Archive for February, 2009

“Wow, What is this Place?”

Posted on February 6, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , |

One of the joys of working as a campus sustainability professional is the opportunity to spend time in the classroom, either as an instructor or as a guest lecturer. For my first guest lecture appearance at Rice, I provided a sustainability walking tour of our campus to students in the sustainable design class in our school of architecture. I have since returned to give variations of that tour about eight or nine times, most recently last week. One of the stops I like to make is in our civil engineering building (Ryon Laboratory), where we have an excellent example of a water-efficient restroom. As a tour stop, waterless urinals are always good for conversation.

The center of Ryon is a large open space filled with gigantic pieces of equipment for breaking things like steel bars and concrete beams. While there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about it, there’s an inherent curiosity and coolness to the space that attracts one’s attention. As we walked past this central area towards the restroom, I couldn’t help but overhear a number of the students commenting to each other, “Wow, what is this place?”

What just happened? That one comment told me everything I needed to know about the level of interaction between architecture and engineering students on our campus. The architects had never been inside the civil engineers’ building, and I’m guessing the opposite held true as well. That’s two different buildings and two separate worlds for two professions that absolutely must become more familiar with one another if we are to create a more sustainable future.

One of the most challenging jobs for campus sustainability professionals is to thread the different worlds of the university together. I’m presently co-chairing a conference entitled “Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities” where we’re trying to do exactly that by bringing together architects, urban planners, elected officials, civil engineers, environmental engineers, corporate executives, sociologists, community leaders, energy policy experts, faith community leaders, and many other disciplines and professions to address how an urban future can provide answers to our ecological, social, and economic challenges.

My role in part has been to see beyond the departmental and topical boundaries and to build connections. When planning the conference, there were pressures to compartmentalize the program, and to package the speakers into different tracks for different disciplines. And if left unchecked, there is a general tendency for each interest to just focus on their own preferred speakers, rather than to see a broader context. But the discussion of sustainability doesn’t fit into anyone’s box, and neither do discussions about cities. These topics demand to be handled in an interdisciplinary manner. And so we decided that all attendees regardless of background would hear the same speakers, and like it or not would be fully immersed in a number of topical worlds that might not be altogether familiar to them.

If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, I would like to briefly describe the flow of the program (you can view the speaker bios here), and to invite any reader of this blog to register for this exciting and affordable event, which will be held on the Rice campus from March 2-4.

The first morning of the conference features a panel of mayors, representing Houston, Texas; Bogota, Colombia; Karachi, Pakistan; and Rehovot, Israel. For the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, so this conference envisions the city as holding the solution to our challenges for building a more sustainable and humane world (if done correctly, of course). The mayors will collectively illustrate progress and problems in their own cities in achieving this outcome. Following the panel is a discussion about the natural limits on our expansion by the originator of the ecological footprint William Rees, paired with a historical view of the human tendency to sprawl, by Robert Bruegmann. In the afternoon, we’ll address our future water and energy supplies with Perry McCarty and Amy Myers Jaffe, respectively. Next, we’ll turn our attention to globalization with Saskia Sassen, followed by discussions of demographics and the middle class with Elijah Anderson and Joel Kotkin. Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. will close the evening by providing a striking story of sustainability and innovation in the corporate world.

Day two begins with strategies of hope from Cameron Sinclair, whose work in promoting design solutions to humanitarian crises has brought him to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in recent years. Alejandro Guitierrez and David Crossley will present design frameworks for sustainable cities, followed by a discussion of movement and access by Catherine Ross and Antanas Mockus. In the afternoon, Larry Beasley, Peter Calthorpe, and Lars Lerup will address the topic of people, power, and planning. Fred Kent will share snapshots and lessons of successful urban spaces, and Ken Yeang will discuss designing eco-cities and eco-skyscrapers. The evening comes to a close with Majora Carter, whose work as the founder of Sustainable South Bronx led to her being recognized as a MacArthur Fellow.

The final morning of the conference delves into the present and future of the city’s infrastructure with Thomas D. O’Rourke and William J. Mitchell. Alexander Zehnder will offer thoughts on the future of water management, and finally Wayne Gordon and Pastor Harvey Clemons, Jr. will share their experiences on the role of communities of faith in building cities of hope.

But what happens on March 5th, the day after the conference, when all of the attendees have gone home? Will our faculty and staff co-chairs and planning committee retreat to their separate worlds? Are the connections that we’ve been making ephemeral, or are they real? This will be the real test. In some respects, universities are highly conservative places, penalizing those who reach outside their departments or who take unconventional approaches to their scholarly pursuits (witness the struggles of the digital humanities community, for example). Further, the pace of change in the curriculum can be glacial.

However, at this moment in time, my gut tells me that this conference is an important and necessary step in spanning the often wide chasms between the disciplines on my own campus on issues of sustainability and the city. And if I’m lucky, perhaps within just a few years, when I lead students in the sustainable design class on a sustainability walking tour of campus, when we walk into the civil engineering building, I won’t have to hear “Wow, what is this place?” but rather “Hey, I love coming to this place!” Wouldn’t that be more appropriate in a building for a discipline known for bridge-building?

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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