Archive for ‘Planning and Infrastructure’

October 14, 2011

Key Sustainability Conference Themes: Scale, Nature and People

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

By Nicole Isle, Senior Sustainability Advisor

The end of October will prove to be a busy time for conference-goers in Portland. The joint Oregon and Washington APA planning conference, the Portland Sustainability Institute’s EcoDistricts Summit and the Net Impact Conference will equip sustainability thinkers with new energy, new ideas and a broader network of support. I’ll be attending and speaking at all three, and from the conference agendas, I see some interesting common themes: scale, nature, and all things human.

Working backwards, the people piece will be big. On-the-ground implementation and the issues hindering behavioral change, community action, and equality will prevail at the EcoDistricts Summit.  APA will wrestle with the notion of community livability in a changing world – resiliency, preparedness and forging new partnerships will be key discussion topics. Moving from public to private sectors, Net Impact will sharpen MBA students’ business case for sustainability in the corporate world. The foundation of the business case is heading back to the basics, as nature and valuing ecosystem services will be key discussion topics at all three conferences (I’ll be speaking about Biomimicry for both the APA and Net Impact). Lastly, scaling up sustainability in the built environment is all the rage and EcoDistricts is gaining serious traction. This concept is even catching the attention of APA for the first time, with sessions featuring Rob Bennett from the Portland Oregon Sustainability Institute and Brian Geller from the Seattle 2030 District.

What’s still missing from these events? Maybe that simple systems perspective to connect all of the dots. I’m waiting for a conference to drop the typical siloed “session tracks” and focus on systems thinking like idea integration and causal relationships. But until then there is still plenty to learn, and I hope I’ll see you out there!

 

June 15, 2011

Calling All Planners: The Earth is Hiring!

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorNicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

If you’re a planner, then you’re primed to take a leadership role in growing the sustainability prospects of your region. Planners have the skills to turn regional aspirations or stretch goals into a real roadmap, steering us toward some seriously needed change. If you’re like many others and tired of overused green jargon, well, here’s some perspective to hopefully turn this tossed-around term “sustainability” into an actionable goal.

Blah Blah into Ah Hah!

Planning for sustainability is a process by which we reduce and eventually eliminate all long-term negative impacts on the planet. Sustainability is different from green in that the latter defines the incremental environmental strategies used to “do better” and make headway toward the overall goal of sustainability.

In so many ways, people are trying to “do better” (e.g. compost, recycle, walk, etc.). It’s unfortunate that all of those incremental green activities get misconstrued as being “sustainable” because it degrades the term. Yet, at the same time, the term suffers from its root origin – to sustain – as if a zero-sum existence on Earth is good enough. What we really should do is ditch the term “sustainability” and use “natural” instead as suggested by conservationist, Spencer Beebe.

Because, at the heart of this movement, what we’re really trying to achieve is a mutually beneficial existence with nature and each other. Beneficial in that we give back to nature and live to create conditions that enable all life to thrive. This can only be done by considering social and economic impacts in tangent with environmental. Organizational change expert and Brightworks’ collaborator, Darcy Winslow, infuses this overused term with new, inspirational meaning grounded back in nature, when she so elegantly explains: “Sustainability is not a problem, but a condition to be created.”

The Planning Niche

Planners are well positioned to be champions of sustainability because day-to-day they help shape the life conditions and orchestrate the developmental roadmap for the communities they serve. Like the condition of sustainability, the planning lens spans three dimensions – social, economic and environmental. And planners have the ability to institute powerful change. They tackle civic issues with broad-based, crosscutting solutions that largely dictate the welfare of communities and the health of natural systems.

No other profession has its hands firmly in all three pots. Planners approach their work as a civic duty, they are an important community voice and they are entrusted to watch over economic and environmental health. Viewed through this macro lens, the role of planners is to recognize and balance all three spheres.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is about making connections between ideas. What connection isn't being made here? Image courtesy of Systems Thinking International.

Planners are systems thinkers, too, and view change from a short- as well as long-term perspective. They are trained to see causal relationships in space and time. Understanding how a new transportation corridor will impact a neighboring community or whether the location of a new super market will spur economic growth requires an interconnected worldview of how we choose to inhabit the landscape. And discovering the implications of change over various timeframes is a critical skill to make choices that lead to a sustainable future for communities.

A Reawakening

Not surprisingly, planning for sustainability is nothing new for planners. The comprehensive planning process is founded on taking a holistic, long-term, systems perspective to social, economic and environmental dimensions. Comprehensive plans are revisited, refined over time and adaptable to the changing needs and desires of the community it serves.

Planning is the perfect tool to reframe our outlook on life and what we envision for our communities over the long haul. Current themes of resiliency, diversity and adaptability are important considerations for bringing safety, security, jobs and health to communities. These themes are also integral to ecological systems.

If you’re not involved in comprehensive planning, take a leadership role in your own planning sphere of influence. Development regulations, zoning, entitlements, habitat protection, design standards, policy, permitting, community involvement and utilities all impact sustainable development and are enabling factors to realizing comprehensive plans.

We’re closer to nature than we think, so reframing how we interpret the comprehensive planning process is not a stretch. In his book, Ecocities, thought leader Richard Register says we need to plan and design cities for living things, not machines: first the pedestrian, then the bike, bus, and rail and very last, the car. Planning places for people benefits other creatures, too, because we’ll inevitably consume less land area than if we continue to build more roads and set tracks to connect increasingly distanced amenities and jobs.

Step In to the Limelight: Your Role as a Planner

Planning for sustainability is really about solid, effective project management. The skills to comprehensively view a project in space and time and its relationship to the broader community and built environment are integral to the planning profession, as is the civic duty to be wise and efficient with resources. As a planner, hone these skills, reconsider your worldview and sphere of influence and press the refresh button. You can press it here:

Refresh Button

Go ahead, hit refresh. Icon courtesy of No Sweat Public Speaking

Do what you do best as a planner, with this renewed sense of purpose, and your community will thank you. Start by identifying where your work touches people and the natural environment and within this sphere of influence, where community or regional dollars are spent. Map this system and start to identify the connections across all three. You will discover relationships and leverage points where you have the power to make change, influencing all three dimensions of sustainability – social, environmental and economic.

Connect with others in your system to expand the map and use recognized tools like The Natural Step to begin uncovering where you can take action. Talk to citizens about their concerns and provide education wherever possible. Ride any momentum you can to launch an initiative, build community support and, most importantly, grab the attention of elected officials to meaningfully impact planning and policy documents.

One of the most important changes land use planners can make right now is to formally establish how sustainability is incorporated into the comprehensive planning process. This goal will give us the momentum we need to dramatically influence change. Work with your community to debate the purpose of the comprehensive plan and connect with your local elected officials and chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) to share your ideas. The Oregon Chapter is currently tackling this challenge through several initiatives, including the development of an online database to share current best practices. As OAPA’s sustainability coordinator, I would love to hear your ideas and concerns.Planning-Sidebar

It’s time for planners to step up and share the limelight with the green building design community. Take a leadership role in sustainable development now. The Earth is hiring – sustainability planning is in high demand!

June 14, 2011

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!”

March 14, 2011

Opening up to what nature can teach

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Nicole Isle

Senior Sustainability Advisor

Do you know where you live? No, really, do you know where you live?

Think of the location where you work and imagine what it looked like pre-development. Buildings and infrastructure: gone. Roadways, railroads, houses, high rises, bridges, sidewalks, and lawns: all gone. People may still be there, or not, depending on your image; but in both cases, your perception of your surroundings has completely transformed.

Now take a big deep breath and take it all in. What do you see, and more importantly, can you describe it? Maybe you see a forest of trees, a broad open field or a winding stream. Maybe you see all of these things and more. Now the question becomes: Could you give directions to someone located 10 miles away to find you? How would you begin to describe your location?

Inspiration from the nature of place

Portland, Ore. is home to me and its 580,000 residents. However, for the rest of the species living here, too, home is the Columbia Basin and Willamette River Watershed. In any quest toward living in balance on Earth, learning about the natural history of place provides the most promising example of how to achieve sustainability using local solutions.

Nature thrives under the same conditions humans do and is our most inarguable example of truly sustainable development. To understand what this means and to be inspired over and over in your work, all you have to do is open your eyes!

Seriously, learning from nature can be as easy as taking a walk outdoors and letting your curiosity take over. Connecting with your local watershed councils and organizations focused on protecting urban ecosystems is another great way to reconnect with nature.

Try researching your project site to contextualize the basis for design and to develop design parameters that align with the site’s environmental performance. For example, what is or were the primary natural features of the site that define its function in the broader watershed? Features may include a wetland, forest, floodplain or hillside. Research these features and work to mimic their functions in the development of your design.

Nature’s lessons at your fingertips

The Internet has become our dearest source of instant information, and learning about nature is no exception. The Biomimicry Institute has a wonderful website called www.AskNature.org. It’s chock full of examples of how life has evolved to thrive on Earth. It’s also a great tool for designers, educators, researchers, businesses and others to seek new inspiration for their work. A couple hours on this website could solve challenges related to architecture, planning, organizational structure and product design by providing solutions that align with nature’s principles.

I perused AskNature for building and product solutions based on the local ecology of my neighborhood. In 30 minutes I discovered amazing ways to possibly solve common structural engineering, glazing and resource-efficiency issues. For example, the hexagonal cells of beehives create an incredibly strong structure. The 120-degree angle of a hexagon is stronger than a typical 90-degree angle, and its repetitive pattern comprising the hive minimizes energy and material use. How practical and economical!

Arnold Glas, a German company, has created an insulated glass-sheeting product that is designed to reduce bird collisions. Only birds can see its UV-reflective coating, which resembles a spider web cast across the window. Designers were inspired after learning some spider species utilize this sort of reflective element in their silk to distract animals that could potentially fly through and destroy their webs.

In my research on AskNature, I was also struck by the incredible ability of trees to perfectly position their roots and leaves to capitalize on water and solar resources.

Development teams can use AskNature to learn how to solve design challenges based on what they can learn from nature at their project site. The Biomimicry Guild calls this process Genius of Place, which uses environmental performance measures based on the local site ecology as a benchmark for measuring a development’s ability to function as the local ecology functions. This means aligning with how nature lives in balance with local operating conditions.

Use nature as your most trustworthy design resource and mentor. After 3.85 billion years of trial and error, nature knows what it takes to live in balance on the planet.

August 27, 2010

Green Transportation Design

By Nicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

Cities and towns of all shapes and sizes comprise a complex network of interconnected systems. Energy, water, transportation and material systems — they fuel, move and remove essential “nutrients” such as goods, services, and information, all of which flow through our cities and towns with remarkable efficiency and speed. As in a natural ecosystem, these nutrients flow to a hierarchy of users. At the top of the food chain are the heaviest consumers: buildings, freight, autos, and industrial manufacturing. In this interdependent ecosystem, it’s people who decide how those nutrients cycle through, but as we all know, we haven’t done the best job of figuring out how to make all of this transportation, flow, and cycling happen in a sustainable way.

Our cities and towns may be complex like an ecosystem, but they fail to truly function like one – for example, where waste from one system becomes food for another, and individual niches are interdependent and share nutrients to minimize energy use. In a biological system, these are just a few examples of how an ecosystem comprised of a diversity of biological and physical elements functions, and these ecosystems are our most inarguable showcase of true sustainability.

Traffic Jam in Italy

If an ecosystem worked this way, it would collapse. Photo via It's Knuttz.

The USGBC’s LEED rating system has guided the market to take steps toward the responsible design, construction and operation of buildings.  The latest version of LEED more heavily rewards projects that are constructed in urban areas where infrastructure, amenities, housing and jobs already exist. This gets essential nutrients like goods, services, and information operating in shorter, tighter life cycles – a good thing in nature, since a constant source of fuel is essential to growth.

Sustainable transportation systems enable people to move around and receive nutrients more efficiently in ways that minimize total carbon emissions and land use impacts. One transportation rating system that strives to measure benefits and reward performance is the Sustainable Transportation and Access Rating System, or STARS.

STARS  was conceptualized by the North American Sustainable Transportation Council (STC), led by Peter Hurley of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) has contracted with the STC to develop twelve STARS Project credits for potential application to their proposed 9-mile SR-1 HOV Improvement project in Santa Cruz County, California. The credit development process is being managed by Brightworks. The finished framework will best serve transportation authorities interested in comparing benefits and costs between design options, or to help inform on initial planning stages.

STARS especially suits planners who are interested in expanding transportation systems to include multiple modes such as bicycling, walking, bus, and rail. It will also help uncover the often hidden benefits and cost savings multi-modal projects can capture through improved access and reduced impacts to energy consumption and associated emissions.

Multimodal Transporation in Portland

Multimodal transportation in Portland, Oregon. Photo via Trailnet St. Louis.

STARS drives a team-oriented decision-making process using an integrated design methodology that begins at project inception. The effort brings together all affected stakeholders to collaboratively solve challenges in reaching common sustainability goals for the project. This builds commitment and community camaraderie, and is  necessary when embarking on a design process that aims to shift thinking toward more sustainable means of transportation.

STARS and LEED both speak to the need for embedding urban design and planning in whole systems thinking. Buildings cannot be truly sustainable without a supporting, sustainable transportation system. The STARS program is attempting to fill in another piece of the climate change puzzle by showing others how transportation systems can function more sustainably. The next step in the credit development process will focus on transportation land use impacts to ecosystems. If our cities and towns are to function like ecosystems and truly be sustainable, then the development of this credit might hold particular potential to uncovering how a STARS-rated transportation system should function. For example, it could explore how climate and energy conditions best inform on decisions related to access. By incorporating a region’s ecological energy potential (e.g. solar insolence, heat storage, and wind) as a design parameter, transportation planners would have a true sustainability perspective when balancing access and carbon emissions reduction goals.

The future wealth and resiliency of cities and towns can only benefit from more thoughtful planning of transportation systems. The planners and project teams that will be best positioned to reap environmental, social, and economic benefits will be those that design infrastructure that recognizes the inherent interdependency of transportation with other systems at play, and accept the notion that no one sector holds the full solution to sustainability. Rating systems like STARS and LEED help demystify what it takes to create more sustainable places for the greater public, and highlight the need for sustainable solutions that span the urban realm.

June 10, 2010

In Search of a Sustainability Tool Kit for Planners

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Nicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

I recently had the chance to actively participate in a couple of events at the 2010 Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association Conference (OAPA), including a Sustainability Workshop expertly facilitated by our friends at Cogan Owens Cogan and on the panel session “Attracting Green Industry,” skillfully moderated by Ryan Givens of Cardno WRG.

At the Sustainability Workshop, planners were asked to discuss questions concerning APA views on sustainability, which included comparing the currently adopted Brundtland definition of sustainable development – “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – to the planning field.  Many shared a  common frustration that the definition doesn’t provide guidance on implementation.  I agree,  it’s tough to capture a call to direct action in a single phrase, so thank goodness there are tools out there to guide us!  Take The Oregon Natural Step Network’s work on broadening this definition to the community scale and the accompanying long list of helpful implementation resources.

Portland's Urban Growth Boundary in Clackamas, Oregon

One border of Portland's Urban Growth Boundary, via Architect Magazine

Since Oregon prides itself on its open space and natural resources, another interesting challenge participants wrestled with was how to reconcile sustainability “needs” across rural and urban areas. When it comes to the Brundtland definition, I contemplate where we should focus more attention on sustainability to best benefit the whole region.  In his keynote presentation  “How Green is My Region?,” Peter Katz suggested that cities are the most sustainable establishments on Earth.  I struggle with this notion for obvious reasons, but agree that when it comes to “containing the damage (of human development),” cities provide the necessary density.  With this is mind, would it be best to prioritize urban density or continue promoting urban agriculture?  Does it make sense to add pressure to the urban growth boundary or make room for that sort of stewardship inside?

Portland's Urban Growth Boundary in Cornelius, Oregon

Living on the edge in Cornelius, OR via the Oregonian

In nature, the most complex systems lie at the margins and transitional zones, and in this case, the most complex and conflicted area is the urban/rural interface.  That may be where challenges become opportunities to accelerate progress toward sustainability for both zones.  To promote better coordination, a good next step would be for the APA Sustainable Community Planning Interest Group to synthesize existing sustainability guides to craft a single executive memorandum that uses the Brundtland definition to further define sustainability for planners. It would help bridge any knowledge gaps between the adopted Brundtland definition and APA’s sustainability and climate change policy guides, and aid in unifying the sustainability “needs” of urban and rural communities.

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