Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Recents concern about the impact of global warming upon the world's climates and increased pollutiion and despoilation of natural habitats have introduced the concept of environmental and ecological sustainability as a criterion against which to judge all human activity. Sustainable design and urban and regional planning is the philosophy of designing and planning the human-built environment to comply with principles of economic, social and ecological sustainability. Originally first articulated as a criterion for urban design and planning back in the 1970's by Richard Hopper (then Hawaii's State Environmental Planning Coordinator) both in an article published in the magazine of the American Planning Association and as part of an effort he led to develop a "Quality Growth Policy for the State of Hawaii," sustainability is no longer a concept limited to the field of biology. Instead, as Hopper articulated back in the 1970's all natural and man-made systems have an inherent carrying-capacity that can either be: (1) used as a limit for growth; (2) ignored and exceeded with the consequence of thus degrading the system; or (3) expanded through new technologies and method of design and planning. As such, applying the concepts of sustainability and carrying-capacity to the design of our man-made built environment helps to protect the quality of both our man-made and natural environment.
One of the first individuals to arouse concern about the impact that modern society was having on the environment was Rachel Carson in her book "Silent Spring." In her book, she described how chemicals such as DDT could have a cumulative negative impact that was not immediately recognized, and how we could use various animal species such as birds to predict the impact that chemicals would eventually have on humans. Meanwhile, in the 1970's, a group called the Club of Rome published a book titled "The Limits on Growth" that predicted some of the long-range negative impacts of increasing human population growth. The creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of various pollution control laws in the 1970's reflected the public's increasing awareness of the quality of the environment at that time. It is only recently, however, that the problems of global warming and climate change have caused the general public to be aware that the design and planning of our built-environment can either lock us into a pattern of energy wastefulness and pollution -- or can be part of the solution to increased energy conservation and pollution control. As a consequence, urban design and planning has come to the forefront of public policy in helping to find a way to a more sustainable future.

One of the first principles of sustainable design and urban planning is to recognize that we are all connected, and what one of us does affects us all. As such, sustainable design and urban planning is about creating sustainable "communities." This means that we need to be concerned not only with the direct and obvious negative environmental impacts that can be traced to our individual actions, but that we also need to address the collective and cumulative impacts of our societal activities. That is where urban and regional design and planning comes in. Urban and regional design and planning is how we as a community or society can work cooperatively to build sustainable communities. Urban and regional design and planning consists of three components: (1) research to identify problems; (2) brain-storming through design charettes and other means to develop alternatives; and (3) public participation to reach consensus on proposed means of implementation. Urban and regional design and planning, however, does not replace the political process in making the ultimate decision on implementation actions such as revised zoning, public infrastructure funding, etc. What urban and regional design and planning does is to help promote informed decision-making and a long-range vision to guide development. In this context, what sustainable design and urban planning does is to include sustainability is a criterion to help guide development decisions.

Sustainable design and urban planning is guided by several principles borrowed from biology or the natural environment. These include the concepts of: (1) connectedness; (2) renewability; (3) efficiency; (4) minimization of externalities or negative impacts; and (5) carrying-capacity. Urban planners and designers that are interested in achieving sustainable development and communities use a variety of new urban design and planning principles and techniques to help achieve these concepts or goals of sustainability. These include smart growth strategies, new urbanism designs, sustainable urban infrastructure, new green building codes and designs, and new strategies to bring the natural environment back into our urban man-made environment. Following is a discussion of some of these techniques, beginning with new technological and building-design techniques and ending with sustainable land-use management techniques.


WASTE REDUCTION -- Waste is the ultimate externality or pollution produced by humans and all other living organisms. In the past, humans have dealt with waste primarily by simply discarding it upon the land. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, however, waste that is simply thrown away upon the land becomes a primary cause of disease and water pollution. Also, landfills generate methane, a gas that contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide. Also, we have to use carbon fuels to transport garbage to more and more distant landfill locations from our urban cities. Finally, the more technologically advanced we become as a society, the greater percentage of our wastes that come from chemicals and thus are hazardous wastes. All of this requires a new concept where we need to learn to design our built environment in ways that eliminate waste (or that starts to look at what were traditionally wastes as renewable resources). Because of tough pollution control laws in developed nations, many companies are already doing this with their wastes. But we need to do a better job of waste reduction where we incorporate this as a "sustainability" criterion in everything we do.
RECYCLING AND RESOURCE RECOVERY - Recycling and resource recovery is the other sustainable method of dealing with waste. In the 1970's, the U.S. EPA took the lead in helping to promote recycling and resource recovery. This included funding demonstrations of curb-side recycling and the construction of resource recovery plants that separated waste and burned what remained as a form of waste-to-energy. The U.S. EPA even funded the construction of a pyrolysis system which converted municipal garbage to oil. This was after the first Earth Day and the Arab oil embargo under the Carter presidency. Unfortunately, despite what other positive accomplishments that President Reagan might have achieved in helping bring about the end of the Cold War, Reagan eliminated the federal government's involvement in municipal garbage, including recycling and resource recovery programs, and furthermore eliminated all alternative renewable energy programs. Reagan even removed the solar panels on the roof of the White House that had been installed by President Carter. The consequence is that all the advancements in recycling and resource recovery since then have been undertaken by the individual states and municipalities. In this regard, while most cities in Europe and Japan have since then built waste-to-energy resource recovery plants as an alternative source of energy, the United States with its up-to-now cheap sources of energy has not built any new municipal waste-to-energy plants since the early 1980's (though industry has built many such plants). Instead, the focus in the United States has been our source separation and recycling. This still leaves, however, the greater bulk of municipal waste that has to be landfilled. As such, to make our cities and urban areas more sustainable and to decrease our dependence upon foreign oil, perhaps it is now time to renew our research and other efforts to find clean ways to convert waste to energy. One promising technique would eliminate all carbon emissions is plasmas gasification. Pyrolysis has also been used not to simply burn garbage, but to convert it to charcoal. The charcoal is then used in agriculture to enrich the soil. This has an added benefit of serving as a carbon sink to capture carbon and put it back into the soil.
Above is a schematic diagram of a successful municipal solid waste resource recovery/waste-to-energy plant being operated to process the waste of Fairfax County, Virginia and the surrounding jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. Ironically, Richard Hopper who had previously developed a "Quality Growth Policy" for Hawaii and applied the concept of carrying-capacity to urban planning, went on to serve as the Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Resource Recovery Division of the Office of Solid Waste of the U.S. EPA. In this role, he helped to encourage communities such as Fairfax County to implement recycling and resource recovery programs (i.e. before the federal government's recycling and resource recovery program was eliminated during the Reagan administration). This included his authoring numerous magazine articles and publications about resource recovery.