The Coming Age of the ‘Built Environment’

By early in the coming decade, the majority of humankind will be living in cities. For the first time in the two million year history of our species, the immediate human environment will be the ‘built environment.’ By all conventional accounts, we seem to be leaving nature and the countryside behind. ‘Urbanization’ is usually regarded as a demographic and economic phenomenon, as a transition to a somewhat higher plane of civilization. Western industrial culture tends to associate ‘rural’ and ‘agricultural’ with general underdevelopment and a presumptively inferior peasant culture. After all, it is cities that serve as the seats of government, the engines of economic growth, the centers of culture, the well-springs of new knowledge, and the repositories of cumulative learning. Certainly it is true that our greatest cities are among the most magnificent of human achievements. But there is another side of cities and urbanization to which the modern technological eye is blind. Urbanization also represents an unprecedented transformation in human ecology. This greatest of human migrations has produced a dramatic shift in the spatial and material relationships of our species to the ecosphere. People now live and work far from the land and biophysical processes that actually support them. Cities require ever greater quantities of food, material commodities, and energy – all often shipped great distances – to sustain the increasingly consumer lifestyles of their inhabitants. High-income cities in particular impose ever greater burdens on the global commons to assimilate their metabolic wastes. Indeed, whether through commercial trade or natural flows, modern cities draw on resources and dump their garbage all over the world. This new ecological reality underscores the urgency of ‘greening’ the building industry. Cities and Sustainability Given the pace of growth the prevailing pattern of urbanization has serious negative implications for global sustainability (Girardet 1992, Rees 1992, Rees 1997, Rees and Wackernagel 1996,). On the positive side, certain characteristics of cities could be exploited to enhance humanity’s future prospects. Nevertheless, and despite the two UN ‘Habitat’ conferences on urban prospects, cities have been given short shrift in the mainstream sustainability debate. For example, the World Conservation Strategy of 1980, which apparently first explicitly used the term “sustainable development, paid no special attention to accelerating urbanization. The Brundtland report did discuss the issue, but the main emphasis was on the “urban crisis in developing countries” (WCED, p.8, emphasis added). This relative neglect of cities – particularly rich cities – is difficult to reconcile with physical reality. Up to eighty per cent of the populations of high-income countries already live in cities and, as noted, half of humanity will be urbanized early in the next century. Moreover, since the wealthiest 20% of the human population consume 80% of the world’s economic output (WCED 1987), approximately 64 % of the world’s economic production/consumption and pollution is associated with cities in rich countries. Only 12% is tied to cities in the developing world. In short, “half the people and three-quarters of the world’s environmental problems reside in cities, and rich cities, mainly in the developed North, impose by far the greater load on the ecosphere and global commons” (Rees 1997). Greening the Building Industry These basic facts underscore the fact that urban designers and planners, architects, the makers of building materials – indeed, anyone associated with creating the built environment – have a major but as yet unrealized role to play in enhancing the sustainability of our cities in the 21st Century. The ultimate purpose of this paper, therefore, is to suggest ways by which eco-cities and “green building” can become the standard for global society. I begin, however, by elaborating two concerns that exacerbate the issue: first, most decision-makers and ordinary people alike still seriously underestimate the scale of the ecological crisis, and; second, modern industrial society has badly misconstrued the nature of the problem. The first concern helps explain why the political response so far has been so limited; the second explains why responses to date have been so ineffective. Understanding any problem is prerequisite to prescribing appropriate solutions.
source: The Built Environment See also XlnkS43D

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