Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Sustainable American Dream

The following is a reprise of an earlier post of mine entitled Ecopolis and the American Dream. That piece was much longer because I devoted a substantial segment to utopian visions of the future. I’ve now abbreviated the post for republishing on My Green Palette’s Green Blog. This will be my second contribution to Green Blog.

I’ve also chosen to rework my earlier post because of the following: 1) the 4th of July is rapidly approaching, and the American Dream is a fitting theme; and 2) the June 19, 2010 edition of The Register-Guard newspaper ran an opinion piece written by Tom Giesen that likewise uses the American Dream to make a point.

Now retired, Tom was a professional acquaintance of mine. My firm, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, regularly retained Tom as a construction cost consultant. He is now an environmental activist—passionate, focused, and persistent—regularly sounding an alarm for change.

Tom’s column for The Register-Guard brings to light the folly of politicians paying lip service to the environment while relentlessly pursuing economic growth. It’s clear he is frustrated by our collective inability to confront what will surely be an apocalyptic environmental crisis.

I’m following another tack: The thesis of my post is that the seeds of change can be rooted in the American Dream. While I do share Tom’s belief that unlimited growth is unsustainable, I am optimistic, not frustrated. The American Dream needn’t become a nightmare. Read on:

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Many Americans equate selfhood with freedom and property ownership, and find it difficult to reconcile rights owed to the individual with duties owed to the collective. For them, the American Dream is a promise of abundance offered by the richest society on earth. It persists because of the belief that anyone who works hard can succeed and is entitled to the fruits of his or her labors.

Generations of Americans have upheld the ideal of the single-family detached house, set in its private surrounding yard, as a reward for pursuing one’s goals. However, unfettered growth cannot figure in the American Dream of the future. Our cities and culture must become more locally and regionally focused, as conservation of resources becomes paramount.

Americans increasingly believe the survival of the Dream is dependent upon widespread acceptance of the principles of sustainability. We’re learning that sustainability isn’t un-American or impractical, though it does require a measure of selflessness. It is a commitment to meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

The Dream has served the country well, but with a more interconnected and complex world than ever before, it will evolve. Americans do embrace trying new things, succeeding or failing because of their savvy, level of dedication, and good or bad fortune. These traits will be the key to the development of a more sophisticated network of incremental solutions to the complex problem of transforming U.S. cities into more ecologically sound systems.

Paul Downton is an architect and prominent eco-city advocate who believes that adapting to global warming, as well as reducing social inequity and furthering sustainability, are fundamentally local issues. While he acknowledges that we need global-scale changes in political structures, economic institutions, and the very foundations of society, he also argues that it is at the local level where lasting models of the kind of world we wish to see will arise.

Downton believes that urban fractals—small components of a larger ideal eco-city—are necessary to demonstrate the essential characteristics of a sustainable culture and environment. Each urban fractal would be an example of a cultural pattern that is sufficiently different from the norm to change the deeper pattern of the city. The overarching goal is to design and develop new urban systems with the intent of establishing the framework for an ecological culture.

A typical urban fractal might take the form of a sustainable development at the scale of a single building or neighborhood. It would be a discrete element that might serve as an imitable agent for change, like a self-replicating meme. For example, a project might be so optimized that little in the way of resources outside of the development are necessary to sustain it. It could serve as a model for similar, neighboring projects. Cumulatively, the urban fractals that contain the essential characteristics of the desired ecological culture would achieve the extent and depth of change necessary to shift complete cities toward ecological health and viability.

The clear advantage of urban fractals is that they can be of a scale that is consistent with how the majority of real estate improvements are presently undertaken. This is a vision of the future that is grounded in reality and “bottom-up” processes, as opposed to “top-down” utopias and the absolute social upheaval they would augur.

Urban fractals present a path toward major change that can be accepted as normal because it would occur at a relatively slow pace, in unnoticed increments. It would not preclude the right to private property ownership that so many Americans cherish, nor would it discourage individual initiative and creativity. It is a model that would be resilient and adaptive, radically interconnected and inventive, so much so that we may not fully predict its final emergent form. Ultimately, the result would be cities locally adapted to an era of rapid climate change.

I’m guessing that the American Dream will endure as our cities confront the social, economic, and technological challenges posed by global climate change. The freedom to own and develop property will be balanced with a sense of civic responsibility to work together to create healthful, sustainable communities. Americans possess too much determination, ingenuity, and enterprise for me to believe otherwise.

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