Sustainable City: Can the sustainability movement survive its own success?

By Nicky Penttila

[Note: This article  appeared in Urbanite Magazine (Baltimore, MD), issue #26, August 2006. Urbanite has since folded and its website gone dark, so I’m reprinting it here.]

News that Time, Vanity Fair, and even fashionistas favorite Elle magazine have declared green-friendly living the new hot thing is cause for celebration—and maybe a little caution. While the likes of George Clooney and Julia Roberts could well lead the masses to fuel-efficient homes and eco-conscious diaper services, does anyone remember what causes they supported last year? Could sustainability, too, cool off?

More importantly, can the “sustainable industry,” the companies that make, say, the bamboo flooring that everyone seems to want right now, keep up with demand without compromising their principles? Is a bamboo floor really a “plus” in the eco-friendly column when, while it’s easily grown (good: renewable), it must be transported thousands of miles to reach Baltimore homes (bad: burning fossil fuels)? Likewise, is the hot hybrid Lexus really green if it gets just twenty-five miles per gallon?

After decades on the fringes, green living is heading toward the mainstream, or at least the monied mainstream. Our mass eco-consciousness is rising. And our mass “buyer beware” filter should be riding shotgun.

“Green” doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable, just as “all-natural” doesn’t always mean healthy. And “organic,” the benchmark designation for responsible farming, has a notoriously malleable definition. Products that are considered green because they are made of quick-growing wood are not sustainable if they are produced by growers who plant and clear-cut whole forests over and over on the same land to keep up with the demand. (Crop rotation helps to improve the condition of the soil and reduce pests.) And when big stores such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods stock organic tomatoes year-round,
they’re certainly not buying them locally (an important aspect of sustainable organic farming); they’re flying and trucking them in from mega-farms located all over the globe.

The deeper truth is that changing stores won’t guarantee sustainability; changing habits will. Historically, the “sustainable life” has been a difficult sell not only because consumer-friendly green products were expensive and rare, but also because it meant, as it still means today, that people might have to adjust some of their hopes and dreams and expectations. It is a lot harder than just “shopping where Julia shops” or “driving what George drives.” It is a matter of consuming less, not just differently. The sustainable lifestyle will never make a VH1 Fabulous Life of… segment because it is the antithesis of excess; it’s simple, local, and seasonal. Instead of tomatoes year-round, it’s tomatoes in the mid to late summer, when they’re ripe and so much more delicious than the tomatoes we eat in the winter that they seem like a different fruit altogether.

Seeing ever more green products on the shelves and hearing the words green, sustainable, recycle, and re-use in the mainstream press and everyday conversation are huge steps forward, no doubt. And there is, indeed, an explosion in sustainable buildingand design. But it’s not on the consumer side. It’s business where the hearts—or at least minds—have changed. More builders of big buildings are reaching for higher energy and ecological standards, and they are driving the market for supplies that will help them do it. What moved these big guys? Economies of scale—especially in costly heating and cooling—tax incentives, and, in part, a change in marketing.

“People look at energy, but I think that a green building as a statement of quality is a new concept,” that is helping businesses and their builders adopt more ecologically sound practices, says David Pratt, president of the Baltimore regional chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. “I think once you take out the reason for doing it is ‘because it’s the right thing’ and replace that with ‘you’re doing it because you want higher-quality buildings, both from a performance perspective but also from a health perspective,’ then it starts to make more sense.” Such high-performing buildings are often leased faster, for longer periods, and in some cases at higher market rates, he says.

Nearly ninety projects in Maryland have applied for or received the green-standard Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, according to Pratt. Nationwide, five or six buildings are registering each day for the certification process, which was created in 2000. And now it’s not just the federal or state buildings, many of which are required to meet these standards, but higher-profile private projects that are going green. In addition to two Social Security Administration buildings in Woodlawn and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis, the Stewart’s Building indowntown Baltimore is among those complete and LEED certified. Bank of America is one of several financial businesses that are designing or building LEED-certifiable headquarters. “And banks don’t do things that don’t make economic sense,” Pratt says.

But there have been growing pains here, too. For example, building owners get LEED points for installing bike racks to tempt people to cycle to work, no matter whether their building sits on a city block or trapped in between two highways. And sometimes suppliers who fall behind on increasingly popular products make do just like big farmers who struggle to meet the demand for free-range organic livestock: by copying the unsustainable practices they were supposed to have supplanted. Oriented strand board, which is created by pressing soft, knotty wood (wood that traditionally has little commercial value) into panels that can take the place of plywood, has become very popular. “They started planting monoculture forests of poplar trees and other cheap, fast-growing wood and fertilizing and pesticiding to get it to grow quickly, and then clear-cutting it before a diverse ecosystem could evolve and chipping it up to make OSB,” says Baltimore architect Julie Gabrielli. “But what are people going to do? Not buy OSB? It’s better than some of the alternatives.”

Standards can help people make smarter choices, and there are a growing number of good ones to choose from. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies well-made wood products; Greenguard, Green Label Plus, and Green Seal verify that interior products such as paint, insulation, carpets, and flooring don’t emit an excess of potentially harmful chemicals. EnergyGuide.com recommendations and Energy Star labels and ratings may have even more influence as power bills continue to rise. And while much of this green construction supply chain hasn’t trickled into the consumer market yet (consumers shop mainly through their contractors or builders), some of the wood offered
at Home Depot now is FSCcertified, and that trend is likely to continue.

The building-supply chain is one of the sponsors of The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design, which is installed in a corner of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., until next June. The exhibit’s chief draw is a walk-through replica of Glidehouse, a modernist factory-built home made of sustainable and energy-efficient materials. There are many wooden and recycled objects in conventional shapes and settings to touch and sit on. Laminated tags on nearly every surface give “go green” tips that people can actually put into practice. It’s also instructive to feel how small an eco-friendly house actually is: no bigger than a city rowhouse. The presentation is familiar, like those at a standard home show. And that’s the point: Sustainability and efficiency are growing into standard considerations, joining functionality and cost.

A well-known Iroquois proverb is roughly translated: In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations. This proverb captures the essence of truly sustainable living and the daunting task of thinking about how the transportation we use, the food we eat, and the homes we live in will affect our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s great-grandchildren. It is with this sense of purpose that the sustainability movement will survive its own celebrity and continue to model a healthy way of living today that will allow our descendants to inherit a healthy planet tomorrow.

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One thought on “Sustainable City: Can the sustainability movement survive its own success?

  1. You articulate the problem for most consumers — what is sustainable and how are we to determine it? For example, is it environmentally sounder to use a recyclable paper cup or use a glass, which is washed in hot water and detergent in a dishwasher? I thought I had common sense but life is full of these conundrums.

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