New thinkings is being evolved in city planning. Environmental, social, and economic change is increasingly centered at the city level.
Innovation in cities was on display at a recent Greenbuild, an event devoted to green building and sustainable development that draws a diverse roster of attendees, from architects and engineers to school and hospital administrators. At the event many innovative solutions were suggested.
Building for People
Cars no longer drive urban planning—today it’s “people-oriented design,” “That still accommodates cars, but people come first.”
“It’s design on a pedestrian scale, with narrower streets, and pushing buildings closer to the street and to each other,” says Angus. “That in turn brings people closer together—the front porch concept.” Other aspects include a grocery store within walking distance, proximity to transit, high-performing green buildings, green space and trees along streets, and space for cyclists.
Health and Wellness
With 90 percent of our time spent indoors, building design and its impact in the workplace, schools, and even hospital settings has been an emerging area of research.
Studies conducted by Harvard’s Healthy Buildings center found that in green buildings with enhanced ventilation and optimal thermal conditions, participants scored 26 percent higher on cognitive function tests and had fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome. Exposure to daylight and brighter, blue-enriched lighting, which best mimics natural light, was also associated with better sleep quality.
Chemicals used in building materials and furnishings that are known to accumulate in both humans and the environment are coming under closer scrutiny by researchers, and Harvard is practicing what it teaches: The university’s purchasing community is working to reduce “chemicals of concern” throughout the campus, starting with buying furniture that’s free of flame retardants.
Urban planners continually find more creative ways to weave nature into the city, particularly with space at a premium. It doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of sprawling parks. Jonce Walker, who works in sustainable design in New York City, sees pockets of nature functioning like “acupuncture” for residents. “Small, strategic interventions offer relief to people who live in cities,” says Walker. “We must be careful not to erase nature out of cities, and work on putting nature back in.”
The best of these spots, he says, have the element of surprise—encountering nature where one might least expect it—and offer “dwell time,” a way to linger and admire it.
Walker points to projects such as Paley Park and PARK(ing) Day, a movement to convert metered parking spots into temporary public spaces that began in San Francisco and spread to other cities. In New York, it’s similarly represented by Street Seats, a seasonal program allowing benches and chairs, surrounded by landscaping, to be installed on streets. “It’s taking back part of the street for cars and giving it to people,” says Walker. In Brooklyn, the 2,000 Gallon Project uses dumpsters planted with trees and vegetation to divert stormwater that might ordinarily overflow with sewage into Gowanus Canal. The display “integrates nature into a very industrial place—and it’s moveable,” he says.
Planting trees is a more permanent solution. Washington, D.C., and a dozen other cities have committed to a 40 percent canopy cover goal. D.C. is already close—about 38.7 percent—and it’s moved to protect “heritage trees” whose trunks are 100 inches or more in circumference, says Luke Cole of the city’s environment and energy department. About 12,000 trees were planted over the last year as part of the effort. Citizens are in on it too: A program offers a consult for residential property owners and subsidies for incorporating shade trees, rain gardens, and native plants, which help reduce storm runoff. The program contributes up to 8 percent of the city’s new trees.
Planning for Climate Change
Superstorm Sandy’s crippling effect on Manhattan in 2012 propelled cities to launch resilience plans that anticipate rising seas, more frequent storms, and flooding. In 2014 San Francisco became the first to designate a climate resilience officer, and at least 84 other global cities have followed. In the wake of recent hurricanes impacting Houston, Miami, and Puerto Rico—the most expensive hurricane season in U.S. history—efforts have accelerated.
At the confluence of two rivers, Washington, D.C., is battling both sinking and sea-level rise—levels have risen 11 inches over the past century, with 40 inches projected by 2080.
Climate Ready DC outlines measures for coping with those, along with more intense rainfall and storm surge, and highlights neighborhoods at risk. The plan’s 77 actions range from increasing the number of green roofs (already incentivized), collecting stormwater, creating micro-grids for energy and water, incorporating resilience in building and zoning codes, and identifying “cooling centers” where those who may not have access to air conditioning could retreat during scorching summer heat—the city projects two to three times as many dangerously hot days.
The Net-Zero Standard
Net-zero waste, water, and energy have been called the sustainable trifecta, creating “living buildings.” Seattle’s Bullitt Center, for example, has a rooftop rainwater harvesting system and composting toilets and taps solar energy for its needs.
As of 2016, about 200 commercial buildings in the U.S. claimed the net-zero energy standard, which means the building generates all its own power through on-site renewable sources. Schools and campuses are increasingly incorporating net-zero energy systems—and using them as a teaching tool.