Changing the world, one city at a time

 By Livia Formisani

According to a 2017 UN report, by 2100 the U.S. population will increase by 38 percent. With urbanization a constant trend for the past 60 years, we can expect our cities to increase in size, which in turn will have an effect on viability, housing, health and quality of life. There is no need to look too much ahead, either – most of the world’s population already lives in urban areas…

So much so, in fact, that urban sprawl, the tendency of cities to expand to their immediate surroundings and give rise to suburbs, is a well-documented phenomenon with serious consequences. Since it mostly happens in farmlands around cities, it increases the risk of flooding, threatens biodiversity and can affect our food supplies. Due to the increased driving it inevitably causes, sprawl also negatively impacts public health and levels of pollution, besides being expensive, as it requires infrastructures connecting relatively low-density residential areas with the city center.
Given the difficulty of reversing urbanization, there is now focus on building better cities, allowing for sustainable development. Over the last few decades, architects and urban planners around the world have proposed shifting attention from cities to neighborhoods as the fundamental urban unit. Douglas Farr, award-winning architect of LEED Platinum fame, urban planner and former chair of the LEED for Neighborhood Development committee, is one of them. His 2007 bestseller Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature painted a comprehensive picture of sustainable buildings and infrastructures, presenting detailed case studies. In his recently published Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future, Farr goes a step beyond, by looking at the very dynamics of change and proposing inspiring examples of sustainable urban development as well as acceleration strategies.

Award-winning architect and former chair of the LEED-ND, Douglas Farr is the author of "Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the future"

Sustainable Nation

One of the core tenets of the book, based on research data from different domains, is that the conventional pace of change is too slow to meet our targets, for instance on decarbonization. “If the U.S. could decarbonize its economy at the same rate at which it quit smoking as a society, we won’t reach our targets until 2150,” says Farr, “which is about 100 years later than we agreed to.” Hence the necessity to drive change by taking responsibility on a local scale. “Your neighborhood is arguably the one part of your life where you can be the most effective, make a big difference. People somehow skip past that,” he says. There is a strong social component to it, too: as human beings, we value relationships and social standing, which develop organically in the neighborhood.
Farr proposes six acceleration strategies to foster change, such as campaigns, communities of practice and pilgrimage sites, sketching a paradigm shift in the way we interact with our surroundings. These can be applied to the 70 “patterns” described in the second part of the book, best practices and inspiring concepts from industry leaders to help design and manage sustainable neighborhoods. A few examples of patterns are net-zero energy-ready buildings, clean wastewater technologies and regular neighborhood checkups.

Hammarby Sjölstad, a neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden, is one of the "pilgrimage sites" reported as an example of sustainable community prototype (Design for Health, CC BY 2.0)

Energy and sorroundings

When it comes to energy, Farr looks at renewable sources with a very practical outlook. “We are aided in the fact that technological and business innovation have made renewable wind and solar [energies] increasingly cheap. Solar panels are continuing to drop in price, and for every doubling of the world market, the price drops another 20 percent [Swanson’s law]. So we are on a virtuous cycle going forward. Sustainable Nation takes the photovoltaic issue in this direction by suggesting the building code to require buildings to be solar-ready. In doing so, no matter when the owner will install the panels, we will have already grown the future market for photovoltaics will have grown, which in turn will contribute to further drive the price down.”
In the same way, Sustainable Nation advocates for people to become actors of change. We already invest in our neighborhoods, by moving there, building a home, a reputation. Improving our surroundings is the opportunity to take on an active role, build long-lasting relationships, and make a real impact on the future. “Perfecting your neighborhood, done in conjunction with small groups of neighbors, is very much an untapped resource to cause change to happen more quickly,” says Farr. “No one has to wait for anything: just get active in your neighborhood” he adds. To further support local engagement, the architect is also launching, a step-by-step online initiative connecting sustainable urbanists by providing resources and best practices.

about the author
Livia Formisani