Archive for April 5th, 2004

Working Together

Monday, April 5th, 2004

The following excerpt is from a thesis written in 1996 for a Master’s Degree at Florida A&M University’s School of Architecture.


Designing Sustainable Communities

Robert Hsin

Global warming, ozone layer depletion, rampant species extinction, overflowing landfills, air pollution, overpopulation, and acid rain, these are just a few of the environmental dilemmas we have created in our modern technocratic society. As our man-made cities expand throughout the globe, the ever-shrinking natural world becomes altered toward a new definition of nature. The line between the natural and the artificial becomes blurred.

By the year 2000, 38% of the children born in this world will be from cities with populations in excess of one million people (1). If these cities are planned and designed with the same priorities and perspectives of today, a great portion of the world’s population will lead an existence completely disconnected from nature. This “illiteracy” in our “natural” world is already evident today, being one of the main reasons why humankind now faces extinction due to environmental degradation.

Much of our population today views the world through an altered, tunnel-vision reality. It is a technological reality based on the limited perspective of city dwelling. Cities cover only two percent of the world’s land mass. If we view the earth from outer space, we see the earth as a whole; an inter-related, complex, living, breathing ecological system, which includes cities as one part of the whole, but not the whole.

A society which does not understand the principles and ecological processes of nature cannot function in harmony with the natural world. Society has forgotten that despite our technological advances we are still a part of nature, not above it, and therefore must function as a piece of the whole.

How did our society stray so far from ecological reality? The reasons are plentiful and complex. In short, it began with a basic philosophical mistake which, derived from the western Judeo/Christian belief that man was separate from nature. A result of the misinterpretation of the first book of the Old Testament in which God entrusted the earth to Adam and Eve. This was interpreted to emphasize man’s divine right to subjugate and exploit nature. When combined with the industrial revolution and the discovery of fossil fuels, this created a recipe for ecological disaster.

Over the centuries the viewpoint of man as a separate entity from nature soon became the ideological basis for urban planning in the Western world. Nature soon became viewed in a negative context, dangerous and evil. Those who lived close to nature were savages. The city became the symbol of civilization. Nature that could not be controlled by man became feared and despised.

” …this insight didn’t dispose them to fear the wilderness any less, but it spawned the utilitarian hope that something could be done with it, that it could be conquered, vanquished, and ultimately redeemed by godly men.” (2)

Early in the history of civilization this philosophy was relatively harmless on a global scale, but the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of fossil fuels shifted the balance. Armed with the powerful tools of technology, the subjugation of earth to humankind was now a very real possibility. The 20th century brought about Modernism and its blind faith in technology, which added further ammunition to man’s war on nature.

Following World War II, Modernism became the dominant force on the urban design scene in many planners to start from scratch. Cities now became modelled after machines. They were designed to become mega-factories for the efficient of goods and services. An ideal which was best demonstrated by Le Corbusier’s “city as machine” theory, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Broadacre City design.

The automobile was the primary physical design determinant. How to get a car from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible became valued over the quality of the environment for the pedestrian. Quality of life in cities became ranked by economic wealth and material goods. Abstract criteria such as community, or emotional and environmental health were not a consideration in the modern city.

This environmental summary of how we arrived where we are today, is just one of many interpretations, all of which have merit. Regardless of who or what is to blame, there is a need to re-evaluate our relationship to nature.

However, all is not doom and gloom; the ecological crisis’ we have created have also caused strong reactions throughout society to halt our carelessness and restore the environment. Environmental issues now rank as the greatest concern among teens in the U.S. and Canada. Environmental awareness is at its highest level in modern history and is steadily gaining momentum. Society has begun to realize the need for changing our philosophies and lifestyles if we are to survive in this world.

Concept of Sustainability

The word sustainability has become a popular catchphrase in the nineties. The emergence of the environmental movement has brought this concept to the forefront of environmental policy in this decade. However, due to the youth of this concept, sustainability has many definitions and meanings, depending on one’s perspective. Economists understand sustainability as a tool to ensure the continued survival of modern man’s luxurious of living. On the other end of the spectrum, sustainability to some biologists would be a holistic view of the earth as one eco-system with humans as only a part of that system. Regardless of the different perspectives, all advocates of sustainability have one common general goal; the capability of mankind to maintain itself over time.

Environmental researcher and writer, David W. Orr clarifies the various perspectives of sustainability by dividing them into two camps; he labels these as technological sustainability and ecological sustainability. Although both have similar goals, they have very different ideas of how best to reach these goals.

Technological sustainability is the belief that we may find sustainability within the current economic, socio-political system. Within this appraoch, there is no need for fundamental changes in the current system.

” Every problem has either a technological answer or a market solution. There are no dilemmas to be avoided, no domains where angels fear to tread.” (3)

Currently, this approach seems to be the moredominant of the two since it leaves the power in the hands of the people already in power. It is a safer, more predictable approach that does not require revolution, or an inordinate amount of change to the status quo. Unfortunately, it is this complacency that also makes this approach the much weaker of the two. It is a passive approach which does not seek the heart of the problem but instead, provides surface treatments.

The second approach, ecological sustainability, asserts the belief that the current structure and mindset of our society is unsustainable, and in order to approach sustainability a new mode of thinking must take place. The current economic, and socio-political system must be re-structured.

” Ecological sustainability is the task of finding alternatives to the practices that got us into trouble in the first place; it is necessary to rethink agriculture, shelter, energy use, urban design, transportation, economics, community patterns, resource use, forestry, the importance of wilderness, and our central values.” (4)

After reading this quote it is not difficult to understand why much of the existing freemarket, corporate world has fought, and continues to fight, this approach vehemently. Their short term vision has caused them to believe that it is much easier to side with the lesser of two evils (technological sustainability) than to reshape the industry. A rethinking of such magnitude would mean a philosophical revolution. It would not necessarily mean the replacement of the existing society, simply a restructuring of priorities. It is this type of approach which digs below the surface and attacks our environmental problems at the core.

Paul Hawken’s, The Ecology of Commerce provides an excellent example of such an approach in the field of business and industry. His treatise calls the rethinking of our free market, corporate business philosophies toward an alignment with the natural laws of the earth. His prescriptions are sound, common sense principles which would produce a restorative economy without having to destroy the business world as we know it.

” The restorative economy comes down to this: We need to imagine a prosperous commercial culture that is so intelligently designed and constructed that it mimics nature at every step, a symbiosis of company and customer and ecology.” (5)

It is the approach of ecological sustainability, as demonstrated by Hawken in the business industry, that best exemplifies the true definition of sustainability. It is not the surface treatments, strategies, and prescriptions, etc. that are important; the essence of sustainability lies in the philosophical premise that humankind is only one aspect, albeit a major one, of the earth’s ecology. Therefore, in order for us to be sustainable, the structure of our society must follow the principles of nature.

Sustainable Design: The New Design Paradigm

In urban design and architecture, this environmental revolution manifests itself as sustainable design and planning. This concept has been worded in many different ways: green architecture, environmentally-sensitive design, ecological design, design with nature. Regardless of what it is called, sustainability from a design perspective involves the design of built environments which exist in a symbiotic relationship with both the environment around the design and the environments from which the design materials originated. Put simply, it is a design methodology which bases its principles on those of nature.

“Understanding the qualities of nature in each place, expressing it in the design of communities, integrating it within our towns…” (6)

Using nature as a metaphor for design, one can see the building as a living, breathing entity. It ingests energy and it excretes wastes, it ages, transforms, and dies. The difference in scale from buildings to cities and communities create a different analogy with nature. Natural systems constantly move toward a steady state, where the least amount of energy is required, similarily, cities and communities should behave in the same manner. The expression of cities having a life of their own holds much truth. The nature metaphor, therefore, becomes a very helpful tool for the sustainable designer, clarifying the priorities for community and building design.

This design ideology is not new in architecture; many aspects of sustainable design have existed since the dawn of civilization. The great technological advances of the 20th century and the subsequent disconnection of man from nature caused much of our age-old sustainable design methods to become forgotten. The oil crisis of the 1970’s brought about a renewed interest in energy-efficient design and use of alternative energy resources.

Many of these ideas were revisited following the new environmental movement of the late 1980s, however, this time around the purpose and ideology is far greater in scale. Sustainable design is an ecologically based philosophy which means that the design principles must be all-encompassing, considerate of the whole eco-system. The “green” architect or planner must be concerned with not only the buildings, but also that of the environment, the resources, the local culture and economy, the materials, and the environment which the materials originated from.

As the need for sustainable design becomes more evident, architects are beginning to realize that the impacts and influences of their work reach far beyond the exterior walls of their buildings. After all, what good is it to design an energy-efficient office complex when it is placed in a rural locale causing hundreds of employees to make long automobile trips to get to and from work.

Sustainable design is not a new “style” of architecture, like Modernism or Deconstructivism, rather it is a method of design thinking. It is a design methodology based on ecological principles. The current model of design methodology is one which was passed down to us through Modernism. Standardization is the model of the design industry. Mass-produced, off-the-shelf solutions which pay little or no attention to region or required energy expenditures are the trademarks of modern design. This design methodology is based upon a false reality of economy and efficiency. It is a philosophy that is not only unsustainable, but is also well past its time. Therefore, the emergence of a new design paradigm – sustainable design, an ideology which embraces the natural processes of the earth as its reality must replace conventional design practices.


1. Gary Paul Nabhan. “Cultural Parallax in Viewing North American Habitats,” ed. Michael Soule, and Gary Lease, Re-Inventing Nature? (Island Press: Washington D.C., 1995) pp 98.

2. Howard Kunstler. The Geography of Nowhere (Simon and Schuster: New York NY, 1993) pp 19.

3. David W. Orr. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World (State University of New York Press: Albany NY, 1992) pp 24.

4. Stewart Cowan and Sim Van Der Ryn. Ecological Design (Island Press: Washington D.C., 1996) pp 5.

5. Paul Hawken. The Ecology of Commerce (HarperBusiness: New York NY, 1993) pp 15.

6. Peter Katz. The New Urbanism (McGraw Hill: New York, NY, 1994) pp xxiii.

Read the full thesis