It’s Time To Rebuild!

A call for the sustainable redevelopment of the industrialized world

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 56
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Sustainable design works. Indeed, it is so successful that I believe the time has come to begin a massive, multi-decade, multi-trillion-dollar process for the sustainable redevelopment of the cities, suburbs, and towns of the industrialized world. As mammoth as this sounds, nothing less will do.

We need to redesign, reshape, and retrofit essentially all of our "built environment" because our current patterns of development lock us in to such disastrously unsustainable levels of consumption and ways of life.

And at the same time we have every reason to want to undertake this redevelopment because of the abundant win-win opportunities it offers – as this issue illustrates – for major improvements in our economy and quality of life.

THE NEED

Why is this so important? As was recognized at last June’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, human society is facing a collision among:

  • the finite capacity of the Earth to provide resources and absorb waste

  • ravenous technologies and lifestyles

  • exploding population.

If we fail to shift to a more sustainable direction, then humanity (and millions of other species) will have a very grim future indeed – of which Somalia and Yugoslavia provide a faint preview.

The global urgency of these concerns apply especially to the built environment, since:

  • it is currently such a major contributor to humanity’s huge environmental impact

  • it is currently so unsupportive of healthy community and personal life

  • building and land-use decisions commit us to patterns of living that will last for decades.

Thus it is imperative – if humanity is to have any hope at all of avoiding these catastrophes and improving its quality of life – that we begin the process of sustainable redevelopment of the built environment as rapidly as possible.

A major focus of this process needs to be on the industrialized world (i.e. the rich countries of the North plus their many cultural extensions throughout the world) because these societies have the resources to pioneer new, more sustainable ways of life, and because most of the world’s unsustainable behaviors have their roots in these globally dominant societies. Any real solution must address, and transform, this cultural core.

THE GOAL

Where might such a transformation lead us? While there is much yet to be discovered about the character of fully sustainable societies, it is likely that in such a society:

  • All material processes will be cyclical by design. There will be no such thing as waste or pollution, only outputs from one system serving as welcome inputs to another.

  • The basic energy used by society will be renewable solar energy, either directly or in forms such as wind, hydropower, and plants.

  • The human population level and the quantity of material goods will be stable (or gradually declining). This does not imply a static society; changes in quality can continue unabated, indeed they may accelerate.

  • Long-lasting, quality products will allow people to spend less time producing and consuming material goods, and more time learning, providing services, and relating to each other and to the natural world.

Such a society would handle its built environment by:

  • designing buildings so that they are minimal consumers of, and even generators of, energy and other resources

  • using building materials that have a benign impact throughout their life cycle – in their acquisition, manufacture, placement, use, recycling, and eventual disposal

  • constructing buildings whose internal environments – air quality, lighting, spatial design, aesthetics – are health-giving and inspiring

  • arranging buildings so that they foster community, and so that most people, most of the time, can have full, high-quality lives – including work, residence, commerce, and community – all within easy walking or cycling distance

  • developing urban areas and regions so that they have natural environments – whether as parks, greenbelts, or countryside – within walking distance of every residence

  • developing the infrastructure of public transit, roads, bike paths, utilities, and communications so that human-scale community is enhanced, variety is readily accessible, and the automobile is optional for most people, most of the time.

THE OPPORTUNITY

As the articles in this issue illustrate, re-developing our built environment to match these characteristics is:

  • technically feasible already, with even more technical improvements developing every day

  • economically advantageous, capable of generating savings that could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars each year in the US

  • achievable in large part through reusing and remodeling existing buildings

  • enabled by policy and institutional changes, such as mixed-use zoning.

Such a transformation would have many related social and economic benefits:

  • The process would be fundamentally profitable since the enormous savings generated could more than pay for the redevelopment. This is not something we will have to subsidize; it is something we will economically benefit from.

  • The quality of our community life could be dramatically improved, with beneficial consequences including less alienation for youth, less loneliness for elders, less crime, and less stress for working adults.

  • The work of retrofitting and redeveloping would create millions of high-quality blue collar jobs (which couldn’t be moved to other localities). This would provide decent employment for those who today are hardest to employ, which in turn would ease a wide range of social problems. The gang warfare in today’s cities and the civil war in Yugoslavia are small illustrations of what our future could be like if significant portions of our youth can’t find constructive roles in society.

  • By eliminating waste and reducing everyone’s baseline expenses, this transformation would create a more resilient and higher quality economy. Even those who now profit from our current waste would find it easier to move to more constructive employment in such a revitalized economy.

THE STRATEGY

Part of the beauty of all the win-win profitable opportunities that this kind of sustainable redevelopment provides is that the process can be fundamentally voluntary and largely decentralized – we all have a role to play. In this case, the strategic approach I described in IC #30 (p. 12), based on the study of the diffusion of innovations, applies very well. In that model, the most effective change-promoting strategy evolves significantly as the innovation becomes more widespread (see figure).

In these terms, sustainable design is now largely beyond the experimental stage, and well into the pilot project stage.

In addition, it is time to start creating support systems – in neighborhoods, in cities, nationally, and globally – that can provide easy access to the information, people, finance, and other resources that will be needed to enable this transformation to take place – building by building, city by city.

Both citizen groups and professional groups can help enormously with creating these support systems, and with transforming institutional barriers and developing effective policy alternatives (as in Amory Lovins’s article, p. 16). Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for such policy changes in order to begin, as the examples in this issue illustrate, although at some point they will become essential.

There are many hopeful signs that sustainable redevelopment is starting to take hold around the world. For example, the theme for the 1993 World Congress of Architects is "Designing for a Sustainable Future," Europe and Japan keep making major strides in this direction (see the "King’s Challenge," p. 6), and on Earth Day 1993 President Clinton committed to a high-profile environmental upgrade of the White House.

Yet as hopeful as these signs are, the process won’t succeed unless it becomes a very broad-based restructuring of our whole society and economy. All of us need to be part of it, and each of us can be. Use the tools and models described in this issue (including the next four pages) and build from there. But whatever you do, don’t miss out on these opportunities – they are some of the best I have ever seen!

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