An Economic Development Specialist Reflects on
Sustainable Cities Design Academy
What happens when local design and civic leaders from cities as diverse as Greensboro, N.C., Tucson, Denver, and Los Angeles come together to discuss the challenges of sustainability? In a less robust setting, you might get nothing at all. But at the Sustainable Cities Design Academy (SCDA), the breadth of experience and talent in the room yields innovative and integrated ideas—ideas that are as relevant to the needs of downtown Tucson as they are to Stapleton in Denver.
The tenth iteration of SCDA was completed in Washington, D.C., in early June, with community leaders and local professionals from Greensboro, N.C., Tucson, Los Angeles, and Denver teaming up with experienced development professionals for two intense days of idea generation. The goal of SCDA is clear: put communities with specific design/function issues in a room with resource people experienced with those issues and come up with solutions that address immediate problems and opportunities while building a platform for sustainability. All in less than two days.
It may sound like a fool’s errand, but the structure and expectations that SCDA have established create a climate of cooperation that is difficult to describe. In just two days, a group of more than 25 strangers become a strategic workforce; a team of teams with a simple mandate to help the collected communities succeed with their goals for sustainability. SCDA is demanding—participating communities must come with detailed information and a very concrete set of questions for which they need fresh perspectives. Likewise, the resource professionals are expected to come prepared with an understanding of the community’s issues and an articulated point of view that can contribute to success. The rest is hard work.
SCDA 10 continued the tradition of excellence for which the programs of the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) are known. What appeared at the beginning to be four quite disparate projects became, over the two days and in the competent hands of SCDA staff, a portfolio of sustainability challenges and opportunities. And from them emerged, for me, a few important lessons.
Sustainability is often presented as a toolkit of technologies to help reduce our carbon footprint, recycle materials, and/or conserve and clean water. But, the ideas generated at SCDA 10 point to the success of sustainability as defined by the ways that a community’s systems connect. Greensboro’s Greenway project certainly improves the community’s access to outdoor activity, but its real contribution to sustainability is in the way it weaves the cultural activities of downtown with the traditions and sense of attachment present in the surrounding neighborhoods, in concert with the Integral City Plan.
Likewise, the completion of a connecting road through downtown Tucson could be seen as a complex engineering problem, but combined with the city’s commitment to multi-modal transportation and a culture of bicycle ridership, Downtown Links has the opportunity to reconnect downtown with the warehouse district and create a new relationship between walkability, rideability, and transit.
In Denver, the neighborhoods surrounding 40th & Colorado were victims of the community-destroying policies of urban renewal and highway building. But with local leadership—and fresh ideas from SCDA 10—re-establishing the street grid and connecting to transit will not only revitalize the community, but will also provide a template for growth and sustainability into the future.
And even the UTC Warner Center—a ground-up project already devoted to “deep green” development practices—can enhance its sustainability by looking beyond its borders and finding not only hydrological connections to the Los Angeles River, but real, sustainable, human connections to the river as it goes through its own renaissance as well.
The science of sustainability was certainly evident at SCDA 10, but what emerged for me was a better understanding of the art of sustainability—the human functions that enrich our definition of what it means to “be green.”
A better understanding of the art of sustainability means the generation of more possibilities like the one in Tucson, which would marry the traditional warehouse district neon signage with rooftop solar and green solutions that help create a new brand for the area—the Warehouse Arts and Rail District, or The WARD. Or in Denver, where the notion that new development should include urban gardening right along with housing and other forms of mixed use.
Also crucial are design solutions that support programming that then simultaneously strengthens the environmental sustainability and the cultural sustainability of the district. Examples include projects like the storm water-retention-water feature greenspace of the UTC Warner Center or new neighborhood development that helps anchor Greensboro’s Greenway while providing a safer, more attractive linkage to downtown’s cultural activities.
SCDA 10 has helped redefine what is “green” by taking into account technological and design solutions as well as communications and programming ideas that will attract, enrich, and maintain the human connection to place. Without that connection, there is nothing to sustain.
Re-creating and sustaining the connection to place is a messy business, one that requires a willingness on the part of leaders and technicians to involve a wide array of players. The SCDA team of community representatives and resource team members was a real reflection of the diversity that is required to create sustainability. In our workrooms in D.C. were architects, engineers, water management experts, transit professionals, and urban planners. But right next to them, leaning into the work, were arts professionals, local property owners, community activists, grassroots organizers, and academics. At our tables, and back in their communities, they may come to the issue of sustainability with a different set of goals, but they know that what they contribute, each from their own perspectives, contributes to the possibility of a sustainable future. And, that without any one of them at the table, the product—the ideas, the projects, the potential resources—would be diminished.
I am always honored to participate in one of AAF’s programs. But more important than the honor is the opportunity to expand my own thinking on issues to which I’ve dedicated my work life.
And to learn.
Not just to learn about new tools or new public policy, but to learn how an ever-expanding chorus of stakeholders are coming together, applying their unique gifts, and building a sustainable future for their own communities.
If you ever have the chance, participate in the Sustainable Cities Design Academy. Do it.
Better yet, make it happen.
Betsy Jackson is President of The Urban Agenda, an urban development consulting firm located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that specializes in strategic planning and community problem solving. Betsy was President of the International Downtown Association (IDA) in Washington, DC, for four years, and prior to joining IDA in 1997, she was the Executive Director of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design.
Betsy served as a Resource Team member for SCDA 10 and for the 53rd National Session of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in 2012 in St. Louis, MO. In 2011, Betsy was a Roundtable Discussion Leader at the National Mayors Summit on City Design in Chicago.