Collected Ideas That Bring Hope for a Greener, Healthier World

I can’t think of a better time to review Jared Green’s inspiring new book, Designed for the Future, than the week of Earth Day. This highly accessible volume, subtitled 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World, contains short essays and beautiful photos solicited and edited by Green and describing wonderful examples such as these:

In Portland, Oregon, an organization called the City Repair Project is engaged in grassroots, hands-on placemaking, building community while beautifying neighborhoods and making them more sustainable. Best known for taking rather mundane neighborhood intersections and turning them into colorful examples of collective street art, City Repair is now also involving residents in building and cultivating community gardens and in creating creatively designed structures such as benches and kiosks in public spaces through natural building processes. As Jeff Stein, president of the Cosanti Foundation, writes in his description of the project, “communities of volunteers have built over three hundred sustainable works in Portland, making places that connect people to each other and their city.”

In Australia, the multi-family housing project Christie Walk in Adelaide is a sustainable urban village in the heart of the central city, created by a nonprofit group called Urban Ecology. Kirsty Kelly, CEO of the Planning Institute of Australia, notes that, although the complex of buildings about five stories tall was built with energy and waste efficiency, green roofs, and even a frog pond in mind, at its core the project is about community, showing that dense and green development can be human-scaled and highly livable. Christie Walk provides 27 homes and gardens on about half an acre.

And in Singapore, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital uses nature “as a partner in the healing process.” Patients look out over green roofs, an urban garden, a waterfall and fish ponds. Remarkably, the hospital also acts as a community center, drawing outside visitors to its natural beauty. Timothy Beatley of the University of Virginia writes that “this place makes me hopeful because it shows how health care facilities can be designed to include nature,” adding that “my gut feeling is that this building does heal.”

In compiling Designed for the Future, Green – who is senior communications manager at the American Society of Landscape Architects and editor of the organization’s impressive blog The Dirt – asked eighty architects, urban planners, landscape architects, journalists, artists, and environmental leaders the same question: what gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible? Their answers cover quite a range, from the cooling strategies employed at Cambodia’s ancient temple city of Angkor Wat to the use of cutting-edge eco-friendly mushroom board as a replacement for Styrofoam. Indeed, sometimes the contributions go beyond particular places to concepts, such as coalition-building, green infrastructure, vernacular architecture, and biomimicry.

Although many of the examples are from the United States (full disclosure: the book includes a submittal by yours truly, describing Houston’s awesome Project Row Houses), many other parts of the world are represented one way or another.

I particularly love the book’s format: each example gets a one-page essay and a full-page photo, making it perfect for browsing. It doesn’t give you the definitive description so much as it introduces the reader to important projects and ideas, stimulating further investigation. (I’ve already gone to web sites to check out a number of the book’s examples.) I am pleased that many of my own favorites are included, such as Oakland’s Fruitvale Village, London’s ultra-green BedZED project, and Nos Quedamos, the organization behind the award-winning Melrose Commons neighborhood in the South Bronx.

In fact, it is the essay on Nos Quedamos, authored by Newark’s planning director Damon Rich, that provides my favorite sentence in the book:

“Sustainability is not only about technological adaptation; it’s about enhancing social fabric, the patient extension and augmentation of our mutual connections, and our ability to function as a society.”

I love it that Designed for the Future incorporates social sustainability as much as environmental sustainability and shows how the two work together. Indeed, if our solutions fail to work for people, they will never work for the planet. This book is chock-full of examples of how we can do both, and that gives me hope for the future.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid’s latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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