A New American Dream?

Why aren't the facts compelling? This was a question asked by the moderator at the 2009 Sustainability Summit, a gathering of 100 leading architects, engineers, and city officials hosted by the Design Futures Council in Chicago this past month.

The reality of climate change is clear—to all but a few. Among the many frightening facts punctuating the conference, I’ll cite one: 52% of the U.S. economy resides in areas that will be affected by one meter of sea rise. Many scientists speculate this is likely to occur by 2100. The solutions, however, after three days of talks and discussion, seem less clear. Architects and engineers know how to build more efficient buildings to reduce carbon usage in both construction and operation. At a larger scale, we also know how to plan communities to use less water, fewer materials, and less carbon. We have developed infrastructure for renewable energy, and self-sufficient water systems that eliminate the need to deplete water resources. What we have not solved yet, is how to make it worthwhile for businesses, cities, or individuals to choose these options. Many of these solutions are still at a premium, if not prohibitively expensive. An "eco-chic" single family house, a term batted about in my office, fundamentally has more impact on our climate than a multi-family building, yet it is more likely to win awards and get published in Dwell magazine. Cities and density are far more efficient than suburbs—impacting energy consumption of buildings & transportation. As Witold Rybczynski succinctly wrote in October’s Atlantic Monthly, “A solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it’s hardly green.”

But the ethos of the United States, since WWII at least, has been that each deserves his house, his yard, and his Ford (or Toyota); it’s the American dream, right? Is it possible this could change? After the Korean War, Seoul underwent reconstruction and modernization, and residents migrated in great numbers to the city. In the boom of the 1980s, high-rise construction reformed the city. The majority of its residents relocated from single family houses to the “tower block” high rise apartment buildings (alleviating a housing shortage, while bulldozing neighborhoods and settlements). Urbanization at its most extreme, the residents of Seoul, particularly the generation reaching adulthood today, created new forms of community, reconstituting the village and the extended family in the tower-block with tower names, lively block-based online social networks, and independent internal markets and exchanges.


While Seoul’s urbanization is not the exemplar, it shows the rapid urban & cultural change of a city. Would Americans ever give up their house and yard for more urbanized living? For a townhouse and a bicycle? (Perhaps the economic crisis offers an opportunity). Are the risks of climate change great enough to provoke cultural change?

In the profession, by and large clients ($$) are the drivers for each addition to our built environment. The modern baroque trend of the last two decades of architecture is quickly losing favor (although the academy seems late to get the news). Form and sculpture-rich, but performance-poor buildings should no longer be accepted by any of us—professionals, academics, clients, or citizens. We need to be willing to choose, when appropriate, not to build, not to buy new instead of old, not to move to sprawling suburbs. How, though, do we make those choices compelling and viable? If we focus on a holistic sustainability that places value on social health as much as environmental health, we may begin to make change and—and as a community and a profession—embrace a sustainability that is more than a fashion statement.

It seems the facts are not enough. GI Joe was right, "knowing is half the battle.” Sounds like we need to get creative about what the other half is. One idea comes from a Volkswagen sponsored project: The Fun Theory and this experiment to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the escalator. Maybe we only need to make the choice compelling, and the rest will follow.

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