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Building Sustainable Cities, Block by Block

By Katie Crane

For all the fanfare, green buildings are often just “islands of sustainability”—excellent case studies in what’s possible, but ultimately unconnected to their surroundings. RMI’s Built Environment Team is partnering with an innovative California non-profit to change that.

It's April and RMI Principal James Brew is hard at work on a presentation for a fundraising event hosted the next day by the San Francisco–based non-profit Urban Re:Vision. As he double checks his slides, Brew explains why the green building community needs to step up its game a notch—and begin thinking not just of individual buildings, but in terms of entire city blocks and communities. Presently, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. If current trends continue, there could be as many as five billion people living in cities by 2030, according to a United Nations study. Clearly, Brew says, there’s a need for integrated planning.

In late August, Brew and other RMI staff members will be participating in a charrette with Urban Re:Vision to develop a framework for the ideal sustainable city block. The two organizations will hold additional sessions throughout fall 2008 to refine the framework with help from energy, transportation, engineering, architecture, design, and natural resource experts, as well as municipal officials. Once the basic requirements have been set, Urban Re:Vision will launch a competition in January 2009, challenging architects and designers to apply the framework to actual blocks in six American cities.

“It’s all about scalability,” says Brew. “It’s about taking what we do at RMI every day to a higher level.”

Architectural firms and universities from each city will be asked to develop designs for demonstration projects focused on sustainable energy, transportation, buildings, among other elements. Actual components of the block will vary depending on the city, Brew explains.

“Every specific site is all about context. In one city it could be about skyscrapers, or a transit hub or station on a light rail line; housing is likely to be another component,” Brew says. Ideally, after the competition, the six cities will take the designs further and use them as starting points for a master plan and ultimately build a block.

The project is the brainchild of Stacy Frost. In November 2006, Frost founded Urban Re:Vision to promote a whole systems approach to designing city blocks. “People are used to looking at whole cities, not on the scale of just one city block,” she says. “Yet contemplating change for an entire city can be overwhelming, whereas city blocks are what people care about. Even within a city, they want to live in a community, one that responds to their social needs and provides a healthy, vibrant economy without necessarily being dependent on and attached to a larger infrastructure.”

Frost grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University in architecture and neuropsychology. “For me, this is exactly the combination of the two,” she says. “I’ve always believed you can design your experiences, and your experiences create your neuropathways and your emotional, physical, and social well-being.” For instance, if city governments design ugly structures and provide little access to green space, that can have a measurable effect on residents’ welfare, an effect Frost refers to as “nature deficit disorder.” It is clear that Frost has larger goals in mind, ones that fully incorporate social well-being into the concept of sustainability.

At its core, Urban Re:Vision’s competition aims to develop concepts for making such urbanization sustainable—not just by changing one building or transportation system at a time, but by considering all the elements that comprise a city block simultaneously. “Doing one building at a time that achieves LEED platinum is interesting, but it’s not enough,” Brew says, referring to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building certification program. “LEED is a starting point, but LEED is not sustainable. This type of project is a true testing point for RMI’s Next Generation Utility concept, for example,” Brew says. “How do you implement distributed generation? Come play in the sandbox with us and test out your ideas.”

Urban Re:Vision is targeting cities from each region of the United States for the competition: Atlanta, Austin, Boulder, Bozeman, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix, Portland, St. Louis, and Seattle are among those under consideration. But Frost says that her team—three employees, herself and some independent contractors—is open to suggestions. “Certainly, if a developer came to us with a site that met our criteria, we would definitely consider it. Our goal is implementation … sites that not only have real development potential but would also have a positive impact on the surrounding communities should they be developed. We would like the site to represent one of many urban challenges faced by cities today,” she says. There will be no sites outside the United States, but international architectural firms, students, and designers will be invited to participate in the competition.

The winner of the contest will receive a cash prize, one that is “compelling but not obscene,” says Frost, who at the moment is personally funding Urban Re:Vision.

So what will the winning entry entail? “We would see this completely regenerative city block that is self-supporting in all its systems and processes but is still part of the entire city,” Brew says.
Moreover, the city block would help people change the way they interact with the city. “There would be places and spaces both inside and outside of buildings to promote and support social interaction. It’s the part of building ratings system that is overlooked, but it is at least one-third of the definition of sustainability,” Brew says.

For Frost, the solution is less clear. “ What I love about this is that I don’t know the answer, ” she says. “ What I’m asking for is more than I’ve asked for in the past,” she adds, referring to previous sustainability-themed competitions that Urban Re: Vision has held. The design would consider the whole system, including social support and education, aspect s not necessarily included in the sustainability discussion currently. “

There’s no reason to be leaving these things out, it’s a closed loop,” she says. “As we’re faced with population density, it will be even more important to create groups within that density. I can only imagine that will create vibrancy at all levels.” According to Frost, the overall goal is “a system that enables people to make design decisions that result in beauty, efficiency, equity, and interconnectedness. Something people can really be proud of.”

--Published July 2008