Keynote, First Los Angeles Ecological Cities Conference, University of California, Los Angeles, 1991
Sustainability borrows from observing biological systems. What nature does to combat instability in a particular environment evolves an integrated or linked diversity in which many species, at all scales, are connected through flows and cycles. Rivers are designed to flood without doing harm. Their banks are lined with trees that prevent erosion. Their immediate low-lying areas or flood plains are populated with plants and animals adapted to thrive on occasional floods. Those places where two kinds of natural systems come together-for example, where forest meets grassland or where tidal waters meet land-are called ecotones, and they are typically places of maximum biological diversity and productivity, and they are constantly changing yet maintain relative stability. Processes built upon a complex interlinked diversity-that’s what sustainability is all about. We can apply the same criteria to guiding the future design of buildings and cities. From this overall principle of linked diversity, we can articulate design principles and strategy for each of the three “E”s: Ecology, Economy, and Equity. Through the application of principles and strategies, we can create a new ethics and a new esthetics for civilization into the next millennium. Let’s start with the design of economics. Conventional economics prices the value of land and
other materials made available by natural systems, but it does not price the value of services provided by these systems, such as providing breathable air, purifying wastes, and water. Our present brand of industrial capitalism liquidates its capital and calls it “income.” In Paul Hawken’s words, “Our present form of capitalism neglects to assign any value to the ecosystem services that make possible all life … and also the social and cultural systems that are the basis for human capital.” Just to make the point, a team led by a Stanford economist calculated that the ecosystem services flowing directly into society worldwide are worth at least $33 trillion, exceeding Gross World Product by 25 percent. In order to become sustainable, our present form of economics needs to wake up to ecological realities. As Hawken notes, “many key ecosystem services have no known substitutes at any price.” For example, the $250 million Biosphere II project in Arizona, which attempted to replicate ecosystem functions within a closed designed environment, was unable to provide breathable air for the eight people living within it. Next, let’s consider ecology and design. Let’s consider everything that humans design as infrastructure. That includes all buildings, services such as roads, communication, and all technology that alters the given world of nature, such as genetic
engineering, agriculture, and industrial processes. On the other side is the design that the planet has evolved over four billion years: the biosphere, its ecosystems, and all the cycles, flows, and feedback processes that make it all work. We can call that “eco-structure.” The design principle is to make the two work together, through the design of infrastructure that mimics how the natural world works. For example, we spend billions to design and build sewage treatment plants that remove organic matter from waste water. Yet this is precisely what a marsh does. We should be restoring wetlands, which reduce flooding and also serve to purify waste water, at costs far lower than conventional sewage treatment plants. Another obvious example is buildings. If we think about buildings as organisms rather than objects, then we design buildings that generate their own energy from the sun on-site, reprocess their wastes, and use plant materials on walls and roof to absorb carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen. The last E is “Equity.” Here the principle is simply that of fairness and justice. No society is stable or sustainable when large numbers of its members are left out of the mainstream, absorbing all the hits and none of the benefits. Globally and regionally, the focus on turning all values into monetized commodity is the enemy of maintaining community. Money flow does not equal healthy community. Redefining Progress, a San Francisco research group, has developed an index that measures Quality of Life as compared to GDP. What it shows nationally is a 45 percent decline in quality of life since 1970, while GDP doubled. One economic design solution is to begin to use local currencies-banks where people exchange services rather than paying cash for them. In Switzerland, 86,000 people belong to a local currency system (“LETS”), encouraging more personal exchange and a sense of community.