It’s always good to be reminded that buildings are responsible for nearly 40% of US energy consumption. Indeed, architects and planners have a new awareness of this and load on all the bells and whistles that get a building LEED Gold or Platinum.
But it’s one thing to green a building and another to green a whole city, or a nation’s way of life. European rating systems, such as Passivhaus, use a wealth of other criteria to certify the environmental impact of new and recycled buildings. In the end a great building doesn’t count for that much if the people who do business in that building drive to get there.
University of Pennsylvannia Urbanism Professor Witold Rybczynski makes The Green Case for Cities in the October Atlantic.
The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it’s hardly green.
Density is the answer. It doesn’t have to be high rise, although elevators are fairly energy efficient. Low rise family houses, duplexes and triplexes compactly grouped into urban neighborhoods like those built the first half of the 20th century are sufficiently dense.
For inspiration on becoming green, we only have to look back to more gentle times before the automobile took over and expelled us to the suburbs.