How Did Architects Leapfrog Planners in the Sustainability Race?

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorNicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

It doesn’t matter what type of planner you are or whether you work in the public or private sector. Transportation, land use, environmental and economic development planners as well as community, campus or regional planners — all have the skill set to be leaders in an emerging sustainable economy.

The need I see is to help planners make this connection and to put these skills to work. This will take the sort of leadership and confidence seen in the architectural community that has caused tremendous growth in the green building market.

Early Leadership

The word sustainability caught the greater market’s attention with the green building movement. Before that, the thinking was very much alive in the planner’s world with natural areas’ protection and restoration, social services and business creation, for example. The concept, however, really took off after the U.S. Green Building Council entered the market in 1993 with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for new building construction.

The USGBC was the first to formally define what a green building is and to quickly point out that we must focus on buildings because of their enormous resource consumption. Later, with Ed Mazaria’s Architecture 2030 Challenge, architects received the leadership and collective encouragement to take the stage as sustainability champions. And they ran with it, leaving planners in the dust!

Sure, planners have been doing great things for a long time, with thought leadership from Jane Jacobs, Andrés Duany, Ian McHarg and Peter Calthorpe, to name a few. But the accolades and limelight in the built environment has primarily shined on the design and construction industry. Their thought leadership has elevated planners’ thinking, as well as the architectural community’s, and has led to the savvy notion that sustainable design comes from looking beyond the building.

A Meeting of the Minds

Architects are beginning to think more like planners now. LEED Platinum is not good enough anymore. The Living Building Challenge took its place as the next step toward achieving true sustainability at the building scale. Yet, the challenge is tough. Constructing buildings that produce all of their own energy needs and recycle their water on site is a difficult challenge, especially for larger buildings or buildings with high resource demands, such as laboratories and hospitals. To this end, architects are discovering that solutions to this challenge can be found by leveraging resource efficiencies at the block, neighborhood and city scales.

Across scales, energy, water and other resource concerns (such as ecosystem functions, air quality, carbon emissions, transportation access and materials to name a few) can more adequately be addressed and the solution space opens up. Across scales, the economics of solutions oriented around sustainability consistently look better. Moreover, this idea leads to solutions that could serve multiple buildings, which compounds the resource and social benefits and accelerates progress toward higher levels of sustainability.

Living Paris, winner of the Living City Design Challenge

This vision of a "Living Paris" won Daniel and Maximilian Zielinski first prize in the Living City Design Competition. Image courtesy of the International Living Future Institute.

Several tools that took shape in the architectural community are now expanded to encompass larger developments. USGBC’s LEED rating system now certifies neighborhoods, Architecture 2030 has designed a challenge for planners, and the Living Building Challenge now addresses development at all scales and recently hosted a competition to design the most sustainable city. These programs emerged from the desire to qualify well-known sustainability planning concepts by taking advantage of the market penetration success of USGBC. New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Transit Oriented Development are examples.

This evolution continues as new planning programs are launched by entities striking out on their own. These programs are less design-oriented and more about transforming existing communities giving planners the opportunity to take a leadership role. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Local Governments for Sustainability as well as the Portland Sustainability Institute’s EcoDistrict’s Initiative are two such programs.

So what should planners do to reclaim sustainability leadership?  Find out in our related post, “Calling All Planners: The Earth is Hiring!”

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