Looking to the Future of Sustainable Cities

From left: Scott Kelly, principal at RE:Vision Architecture; Laura Clise, director of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Weyerhaeuser; Sarah Wu, deputy director for planning at the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Sustainability; and John Davies, VP and senior analyst of GreenBiz Group, discuss sustainable cities at Net Impact 2016.

By Joel Oerter

The 2016 Net Impact Conference in Philadelphia passed as a marquis event of 2016, but the topics and insights are still fresh — particularly as we think toward how to continue momentum on sustainability in 2017 and beyond.

While uncertainty remains regarding federal sustainability drivers, the role for cities will continue to be critical in framing environmental stewardship and social equity strategies.

Sustainability examined from buildings, to cities, to regions

With experts sharing perspectives on individual buildings, entire cities and beyond, the dialogue at NI16 highlighted the importance of thinking through interconnected systems when it comes to how we think about green cities. The discussion also explored the fundamental themes surrounding urban sustainability, how to communicate and advocate for change, and what meaningful progress actually looks like.

Making our buildings more livable

Broadening our understanding about how human beings interact with the immediate built environment was a deeply rooted theme for Scott Kelly of RE:Vision Architecture.

His criteria for a successful building are fourfold: environmentally restorative, culturally rich, socially appropriate and financially viable. To illustrate this concept, Kelly noted that the prevailing metric for green buildings is energy used per square foot. However, is it enough to create buildings which maximize efficiency, using little excess electricity? Instead, how about thinking about how much you are spending on your employees per square foot? This later metric not only captures electricity use, but also factors in healthcare costs due to sickness, missed working days, and potential productivity gains from employee collaboration in a well-designed space.

Such a small shift in thinking places the emphasis on human interaction and a livable environment for long-term quality of life, and it can be used to evaluate workplace, community, and personal buildings.

Making sustainability real for urban inhabitants

Based on her work for the city of Philadelphia, Sarah Wu acknowledged the challenges of moving an entire city toward sustainability, one in which a significant proportion of the population is at or below the poverty level.

Her key insight? Temper your language to make sustainability real for a person without jargon.

Instead of saying, “Global warming is raising the overall temperature of the earth and increasing environmental instability,” one might ask: “Have you noticed more storms lately?”

Much of her work for the city of Philadelphia is about relationship management. Wu says she places a premium on meeting people where they are and having a key contact in every neighborhood in order to gauge priorities, source solutions and create support.

Making renewable materials a focus for urban regions

Laura Clise of Weyerhaeuser cited a recent U.N. FAO report on forests, wood products and climate change that challenged city-dwellers to think about the role working forests play in supporting a low-carbon economy.

Besides providing rural communities with immediate economic benefits and recreational opportunities, working forests act as a vast carbon sink. Engineered wood products, such as Parallam, come from these forests and offer advantages over traditional materials. After all, wood is a renewable resource, stores carbon, and substantially reduces emissions as compared to traditional building materials such as steel or concrete.

With such advantages, isn’t it time to rethink wood tech?

A perfect example of the sustainability that wood can provide is embodied in this expert conversation starter — Penny Parallam (above), the wood duck (#PennyParallam). Made from a super-strong engineered wood product called Parallam, Penny the wood duck represents strength and sustainability benefits of engineered wood technology compared to non-renewable building materials.

Parallam was used in the construction of the University of British Columbia Brock Commons building that is being touted for its sustainability and speed of construction. Awareness of these type of building materials is growing.

If it were easy, a model sustainable city would already exist

The challenges of moving towards sustainability requires a long-term perspective and iterative gains, each of these experts acknowledged.

Moving one step forward and two steps back is sometimes a reality, they conceded, and success comes slowly with tenacious optimism. For instance, at the end of a building project, Scott Kelly considers success as moving a client up “the ladder of sustainability,” even if it is only one rung.

Success is seldom absolute. When she started at the Philadelphia Mayor’s office, Sarah Wu’s outreach sustainability team set up 15 metrics for success. They covered broad operational areas such as waste diversion, energy management, access to local food and local transportation access. However, when the execution period had ended, only four of those 15 goals had been met, with six more headed in the right direction.

Wu acknowledged the extreme difficulty in hitting all sustainability goals, but she focuses on the “deep systems understanding” that the effort brought to light. Now in her second round of metrics-driven sustainability, Wu’s team has grown from three to ten people, and the lessons learned from round one will inform action for future success.

What can I do for sustainability in my city?

“Be a student of yourself,” Sarah Wu advised students at NI16. “Be aware of how your involvement in surrounding systems affect your decisions.”

For instance, do you think of your carbon footprint in all circumstances, even when flying or driving to a conference such as Net Impact? How difficult is it to change your actions for the better, and what programs could help you most? This awareness can help generate ideas to improve the systems around you, especially with regards to urban infrastructure.

Optimism also fuels motivation for sustainability work. Scott Kelly cited the at-times contentious issue of independent, third-party certification as cause to remain optimistic. There are multiple sustainable forestry standards, but for many years forestry was the only industry who created such standards for building materials. While it’s important to remember that the majority of global forests are not third-party certified, and that the majority of non-certified private forests in the U.S. are owned by small family landowners, the progress made to date on third-party sustainable forest certification is substantial.

In closing, Laura Clise also offered some advice for those interested in working in sustainability: “Be passionate, but don’t forget to be humble.”

The work of sustainability requires enthusiastic advocacy, but it also demands recognition that leading change demands a willingness to continue to learn from others in the process of identifying common ground. Smug certainty is simply not effective when enlisting the help of others, some of whom may have a career’s worth of invaluable experience and perspective to offer when tackling intractable problems.

As we move towards the next generation of sustainability in cities, it’s simply not a journey we afford to take alone.

Joel Oerter is an MBA Candidate at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

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