“Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving, and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties… Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”
— Jane Jacobs
Whenever I take a stroll on New York’s Highline, I think about the creativity, ingenuity, money, politics and gumption it took to bring it to life. What some might have seen as an old, decrepit railroad trestle, others had the vision to retrofit it into a lush, elevated park that has added immeasurable pleasure to Manhattan dwellers and visitors alike. This is sustainability in action: an urban infrastructure turned urban green machine, improving air quality, affording new views of the city and providing a happy respite from the hustle.
Why is this so important? The environment that surrounds you is the quality of your life. It’s as simple — and as incredibly hard — as that.
During its upcoming summit on September 25, the United Nations is adding “Sustainable Cities and Communities” as one of its 17 key global goals — the world’s agenda they’re setting for the next 15 years. In short, the United Nations wants to “help rid the world of extreme poverty, provide an equal education for girls and boys, and protect our environment for generations to come.” To meet and amplify their goals, the U.N. has asked several bloggers to choose an issue near and dear to their hearts and write about it.
So I thought, with our “Commute” issue this week, I’d tackle Goal #11: sustainable cities and communities. The mission is to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”
I’ve always been a city dweller and obsessive — I’ve never owned a car and have always lived right in the thick of neighbors, shops, parks and restaurants. Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of a landscape architect/ city planner and the wife of an architect (yeah, no Freudian connection there!), but I’ve understood the value of great, sustainable cities since I could first pronounce “Jane Jacobs.”
Speaking of city planners and architects who happen to be women, there aren’t too many of them. Only 15-18% of AIA (American Institute of Architects) members who are licensed are women. While there is a growing number, there is still great inequity. Which brings us to U.N. goal #5: gender inequality.
To that end, I thought I’d ask a few women planners and architects I know, about what it takes to make a city sustainable. These four women are incredibly accomplished, head up their own firms and have their own unique visions about the power and purpose of urban design.
Consider this a one-two punch on two of the U.N.’s #GlobalGoals.
I emailed and spoke with:
Tonja Adair, Principal, Splice Design Architecture
New York and Atlanta
Tonja describes her design mission as a “strong belief in the value of community to enhance the future of design.” With practices in both New York and in Atlanta, her projects have spanned the world — large commercial retail structures in Dubai and Santiago, a convention center expansion in New Orleans, as well as office buildings in Georgia and Florida.
V. Mitch McEwen, Partner and Principal of McEwen Studios
Mitch works in “architectural and urban design, focused particularly on the intersection of urban culture and global forces.” With her design partner Marcelo Lopez-Dinardi, her firm, A(n) Office, is one of 12 firms selected for the U.S. pavilion exhibition at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. This coming spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit will present her work, Algorithmic Recitative, a public engagement project based on A(n) Office’s Detroit-based House Opera | Opera House project.
Julie Torres Moskovitz, Principal Fete Nature Architecture
Julie’s design practice aims to “make the world a well-designed, collaborative, sustainable place for all.” She’s a highly regarded expert in Passive House (standards that result in ultra-low energy buildings that require little energy for space heating or cooling), author of The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design and has taught architecture and design at RISD and Pratt Institute.
Claire Weisz, Founding Principal of WXY Architecture +Urban Design
Claire focuses on “innovative approaches to public space, structures, and cities.” Her firm WXY has received the League Prize from the Architectural League of New York in addition to numerous national awards. Among her many urban design projects, she’s helmed the redesign of Astor Place, the redesign of the Rockaway Boardwalks, Battery Park’s SeaGlass Carousel, and she co-founded The Design Trust for Public Space.
So tell us, what is a “sustainable city”?
Tonja: An abundance of diverse resources. The abundance comes from the ability to replenish resources and to use only what is needed, and a key factor is equitable access to those resources. “
Julie: Where you can see a blue sky and breathe deep fresh air. I heard recently from an architectural photographer friend working in China that Beijing skies are filled with pollution and he couldn’t take a photo with a blue sky in it. That is frightening. Sustainable City, to me, is also about Zero Energy building.
Claire: In a way, the term is redundant. The nature of any city that thrives is that they have ways of sustaining themselves.
Mitch: I avoid the word sustainable, actually. For example, when you have a large-scale movement like the Olympics or the World Cup in Brazil, we often see a relationship with local politics in the name of sustainability. The events often happen in oil-rich countries where there’s precarious housing, homes getting demolished, people forcibly moved around, coastlines redeveloped, and they end up with less services at the end of the day. What I found is that there’s actual clear economic logic to all of this — what economists call signaling. You have these large expenditures, like building for the Olympics, that can be used to “signal” neo-liberal reform. It’s a burning money tactic. At the scale of the city, these tactics are especially important to unpack. Are we, in fact, trying to sustain urban growth or our own position of power or something else?
You’d think it would be obvious that we’d want to promote urban growth and renewal… yet. Can you explain why it matters?
Tonja: Sustainable cities offer more opportunity politically, financially, socially and culturally. As people are attracted to these attributes individually, they are more inclined to contribute, which, in turn, may increase the other attributes. It becomes a cycle.
Julie: A city that runs on renewable energies enables cleaner air, improved health, increased jobs and economic development, reduced business costs, increased energy security, and reduced military obligations, environmental damage and climate change impacts.
Does this mean we walk and/or bike everywhere? What does commuting look like in a sustainable city?
Claire: Transportation is key to sustainable cities, especially transit that promotes exchange in a way that reduces fossil fuel consumption while making people more connected to one another.
A way to look at this is take an high-rise building you like and then imagine all of its elements — office, apartments, lobbies, stores, mechanical spaces — laid out as single story units. It would spread out for blocks and blocks and make what four to six elevators can do only work if everyone had cars. So in a lot of ways, the most sustainable cities are the ones where people can live and work within a 15-minute walk, and that means learning to like the benefits of vertical living.
Julie: As a New Yorker, I am well aware of how active city dwellers are — the daily running up and down from sidewalks to subway platforms. And I feel “community” as I walk through it and interact with small business owners and others in the train. And recently, as the bike path along the East River on the Brooklyn side has come on line, I can see how everyone is enjoying the water’s edge park path. It is tremendously heart-warming to see the new Brooklyn Bridge Park being used by everyone for sports and leisure. Holy Success!
What about the future of commuting — I don’t drive, so maybe the self-driving car is in my future?
Claire: More and more people want to take away the worry about getting them somewhere. Subway, car share, bike share, self-driving cars, light rail, automated trams, funiculars.
[Ed. Note: Pause. Funicu-whah? This thing. You’re welcome.]
But key will be living in places that have options.
Julie: Walking, biking and public transit are the best scenarios, but programs like Car2go, where you can pick up a small, efficient car at points throughout the city, works as well, especially if those are electric cars charged at stations. Our government needs to invest more in high-speed rail lines at key locations and spend less on highways. Our country has subsidized the fossil fuel industry for so long. Enough.
Tonja: One solution is not the answer. Environments that encourage walking and biking alongside transit and automobile access create a strong system to support the livability of a city. Commuting can then be achieved through the most efficient means for each person’s needs, whether financial, time sensitive or necessitated by comfort or support. A well-developed system that offers multiple means of moving from one place to another is ideal.
What prevents us from making an impact in our communities?
Mitch: Architects and urban designers are in this funny position. We are at the forefront of this rapport between resource rich nations that are oligarchical and legacy “first world” democratic countries, and we’re constantly negotiating between these two worlds. I’m personally really invested in working in a democratic context and working with countries where that’s a priority.
In Detroit, there’s this huge repository of houses — something like 80,000 vacant and owned by the public. There’s a project I’m working on where we turned a house into a space for opera, inspired by the flexibility of uses for houses in Detroit. [From her site: “The project stages an opera as a house, and its dramas of occupancy and vacancy, demolition, and re-purposing, as an opera.”]
When you look at Detroit, it looks like the city is failing but what’s failing is the private market approach to the problem. I’m looking at new ways to support the public life of the cities in terms of civic spaces and manage the life of the city. It’s incredibly important to work at a scale that deals with the current infrastructure.
Are there particular examples of cities making great strides to become sustainable?
Julie: Brussels, Belgium. As of Jan 1, 2015, all buildings, whether retrofits or new, are Passive House or Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEBS). In order to have a city permit for construction, everyone on the team must comply with Passive House. This means that overall energy consumption will be reduced by 75 percent.
Claire: Helsinki and Copenhagen have both made energy efficient transit and street and public space design their highest priorities. The success of their businesses locally and internationally show that cities are the source of innovation. Ultimately, the more places and connections that get people outdoors and speaking to one another are the most sustainable and economically vibrant places.
Mitch: LA is an interesting city to watch. It’s a diverse city of neighborhoods. It was known for its smog and automotive dependency, but it’s transforming itself while remaining largely still a democratic, diverse, open city. That said, I used to go back and forth to L.A. a lot, and I haven’t been as much in the past five years, so I’m speaking from a bit of a distance.
If you could choose one thing we should all change about how we live in our cities, that is a more sustainable practice, what would that be?
Mitch: We need to ask, “What are we trying to sustain?” Historically, there has been a lot of fear and hatred of cities in this country. In A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, the author Vishaan Chakrabarti makes the argument that we should embrace cities and start undoing the subsidies of suburbanization. It’s really important for Americans to be speculative about what’s motivating us. What are we afraid of? Columbia University has been doing really good work at mapping the incarceration rate. If we’re incarcerating more people per capita than any other democracy, and destroying neighborhoods by doing that, how are we going to deal with climate change? We need education, and we need to learn to love the places that are already built and thriving.
Julie: Hands down, better buildings. In my neighborhood, I am surround by cheap condo development — buildings that will be lucky if they last 20 years. What a waste. We have the ability and building science know-how to build much better buildings. Architects, builders, engineers and developers need to be more responsible. And I just heard this idea at a conference yesterday from a speaker who works in the US Dept of Energy: Mortgage interest tax deductions should only be for Zero Energy and Passive House buildings. Why is the government subsidizing the wealthy whose energy-wasteful buildings are adversely affecting us all? I am thrilled that Mayor DeBlasio sees in his ONE NYC plans a pathway for carbon neutral buildings and mentions Passive House specifically.
What does it take for the world to change?
Mitch: Katrina happened 10 years ago, but with the geological scale of human impact and climate change, more and more of us are going to be exposed to that kind of crisis. It will force us to embrace the people that have already had to live in this kind of existence. Communities of color have had to live a double reality for a long time. The people that get arrested for having a soda straw in their pocket. As we face this together, our solutions will have to embrace the folks who’ve been negotiating precarity and arbitrary state violence as experienced problem solvers ready to lead.
If you look back at 20th Century American cities, the major artistic and culture breakthroughs come from marginal populations and marginal places that are under threat. Broadway Theater, New York City visual arts, and hip hop. It doesn’t come from a massive urban renewal project — those projects are often what threatens those communities. Part of the thing is to take advantage of where you already are.
Are you working on any sustainable projects of note?
Mitch: We’re working on the Venice Biennale project and my firm, A(n) Office, needs to hire people, so can you write that down! We need architectural designers in the Detroit area who have skills in contemporary design methods and interest in public spaces, cultural programming and civic buildings. The project we’re working on for the Venice Biennale is the programming and design of a building on a publicly owned site at the edge of Mexicantown in Detroit. The site is a huge industrial place, where shipping containers are transferred between transport modes en route between here and Canada.
Tonja: Every project we do considers how resources will be used. Sometimes by where products are coming from, or what systems we choose for energy savings. I’m currently working on residential projects, which will result in more energy efficiency.
Julie: Currently, we are working with Street Vendor Project and Urban Justice Center on envisioning an exemplary commissary that houses food vendors and offers shared kitchens, a green roof and gathering spaces for supporting a cooperatively run center and supplying the vendors with local farm produce that will, in effect, provide higher quality and local food to people on the streets of NYC.
We are also working with NYC Build It Back program to make resilient elevated homes in Canarsie, Brooklyn that were flooded during Hurricane Sandy and a residential project in Harlem that is aiming to be Zero Energy capable.
If you want to know more about the U.N.’s Global Goals and the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, find your way here:
To follow along on social media, use the hashtag #GlobalGoals or #sustainabledevelopment