The Case for a National Academy of Environmental Design

At the national conference of the American Planning Association, Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Dean of the School of Architecture, University of Texas, Austin, and one of the forces behind the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), Dr. Nisha Botchwey, Associate Professor, School of City and Regional Planning, Georgia Tech University, and Michael Monti, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, made the case for the National Academy of Environmental Design (NAED), a new organization they hope will become the equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences or the National Institute of Health (NIH), but for planners, landscape architects, architects, industrial and interior designers, and construction professionals. Steiner said this wasn’t a crazy idea given the NIH was actually created pretty recently.

A robust NAED would help improve the visibility of the professions that are responsible for the design of our built environment among policymakers in Washington, D.C. The organization could be a boon for academics — membership would be valuable to promotion. A NAED could also raise lots of money from the government and foundations to get new research supporting “evidence-based design” out to the many thousand design professionals worldwide, bolstering the credibility of designers in the process.

Some of the goals of NAED: “promote the flourishing of individuals, communities, and the natural world” through environmentally-sustainable design; improve cooperation with federal and state governments; and organize cross-disciplinary research around critical environmental, social, and economic challenges like disaster-proofing communities or using the built environment to fight obesity and diabetes (instead of enabling the spread of these epidemics). The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) each have two members in the new governing steering committee, and a research committee is now being led by MIT planning professor James Wescoat, Jr.

Steiner said a whole host of symposia has already been held, with more in the works. One on the potential for “water wars” in Florida in the near future held at the University of Florida looked at how design professionals can influence public water consumption, design communities resilient to changes in water availability, and also create systems that meet the “aesthetics” communities want. Others focused on SITES and “disaster resilient design.” The goal of these events are to match design professionals with experts from other fields, including public health specialists, while drawing in key government agencies. Monti said: “these symposia include lots of charrettes, co-creation. They help in the translation between the professions.”

One exciting research project of the still-forming NAED was a research symposium on green design and public health. Botchwey said “changing behavior alone is not enough to combat childhood obesity. Environmental factors influence when, where, and how much people eat and drink and how physically active they are.” A pretty powerful statement. She added that school facilities are one of the most critical platforms for creating healthier lifestyles, given some 25 percent of the U.S. population is now in school.

Their day-long event, which was co-developed with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools as well as the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR), examined all scales — from the neighborhood to the building to the actual school yard and grounds, right down to the cafeteria — to see how schools could become healthier places, physically.

“Translation” seems to be the critical piece. For example, public health researchers and landscape architects, who could do so much exciting research together to determine which kinds of designs are most effective at improving health, don’t speak the same language or use the same methodologies or tools. Translation is always needed.

One way to collaborate would be to develop “place-based research reflecting what’s happening, and who’s involved in it,” said Monti. These case studies can then lead to evidence, which would help bolster “evidence-based practice” among more designers. Botchwey added that design professionals may actually need to become multi-lingual, too, speaking the language of public health researchers and others to be heard.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 General Design Honor Award. City of Greensburg Main Street Streetscape, Greensburg, KS  / BNIM and Farad Assassi

2 thoughts on “The Case for a National Academy of Environmental Design

  1. claudia goetz phillips 04/19/2012 / 4:07 pm

    Excellent and critical article for the landscape architecture profession. CELA and ASLA were founding organizations and represented on the NAED Board.

  2. Mike Lowell, PE, LEED AP 04/25/2012 / 9:51 am

    I am disappointed that the group does not consider the Civil Engineering profession to be a member of this Academy. If the planners truly want to take an integrated approach, the CE community would be a valuable and integral addition to the pursuit of sustainable site design.

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