gore. The following spring, on Earth Day 1993, he presided over the “Greening of the White House” charrette, around which the green building movement began to coalesce. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) was formed the same year.

A little-known effort called the Austin Green Building Program had been the only American program (and one of only 12 initiatives worldwide) to win a Rio Earth Summit award, given by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Extending Austin’s “Energy Star” home-rating scorecard to include considerations of materials, water, and waste, it provided a crucial armature for a broader-based measure of what qualifies as green building. The award brought international media attention to both the city of Austin and the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, directed by Gail Vittori and Pliny Fisk III, which first conceived the program. “What was it about that idea that somehow captured the international audience to give it that level of recognition?” Vittori wonders. “It gave shape to a way of thinking about buildings that previously didn’t have shape before.” In 1995 the USGBC launched its LEED rating system—developed on a parallel track by David Gottfried and others—extending again Austin’s efforts at quantifying the elements of sustainable building. Today there are 500 million square feet registered in the LEED system.

But for Croxton one moment stands out when recalling Rio. At a “cross-sectoral dialogue”—the unwieldy protocol-heavy working sessions of the NGO conference—he watched two participants argue over the threat of “greenwashing,” companies falsely claiming to be green. “A woman got up and just made a brilliant, brilliant observation,” Croxton remembers. People pass through four stages: First they publicly ridicule environmentalists, calling them tree-huggers with no realistic understanding of the way the world works. Next, they realize that’s a bad idea. Third, even if they don’t believe in the need for ecological sensitivity themselves, they feel compelled to pretend to be green. And finally, spin gives way to true adoption and the power of the ideas wins out. “What this other gentleman was afraid of,” Croxton says, “was somebody already at stage three.”

And that is where the world is now. Rio established the need for sustainable development, but it did not establish the process. In the 14 years since, we have been stepping gingerly: British Petroleum changed its logo, hybrid cars swept Hollywood, the Turin Olympic Village and the Bank of America headquarters tout their sustainability. If you aren’t actually green by now, you better start lying about it. Getting to stage four—creating a sustainable world, not just talking about one—means finally being honest with ourselves. Rio established the why of sustainable development; the project for the future is to establish the how.


The Rio Summit’s framework for international environmental policy created momentum that carried over into subsequent initiatives, including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was finally brought into force in 2005. Click here to download a PDF illustrating the Rio Summit’s impact through the years.

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