Ecological Civilization Development and the Transformation of Urban Development

The Chinese Society for Urban Studies (CSUS), the Center for Design & the City at the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), and OTIS hosted the first Sino-U.S. City Design Summit in Zhuhai, China, July 16–17, 2013. The Summit was held in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s 2013 Conference on Urban Development and Planning. The Conference drew an audience of more than 1,500 Chinese mayors, government officials, developers, and city planners. At the Summit, delegate John Syvertsen, AAF vice chair and senior principal at Cannon Design, stressed that global urban solutions on the large scale must be built on independent, smaller sustainable systems.

We can imagine an inevitable future state of our global cities. This future state will come into existence either in response to a compelling positive vision of human/natural ecology or in reaction to global environmental catastrophe. If the latter, it is questionable whether any response will be successful. Yet, global economics and politics make the former quite unlikely.

Taking an optimistic view toward in the future:

  • We will live in regenerative cities; cities that are ecological organisms that advance the quality of life for all people—socially, economically, and environmentally.
  • This will occur:
    • By developing a global value system that, beyond being measured in monetary terms, will be measured by its ability to support sustainable human civilization.
    • By finding a way to discuss ecological principles in society in a manner that draws people together and engages all human endeavors.
    • By shifting from a technological prowess focused on “collecting more” to a prowess focused on “consuming less.”
    • By embracing the compelling possibilities of new forms of cities, and by transforming our processes and policies to achieve them.

The U.S. and China are vast countries with seemingly inexhaustible resources. We both have a need and a tendency to focus our efforts on the largest of scales. In doing so, in our planning processes we often assume that the large scale will naturally scale down to the local or even human scale. It may seem impossible to create a human/urban ecology by focusing on the small scale, given the sheer magnitude of major urban infrastructure needs and national and cultural ambitions. Yet we will argue that global solutions on the large scale must be the accumulation of a multitude of micro-ecological, molecular successes. A system built out of independent, smaller sustainable systems is inherently more robust, flexible, and adaptable. Cities are taking up the mantle of being that smallest unit, and in the U.S. doing it faster than state or local governments can, and by doing so testing a much wider variety of strategies and opportunities. But it will eventually break down to the point where neighborhoods and blocks and buildings do everything in their power to be self-sustained and carefully manage and exchange the resources they have.

Environmentalist Paul Hawken, in his book The Ecology of Commerce, writes: “Big corporations (cities) take care of what they know how to take care of, namely, other big things: factories, mass markets, mass production. In this respect, corporations are the opposite of nature. In habitats and ecosystems, we sense how important the small things are. We humans have yet to create anything that is as complex and well designed as the interactions of the microorganisms in a cubic foot of rich soil. No ecologist would claim to fully understand the workings of an ecosystem, but all praise the minutiae within, the economy that governs it, the wondrously designed interaction and diversity that marks that cubic foot of soil, a mysterious process that produces the maximum amount of life with an absence of waste…you could almost define a restorative economy as one that turns its attention in a big way to small things.”

We will reconnect with the things we eat and the power we use because they will be closer to us.

Massive highway construction and reconstruction and eternal expansion vs. High-speed/light rail and car and bike share

Water management
Chicago deep tunnel vs. Jaypee Sport City (City-wide network of small bio swales)

Massive solar arrays and wind farms vs. Building arrays and precinct/residential bio digestion with dramatically reduced transmission losses

Corporate mega-farms vs. Spanish aquaponic ecology and urban farming

John Syvertsen is vice chair of the American Architectural Foundation’s Board of Regents and a senior principal at Cannon Design, with overall authority for overseeing the firm’s environmental sustainability and community outreach efforts. Over his more than 30-year career, John has devoted himself tirelessly to design excellence. He is a former chair of the National Committee on Design of the American Institute of Architects and past president of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Featured image courtesy of Sean Pants.

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Posted in: AAF Culture, Adaptive Reuse, Center for Design & the City, Civic Leaders + Government, Community Engagement, Design Leadership, Economic Development, Health + Wellness, Infrastructure, Partnerships, Preservation, Print, Public Spaces, Sustainability, Technology, Transportation

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.