Category Archives: Role of designers

EcoOptimism in Climate Week

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

The UN Climate Summit had its ups and downs (China being one the downers) but some of the accompanying events left me feeling more optimistic. First, of course, was the People’s Climate March, the largest environmental protest in history. I began the march with a contingent from The New School (where I teach), but when we finally began marching (lined up on 72nd Street, it was two hours before we began walking on Central Park West) I found myself just ahead of the area that included architects walking under the banner “We Have the Solutions.”

That slogan – a fact, really – was reinforced at a talk at the Center for Architecture early Thursday morning. The speaker was Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030. Mazria has been in the ecodesign world longer than almost anyone around. In my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, I called him “a green architect before such a term existed.” (He’d probably hate that description.) He came to prominence when, in 2003, he crunched some energy numbers and determined that buildings – and hence architects – were responsible for a much larger percentage of total energy consumption than anyone realized.

The numbers were published in Metropolis magazine. Susan Szenasy, who moderated Thursday’s talk and is the editor and publisher of Metropolis, said she initially took a lot of flak for placing the blame on architects. But as Mazria pointed out – at one point with a slide that just read “opportunity” in huge type – it also meant architects, along with building owners and others, have the ability to have a huge impact.

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

Building design and construction fall into two categories: new construction and renovation. And it’s the latter that holds some of the greatest potential because there is so much existing building stock relative to new buildings, and most of it is in need of energy upgrades. Remaking 2% – 3% of building stock per year using best practices would put us on the necessary path toward a net-zero energy goal. As this is close to the current rate of renovation, the idea, Mazria said, is “eminently doable.”

In a previous post, I wrote that architects – as polymath optimists – are uniquely suited to helping devise and advocate for the solutions we need. (Or, as the banner at the People’s Climate March observed, the solutions we already have.) The take away from Mazria’s exuberant talk was that architects have a pivotal role in determining our future. Indeed, the event was titled, only slightly hyperbolically, “Design! Life Depends on Us.”

Mazria observed that architects and planners have done this before when modernism, for all its faults in hindsight, helped bring cities out of the grime of their unhealthy 19th century state. It’s a profoundly EcoOptimistic point that architects can be one of the major forces in achieving the necessary goal of eliminating our production of greenhouse gases.

 

Cities, Community and Sustainable Development

The impetus for this post arises from a call for blog submittals on the topic of “Cities and Sustainability” for the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week Conference. Here I propose that community is a necessary part of sustainability.

While the environmental advantages of urban living remain unintuitive to some – a vestige of an earlier environmental movement belief in the virtues of living off the land — anyone who has looked into ecofootprints (or carbon or water footprints) knows that urban dwellers consume significantly less resources than do suburbanites or even most rural denizens. We travel shorter distances, more often by foot or mass transit than by car. Our homes are smaller and stacked, requiring less material to build and fill them with as well less energy to heat, cool and light them. The primary downside, perhaps, is the need to import most of the food supply. But this, too, may be a misplaced criticism since so much of the food supply is grown globally. If anything, then, the transportation and distribution of food is more efficient in cities than in spread out development. And for local, seasonal crops, we’re seeing a growing movement to urban gardens, which have the potential to provide a portion of food needs along with “reconnecting” urbanites to nature (addressing the Thoreaus amongst us).

So the rapid urbanization of the population is, in many ways, an environmentally positive – even necessary — event. Too often left out, however, is the question of what life in these cities is or will be like, and this has at least two significant implications for sustainable development.

Modern urbanization has taken several physical forms: horizontal expansion of low-rise districts, vertical densification where geography limits outward pushes, and ground-up creation of entire new high-rise cities. What most of these lack, due to the artificial influences of zoning, economics and modern architecture, are the street life and vitality of older cities. The tendency, even in the greenest buildings, is toward characterless and anonymous (or, alternatively, monumental) structures that pay little attention to the street or the community. A resulting combination of a lack of pride of place and, as I have written previously (1, 2), design that discourages neighborhood interaction, leads to a diminished sense of community. This loss of belonging to something larger than one’s self contributes to the perception that environmental issues, both local and global, are someone else’s problem.

This also has bearing on the potential for another positive environmental movement: the sharing economy. Sharing objects and services means less consumption has to take place, saving both resources and money. The good news is that urban living, by definition, has a good deal of sharing built into it: sharing of lobbies, floors and ceilings, of sidewalks, parks and transportation. But the possibilities are greater, ranging from tool libraries and community gardens to cars, communal cooking and guest facilities. These are often a part of what’s come to be called “intentional communities” such as cohousing where people band together to form communal groups. But urban areas in general have great potential for sharing, due in no small part to proximity and convenience – so long as a community exists that is conducive to sharing.

There is a reinforcing loop present in this. A strong community sets the stage for sharing, and sharing tends to strengthen the community.

We know that cities objectively represent a more viable path to sustainable development than either suburban sprawl or off–the-grid lifestyles. The much needed — and too often missing – part is attention to the quality of urban life, particularly as cities get denser. Density can be justified on both environmental and economic grounds, but true sustainability demands more. This is the premise behind what I call EcoOptimism: solutions that symbiotically address ecological and economic issues while also improving our lives. Urban living, if developed with people and community in mind, is perhaps our most fundamental EcoOptimistic path.

Before you can make a community resilient, you have to have a community

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The US federal government is broken and international agreements, it seems evident, are not about to happen any time soon. How then can global problems like climate change and pollution be tackled?

The ineffectuality of large-scale top-down governments, at least as they currently exist, leaves us with two possible, non-exclusive routes: a bottom-up popular approach and, perhaps counter intuitively, a corporate driven approach.

We see some evidence of the latter, albeit not nearly enough, in programs from Walmart and a few others to enforce environmental requirements on their supply chains, and in the growing endorsements by some energy and related companies of some form of a carbon fee. This business world trend, which is occurring in spite of the oversized voice of the US Chamber of Commerce, is a very positive sign in that it exposes the knee-jerk claims that a carbon tax would be a job and economy killer.

Creating public desire for environmentalism

But I want to concentrate here on the other option, creating public demand for environmental thinking and responsibility, because this is potentially the most likely route to both engaging public support and, by extension, electing governments that respond to that demand.

“Resilient communities” has become a major theme in environmentalism. The basic concept is to create ways by which communities can prepare for and respond to disasters, natural or otherwise, with less reliance on others, including national governments. It’s a fine goal (though it won’t and isn’t intended to obviate the need for wider scale programs). But the concept ignores a first step that is both necessary and desirable: before you can make a community resilient, you have to have a community.

I started writing about this topic in the post Community and Sustainability. My basic premise is that neighborhoods that don’t have a sense of community, almost by definition, are not conducive to fostering individuals’ interest in topics or problems with impact beyond their own self-interest.

Living (or working) on a block or in a neighborhood where anonymity is the rule discourages any sense of ownership, of belonging to something larger than just you. Simultaneously, this means you have less incentive to participate and less sense of responsibility to a community. This can contribute to any number of “quality of life” problems like noise and littering. If you don’t know your neighbors, you’re less likely to care.

A starting point is asking why, in so many places, it seems we don’t have strong communities. Though it may be partially a product of nostalgia, we commonly hear that communities used to be more important and more central to people’s lives. Reasons for this abound, ranging from the trend away from extended families living in proximity, to fewer stay at home moms (as was the social and economic norm back then), the loss of local coffee shops and watering holes and, of course, the advent of the Internet. The common factor in all of these is that there are fewer places and occasions for in-person interaction: fewer places to meet your neighbors, fewer chances for unplanned exchanges.

LES streets

I’ve been pondering this while looking at current and proposed developments here in NYC and elsewhere, and comparing them to urban streets like my own. New urban apartment buildings and their streets bear little resemblance to the low-rise walk ups on my block. Aesthetics aside, there is a huge difference between a block-long building containing a hundred or so apartments entered via a single massive lobby, and a series of varied buildings with each with a dozen or two units, with entrances (perhaps on those quintessential gathering spots called stoops) every 25 feet or so. Add to that the difference between streets lined with a combination of generic large chain stores with ubiquitous bank branches versus smaller local businesses run and staffed by people in the community.

Rediscovering urbanism and suburbanism

As I’ve been emphasizing in several recent posts here, particularly Towers in the Block and the series on density, we need a re-envisioning of design, both urban and suburban, with an eye toward community and livability. We need to reinvestigate the older ways of fostering community and devise new interpretations that take into account increasing density, new construction methods and economic realities, and new social patterns.

Without this, we run the risk of continuing and expanding the anonymity and attendant self-focus of modern urban and suburban life styles, resulting in a population closeted in their homes and, when they emerge, being further isolated in their cars or their headphones. That self-focus, it can be argued, is the root of many of our political problems as well as our inability to deal with environmental issues, and is at least in part an outgrowth, a fault, of the physical structure of our non-communities.

 

What’s an architect to do?

Some not-so-startling news – at least to those of us directly affected – was released last week by the American Institute of Architects.  The gist of the sobering report: architectural firm billings have dropped 40% since 2008 and more than 28% of positions have disappeared.

(We always, by the way, seem to be one of the professions hardest hit by economic cycles. In a previous period, I recall a newspaper headline that went something to the effect of “In This Recession, Be Glad You’re Not an Architect.” I couldn’t find that despondent headline in Google just now. But, searching the New York Times, I turned up apparently similar articles from other downturns: “Recession is Ravaging Architectural Firms” (1992), “Many Architects Are Losing Jobs in the Recession” (1983), among others.”)

 

 

 

 

The situation assessed more bluntly at planetizen.com

I brought this up in my return visit on Curtis B. Wayne’s radio show “Burning Down the House” this past Sunday (archived here) in which we were discussing ecodesign and economics. While our larger topics concerned the origins of suburban sprawl and how that subsequently became the “American Way of Life,” I used those statistics as a segue to talk about what it is that architects and other designers can or should be doing in a future that is likely to preclude making things – buildings and objects – on the same material scale as in the previous century.

On the face of it, there’s a conflict of interest in a designer advocating a less materialistic world. Are we, in effect, talking ourselves out of jobs? (You know, the jobs that don’t exist in the first place….) Certainly we have to spurn McMansion commissions, or at least urge our less eco-minded clients to adhere to the advice Sarah Susanka provides in the Not So Big House. And it’s rather hard to justify designing yet another chair or teapot when the world is not exactly lacking in those.

But – and here comes the EcoOptimist’s sunny side of the storm – architects and designers are particularly well suited to the imminent task of advocating for and persuasively cajoling us into the “better place” that can be the outcome of our dual eco crises. As I’ve mentioned previously, designers are, virtually by definition, optimists; “Designers look at a thing or a problem and immediately start imagining what could be.” And as my blog’s alter ego might say, “problems, have we got problems.” So that optimism has plenty of targets to address.

Designers, obviously, also have to be visionaries. How else to see to possibilities amidst the economic and ecological rubble? Or to envision potential utopias where others fear post-apocalyptic dystopia? Accompanying that, most designers have the ability, developed through years of sometimes contentious client and public agency meetings, to communicate their visions. (One hopes, of course, that they are not so good at communicating that they are able to white- or green-wash a less than visionary idea. I’m looking at you, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Plan Voisin and Broadacre City, as enticing as they may have looked at the time, did not help.)  Environmentalism and ecodesign have long-standing PR and image problems, with most people connoting the movements with personal sacrifice. Designers, working in teams with others as they often do in their projects, can both devise positive solutions and create imagery that allows the public to envision how our lives would be affected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s often been stated that architects are “Renaissance men” (apologies for the gender specificity), with their endeavors encompassing math, physics, sociology, psychology – and sometimes, for those designing private residences, couples counseling – as well as, of course, the expected 2D and 3D arts. This generalist background, which unfortunately is becoming less the norm in architectural education, is necessary for dealing with complex, multidisciplinary issues in a systems manner. Specialists, on the other hand, are not usually equipped to synthesize the factors outside their expertise; consciously or subconsciously they focus on what they are familiar with. (Old medical joke: What’s the difference between a general practitioner and a specialist? One treats what you have; the other thinks you have what he treats.)

Here, then, is the upside of that AIA survey. Yes, conventional building and object design, along with their attendant jobs, are going away. That’s a good thing in terms of environmental solutions. Turns out it’s also a good thing for architects and designers, as well as the world at large, in that their abilities can provide a much-needed service as we all search for and develop those solutions.

A post in The Atlantic Cities about the AIA survey asks: “Where are all the out-of-work architects going? Possibly to jobs in real estate and city government. And that could be good news for everyone.” In past recessions, architects, especially recent grads, have often found their careers re-routed. Coincidentally, a few years back, the AIA embarked on an initiative to encourage architects to run for public office, observing “architects learn creative problem solving and other skills that can make them effective community leaders.” The emphasis there is on architects’ strengths in listening and consensus building. Fair enough and important enough, but the potential goes beyond that I think, to employing those multidisciplinary, generalist skills mentioned above into a – and I use the word hesitantly – holistic synthesis.

So designers have both an opportunity and a responsibility to redirect their talents. For reasons of both necessity and choice, we designers need to apply ourselves to developing and communicating our constructed futures. We need the work, and it’s good work to be doing.

Optimism = Possibility

Can it be coincidence that, only two months after the launch of the EcoOptimism blog, Ode Magazine has changed its name to The Intelligent Optimist?

Uh, yeah, it’s coincidence. Much as I’d love to think we’ve already had that kind of influence, they’ve been around a lot longer than we have, and co-founder Jurriaan Kamp writes about the name change here. He relays a discussion about the renaming he had with Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, in which Zander says “I think of intelligent optimism as a discipline, the rigorous discipline to stay in the state of mind of possibility.”

As I write this, their new website is not yet fully launched and the “about” section is labeled “Under Construction.” That may be unintentionally appropriate given Zander’s point about possibilities: “The disciplined intelligent optimist says, ‘It’s too early to judge,’ and asks, ‘What’s next?’”

Possibility is always under construction.

But we can check back with OdeWire’s “about” page (OdeWire is their online component), which says “…OdeWire is always looking at the most authoritative news sources for stories that focus on solutions rather than problems, and on positive changes rather than negative ones.”

Not surprisingly, given the related names, there is a strong parallel between Ode/The Intelligent Optimist’s mission and ours.

EcoOptimism seeks to show how we can come out the other side of our concurrent ECOlogical and ECOnomic crises (ECOoptimism, get it?) in a better place than we started; that not only will the planet be healthier, but we, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a species, can feel fulfilled and be more prosperous.

Our emphasis on optimism doesn’t mean we are always optimistic. We see clouds as well as silver linings. (I’ve never quite understood the phrase ‘every cloud has a silver lining.’ Wouldn’t it mean that we see the silver outer lining rather than the storms awaiting us inside, meaning things look better than they are? But whatevs, as ‘the kids’ are saying these days.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regardless of occasional digressions from optimism (‘reality checks’ some might call them), it strikes me that optimism is the only productive route. In terms of environmentalism, the alternative pessimistic route would be adaptation – acknowledging that the sky is indeed falling and we’d better strengthen our roofs.

But does EcoOptimism imply that we not pursue adaptation, or its more positive variation: resilience? Not at all. That would put it in the category of one of my nemeses: the false dilemma. (Note to self: create comic book villain named “False Dilemma.”) We can – and should – work on both prevention or mitigation and adaptation or resilience. The vastly preferable path, in terms of both cost and disruption (“disruption” would be an optimistic/euphemistic description of the potential perils), is prevention. But it may well be that we are past the point of prevention of some ecological disasters. For instance it may be that climate disruption has already been set in motion and, therefore, it would be foolhardy to ignore the steps necessary to lessen the impact. Perhaps there are responses available there, too that are in the vein of EcoOptimism – adaptations that also improve our economy and lives, only without the ecological benefits.

The other appeal of EcoOptimism is its very nature. Fear is usually a great motivator, but it hasn’t been working here, probably because the things to be afraid of are too abstract. We aren’t directly experiencing them or have trouble ascribing seemingly isolated events to a larger picture that we’d rather not see.

Fear motivates in crises like war or epidemics or severe weather (as opposed to climate) where the danger can be felt or easily anticipated, or where we have experienced it before. Ecological disruption falls into none of those categories and that means we need a different motivator. If not fear, then the motivator needs to be desire, which is where the purpose of EcoOptimism comes in.

Optimism is also a nearly genetic part of being a designer. (Non-designers are welcome; it’s not an exclusive gene pool.) Designers look at a thing or a problem and immediately start imagining what could be. Pretty much by definition, that’s optimism. It also means that, in the eyes and minds of designers, things are always “under construction.” There are always possibilities.

Who do designers think they are anyway?

Are you what you own? And if so, does that mean designers — the people who think up most of the things you own – are in fact designing you?

A fascinating online discussion this past week has led me to ponder this question of designers’ roles and responsibilities – and limitations. The discussion began with the posting of an essay called “Designing Culture” by Colin McSwiggen, a postgrad student at the Royal College of Art in London. McSwiggen starts out by offering that one of the standard definitions of design (“Giving form to culture”) is “delusional. It seems to be gesturing toward the all-too-common notion that designers have some kind of sociocultural superpower: by shaping the physical objects that mediate and regulate people’s behaviors and interactions, they are shaping society itself!”

This, he says, is a vast overstatement of designer’s roles, “a classic credit-hogging move on the part of the design world’s plentiful narcissists,” because

The reality is that most designers work under some pretty heavy constraints: There’s a client or employer who gives them a mandate and makes the final call on what will actually be manufactured, printed or constructed. There are precedents set by existing designs that simultaneously inspire and circumscribe the designer’s work and limit the range of possibilities that clients and users will find acceptable. Finally, designed objects, spaces and images are frequently reinterpreted and repurposed by people who have no idea what the designer had in mind. In short, design is subject to the same limitations as any other so-called creative practice, and designers are no more authors than, well, authors are.

There are certainly elements of truth there. When I am designing someone’s home, I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) run unfettered with my own ideas because, well, there’s that client – who has interests and tastes of their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who makes the design decisions? (Fictional architect Howard Roark altering his modern design at the request of his clients. Image from The Fountainhead, 1949)

Perhaps this is the difference, along with the pesky need for functionality, between an applied artist such as a designer or architect and a fine artist: the presence of a client or employer and – depending on how you view it – the limitations or opportunities in the accompanying constraints.

McSwiggen’s deflating of designers’ roles was picked up on by Cameron Tonkinwise who, until the summer was head of a program I teach in at Parsons (he’s now moved on to Carnegie Mellon and is missed here). He tweeted: “every idiot who leapt on then off the #designthinking bandwagon needs to read this.”

(I think Cameron’s digital outbursts of indignation are great and sorely needed, but when they are forced into Twitter’s length limitations they sometimes trend toward incomprehensibility in a language that I once called “websperanto.”)

McSwiggen goes on to write that the things we possess are an integral part of our cultural class definitions:

Without physical stuff to remind us of how we supposedly differ from one another, our hierarchies would be awfully ramshackle; stripped of our possessions, categories like “class” start to look like just a bunch of learned behaviors and confused ideas. Whether prohibitively priced cars, gendered garments, or separate schools for blacks and whites, social hierarchies are always maintained with the help of physical objects and spaces designed to reflect those hierarchies. Otherwise everyone’s claims of superiority and difference would be quite literally immaterial.

Cameron’s tweet about McSwiggen’s post in turn prompted Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com (you with me still?) to post “Colin McSwiggen suggests that if [we] really had nothing, nobody would know who we are or what we stand for. Our stuff defines us.”

And therein lays, I think, a contradiction. (Sidenote: so long as I’m complimenting folks here, Lloyd is my singularly favorite eco-blogger, managing to post a range of incredibly relevant topics with a neat balance of acerbic insight and criticism. My opinion, of course, is wholly unprompted by his writing a great review of my book.) If physical objects define us, and designers design those objects, then something like the law of transitivity must apply here, resulting in “designers define us.”

But that’s not my real problem. It’s with the “stuff defines us part” and the idea that we become an indistinguishable mass of life without things to differentiate us. Now that’s probably an unfair exaggeration of what McSwiggen means, but even without hyperbole it strikes me as quite a cynical view of humanity. Yes, we live in a highly materialistic world – and that’s a topic very relevant to EcoOptimism — but I think the materialism is more about how we feel about ourselves than how we see others. A large part of materialism involves attempting to sate what we view as needs. Those needs are a result of the things available out there in the world (though perhaps not within reach) creating desire for them. It’s the combination of exposure via advertising and the breakdown of global distances enabled by the Internet, along with that old “keeping up with the Joneses” false sense of self-value.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barbara Kruger, untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), 1987.

The differentiation McSwiggen is writing about, I think, is not as much about cultural classes as it is about self-image. Am I successful if I don’t have the things others do? Am I really defined by how new and large and flat my television is? Or what version number iPhone I’m using? (Not being a car owner and knowing virtually nothing about current models, I’m hard pressed to come up with a vehicular interpretation here.)

Either way — whether we’re talking about self-esteem or class differentiation — we come to the conclusion that objects have an effect on us, perhaps a profound effect. And those objects get designed by someone.  So an individual or a group is responsible for the emergence of those objects.

Does this mean designers determine what we are? Of course not. That would indeed constitute a “sociocultural superpower.”  But it’s an unavoidable fact that designers have at least a very significant role in determining what kinds of objects – electronics, buildings, clothes, plug-in air fresheners — are produced.  That role can be reactive or proactive.

In a model sustainable world, we would re-evaluate the real utility and real happiness that material objects lend us. This would lead to questioning what the things are that we really need and what the best ways to fulfill those needs are. The result could well be a dramatic change in the demand for various things.

Typically, designers would react to this, adapting as best they can to the new “market.” (Only occasionally are there visionaries such as Steve Jobs and his minions who create markets.) But reacting is not sufficient, given the role of designers in the development and emergence of material objects.  This is where the proactive part comes in. It’s also where the survival of designers emerges. In short, we have both a social and personal (if we are to have jobs and careers) responsibility to use our training and experience to participate in – if not lead – that re-evaluation of the purpose – the utility and joy — of material objects.

The re-evaluation process may in some cases lead to “dematerialization” where we (designers and users, for lack of a better term) conclude that some objects are in fact not desired. Which might lead to fewer design opportunities and, hence, fewer designers. And it presents designers with a bit of an existential dilemma: if we (designers) advocate dematerializing and owning fewer (but better?) things, as sustainability requires, are we talking ourselves out of jobs? Not if we take a larger view of designers’ roles. That view, which also happens to lead to the continued existence of design and designers, involves us having a leading part in imagining and advocating for things that are truly beneficial and enable us to thrive.

That doesn’t grant us sociocultural superpowers (or the accompanying egos). But designers do have some important abilities, most significantly to envision alternatives and, as I always emphasize with my students, to question our assumptions. When those abilities are combined with a realization of ethical responsibilities (and with other values like entrepreneurship), we get the potential for the inventions and reconceptions that can transform us not only from an unsustainable existence, but past a merely sustainable one and to a place where we flourish.