Monday, February 13, 2012

New Urbanism vis-à-vis Sustainability

In a recent post, I used sustainability and new urbanism interchangeably.  It was a mistake that I acknowledged.  I then made a commitment to return with a clarification at another time.  The time has come.

I believe in sustainability.  Indeed, I doubt that anyone would seriously argue for an action that, if continued for generations, would harm the environment in which our descendents will live.   We can and will differ about what actions are sustainable, but we presumably all agree that sustainability is essential.

With that said, I’m skeptical of some of the “sustainable” solutions that are currently being put forth.  I believe that any features, such as building orientation or window details, that can be included in the initial construction will provide long-term sustainability.   But otherwise, I have areas of skepticism.

The desirability to be considered an advocate of sustainability and to incorporate sustainable solutions can lead us to see sustainability where it really doesn’t exist.  Speaking as a civil engineer, not as an architect, chasing LEED points can take us to “solutions” that seem rather pointless and unlikely to provide long-term benefits.

Also, I’m dubious about any sustainability solution that requires long-term, non-obvious maintenance.  My best example is surface water runoff treatment.  A common solution is filtration.  The filters are installed in a box that has an overflow in case the filters become plugged.  The filters typical require maintenance and/or replacement on a regular basis, perhaps once a year or after major rainfall events.  But as long as the overflow is working, there is no reminder of the need to check the filters and they often get forgotten.  (Of course, if there are improvements that provide helpful feedback, so as kilowatt-hour meters on solar arrays, operational failures do get noted.)

Some may call me a cynic, but I consider myself as a realist.  Most of us have washing machines.  Have many of us have performed the periodic maintenance checks described in the manuals?  How many of us know what those maintenance measures are?  How many can even find the manuals?  For most of us, me included, as long as the washing machine looks to be operating correctly, we let it be.  Facility management staffs are probably more attentive, but stuff eventually gets forgotten there also.

As a civil engineer, I’ve worked on many projects for which a project manual, detailing the operational and maintenance requirements of new improvements, is given to the project owner after construction.  And yet, when I’ve been engaged to work on a previously-developed site, I’ve never once been given a manual that was left by the previous engineer.  It’s just what happens in real world.

But finally we get to what I think is the single most significant element of sustainability.  I recently heard a comment on sustainability that resonated deeply.  One can live is a house that is perfectly sustainable, with zero energy use, minimal water demand, and scrubbed wastewater.  And one can work in an office building with the same characteristics.  But if one commutes 40 miles between home and office as a single passenger in a car that gets 20 miles per gallon, the entire sustainability benefit is lost.

And that is where new urbanism enters the conversation.  If we can create new urbanist settings where residents can walk or use transit to get to their places of work and to engage in much of their daily life, then we have made a giant stride toward sustainability without having to worry about changing filters in stormwater runoff systems or checking the meters on a solar array.

For Agenda 21’ers out there, I’m not proposing that we make people live in new urbanist developments.  Instead, we strive to create new urbanist settings that are so appealing that more and more people choose to live in them.  If gasoline prices continue to rise and if electric cars remain expensive, more and more people will see the benefit of living there.  And we will have made a major stride toward a sustainable future.

So, new urbanism is not the same as sustainability.  But new urbanism is a key element that can contribute to sustainability, perhaps more than any other element.  Plus, I think it is the most interesting element to create.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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