Viewpoint (April 01, 2009)

It’s not easy being green. More to the point, being green is no longer good enough. In today’s world, designing a building that achieves LEED status simply demonstrates your commitment to designing responsibly. Do you really want to design cutting-edge sustainable architecture? If so, then you should think about creative ways of collaborating with a new generation of passionate community leaders–individuals and organizations that link green-collar jobs with the health and well-being of our urban environments.

One such leader is Majora Carter. Since 2001, her grassroots organization, Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), has challenged plans for wrongheaded ideas to build power plants, prisons, sewage-treatment facilities and landfills in or adjacent to economically sensitive neighbourhoods. Carter’s presentation at the University of Toronto in March demonstrated that a convincing vision for the future of our cities is going to come from people like her, and not from city planners. As architects, we should engage with these visionaries, channelling their strengths into quality-based designs for housing, small commercial buildings, parks and public space.

Carter’s benchmark project, the South Bronx Greenway Project, secured $30 million to essentially transform a garbage dump into a riverside park. Her initiatives also guided the creation of a local furniture manufacturer that recycles wooden pallets from the local food terminal that would otherwise be thrown away. Fostering design-related businesses and local employment, this is creativity working at its best.

Buoyed by her success at SSBx where she pioneered green-collar job training and placement systems in environmentally and economically challenged communities, Carter recently formed her own consulting firm. Known as the Majora Carter Group, she is applying her interest and experience in putting land use, energy, transportation, water and waste policy into action across the United States. She has turned her attention towards helping civic, business and nonprofit groups understand how their individual interests can be channelled into tangible investments in the green economy.

Economic growth combined with sustainable design will increasingly become a priority for the design professions, especially as society continues to link the two concepts together. In Toronto, the Mayor’s Tower Renewal office is working on its own program of economic renewal that includes the retrofitting of several 1960s-era apartment buildings to improve their energy efficiency. When combined with increased opportunities for local business and employment, Toronto will spur the development of truly sustainable and environmentally friendly design initiatives.

During the 2008 Canadian federal elections–before the global economic meltdown–the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, campaigned on a platform linking green-collar jobs with an overall strategy to make our cities more sustainable. Like Carter, May spoke of encouraging the manufacture of wind turbines instead of SUVs and creating economic opportunities close to where people live. However, it will likely take a change of government in Canada to recognize the links between our global recession and environmental sustainability. In March, the Harper government published a 120-page report outlining its response to the global economic crisis. The document references “green” a dozen times, but “green” was linked with “infrastructure” in 10 out of 12 instances. The report failed to define “green infrastructure” altogether.

Architects design buildings every day based on a needs assessment that might include climate, local alternative energy market assessments, parks acreage per person, storm-water management strategies, and access to transportation. We are perfectly positioned to broker big changes, should we join forces with organizations concerned with the environment. Those who dismiss this form of collaboration will simply be left behind to fall in line with the demands of commonplace developers.

Ian Chodikoff