I think we are going to hear this call to action repeated more and more often. So what would things look like if we did take that extra step, past greenwash to a deeper commitment to urban sustainability?
Buildings, for example, account for 38% of carbon emissions in the US, and a similar proportion in Canada. The LEED building certification system has been key in getting eco-intelligent design onto North American streets, and inspired similar systems around the world. But what's next? Accessing the old stock. The majority of high performance buildings so far have been new builds; Portland's plans for city wide energy retrofits show one way that we could step up our game.
Citiwire critiques some of the specifics on the LEED checklist. But in my own work, people are pointing checklists themselves might be insufficient. Give people a checklist and inevitably they focus on the criteria -- not the underlying goal that they are trying to achieve. Result? The focus becomes certification, not sustainability. Proposing an alternative, Cascadia's Living Building Challenge turns the process on its head. Put a truly ambitious goal front and centre and provide a path that guides individual developers as they figure out how to meet it.
The Living Building Challenge:
“Imagine a building informed by its eco-region’s characteristics and that:
- generates all of its own energy with renewable resources
- captures and treats all of its water
- operates efficiently and for maximum beauty”
Now that would be a truly sustainable building!
Similar ambitious moves can happen in all sectors of our cities. LEED style checklists provide essential guidance. But the Living Building Challenge is a great model for one key reason: It recognizes that people respond well to challenges if you inspire them to do something really remarkable.
So far, we've tried to sell sustainability by telling people it will help them get what they already want: cost savings, security from volatility, quality of life, and economic development. That's a cop out though, and a fatally dull one. Trying to convince people that they just need to marginally change their approach to the same old targets is only going to get us so far. Synergies between climate change policies and development goals may open a door, but we need to step through it and inspire people to take more ambitious action.
A Living City Challenge
As Citiwire concludes: “We know what works.”
So why isn't it happening? The article focuses on a few key administrative barriers and a call for more rigour in municipal efforts. But rigour takes commitment and that takes a real belief that there is something worth working toward. Ultimately its not regulations that make things happen, its people. To make change at that level we need a strong vision of what we are aiming for, something that will seduce and inspire people into reconsidering some of their fundamental assumptions.
We need a Living City Challenge.
Imagine Cities that could:
- play a beneficially role in their local ecosystems
- generate all their own energy from renewable resources
- produce the majority of their own food
- operate both efficiently and with maximum livability and equity
[image modified from LBC]