Architects and designers need to help create “more sustainable and inclusive cities”

I’m often intrigued to read about how architects and planners talk about the social impact their work is intended to have. Along these lines, “the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Curator for Socially Responsible Design” talks about what she thinks are pressing issues:

AS: How did you get involved in humanitarian work?

Cynthia Smith: Because I’ve been working on civil and human rights issues most of my adult life and was trained as a designer, I was looking for a way to combine these worlds. I headed to the Kennedy School at Harvard where I met others like me from 44 different countries and every profession. Inspired by the stories and work taking place in the local universities and schools, I returned to New York and began to gather socially responsible design projects from around the world to include in Cooper-Hewitt’s first exhibition dedicated to this type of design work, Design for the Other 90%, mounted in 2007.

AS: What’s the most pressing issue that architects and designers should be addressing?

CS: Today, for the first time in history, more of us are living in cities than ever before. It is critical we create more sustainable and inclusive cities. We can look to emerging and developing economies on how to create innovative solutions from limited resources and challenging environmental requirements. Whether you are a designer, architect, or planner working in your own city or on an international level, engaging and listening to members of a community about what they need is one of the most effective ways to improve urban regions.

There is potential in architecture, design, and planning to create positive social environments, places that give or encourage life versus making like more dreary. However, this can be difficult to bring to fruition and not all designs live up to these standards. Does New Urbanism provide a better way of life? An IKEA house? Concrete modernist buildings (work by Bertrand Goldberg)? The “not-so-big house“? Neighborhoods like those advocated by Jane Jacobs and others? The “High Line” in New York City?

I like the emphasis at the end of the last paragraph quoted above: the process requires interacting with the people who will utilize the structures. Often, architecture seems to be imposed from above, built more around aesthetic or or ideological perspectives than on what people want. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all buildings need to be pragmatic or that strip malls should automatically be built if people like strip malls but there has to be a balance of design expertise and community input.

You can have an “Eco Freak McMansion”!

I’ve asked before whether one could have an acceptable green McMansion or if no McMansion could ever be considered truly green. I recently ran across this story of a man who has a 3,000 square foot “Eco Freak McMansion”:

Bill Newman’s kayak buddies love to tease him about his new house in Brooklyn Center. It’s too big for just one person, they say. It’s a McMansion. And it’s way too nice for him.

Newman just laughs. He erased his guilt about the home’s size (more than 3,000 square feet spread over three levels) by packing it with sustainable features, including solar panels, geothermal heating, super-insulated walls and rainwater collection systems…

His house, which he nicknamed the Eco Freak McMansion, is bigger, better and, yes, way nicer than what he’s used to. Even though he’s lived in his new house for several months, “I feel like I’m house-sitting for some rich guy,” he said…

The new house has three times the finished square footage as the cabin, but it’s three to four times more energy-efficient, Newman said.

It’s also a lot more stylish, thanks in part to designer and kayak buddy Jackie Kanthak, who helped him pick out finishes, fixtures and colors, aiming for locally sourced and green materials whenever possible.

Interesting. No mention of how much this all cost but it sounds like Newman no longer feels guilty about his larger than average house. It would be interesting to hear whether his friends are convinced that it really isn’t a McMansion. The house may be efficient and green but doesn’t it still have a large land footprint? Does Newman really need multiple great rooms?

If this house meets with the approval of his friends and others, could this be the wave of the future where Americans get their cake and eat it too, getting a big yet efficient house?

“Sustainability thinker” suggests sprawling suburbs can’t really be green

A common target of those concerned with being green and sustainability are American suburbs. While some might suggest that suburbs can become more green (read here and  here), Alex Steffen, a sustainability thinker, suggests it really isn’t possible:

What’s a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Shallow redesigns of suburban life. You see a lot of proposals these days that seem to suggest that all that open space is perfect for farming, or that we can power our McMansions and cars with solar panels, so even the suburbs can “go green.” The brutal reality is that newer, more sprawling suburbs—and especially the cheap boom-years exburbs—aren’t just a bit unsustainable, they’re ruinously unsustainable in almost every way, and nothing we know of will likely stop their decline, much less fix them easily.

Unfortunately, it isn’t really clear what Steffen means by this. What constitutes a “shallow redesign” versus something more substantive? Would Steffen agree with New Urbanists that suburbs can be redesigned in ways to promote green behavior? This statement is also interesting: “nothing we know of will likely stop their decline.” They may be in decline now due to financial concerns (the budgets of local communities, the ability of homeowners to purchase large new homes) but does that mean that they will be on the decline forever? Could we have the same type of sprawl with just more green single-family homes (like LEED Platinum homes)? What sort of suburbs, if any, would he be in favor of?

As I read Steffen’s comments, I thought about the trade-offs those interested in being green and sustainability might have to make regarding American suburbs. Given the popularity of suburbs in American life, both as an ideology and an actual destination of a majority of Americans, can this movement really claim that suburbs as a whole are bad? Instead, most arguments seem to be incremental: suburbs can be modified in ways, such as having LEED homes or more mass-transit or more fuel efficient cars, that retain some of their key attributes without turning it into city life. But even with these sorts of incremental arguments, I wonder how many of the commentators really wish that suburbs would just disappear but can’t admit such things because the American public would react negatively.