thoughts on our urban future

Principles of Sustainable Urbanism

A requirement of my PhD studies at Cambridge is that I take (and pass) 2 Masters level modules.  Last term I took a course in the Department of Engineering (where my PhD sits) called ‘Sustainable Development’.  This term I am taking a course in the Department of Land Economy called ‘Urban and Environmental Planning II’.  Last week we had a class discussion about the definition of the often used term ‘sustainable communities’.

The concept of ‘sustainable communities’ and ‘sustainable development’ is of particular interest in the UK as the term is entrenched within planning policy through many different bits of legislation and guidance like PPS 1: Delivering Sustainable Development or the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. But the purpose of this post is not to discuss how this concept is embedded in policy making, but rather, to take a moment to think about what do we mean when we use this term?

When asked to consider what factors would dictate the sustainability of a place, my current class came up with the following list of requirements for a sustainable community:

  • socially integrated
  • community support facilities and structures
  • accommodation and provision for the stages in life
  • political backbone
  • environmental sustainability
  • renewable energy
  • self-supporting economically
  • security/safety
  • accessibility/movement
  • adaptable
  • energy efficient
  • stable neighborhoods
  • equality

This prompted a comment by a classmate that the definition was becoming too broad and that this meant the term ‘sustainable’ lost its meaning if it accounted for everything- it actually accounted for nothing.  She also questioned the ability of a property developer to influence the majority of the above areas stating that they are typically outside the control of the property developer.

Is that true?  This comment sparked some good debate in the class where we considered which of the above aspects are actually influenced by spatial design.  Certainly good design can address many of the requirements on the list while many of the others could be seen as directly related to whether or not the others are in place.  I think too often developers or building owners are too focused on their individual building and not how it fits into a wider community or neighborhood picture.  What is best for one building may not be what is best for the street.  By my reckoning, 8.5 of the above factors are significantly influenced and/or determined by spatial design.  I’m not going to call them all out as I’m curious as to what you the reader might think.  Did we cover them all?  Did we miss any?  Do you think more or less can be influenced by spatial design?

It’s interesting to consider this idea of ‘sustainable development’ as architects and place makers have spent generations trying to discover the theory of ‘perfect place’ that would solve all of society’s ills.  This is more often referred to as Utopian Architecture but I think you can substitute some of the same zealotry for perfection here in that ‘sustainable’ can sometimes be seen as the new catch phrase.   There is an obvious danger in trying to make the leap that just because a place has been designed to be sustainable (or Utopian) that it will be a success.  There will always be factors that are outside the realm of design that will have significant impacts on peoples lives and the places they inhabit.

Similarly, there will always be places that are impractical and difficult that beyond the odds somehow manage to thrive and be successful.  In some ways one can think of design rules as generally good principles, until of course, they should be broken.  Although I would be quick to point out that while still entirely relevant and meaningful, these cases are often in the minority or distinctly special and that many rules of thumb are there for very good reasons.

There is a school of environmental thought that considers that any new construction or development which by default will use energy and materials is ‘unsustainable’.  These people are often also quoted as saying ‘the greenest building is the one that is already built’.  I’m not sure they would consider any development to be ‘sustainable development’.

I have spent a lot of my urban design work ‘fixing’ some of the problems created by previous designers who had too ambitious a view of how people should live which resulted in unpopular, dangerous, and run-down places.  When I approached these projects, I could see academically and objectively how it was not necessarily the design itself that was the flaw, but more the inflexibility of these designs.  The limited parameters and conditions under which they were going to be able to operate successfully.  I was also somewhat dismayed to see (in particular in the UK) the results of so much 1960’s and 1970’s design projects being demolished.  While I believe most of these projects did need to be demolished because the principles under which they were constructed clearly did not work and resulted in such complex problems that it actually proved financially better to demolish and rebuild rather than fix, the waste of material, energy, and infrastructure for a large built project that only lasts 30-40 years is actually somewhat horrific.

One of my two additions to the list developed by my class was that a place should be ‘adaptable’.  That a place should be able to be upgraded to modern technology and intervention without or with minimal demolition, and that a place should still be able to provide for the needs of what may be a changing or different community over time.  This may have an implication for architectural typologies that some architects will not appreciate.  The more bespoke and special a building may be, the more difficult it may be to adapt.  The more interlocked an entire development is, the more difficult it may be to change small pieces or portions that will let the entirety continue to thrive.  We must really work harder to think about how the buildings and places we construct will operate over time.

I think this is significant because the places that we build are typically going to outlast a single generation.  Created places have the potential to last an exceptionally long time.  When we look around our cities and environments we can see the legacy of decisions that were made hundreds of years before.  That’s a long time to have an influence or impact on the functionality of a place so it’s a good idea to try and make it as robust and adaptable as possible.

The 1987 Brundtland Report ‘Our Common Future‘ provides one of the most often quoted definitions for sustainable development as:

“…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

I think this definition appeals because it is easy to understand, short and succinct.  And yet it has far more to do with resources rather than functionality.  While I think actual physical resources are hugely important, not for the least of which reasons that according to the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has stated that:

“The Ecological Footprint tool has been used to demonstrate that if current developed-world levels of consumption and production were replicated world-wide we would need three planets’ worth of resources”

I also strongly feel that when thinking of sustainable place making things like access to services, general accessibility, diverse and flexible accommodation provision, and security through good design principles are just as important as environmentally sustainable buildings and places.

In truth, we desperately need both in this current global era.  And I do believe that it is the responsibility of those of us who are given the task and responsibility of shaping and creating places to consider and incorporate these concepts, as well as doing our best to educate our perhaps less aware clients of the options and opportunities.  This also means we must use our skills and knowledge to be creative to find ways to make sustainable practice more economically feasible.  The built environment has such a long legacy and therefore impact on place that I would go so far as to say it’s not just our responsibility, but our obligation to ensure what we create, develop, and build is as sustainable (in all respects) as possible.

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