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.