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Sunday Book Review: Neil Chambers, Urban Green: Architecture for the Future

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A lot of books about environmental problems tend to follow a pattern that looks something like this:

1. Talk about how screwed up everything is, going into detail about a variety of different specific issues.
2. Interview people working on new technologies that could help us solve these problems, if just we would commit to supporting green technology.
3. Tell us how dire the future is if we don’t take action.
4. End with an inspirational chapter to convince us not to jump off a bridge and to spur us to action.

Neil B. Chambers follows this sometimes tiresome formula in Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, but to a more useful end than most. Chambers argues that current strategies of green design are failing to do anything more than place a band-aid over our urban environmental problems. He rightfully points out that while LEED certification is better than nothing, it really isn’t too much better. Rather, Chambers calls for a rethinking of the concept of green design, promoting the integration of the fields of architecture and ecology to allow us to design densely built cities that allow for wildlife migration, sustainable water usage, and localized energy production. Chambers uses the term “ecomimicry” to describe his goal for cities—for us as humans to become keystone species that live sustainable and comfortable lives while also allowing other species to do the same.

Chambers takes to task many of the technological panaceas of the green technology movement. Some are obvious—no serious environmentalist believes ethanol is a useful alternative fuel at this point. Others are more challenging. Chambers dismisses electric cars as a poorly thought out technology. While theoretically, electric cars are better for the planet than gas guzzlers, a widespread transition to them would provide challenges for the nation’s electric grid. Some of that electricity would come from hydroelectric, which while problematic for riverine ecosystems, does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But much of our electricity still comes from coal, the dirtiest fuel of them all. Additional demand from electric cars would probably mean burning more coal. And what good would that do?

Similarly, Chambers goes after the green city contests that have gotten a lot of publicity in recent years. Rather than reinvent current cities, these contests have mostly emphasized building new cities out of undeveloped land. In China, they have not received state support for construction while in Abu Dhabi, plans to build a supposedly green city in the desert automatically mean the trucking in of enormous amounts of water. Moreover, one effort in China that went forward failed miserably because the architects and planners involved not only failed to consult with local residents over their desires but failed to include such basic aspects of green design as south-facing windows to maximize solar heating.

Instead of flashy big-system technologies, Chambers urges us to use technology to create cities that are part of an ecosystem rather than seeking to dominate it. He urges planners to use locally-produced rooftop wind and solar energy rather than huge projects that would develop more rural land, as micro-energy would end the vast waste caused by transmission lines. He highlights attempts to revitalize waterways through oyster beds and other easy to implement solutions that would bring wildlife back to urban spaces. And he urges support for far-away technologies will the potential to revolutionize our carbon footprint, particularly hydrogen fuel cells.

I thought this was a useful book. Chambers’ questioning of technology and attempts to think through the human place in ecosystems made this far more valuable than the standard book offering solutions to environmental problems. His idea to merge architecture and urban planning on one side with ecology and biology on the other makes a lot of sense, even if no doubt many in all those fields would resist. His emphasis on solutions that would actually make a real difference over those that are politically popular could annoy some environmentalists but will likely appeal to those thinking deeply about our environmental crisis.

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  • Ben

    My sources may be incorrect, but aren’t hydrogen fuel cells a massively impractical fuel source that does nothing to reduce our use of fossil fuels because fossil fuels are the cheapest source of hydrogen?

  • joel hanes

    The highest-leverage energy-conservation technology is contraception.

  • jon

    Interesting, the book may merit a read. But, biomimicry is a flawed concept that so far has been misapplied and misconceived. That said, there’s much to be learned from the close study of nature, without the need to be duplicative or imitative.

    Cities are absolutely the most efficient and effective way for people to live. Vast improvement can be made to cities, so that people can live far better in them, and so that cities can provide better resources for other species.

    Electric cars are likely much better than regular cars from an environmental standpoint. But they are absurd as a solution to energy use reduction, congestion reduction, spatial utility and social equity. Real progress will be cities where most activities can be accomplished in a close walk or short bike ride. Robust transit is the real solution for large scale transportation.

    Hydrogen is a very appealing fuel. Getting it and keeping it are very problematic and generally energy intensive tasks. Storing hydrogen requires energy intensive pumps and chillers, while keeping it is fraught with problems as hydrogen will leak through almost all materials. Electrolysis is very attractive, but energy intensive.

    Solar rooftops are a no-brainer concept, and can provide additional benefits for saving energy in buildings and preserving roofing materials. Solar is a diffuse energy source with few economies of scale – so small, distributed panel installations are a perfect way to gather solar energy.

    Building mounted wind power is not such a great idea. Most building mounted generators are toys that may not ever produce the energy it took to build them. Larger building integrated wind generators have mostly not lived up to expectations. Wind generators put additional stresses on building, so additional structure is needed to support them. Wind generators also make noise and vibrations which can be transmitted throughout building, leading to complaints and the need to operate the generators well below their peak capacities. Buildings are also not always where the best winds are. And lastly, wind generators are developing rapidly – state of the art today is likely to be very outmoded in ten years, so building it into your building can complicate necessary upgrades in the future.

    Enormous improvements in buildings, cities, and environmental restoration can be made readily, quickly and inexpensively. The sooner we cease being fascinated by knee jerk responses, and window dressing like vertical farming, the better. There’s a lot of important work to do.

    • mpowell

      I like this comment, but I want to make a point with respect to transportation. It may seem crazy to you to drive around electric cars, but I think people in the environmental movement underestimate people’s attachment to this form of transportation. We should continue looking for ways to make automotive transportation green, even if it has to consume significant GDP resources, because I think it is very likely Americans will want to make that choice.

      • jon

        Agreed. The US and the rest of the world has spent most of a century reorganizing land uses to be amenable to the private auto, and much of it will be hard to make suitable for transit, biking or walking – though substantial improvements can be made by a variety of approaches in many situations. Collapsing house prices have hammered the exurbs, as have rising fuel prices. Free market correctives may do much to drive us towards more sustainable land use.

        Dispersal of the population and industry has many powerful ramifications. Since we can’t snap our fingers and have utopia tomorrow (nor should we want this, even if we could have it) there needs to be some strategy for transition and conversion to more sustainable, pleasant and beneficial land use and transportation strategies. Private cars’ days are not numbered.

        OTOH, transit strategies such as BRT running in traffic and PRT are counterproductive investments.

    • Jon,
      Just to be correct, i don’t advocate for biomimicry in my book. I write about implementing ecomimicry as a way to interconnect ecosystems, cities and vast wilderness to allow people to benefit from ecological services. i think there’s a huge difference between the two practices – and in my view, ecomimicry could help us become a global keystone species. I go into detail in Urban Green describing this. Hope that helps!
      Neil

  • Jestak

    Thanks for the review. Chambers’ book is going on to my Amazon wish list.

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