Green and "long-term livability" that might add up to sustainability

By David Maddox

I have just returned from the European Foundation Centre’s (EFC) annual meeting in Copenhagen. The organizing theme was “Sustainable Cities: Foundations and Our Urban Future”, which generated much welcome and critical discussion. The bulk of the meeting was not so much—perhaps counter-intuitively—on sustainability in an environmental sense, but in a social one. For example, how can foundations play a role in the support of people, communities and cities that are prosperous but also just, equitable and inclusive? These are clearly key to long- and perhaps even mid-term sustainability. For, as several people at the conference memorably said: we have to survive today… and tomorrow and next week if we hope to sustain ourselves all the way to next year, next decade, and next century.

A fundamental challenge with the idea of sustainability is measurement—we can only truly measure it in retrospect. That is, looking back, did we survive? In prospect we can only create scenarios that improve the probability of sustaining ourselves into the future.

So, how do we do it? All of the fundamental projects in social and economic planning and justice discussed at EFC are key. Green infrastructure and green design play roles in environmental sustainability, of course, but also play key roles in creating human contexts that are livable today, and raise our chances of surviving the next 100 years—that is, being sustainable. Think of it as a series of livable and environmentally sound moments that, one after another, eventually add up to sustainability.

Architect Kaveh Samiei wrote in a recent Nature of Cities essay about the importance of integrated design that doesn’t separate, but integrates buildings and living spaces with nature, making nature always nearby. All of us can intuitively appreciate how green roofs, living walls and other green design elements improve environmentally oriented sustainability: they reduce energy costs specifically and ecological footprint more generally. Such buildings, and nature nearby more broadly, also make for nicer places to live. NGO leaders Mike Houck and Adrian Benepe make this point about even tiny urban pocket parks—they not only perform ecosystem services and support biodiversity, they are transformative social spaces that improve livability today. Visionary architect Jan Gehl, a keynote speaker at the conference, described these kinds living spaces as the life between buildings.

A second major theme at the conference was the need for “cross-sectoral dialog”—a polite way of saying that people who work in separate disciplines to make cities better ought to work together for common purpose, but often don’t. Ecologists talk to ecologists, planners to planners, sociologist to sociologists, educators to educators, designers to designers, and so on. Everybody rails against silo-limited thinking, but of course we love our silos, don’t we? The language inside them is familiar. The outcomes are somehow simpler. Bridging silos is hard and sometimes mystifying work.

But cities are complex places and cross-sectoral ideas are truly their lifeblood. Relevant mixed methods are already there for us to apply, right now. They need broader support and consensus across communities, between disciplines, and up and down levels of government. Enormous work remains even in places like Portland, Copenhagen, Singapore, and New York, places that are today considered leaders. What of more challenging cities like Mumbai, Detroit, Manaus, and…you name it…where people are at work but mountains remain to be moved. The EFC conversations are a start on this livability-to-sustainability connection—what we might call “long-term livability”. The green practitioners and the social practitioners need to find new and better ways to work together, across the sectors (and sometimes silos) that we call green design, social justice, education, planning, etc. In cities from Mumbai to Copenhagen, nowhere is our work nearly done.

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