Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cities, Nature--and Meaning: Some Preliminary Musings

Three months ago, I attended the Healing Nature symposium at the Chicago Botanic Garden, sponsored by the Center for Humans and Nature, which explored the relationship between nature, personal, and community health. I was particularly inspired by a talk given by renowned scholar Stephen Kellert of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Dr. Kellert is known for his work on biophilic design--integrating nature into the built environment (view the trailer for his film, Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life). But what captivated me about his talk in October was his insistence that we need to develop place-based models for green building that both integrate nature and have cultural meaning, so that people feel connected to them.

To be clear, this is different from, though related to, efforts to look at design on a community-, rather than building-, scale, such as the standards released a few years ago by the US Green Building Council for LEED ND (Neighborhood Development) or Australia's Community Ratings for Sustainable Practices.

I am thinking in a more targeted fashion about the building itself--and especially buildings that have the potential to expand participation and catalyze action around sustainability, whether apartment buildings, single-family homes, businesses, or nonprofits. How can a green building become more than just a building?

I've been mulling this over and starting to articulate my thoughts to partners, as we develop project proposals. I see this as a particularly important issue to explore because so much of sustainability and climate action focuses on buildings. And in Chicago, greenhouse gas emissions from buildings comprise 70% of all GHGs. This focus provides a perfect opportunity to combine concrete measurables, such as reductions in energy and water use through building retrofits, with the less measurable yet equally as important goal of sustainable community-building.

In my emerging vision, a place-based model for green building will be developed through a participatory process in which building owners and users, together with energy auditors, identify and prioritize retrofit measures together, based not only on generic data that indicate which measures will save the most energy and be most cost-effective, but also the measures' potential for education, outreach, and replication. The buildings will then be actively used as springboards for more engagement in sustainability actions. This means more than just ensuring that building managers and tenants understand how to use new technology, or why they should replace infrastructure that breaks down with energy efficient or green infrastructure in the future. It means that the building becomes an integral part of its culture and the culture of the community in which it's located.

Some examples...

Example 1 (completely made up): A standard energy audit, let's say of a church, may identify a few measures that should be taken throughout a building to most significantly reduce energy leakage. But a participatory audit process may reveal that the majority of the church programs involve the kitchen; and furthermore, that the congregants who run these programs have expressed interest in other sustainability actions, such as composting and recycling. This understanding may result in prioritizing, at least in part, particular retrofit measures that will strongly affect the kitchen. The programs that use the kitchen may then integrate education about these measures in their their work and help congregants and other community members who participate in these programs figure out how to replicate them at home.

Example 2 (completely real--thanks to ICA colleague Dick Alton for sharing this with me):
Jenny, I promised you  a paragraph on how our congregation in Oak Park, Oak Park Euclid Av. United Methodist Church, has approached building a green culture. Obviously, it is tied to a faith story about being called to be God's stewards of Planet Earth. And that is also how our green work has moved from the congregation building to the congregation's houses to their community. We started with a broken boiler like in 2009 which lead us to looking at renewable energy- geothermal and putting in permeable bricks that was a huge congregation organizing event with $350,000 being raised with Clean Energy, banks and 3 year pledging. Caring for our next generation's planet really struck a cord. We had people loaning money from their savings with no interest. So we dropped energy consumption by 81%. Then we had people make carbon footprint pledges for their homes and now we have begun to ask them to hold EI2 (Energy Impact Illinois) house parties for their blocks. Help your neighbor stop putting carbon in the air. Under this has been a lot of education and other key events such as hosting movies (Fresh, Inconvenient Truth, etc), hosting Faith in Place Winter Markets and being involved in other Village action such as promoting PlanIt Green, the long range green plan for Oak Park.

Example 3 (also completely made up): A community study of home energy leakage may reveal that the most leakage is coming from homes in a particular part of town. This may lead to prioritizing those homes for residential retrofits. However, a broader study of community assets may reveal that there are a handful of people, scattered throughout the community, who serve as informal leaders: they are well respected by many different people and looked to as models. A participatory, asset-based planning process may result in prioritizing these homes for energy retrofits--and making them demonstration sites for a variety of sustainability actions.

What do you think? How can a green building comprise and produce meaning? How can a building spur more human-centered sustainability? Please share your thoughts!



  1. This is a big issue for us in the "ICA GreenRise Uptown Building" (I'm still trying to get into the habit of using with our new name!). I continue to be surprised about the surprise and interest expressed by visitors when they encounter our small undertakings for the first time (the numerous planters in the hallways, the aquaponic window garden, banana trees in the women's room, the "green room" with its abundant plants, etc). Though they are small, they also convey values and intent pushes consciousness. Though baby steps, I think they "spur" more human community engagement in sustainability. Terry

  2. Thanks Terry. The GreenRise building is an amazingly meaning-filled place and holds so much potential to be a huge catalyst for community-based sustainability initiatives that combine technology with culture.