Net Positive Urban Retrofit - Is It Possible?

Walker Wells's picture
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Sustainability is a slippery subject - with the meaning and application changing depending on who is talking, listening, or taking action.  For the eco-efficiency focused quantifiers, sustainability is about using fewer resources, or getting more value out of the ones we are already using. Another perspective deploys sustainability as an integrated management tool that tries to keep bottom line considerations in check through introducing ecological and equity factors into the equation.  A third approach uses sustainability to define an ideal state of affairs that may emerge at some future time.

Applied to urban planning, these schools of thought are manifest as ecological footprint studies and climate action plans, sustainability indicators and indexes, and sustainability chapters in general plans.  This is all valuable and important work.  But it does little to answer several fundamental questions: 1) what does sustainability look like on the ground, and 2) just how sustainable can a city, or a neighborhood, be anyway? 

This quarter (Spring 2012), my colleague Ted Bardacke and I will work in with a group of UCLA urban planning graduate students in attempt to answer these questions, at least in part.  The objective of the Green Urbanism Studio course is to develop a proposal for the redesign a Los Angeles neighborhood that achieves a high level of sustainability. But what should the performance standard be?

We decided to turn to the Living Building Challenge, as the Challenge was developed to push the envelope in green building from being "less bad" to "net positive."  There are a handful of LBC certified buildings now along with some evocative efforts to explore what happens when LBC is applied at an urban scale, most notably the results of the Living City Design competition http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20111115/image-control

We plan build upon this work in the studio course, through a thorough and rigorous application of the LBC imperative and petal performance criteria to prepare a proposal for the redesign and development of an existing Los Angeles Neighborhood. By using the "high bar" standard of LBC we expect to generate the full suite of studio course outcomes: unexpected challenges, frustrations, breakthroughs in thinking, and, we hope, the articulation of concepts and strategies that can accelerate the transition from current planning practice to a net positive model, thus shortening our stay in the land of less bad.

Walker Wells is director of the green urbanism program for Global Green USA and a lecturer at Pomona College and UCLA.

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