Designing a Built Environment Resilient to Climate Change

Buildings, landscapes, infrastructure, and even entire cities can be designed to be more resilient to climate, environmental, and population changes, argued a high-profile panel at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) D.C.’s Design D.C. conference. Green technologies and practices have come a long way. Smart policymakers and designers are now applying these tools, figuring out ways to leverage existing systems to serve multiple purposes, learning from their mistakes, and adapting. 

Green Innovations at All Scales

James Russell, architecture critic for Bloomberg and author of The Agile City, argues that green models already exist. Kroon Hall, the building for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University, an exemplary green building, is almost carbon neutral. The building uses “dozen of tactics including photovoltaic arrays on its roof, geothermal power systems, and window louvers” to reduce energy use by two-thirds over a conventional building. Some 50 percent of the savings were through increased energy efficiency (at 2.4 percent of the total costs) and an additional 25 percent of the savings were due to solar power (at 2.7 percent of total costs). Overall, the building reduced its carbon footprint by more than 62 percent. Russell said this shows that “conservation is the most powerful force, it’s not about renewables.” Other building innovations include Unilever’s new headquarters, which is mostly daylit, and the Federal Building in San Francisco, which doesn’t use air conditioning systems, opting for windows instead.

Moving up to the neighborhood scale, Dockside Green in Victoria (Vancouver Island) is an example of a net-zero community, and a star of the new LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) rating system, which just completed its pilot testing phase. The community uses a “gasification boiler” to create clean energy. For Russell, this project demonstrates that “there are huge opportunities where infrastructure, community, and buildings meet.”

At the urban scale, Russell’s says it’s critical for cities to focus on increasing their agility. “Agile” cites are places that are “pro-active and anticipate the future.” These cities “question habits, breakdown barriers, and are entrepreneurial.” Cities become more agile and are best positioned to deal with climate change when they focus on “incremental changes, resiliency, adaptive human networks, and building well-being and wealth simultaneously.” He believes innovation in these areas can come from all sectors, particularly the non-profit sector. As an example, he pointed to non-profits like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which is creating green buildings in New Orleans. He added that “the way real estate finance works,” developers may actually serve as obstacles for cities seeking to become more agile. 

A few other urban innovations that increase resiliency and enable cities to better adapt to climate change include Amsterdam’s bike parking stations (“here in the U.S. we haven’t even figured out how to connect transit nodes”); the new pedestrian plazas in NYC’s Times Square (see earlier post); bus rapid transit (see earlier post); and complete streets. Lastly, Hafen City in Hamburg was cited as a model for how to create “safe pedestrian areas” in flood-prone areas. The new community features large doors and escape zones. “More cities will need to consider systems like these.”

Infrastructure Should Serve Multiple Purposes

In her upcoming book on Infrastructural Ecologies, Hillary Brown, Fellow, Institute for Urban Systems, CUNY, Principal, New Civic Works, argues that post-industrial public works must “reduce fossil fuel dependency, be multi-purpose, co-located with other infrastructure, align or leverage with natural systems, withstand the stresses of climate change, exchange nutrients or energy flows, and respect social contexts.” Co-locating infrastructure helps ensure that infrastructure become “multi-functional facilities.”

Brown had a number of fascinating examples of infrastructure that serves multiple purposes. For example, New York City’s new 2nd avenue subway is expected to create energy when the trains brake. Queens Plaza by Margie Ruddick, ASLA, provides transportation infrastructure while managing stormwater. Ken Smith, ASLA, is working on a new water treatment facility, which will be covered in a green roof that will also serve as a golf course, combining water management and recreation uses. In another example, a new power plant designed by BIG will also function as a ski slope. These are examples of infrastructure that many communities may actually want in their backyards.

Given these uncertain economic times, there is “still major resistance to spending large expenditures on infrastructure.”  However, Brown thinks there are great opportunities for “imaginative” public works projects. Communities can no longer “build expensive single purpose systems,” but develop infrastructure that can solve multiple problems at once. She thinks that developing countries that don’t have a lot of expensive infrastructure in place may even be at an advantage and can “leapfrog to more multi-use systems.” In addition, in the short-term, communities can invest in more “distributed back-up systems at smaller scales” to increase resiliency in case of the failure of “central systems.”

Washington, D.C. Wants to Be Greenest (and Most Resilient)

For Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s head of planning, becoming one of the greenest cities in the U.S. seems to be a mission. Starting in January 2012, all non-residential buildings over 50,000 square feet will need to be LEED Silver or reach an Energy Star rating of 75. To date, the city has 187 LEED-certified buildings,with another 600 in the works. In addition, there are now seven LEED-ND pilot projects within the district. The city is number one in terms of LEED-certified square footage. Tregoning said the city has purposefully “set the bar high so people will rush to meet the goals,” even though “LEED is not the end all be all.”

In addition, the city now has one million square feet of green roofs and is now thinking about how some roofs can be allocated for food production. Green roofs are a key piece of the city’s green infrastructure plans. However, the question of whether to use green infrastructure or more underground pipes and tanks to address stormwater seems to have been answered in favor of more hard infrastructure at least for the time being. The city plans to use “football field-sized drills” to create new water tunnels. Tregoning seems to think this was the wrong way to go: “green infrastructure provides multiple benefits. Bioswales, rain gardens, tree boxes, green streets and alleys all provide habitat, increase livability, and offer green spaces that are amenities.” Another important benefit: green infrastructure “creates a lot of local jobs.” Some of these ideas may be tested out more fully in the new Southwest Eco-District being planned.

The district’s bike share network is also the largest in the country. There are now 1,100 bikes in circulation accessible via 114 stations, with 25 more stations being opened this summer and another 40 in the fall. There are 14,000 bike share users. She believes these shared bikes act like a “gateway drug” for purchasing a bike. “I’ve personally seen bike share users get to stations only to find that there are no bikes left.” Those bike share users may eventually go buy their own bike, helping to not only drive up local bike sales but increase the number of commuters getting to and from work every day by bike. “It’s about creating infrastructure that changes norms.”

Tregoning thinks the city has also been smart about learning from its mistakes. For example, during planning for a new transit-friendly Columbia Heights shopping center, the city created far too many underground parking spaces, which now sit unused. “It was an expensive mistake but we learned from contracting empty spaces.” These mistakes may even be critical to ensuring new innovative ideas don’t become “creative exceptions” but help guide the development of new norms. In other words, experimentation among urban policymakers helps create a set of new, more sustainable rules to follow, and enables a continuous cycle of “planning for adaptation.” Brown added that in some cities, underground parking spaces are already being designed to be multi-use systems that allow for water storage in case of flooding.

Image credit: Dockside Green, Vancouver / GOOD magazine

2 thoughts on “Designing a Built Environment Resilient to Climate Change

  1. Dockside Green 07/15/2011 / 12:26 pm

    Thanks for the shout out – we’re actually located in Victoria (Vancouver Island) rather than Vancouver itself. Nice story.

  2. renuka 11/04/2013 / 6:32 am

    its really helpful thanks a lot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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