Santa Fe is a pretty hip town in terms of that big, muddy word: sustainability.
As a city we have clean air, relatively conservative water usage and we gobble up printed guides to sustainable practices and businesses. City government is creating a green building code, county government has a windmill at its public works building and the commuter rail that pulls into town runs—at least in theory—on a biodiesel blend. In the next mayoral election, opponents will argue over green credentials. We have been fairly consistent followers and early adopters of Ed Mazria’s 2030 Challenge to move toward zero carbon emissions within the next 21 years, we have an organized local business community, and competing chains of grocery stores stumble all over each other to sell us organic this, natural that and the latest and most eco-whatever.
Now, being pretty hip in this regard, Santa Feans have realized the prevalence of green-washing. We are not shocked to notice that the latest grocer with “farmers market” in its name has quite little to do with farming or that many of its products must be shipped a conspicuous distance in order to reach our local shelves. It’s no big deal…it’s the way of commerce. We might go to one store for low prices, another for high-quality organics and a third for the best local fare. This is why sustainability is a muddy word. One must always discern what it means in the context it is used, just like “green” or “eco” or “environmentally friendly.”
This information is readily parsed in the grocery store by alert consumers, more challenging to wade through in terms of transportation—just how “sustainable” is that Toyota Prius?—and becomes absolutely murky when large construction and urban planning are involved. Note, for example, the Aug. 30 New York Times article on how some LEED-certified buildings are proving to be less efficient than claimed.
A new book called Albert Speer & Partner: A Manifesto for Sustainable Cities aims to address the urban-planning end of the spectrum and clarify best practices in the field. Written by architecture critic Jeremy Gaines and journalist Stefan Jäger, the book should be a welcome addition to the shelves of beleaguered planners everywhere. After all, our workaday planners in Santa Fe cannot be expected to jet about the world attending conferences, examining transit systems and diagramming public behavior—it’s important to have a large body of shared knowledge from which planners around the world can pull.
Unfortunately, despite its grandiose title (a manifesto!), the book is a simple monograph on the work of one architecture and planning firm, and a platform only for its views. Albert Speer & Partner (this Albert Speer is the son of the infamous Nazi-embroiled architect), if at all familiar to Americans, will be so for its lead design work on the Beijing Olympic complex. But for many decades, Speer has worked in the arena of “sustainability.” Now, his “manifesto” reads like a not-so-subtly ghost-written diatribe against the sad situation that many other firms now do similar work. It really is a manifesto for sustaining an architecture firm.
The book is not without value. It details many successes around the globe (not all of which Speer can truly take credit for, although this text tries to establish history on his side) that are of practical value to active planners and will manage to pique the eyebrows of armchair architects. However, the heavy-handed praise for Speer & Partner as the critical factor and the fawning over Speer himself tend to distract one from the work’s potential usefulness.
The book makes a particularly coherent argument in favor of focusing on the developing world and on those cities that desperately need planning now, rather than being too distracted by the trappings of sustainability in established industrial cities. However, the book’s 240 pages are a gratuitous wrapping for such a short essay.
Further, very little addresses the problem of European-centric planners who attempt to descend on cities in China and Africa and enforce their preconceptions on another culture. It’s a very typical kind of daddy-knows-best approach and one that has historically led us into planning errors, despite the best of intentions.
Mostly what Speer’s manifesto does is make clear that the era of the iconoclastic architect as civic priest is coming to a close. If anything is to be truly sustainable, planning and its exchange of ideas must be foremost in that regard. We can dispense with the individual genius and, instead, embrace open-source wisdom and a free exchange of ideas. In terms of planning and architecture, these kinds of communities are evolving all the time on the internet, but it certainly would be useful if our planners could add to their shelves a volume containing information from the ground up rather than from the elite down.
That would be hip.