The conversation appears to have stalled. Almost every student I teach or practitioner I talk to, when asked what s/he thinks is sustainable design, replies, “a Green building, right?” The conflation of Green and sustainable is unsettling. It troubles me. It should concern every designer who is alarmed by the planetary crises that we confront today.
I will start by saying that I have nothing against Green labels. Standards and metrics are useful, in principle, since they can become blueprints for change. The question we face, however, is if Green certification has done enough. The answer is self-evident: after more than 20 years since the first label emerged, only a fraction of what has been built is certified. Greening throughout the region is mostly discretionary and market-led; developers are left to decide if they want their projects to be Green and how far to go.
What is alarming here is not just the pace of adoption. It is also impact. What does a Green label oblige us to do that actually matters? And more importantly, what does Greening keep us from doing?
Yanweizhou Park, China (Photo by Yu Kongjian)
Author and activist Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, famously asked “(what) kind of problem the city is”1. Each problem type, she reasoned, had to be tackled with the appropriate “methods of analysis and discovery (and) strategies for thinking.” A task that responds to the wrong type might achieve nothing; the solution might even exacerbate the problem. Green, as a problem type, is a flawed response to the challenge of sustainability. In this essay, I discuss three reasons why, along with the thinking that has emerged from a misbegotten framing.
The first is that we must do less harm. The solace we get from this position is not to be underestimated. Incrementalism can be comforting. We take great pride in a small improvement in the energy efficiency of, say, an air-conditioning system. It keeps us from asking if cooling is needed, all the time and everywhere.
The second, perhaps more insidious belief, is that if we improve the parts, the whole will inevitably get better. In this worldview, everything can be taken apart, repaired, put back together, much like a broken watch. We now know that this is not how a living system, say, a forest or a city, works. These systems can die.
The third relates to nature. Most agree that nature must be protected. But even the well-meaning see nature as the other, something out there, like an artefact in a museum. We cast ourselves as custodian or protector or curator. But nature is not external to our lives; it is here, where we stand. Grasping this idea changes the goal from ethical behaviour to survival.
At the end of this commentary, these three strands will converge into a new paradigm, one that breathes life into the well-trodden, now depleted, idea of sustainability.
The transition from biophilic to biocentric to biomimetic reflects a progression of ideas: from design elements that benefit a few to nature-inspired solutions that serve many.
The window for less-harm has, in fact, closed for many Asian cities.
It is time to challenge incrementalism, to stop trying to fix parts without reimagining the whole.
Information on the author’s book, Ecopuncture – Transforming Architecture and Urbanism is Asia, can be found at ecopuncture-asia.com. Several accompanying videos can be viewed online. Search ‘Ecopuncture Asia’ on YouTube.
1 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 428.
2 Chrisna du Plessis, “Towards a Regenerative Paradigm for the Built Environment,” Building Research & Information, vol. 40, no. 1 (2012): 7–22.
3 Nirmal Kishnani, Ecopuncture: Transforming Architecture and Urbanism in Asia, (Singapore, FuturArc, 2019).
4 Hossein Shafizadeh Moghadam and Marco Helbich, “Spatiotemporal Urbanization Processes in the Megacity of Mumbai, India: A Markov Chains-Cellular Automata Urban Growth Model,” Applied Geography, vol. 40 (June 2013): 140–149.
5 Sonia Minz, “With 753 Green Buildings, Mumbai Tops The Chart, Delhi Follows”, Makaan, 8 November, 2016, https://www.makaan.com/iq/living/with-753-green-buildings-mumbai-tops-the-chart-delhi-follows.
6 Madhav Karki, et al., “The Regional Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Asia and the Pacific: Summary for Policymakers,” Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2018, https://www.ipbes.net/outcomes.
7 Navjot S. Sodhi, et al, “Southeast Asian Biodiversity: An Impending Disaster,” TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 19, no. 12, accessed May 24, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2004.09.006.
8 Paul Hawken, ed., Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (New York, New York, Penguin Books, 2017).
9 W.L. Luk , “Privately Owned Public Space in Hong Kong and New York: The Urban and Spatial Influence of the Policy,” Proceedings of The 4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism (IFoU), 2009 Amsterdam/Delft (2009), 697–706.
10 Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, Ministry of National Development, and the Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, 2014, https://www.mewr.gov.sg/docs/default-source/module/ssb-publications/41f1d882-73f6-4a4a-964b-6c67091a0fe2.pdf.
11 Patrick Bingham-Hall, Garden City, Mega City: Rethinking Cities for the Age of Global Warming (Oxford, United Kingdom: Pesaro Publishing, 2016): 194-205.
12 William Browning, Catherine Ryan, and Joseph Clancy, Fourteen Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health & Well- Being in the Built Environment, Terrapin Bright Green, 2014, https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/14-patterns/.
13 Nirmal Kishnani, Ecopuncture: Transforming Architecture and Urbanism in Asia, (Singapore, FuturArc, 2019): 116.
14 Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, HarperCollins, New York, 1997.
15 Nirmal Kishnani, Ecopuncture: Transforming Architecture and Urbanism in Asia, (Singapore, FuturArc, 2019): 180-197.
16 Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016).
17 Kenneth Cheng, Masterplan to Push Singapore Towards Zero-Waste Future, Today, 7 March 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/masterplan-push-singapore-towards-zero-waste-future.
18 Chang Ai-Lien, “Singapore sets 30% goal for home-grown food by 2030”, The Straits Times, 8 March 2019 , 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/Singapore/Spore-Sets-30-Goal-For-Home-Grown-Food-By-2030; Shabana Begum, “Vertical farm receives the world’s first urban farm certification for organic vegetables”, The Straits Times, 11 June, 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/vertical-farm-receives-the-worlds-first-urban-farm-certification-for-organic-vegetables.
19 Pamela Mang and Bill Reed, “Regenerative Development and Design,” Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science & Technology, ed. Robert A. Meyers (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2012), chapter 303.
20 Nirmal Kishnani, Ecopuncture: Transforming Architecture and Urbanism in Asia, (Singapore, FuturArc, 2019): 370-385.