Sustainable urban design and landscape architecture – definitions


The Bruntland Commission may have set back sustainable urban design by half a century with an idiotic definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” It gives anyone who wants it an excuse for doing nothing and claiming they are acting sustainability. What are my ‘needs’: one bicycle or two cars? And what are ‘needs’ of future generations: no bicycles and three cars?

The reason for Bruntland’s blunder is that sustainability is a relative concept, like ‘near’ and ‘far’, incapable of absolute definition. Is the moon near or far from the earth? It is very near for space travelers but very far for cyclists.   We should boast an inability to design ‘sustainable cities’ but assert a competence in making cities ‘more sustainable’. As urban designers and landscape architects we do this by planning for  fewer inputs and fewer outputs than the International Modern Cities which too many architects and engineers have designed, are designing and will design. Here are some examples:

1.  Cities will require less input of water because we are expert in sustainable urban drainage systems – and they will have less output of waste water because we know how to detain and infiltrate water within urban areas.

2. Cities will require less import of construction materials from distant lands because we believe in respecting the Genius Loci and using the local materials which he provides for our use.

3. City building will involve less transport of excavated subsoil to dumps because we will use it design new landforms.

4. Less energy will be required for heating and cooling because we will orientate buildings correctly and design with microclimate.
5. Planting schemes will require less irrigation, less maintenance and less input of chemicals because we  will make more use of native plant materials and will make lawns only when they have a social use.

6. People will walk more and cycle more because we will design beautiful and convenient paths – and we will do this before any roads or buildings are planned.

7. When people get more exercise they will have better health, so that the resource inputs for healthcare will also be reduced and we will have less medical waste to dispose of.

8. Buildings will be better insulated, because almost all of them will have vegetated roofs, and will therefore require less heating in winter and less cooling in summer.

9. Cities will be more compact because there will be less roadscape, fewer parking lots and  less need for greenspace at street level – because we are going to make such wonderful skyparks and skygardens.

The inputs and outputs exemplified above are all measureable, just as the distance from the earth to the moon is measurable.

See also: Eco-city plans and sustainable design

8 thoughts on “Sustainable urban design and landscape architecture – definitions

  1. Christine

    Two interesting questions to pose are;
    1)’How do you know when you have more than you need?’
    2)’How do you know when you have less than you need?’

    How do you know when you have reached the point not of equilibrium, but of diminishing returns?

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    You can’t know! Most people want more than they have but as Thorstein Veblen argued, there is a strong comparative aspect to how well off people feel

  3. Christine

    Veblen argued both that man is agent of his own destiny.

    He believes that he/she strives for ‘serviceability and efficiency’ rather than ‘futility, waste and incapacity.’

    The comparative aspect, if Veblen is correct, arises from seeking for external rather than internal reference points as to what a ‘serviceable and efficient’ life might be. From this follows the desire for external display;
    “visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem.”

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I think Veblen touched on a basic truth about human nature – and an unfortunate truth for those who think people can be persuaded to ‘love’ sustainability.

  5. Stefan

    i really like point 6. the way our towns were carved up by ringroads in the 70s shows how much ‘seviceability and effiency’ are the priority for many people. do you think they could be persuaded to take a leisurely stroll in to town, even if it means taking time contemplate before they begin shopping?

    although i love the idea of skyparks i worry about their accessibility. i think i’d like to be able to step off the street into a plaza than get to the top of a building before i can relax.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    Access to green roofs is a big issue for the future. It certainly cannot be general & free, as it is to public parks. It will need careful planning and here are a few examples:
    – some green and brown and blue roofs will be for wildlife only
    – public companies may wish to restrict access to employees and guests
    – public buildings (eg libraries) may restrict access to users of their other facilities
    – shopping malls may treat the space like their their other mall space – and patrol it with security guards etc

  7. Christine

    Trends is Dutch Landscape suggest our desire and need will be to exert increasing control over the landscape and to extend this control to nature considered as a biological process []. Practically this is occuring at the same time as the predominant philosophical critique is precisely of our often destructive control over the same. Is this an irony? Or a form of inevitable consequence?

    The more out of our control nature seems the more control we seek?


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