Retrofit Urban Areas With Ecologically Positive Development
A system of development that does not pay its own way over its life cycle is no longer morally acceptable. We have already exceeded the Earth’s ecological, not to mention carbon, carrying capacity. Therefore, cities need to increase ecological carrying capacity just to support existing bioregions and populations equitably. Architecture professor Janis Birkeland has an answer or two up her sleeve and in her books “Design for Sustainabilty” and “Positive Development”. Read More
by Janis Birkeland
A system of development that does not pay its own way over its life cycle is no longer morally acceptable. We have already exceeded the Earth’s ecological, not to mention carbon, carrying capacity. Therefore, cities need to increase ecological carrying capacity just to support existing bioregions and populations equitably.
The good news is that we can retrofit urban areas to increase natural and social capital. Arguably, the design concepts and eco-technologies to do so already exist. Many fossil fuelled building and environmental services could be replaced by natural systems that provide surplus ecosystem goods and services in urban areas. They only need to be retrofitted into the urban environment. Eco-retrofitting pays for itself in resource savings and productivity gains, and can be performed profitably at no cost to the building owner.
Why aren’t we employing design solutions?
Current leading-edge ecological designers call for buildings that work like ecosystems (eg like a tree). However, this still replaces natural ecosystems with artificial replicas that are high in embodied energy and materials. Many green buildings, for example, increase the urban heat island effect, urban weather extremes and biodiversity loss.
Buildings can produce clean energy, water, soil, air, and food, as well as sequester carbon. This is called restorative or regenerative design. Even this is not enough. Buildings must also reverse the impacts of previous development and expand indigenous ecosystems in absolute terms – called net ‘Positive Development’. Given we are in ecological deficit, we must learn to design for nature, not just ‘with’ or ‘like’ nature – called ‘design for eco-services’.
So why the resistance to eco-positive retrofitting solutions?
The sustainability movement has always called for improving life quality for everyone within the limits of nature’s carrying capacity (too late… we now need to expand nature’s size and resilience). The problem is that the professions have tried to marry sustainability goals with preconceived ideas about development that were based upon negative premises and metrics.
Perhaps foremost among these premises is the idea that the built environment can only have negative ecological impacts, because nature and civilisation are in some sort of opposition. As a result, our decision making methods and tools are designed for making tradeoffs, or offsetting ecological losses with short term social gains.
Why? We excel at measuring problems but not simply fixing things. In our haste to substitute action with displacement activity, we often fail to ask what we should measure.
What do our metrics need to do?
Be relevant to life forms: ‘Resources’ have been represented by numbers, but living things have fallen through the reductionist sieve and are under-represented in current design and assessment tools. This means designers focus on energy and water, but forget about living things. Hence in some ‘green’ buildings, plants need to be taken back and forth to nurseries.
Be relevant to design: Life cycle assessments do not count many of the negative ecological and social impacts caused by design. For example, we seldom weigh in the opportunity cost of the ecological values of land, the demolition waste caused replacing old buildings, or the transfers of public space resources to private use and control. Once the basic decisions are made, design can only mitigate negative impacts.
Be relevant to ecological gains: Because we measure from 1 or -1 to 0, we do not measure net positive contributions (beyond pre-settlement conditions). For example, we only measure how much less carbon a building produces, not how much it could sequester. Since life cycle assessments do not yet count positive ecological impacts, we do not design for life support system.
What is required to fix this?
Positive Development is a new approach to built environment design. It aims to expand both the ecological base (life support system), and increase the public estate (equitable access to means of survival) relative to pre-settlement conditions. However, Positive Development is not just about eco-positive design.
Positive Development is also a new approach to environmental management. It means a system-wide paradigm shift from (negative) ‘managerialist’ approaches to a (positive) ‘design’ approach: a new framework, new methods, and new metrics. Work is proceeding at QUT in these areas.
Janis Birkeland is professor of architecture at QUT. She has a transdisciplinary background concerned with built environment design including artist, advocacy planner, architect (registered), urban designer, city planner and attorney (registered) in San Francisco. She has developed many tertiary and professional development units on built environment and sustainability. She has written over 100 papers and over 100 talks on the subject, and initiated the concept of net Positive Development. Her books include: Design for Sustainability: A Sourcebook of Integrated Eco-Logical Solutions, and the new book, Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles Through Built Environment Design.