Buzzword: Sustainability

We all love to talk about sustainability, green building, environmentalism, recycling, hybrid cars, walkability, local businesses, and so much more. All of these are buzzwords in the media and when you can talk about them, you’re considered hip (in some circles) or at least on top of the latest news in the green generation. And while it’s easy to casually bring up one of the aforementioned topics in a conversation and to focus your passionate discussion on one or another, sustainability is about more than that, more than just one of those. It’s a complicated issue, but one that makes so much sense when considering our future, ours and generations after us.

Maybe everyone else already consciously grasped this, but I feel as though my understanding of the web of sustainability is improving by taking a Community Design through Sustainability class this semester. It’s a class offered through the Community Development and Applied Economics department, but it’s an elective for many so there are about half environmental studies (and related fields) students, a handful of us preservationists, and a few other departments scattered in there.  During the first or second class, I had a moment when I thought to myself, “Wow, I live in Vermont.” Those who have lived here longer than a few weeks talked about living machines, cow power, towns without cars, wind farms, and so many environmentally friendly aspects of development. I, on the other hand, like the trained preservationist that I am, spoke of walkability and diversity in stores and living spaces. Some things, such as living machines, I had never heard of.

In addition to readings on sustainability, ecological design, and other topics, we draw maps, design towns based on topography and what we think is vital, all in preparation for our big semester projects: working with actual sites in order to design their future uses in a “sustainable” way.  Sustainable, huh – what does that really mean? Well, that’s what I’m getting at… generally I think of it as environmentally related, and for environmentally related I think of nature and green roofs and such things. But, now I’m realizing that sustainable is the big picture. It involves historic preservation, green building, communities where people want to live and can support themselves, machines and homes that use less energy and respect the environment. With one aspect missing, sustainability is not complete. Constructing LEED certified gold standard buildings when you have perfectly sound historic structures sitting next to it is not sustainable; it’s a waste of energy and resources. Storm water must have a place to drain that will not hurt other water sources. Vegetation should be native, not imported, in order to survive and to represent the unique environment.

Like historic preservation, sustainability can be a lifestyle that stretches far beyond one community. It would be impossible for one town to be completely self sufficient these days, but perhaps thinking locally, regionally will be much more beneficial than thinking internationally for certain products.

Many of these points are things I’ve known, some are things I’ve learned, but it still seems like a new way of connecting everything. Perhaps it is paying more attention to the ecological factors in connection with the built environment.  There are so many overlaps between my preservation classes and my sustainability class. In both we talk or read about Jane Jacobs and about the early era of urban planning and town design and the theories behind them. When designing my own town with only the topography given to me, I could think about Jane Jacobs’ theories or the Garden City movement (which, I should add, are very different philosophies). At first I hit a wall for designing a town. Design a town – as in put buildings there? I normally think of towns with existing structures. It was difficult and completely different to the majority of my education so far. But, it’s a great way to step out of the preservation box, while successfully melding it with another field (it’s also further assurance of how connected preservation is to other fields).

What do you think?

Coincidentally, while all of this was on my mind, a friend (thanks, Ellen!) sent me this link to a book review for Green Metropolis by David Owen.  From what I gather, the gist of it is how living in New York City is actually a “green” existence. Owens writes about how sprawl is driven by people looking for a “green” place to live. His book is based on an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004. Here’s how it begins:

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day. [David Owen, The New Yorker, 10.18.2004]

You expect him to say some little known “utopian” community, right?  Me too. And then he writes, “The utopian community was Manhattan.” I’m hooked. It looks like a great read and very relative to this sustainability buzzword.

One thought on “Buzzword: Sustainability

  1. Evan McGee says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on this being required. i think that more people would take the high ground and be “sustainable” if they really knew how easy it was. i often find as a contractor here in Phoenix, that many of my clients could easily have added green components, such as waste recycling, and not increased their project costs substantially. I think it is a matter of education and keeping it in the forefront of peoples minds. i just recently did a piece on my blog about waterless urinals http://blog.claddaghcontracting.com/ again I think people are unaware just what the “unknown” cna do for them. Great post !

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