I always hoped it would turn out something like this, although it was never clear from the beginning whether it would even work at all, and the stakes could not have been higher in the depths of the Great Recession. Last night marked the fifth anniversary of the release of the Original Green book. We had mortgaged everything possible to get it printed, and there was no Plan B.
The ideas at the foundation of the Original Green actually date back 35 years now, and the first presentation of those ideas was at West Coast Green in San Francisco in September ’06 and this blog began in April ’08. But the book was a watershed moment. Here are some things it might have helped to influence, and other things it clearly spawned by virtue of looking at sustainability through different and more holistic lenses:
The Original Green’s proposition that you should be able to look out onto the fields and the waters from which much of your food comes is part of a long-running call for local food dating back continuously to at least the 1960s. Before refrigerated trucking, it was simply a fact of life and not even discussed much back then, because talking about the importance of local food was much like talking about the importance of local air. What’s notable is that I don’t recall tightly-embedded agriculture being proposed as the first essential element of sustainable places a decade ago. And regardless of how it came about, it was gratifying to have local agriculture as the focus of CNU 19 in Madison, and to see the rise of Agrarian Urbanism.
Think back several years… how often did you hear lovability proposed as the most essentail element of sustainable buildings? “Lovable” has until recently been considered to be beneath serious discourse on either sustainability or architecture. Now, it has clearly entered the lexicon of both discussions. I’m also delighted that people are now talking about lovable places as well. I don’t recall for sure where lovability made the leap from places to buildings… it might have been Mike Watkins’ idea… but lovable places are clearly a useful construct, and deserve further development.
LEED & Gizmo Green
A clear proposition for true sustainability also brings into focus those things that claim to be sustainable, but aren’t. Gizmo Green is the proposition that with better equipment and better materials, we can achieve sustainability, but this misses most of what real sustainability is all about. 1 Bryant Park is a skyscraper that consumes massive resources, but is LEED Platinum. The reality is that skyscrapers in general have huge sustainability problems. And when people claim their parking garages are green, you know things have gone nuts. While the USGBC has done some good things over the years, its LEED system is a fair target because of its bloated Gizmo Green approach. And Gizmo Green infests the curriculae of most schools of architecture today, fitting students with Net-Zero blinders that shut out the view of real sustainability.
The Original Green calls for a common-sense, plain-spoken definition of sustainability: “keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.” The core act of sustaining is preserving. That which cannot be preserved will no longer be there to be sustained. But there’s a deeper problem to preservation today: are we merely preserving artifacts we love, or are we also preserving or reawakening those living traditions that created those artifacts to begin with, so that more of them can be created? Living traditions were the operating systems of true sustainability. Preservationists must also consider the unthinkable: when is a tear-down the more sustainable choice? If not, what are the ground rules for saving a building from demolition, and how can you assemble a cause to preserve the building?
Sprawl & Recovery
Sustainable places are possible only if they’re freed from the costs of sprawl. The need for speed burdens sprawling places with great inefficiencies, and the character of speedy thoroughfares cheapens the land around them precipitously. This impoverishes us both directly and indirectly. Fortunately, a number of colleagues are working on ways to retrofit or repair sprawl. The Original Green prescription is a 12-step program of Sprawl Recovery because sprawl really has been an addiction for reasons documented so thoroughly on StrongTowns. Sprawl Recovery is built on three foundations: The Transect gives predictability to sprawl’s extreme makeover. The Sky Method was developed as a radical new way of developing land but works equally well in redeveloping sprawl. And Walk Appeal is important enough to warrant its own paragraph:
It’s possible that Walk Appeal might be the most useful tool the Original Green has spawned to date. Walkability was a worthy goal 30 years ago when so many places were completely unwalkable, but it’s a low standard today. Do you want food that’s merely edible? Or a book that’s merely readable? Today, we need to transition to places people love to walk, not places where they are merely able to walk. Walk Appeal is the product of several factors. Some of them can be measured, and therefore coded. Others are immeasurable, but nonetheless play into whether people want to walk there or not. But in any case, the impact of Walk Appeal is very real, and is key to the viability of neighborhood businesses, making the difference betwen thriving and failing. It may even turn out to be a secret weapon for the best maker spaces.
The Luxury of Small
The Original Green calls for better instead of bigger, and as we learned during the Katrina Cottages initiative a decade ago, small cottages can be really endearing. The reason why has finally become clear, and it turns out it may actually be a biological survival mechanism: the Teddy Bear Principle. To build smaller, it is necessary to build smarter as well because nobody wants to simply have their life put in a vise. It has even influenced my own life, as Wanda and I combined our home and office into 747 square feet just over a year ago.
There are allied ideals: Sitting lightly on the land can save millions, and is based on the idea of “digging as if you only had a shovel.” Lean Urbanism is an important new initiative now brewing, and co-founder Andrés Duany regularly cites the Original Green as an influence.
There’s more, of course… and more on the way. I can’t wait to get the Original Green Scorecard built and running as a fast, friendly, and free alternative to LEED, for example. And to get the first Sky Method SmartCode in place. So if you don’t already have one, but want to see the foundation these ideas are based upon, pick up a copy and have a look. It’s an easy read with lots of pictures. As you know, I almost never ask you to buy something, but I think you may enjoy it. And please let me know what you think!
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And a wonderful book it still is. Congratulations.
Steve, great work! Congratulations and thank you for changing the way so many of us think about resilience.