Thursday, November 19, 2009

David Orr on Post-Carbon Cities

Missoula was lucky enough yesterday to have David Orr in town. In between the meetings usual social events, there was enough time for him to give two lectures at the University of Montana.

For those of you who don't know of David Orr, he is a leading thinker and innovator environmental issues, green building, and ecological design. Within the last decade he gained national press for his effort and subsequent success in building a fully carbon-neutral building on the campus of Oberlin College which can be seen above. It integrates passive solar design by orienting the building to take advantage of the suns energy, a roof fully covered by solar panels, sustainable materials, food production in the form of a garden and orchard on the north side of the building, and environmental restoration on the wetlands immediately adjacent.

David Orr covered post-carbon cities in the lecture I attended. The scope of his talk was extensive, delving heavily into the philosophy behind green building/urban design. What resounded with me was his call to take a systems approach to issues. He blames academia for the tradition of reductionist thought that breaks issues/objects into components without concerning itself with how the whole works or interacts with the world. He used the example of optimizing the Hvac system of a building without also optimizing the insulation or materials used in the building.

By taking a systems or wholistic world view we can come to better understand the world and the interaction between our actions and the environment. This is true of economics - which as a student of economics I fully agree with - where one doesn't pay the full cost of any product. Externalises exist everywhere and with every purchase; a vehicle doesn't really cost only $20,000 if you include the pollution from its manufacture and operation, the cost of the roads it travels, and the cost of disposal, etc. If all these costs where taken into affect, our world would be a much different place. There would be no coal fired power plants if the coal industry had to directly pay for every death caused by the pollution it creates.

Back to post-carbon cities. David has an ambitious goal of turning Oberlin into a carbon-neutral city, starting by redeveloping the downtown area to be an eco-village. He is taking a ground up approach by gathering support and investment from within the community. This seems like a much better approach for such a project than the one taken by Saudi Arabia and China in attempting to build their own respective eco-cities, both of which after years of being in the design and planning phases have gone nowhere.

Of course, building a fully carbon-neutral town is a big challenge, as not only do the buildings have to be redesigned, but people's behavior's have to radically change and a whole new local economy built from scratch. If David Orr has any misgivings about such a project, its is that he doesn't know whether people are willing to do what needs to be done to create such an ecologically friendly future.

He is optimistic in terms of having all the tools ready and at his finger tips. David talked of how over the last thirty years scientists and entrepreneurs have developed the tools to create such a future and now everything simply has to be brought together and integrated. Social awareness has also progressed enough to allow the building of such a future. This is especially true within professions that can move something such as eco-cities along. Daniel Narrin over at Discovering Urbanism illustrates this point in a recent post. Having found a planning text book from the early 1990s, he was surprised to see how far the profession has developed in two decades, having found that the book never once mentioned pedestrians or cyclists and describes environmentalists only as obstructionists against progress.

It now seems very possible that the environmentalists so reviled by many only two decades ago will be the ones innovating and creating our future as it has gone from a movement of obstructionism to one of practical application and problem solving. Best of luck to David Orr and his vision of a carbon-neutral future, I hope to experience it one day.

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