Only radical thinking will solve environmental problems | Erin Millar | May 30, 2012 | The Globe and Mail

Designers need to get beyond “trinket architecture”, says @darrylcondon. Story by @erinmillar suggests Seven Rules for Sustanable Communities by Patrick Condon at UBC.

[Darryl] Condon did some research. The World Bank estimates that a more conservative 200-million new cars will be on the road in India by 2040, meaning that a new car enters the system every five seconds. In contrast, Mr. Condon considered his recent LEED Gold project, four years in the making, which saves an impressive 450 tons of carbon dioxide annually. Every eight minutes, that accomplishment is cancelled out by the CO2 output of new cars in India. “In the time I’ve been speaking to you, four years of efforts at reducing greenhouse emissions from one project have been offset,” he says.

This realization is the kind of disruptive revelation that can change the way people think about their entire field. For Mr. Condon, the disruption didn’t discourage him but instead provoked increased motivation to find creative solutions. “We’re proud of our work, and there’s a lot to celebrate,” Mr. Condon says. “But we really need to challenge our assumptions to make sure we’re actually having the greatest impact.”

Too often, our society approaches its formidable environmental challenges by focusing on technological innovation, according to Patrick Condon (no relation to Darryl), an urban design professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities. “When we think about how to reduce greenhouse gases, the strategy is often to figure out some kind of technology to deal with that. We decide that the solution is X meters of solar panels. These types of additive, green-gizmo fixes often don’t deal with the fundamental entropy of our systems.”

“Trinket architecture” is Darryl Condon’s term for buildings designed in this manner. “The solution isn’t adding fancy technologies to buildings that are fundamentally unsustainable.” He agrees that there are lots of valuable ideas for sustainable technologies; however, he believes we need to find ways to implement them broadly. “The trophy buildings that we build in central areas of cities like Vancouver are really meaningful in terms of learning new [sustainable] ways to do things, but until we find a way to transform what 99 per cent of the built fabric is in North America [the suburbs], we aren’t really dealing with the issues.”

Many sustainability experts agree that if Canada suffers a creativity gap, it’s not evidenced by a deficiency of good ideas, the kind of ideas that result from intense focus on a narrowly-defined problem. Instead they point to a lack of the type of creativity that leads to rethinking whole systems, producing large-scale solutions and implementing valuable ideas. Because the nature of climate change is global, government leadership is essential. Yet, governments are hesitant to act for fear of damaging their economic competitiveness.

Patrick Condon suggests that this is a central reason to foster critical, creative thought and re-examine the fundamentals of our society, such as how we quantify success. “According to our mechanism for economic analysis, increased gasoline sales, car wrecks, and ambulances all show up on the GDP. Those things are seen as good,” he explains. “But what are we innovating for? Presumably to increase access to the good things in life − financial security, a good home, enough leisure to enjoy your family. Isn’t human happiness for our citizens without encumbering others’ happiness the end, not inventing the next widget and controlling the global marketplace?”

Yet reinventing systems as deeply ingrained as the GDP requires radical thinking. A key element is understanding how challenges are broadly connected, rather than attempting to solve problems solely through expertise. For instance, transportation experts may become so focused on how to engineer a new bridge, they lose sight of how it affects housing or water issues. “There is this need to think in cross-disciplinary ways, to depend more on your intuitive powers, the part of the brain that allows for integrative thought and holistic concept generation, which may not have a linear genesis,” says Patrick Condon.

Only radical thinking will solve environmental problems | Erin Millar | May 30, 2012 | The Globe and Mail at

Only radical thinking will solve environmental problems - The Globe and Mail

Excerpt from Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, Patrick M. Condon.

Seven rules for sustainable, low-carbon communities

1. Restore the streetcar city

The North American city was and is a streetcar city. Streetcar cities are characterized by easy access to transit, a wide variety of house types, and services and job sites very close at hand — the exact elements of a sustainable city. We have largely ignored this fact. It needs rediscovering.

2. Design an interconnected street system

Fine-grain interconnected street networks ensure that all trips are as short as possible, disperse congestion and are compatible with walking, biking and transit.

3. Locate commercial services, frequent transit and schools within a five-minute walk

People will walk if there is something to walk to. The most important walking destinations are the corner store and a transit stop. A minimum gross density of 10 dwelling units per acre is required for this to work.

4. Locate good jobs close to affordable homes

The trend toward ever larger commute distances for workers must be reversed. “Good jobs close to home” is a fundamental requirement. The vast majority of new jobs in the United States and Canada are compatible with complete community districts.

5. Provide a diversity of housing types

Zoning laws have tended to segregate communities by income. Communities designed for only one income cannot be complete, and when repeated throughout the region, they add to transportation problems.

6. Create a linked system of natural areas and parks

Keeping our waters clean and our streams and rivers healthy requires a rethinking of urban drainage systems and stream protection policies. Maintaining the integrity of these systems must be a first design move when planning new communities. Far from protecting these systems through restriction, these systems must form the public space armature of new and restored communities.

7. Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper and smarter infrastructure

Suburban homes have at least four times more infrastructure per dwelling unit than do walkable streetcar neighbourhoods. Exaggerated municipal standards for roads and utilities cost too much to build and maintain, and they destroy watershed function. Smarter, cheaper and greener strategies are required.

The final rule: Love one rule, love them all

These principles represent the elements of a whole. Achieving one without the others — particularly if it is at the expense of the others — will be of limited value and could be counterproductive.

Excerpt from a series starting September 15, 2010, The Tyee at
Only radical thinking will solve environmental problems - The Globe and Mail