Perspectives 07.24.2018

Reconciling Planetary Health in City Building

By Rebecca Holt

I have a cool job (or at least I think so!). I have two roles that keep me happily challenged and inspired almost every day. The majority of the time, I work with designers to help quantify design decisions relative to social and environmental benefit. I know what you’re thinking: benchmarking, credits, points, baselines, efficiencies, U values, R Values, PVs, material life cycles, EPDs, carbon profiles, emission factors, density calculations, permeability, shading – built environment bean counting. You’re right, I do a great deal of that. I believe it is an important role; accountability and transparency are the foundation for advancing ideas of sustainability and improving performance. We need a way to measure our work and the tools we use, and rating systems and best practice standards serve that important purpose.

In my other role, I am privileged to work with a team of multi-disciplinary design professionals dedicated to researching advanced ideas of city building. I lead the Sustainable Communities Lab, one of several research labs in our firm that partner and collaborate with academic institutions and research organizations. Our lab is dedicated to exploring and advancing sustainability at the district or neighborhood scale. We think that’s the scale at which the most significant impact is possible, given the potential for resource sharing, networked infrastructure, and leveraging the intersection of the social, economic, and environmental spheres.

In the lab, we explore all kinds of things from equity and affordability to how best to quantify pedestrian infrastructure  – things that can help inform our design work, but that we also offer to the broader research community to better inform inquiry for practical application. For the last year, we’ve been focused on reconnecting human health to planetary health in the way we think about designing communities. As knowledge expands and performance standards advance, rating systems and frameworks have increasingly focused on demonstrating value for improved human health, without acknowledging the inextricable link to the ecosystems that sustain us. The discourse leans heavily toward improving human health outcomes  – measuring physiological, neurological, and psychological impacts of our built environment and assigning a value measured in human health to design attributes.

We wanted to re-prioritize the health of the environment in our design process, as the first principle of protecting human health, and to explore how we might draw value from this perspective. To start our exploration, we invited urban ecologist Dr. Alex Felson, Registered Landscape Architect, Associate Professor at the Yale School of Architecture and Director of the Urban Ecology and Design Lab, to collaborate as a research fellow, funded by the Sustainable Communities Lab. The objective was to help us integrate ideas, data, and insights from urban ecology with those of urban designers and architects. We wanted to define a methodology, understand how to access expertise, and work on better ways to use ecosystem health as the foundation of our approach. We don’t seek to abandon formal rating systems or frameworks, which can be effective tools, but instead to broaden our approach with this “back to basics” idea.

Our initial engagement is still in progress and, as in many such endeavors, we have more questions now than when we began. But just asking them is already inspiring new thinking, so I want to share the important, early lessons.

First is recognizing the importance of basic ecosystem functions as the essential building blocks of the urban ecosystem, while ecosystem services are an interpretation of these ecological processes and how they relate to humans. Doing so leads us to approach a place with the goal of defining functional ecological patterns and processes first, then to think about how it might engage with and be defined by humans.While we have frameworks for valuing ecosystem services, our typical measures of the environmental impact of development less commonly focus on basic ecosystem functions. There is much more to investigate on this topic, but some questions to ask as you consider your next site might include: Can the impact of this project be neutral or have a positive effect on ecosystem function? Are we unnecessarily characterizing a natural system or function as a “problem”?

Also compelling in our thread of inquiry is the reminder that, as in many other areas, regulations in ecological or environmental protection do not reflect current science. It takes time for regulatory mechanisms to catch up with what we have learned through scientific research. We know that government regulations need improvements if we have any hope of safeguarding planetary health. Moreover, the research we do have on ecological systems in the urban environment is limited. Much of what informs decision-making about ecological systems in cities is based on the science of ecosystems in “nature”; there is much to be discovered about the intersection of ecology with the built environment and, of course, the social processes that shape it.

Every one of our projects could be an opportunity to advance this knowledge if we look for ways to embed research. Projects are a chance to feed each other’s toolboxes, to build depth, and to encourage meaningful transformation, if we open our work up to inquiry. I have been inspired to think of every project as an opportunity for research, to strengthen the ecological health of cities, and I encourage more designers to do the same.

This article was originally written for the AIA California Council. Find it in its original context here.