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Period Homes Magazine



Tradition and Sustainability in the 21st Century

By Hank Dittmar

The following is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Waterloo Planning Dinner in Toronto, Canada, on November 14, 2006.

What makes a great place? What makes one think fondly of a visit to a favorite town or city, and want to return there? What makes a place uniquely itself, of a region, characteristic of the land and the people who live on it? Why don't we seem to build like that anymore? And how might a new "development" become one of these favorite places? Only by looking at the traditions of building that have thrived in the past can we hope to derive new rules to allow us to resolve the growth and environmental problems of the 21st century. The challenges for building quality, environmental sustainability and community management and ownership are enormous. And the twin challenges of global warming and global urbanization make it imperative that we in the developed world attempt this uneasy marriage of place making, profit making and sustainability.

Part of the problem in our cities is that we have been fundamentally altering basic structures – movement patterns, the role of neighborhoods in the city structure, the size of blocks – to accommodate short-term trends like retail packaging. A better understanding of the basic types that compose the city is needed in order to define ways to accommodate urban "fashions," like big-box retail, in a flexible and adaptable way. At the same time, an ecological approach to city-making depends upon moving away from the mechanistic approach to transport and movement, which led to the predict-and-provide model of transport and ultimately to the insane notion that adding road space could cure congestion – a theory akin to the idea that one can cure obesity by loosening one's belt!

A fundamental rethinking by environmentalists about cities is in order. Traditionally, being "green" has been about embracing wilderness and opposing development – and cities were seen as soul-destroying, noisy, smelly and dirty places. But a closer look reveals that if we look at cities and towns in terms of per capita environmental burden, rather than on an area-wide basis, they are far more environmentally friendly than sprawling suburbs.

The Centre for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago, IL-based think tank, makes the point quite clearly in a project on transport and climate change: Greenhouse-gas emissions for the San Francisco Bay Area on per-square-mile basis show cities to be far dirtier than suburbs and farmland, but when one recalculates on a per capita basis, a very different story emerges. On a per capita basis, city centers contribute much less carbon to the atmosphere than do suburban areas.

The environmental benefit of city living comes from a combination of scale, density, street connectivity and mixed community. Scale means understanding the role of buildings, streets, neighborhoods, towns and regions in a complex system. Regions are about the interaction of complex systems: markets, the institutions that regulate them and the transport that creates access to them. They are made up of a system of walkable neighborhoods, interconnected by streets and transport networks, each serving its own function. Scale makes it possible to efficiently operate public-transport systems, providing a meaningful alternative to the automobile. Scale also allows the provision of environmental infrastructure such as sustainable urban drainage or combined heat and power, which are more cost effective at the neighborhood or district level.

Thinking about scale and sustainability leads one to think about efficiency in building, about energy efficiency and power generation at the neighborhood, block and building scale, rather than solely thinking about power as something generated far away and distributed through transmission lines – whether the source is nuclear, wind or coal. This industrial approach also has the effect of concentrating and dislocating the environmental burden of power generation. Combined heat and power, micro-scale wind generation and photovoltaics are all advancing technologies, and applying them at the scale of the building, the block and the neighborhood is a question of both urban design and architecture, especially if we wish to move these technologies into the mainstream, rather than make green-ness a conspicuous design statement for the few.

Prototype micro wind turbines developed by Monrovia, CA-based AeroVironment are a good example of proper scale, and they can be as easily integrated into a traditional building as former generations incorporated chimney pots. While micro wind hasn't solved cost-effectiveness issues or questions of turbulence in the urban environment, it is a safe bet that costs will come down and efficiency will improve over the next five to 10 years. And, incidentally, I wouldn't be as quick to complain about the use of chimneys on traditional houses, as some architects seem to be. The advent of super-clean pellet stoves coupled with thermally efficient houses may mean that the chimney has a function after all!

Street connectivity is yet another important piece of the puzzle. An interconnected street network provides for better distribution of traffic, lessening congestion on major roads. The avoidance of "wiggly worm" cul de sacs allows for the creation of walkable neighborhoods that accommodate the automobile but celebrate the pedestrian.

A mixed community is built around the form of streets, blocks and building and the types of buildings rather than type of land use. It allows for employment and retail within close proximity of residences. Mixed communities also provide a range of housing types and sizes, accommodating affordable housing through pepper-potting rather than in monocultural disconnected estates. These characteristics add up to location efficiency – the combination of greater residential density, increased pedestrian and bicycle friendliness and access to public transportation – which results in reduced vehicle travel, lower carbon emissions and reduced household transportation expenses.

The interrelation of city and neighborhood with building scale has led the U.S. Green Building Council to partner with the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council to produce a new green rating system at the neighborhood scale. LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), which has just entered the pilot phase, incorporates multiple levels of analysis: location efficiency, environmental preservation, compact, connected neighborhoods and resource efficiency.

Residential densities allowing for exchange, interconnected street patterns, public-transport systems and mixed use are characteristics of traditional urban communities, and properly designing for sustainability means being grounded in an ever-evolving tradition. If one views tradition rather than self-conscious newness as a foundation for sustainability, then the challenge is one of reconnecting with adaptation to place.

The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment has begun to evolve tools and techniques for urban design and community involvement that embrace the twin challenges of sustainability and improved quality of life while simultaneously responding to the challenges of a changing marketplace. Such tools as Enquiry by Design, an interdisciplinary stakeholder-driven approach to planning developed in our longstanding collaboration with English Partnerships, and design coding focused on form and typologies that are locally derived promise to provide for a close integration between local identity and sustainability.

These codes and pattern books are built around urban, landscape and building types that reflect local climate, history and culture, and accommodate environmental, social, economic and technological change in a robust manner. Codes are intended to set forth these types and serve as tools for regulating form rather than simply use in the planning system. Uses change over time, while types of streets, blocks and buildings are more permanent and – if we get it right – flexible enough to absorb changes in use without major changes in form. Pattern books were adapted by Pittsburgh, PA, urbanist Ray Gindroz from the 19th-century builder's pattern book as a tool for working with house builders to improve the design of their houses, and to relate them to their place in a master plan.

The use of local adaptation as a base is important if ecological building is to move from being a design statement about technology to being a serious response to current systems of production of houses, flats and commercial buildings. Most people want to live in traditional houses, and we shouldn't have to make them chose between helping to save the planet and investing in a house that they can love!

We clearly do not have all the answers to the challenge of creating sustainable communities, or of adapting traditional building and urbanism to a world of peak oil, global climate change and possible sea-level rise. While traditional urbanism may reduce travel – and it seems to be clear that traditional approaches to making buildings that can respond passively to climate are proving relevant today – tradition must evolve to respond to changed conditions. This evolution, in an era of production building, presents a challenge to The Prince's Foundation – a challenge that can be met by a partnership with green architects and builders.

The foundation's president, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, is someone who takes the long view, and has campaigned on environmental issues for many years. He has said, "To find new solutions for these major global issues it is essential that we combine a thorough understanding of how past civilizations ordered themselves, using minimal resources, together with new science and technologies so that we really can have our cake and eat it. Modernism has led us to seek answers in a host of technical 'fixes.' Traditionalism often only pays it lip service. Real traditional thinking has always tried to see the whole picture."  


Hank Dittmar is chief executive of The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment and currently chairs the board of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
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