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January 6th, 2008
Sustainable Urbanism

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sustainableurbanism.jpgThis important book by Douglas Farr, the chair of the LEED-Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) initiative, is a call to action for going beyond sustainable structures to include community enhancements that make a city more walkable, enjoyable and environmentally friendly. The book’s subtitle, “Urban Design with Nature,” is a nod to Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature. Yet the author states that this book is a rebuttal of McHarg’s, “bias against cities, distaste for human systems, and his focus on a wilderness free of humans.”


Sustainable  Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature

By Douglas Farr

John Wiley and Sons

304 pages; 2008 – ISBN: 978-0-471-77751-9

75.00 USD

Review by Matt Ball

The author of Sustainable Urbanism wants to break down barriers between nature-focused environmentalists and human-focused urbanists. Instead of well landscaped and auto-dependent suburbs, he argues for an integration of human and natural systems that combines the teachings of smart growth, new urbanism and green building for truly sustainable human environments.

The book asserts that we need a radical change in how we live, not just for the health of our planet, but for ourselves. The increasing trend to spend more time indoors, has created a demand for larger houses and has added pounds onto our own frames. The physical and mental benefits of outdoor exercise needs to be a part of human developed with pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and access to nature.

The author calls the green building and smart growth initiatives half measures, because they allow high-performance buildings to become green certified event if they’re located in an automobile-dependent context. And walkable communities aren’t the answer if they don’t incorporate green building practices.

Sustainable urbanism is defined as “walkable and transit-served urbanism integrated with high-performance buildings and high-performance infrastructure.” There’s an implicit requirement for high density development in order to support local businesses and mass-transit.

The green building concepts of integrated design where a building is treated as a system need to expanded beyond just the building. This integrated systems thinking needs to be expanded to bring together a multidisciplinary team to integrate human and natural systems at a large scale.

The book makes early mention of geographic information systems as related to McHarg’s work, however this is more of a treatise on technique rather than technology. Mapping programs are used extensively throughout the book to produce illustrations that can convey these broadscale concepts, but there isn’t specific mention of the tools and techniques that create these illustrations, instead the work is focused on the elements that make the geographies sustainable.

True to its stated goals, the book is printed with soy-based inks on paper made from 100 percent post-consumer waste. My only complaint is that this medium makes for some inconsistent ink coverage and sometimes muddy graphics. This does help convey the need to make some compromises, a premise that’s central to the books argument.

Organizing  for Action

The book is organized into four sections that build upon each other to clearly relay the concepts of sustainable urbanism, and to organize the reader to take action.

Part One, “The Case for Sustainable Urbanism,” sets the groundwork for this work, with detailed arguments about how our current urban planning misses the mark. There’s detailed discussion of societal ills brought on by poorly planned urban environments. There’s also a wealth of references to studies and research to back up this dramatic call for action.

The second chapter does an excellent job of defining the concepts of sustainable urbanism and detailing the steps that need to be taken for a truly sustainable lifestyle. The big planning picture is outined here, with a development approach that focuses on corridors for transit and utilities, rather than strictly a neighborhood-centric approach.

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The author outlines three steps to sustainable urbanism: 1) weights and measures such as LEED for Neighborhood Development that define metrics and performance thresholds, 2) dismantling petroleum-era barriers, 3) a national campaign to promote and implement new planning concepts.

Part Two, “Implementing Sustainable Urbanism,” takes a practical approach to influencing the decision makers whose thinking needs to change in order to implement these concepts. This section details the communication approaches that will sway decisions. It also speaks to leaders, outlining steps that they can take to achieve desired results.

This section also outlines community-engagement practices and tools such as a Image Preference Survey (IPS) that compares and contrasts different types of development. The effective means for fostering change involves communication about community health, with a focus on collaboration, transparency, shared learning with direct and honest communication.

Part Three, “Emerging Thresholds of Sustainable Urbanism,” breaks five categories into separate chapters:

  1. Increased density is understood to be one of the hardest elements to sell to a community. The chapter on density tackles the issue by breaking it down into sellable concepts.
  2. Thinking in corridors is designed to achieve a 1:1 job-housing balance, while integrating transportation and contiguous open space for biodiversity.
  3. Creating sustainable neighborhoods involves a transit plan, mixed density, habitat greenways and walkable distances between elements.
  4. Biophilia involves a connection with nature through greenways, parks, naturalized stormwater features, aview of the night sky and locally produced food.
  5. High performance buildings and infrastructure relates to energy efficiency and integration with other built elements.

Part Four, “Case Studies in Sustainable Urbanism,” presents nearly 200 projects from around the world that embrace the sustainable urbanism concepts of walkable communities and high-performance infrastructure. This section is one of the more engaging elements of this book as the reader tours the world to see how the concepts previously presented have been tackled a diverse group of projects. The creative solutions that are presented here, at many different geographic scales, serve to illustrate the possible. Both completed and planned projects are presented.

Taking Action

The book points out that it took two full generations to develop the dominant sprawling development of auto-dependent suburbia. The inherent climate-changing aspects of this approach need to be addressed quickly in order to right our course. The American lifestyle is at least a decade behind Europe in advancing planet-friendly development.

The foreword for this book is written by Andrés Duany, a widely respected architect and new urbanism leader and designer, having completed pioneering work with both Seaside, Florida and Kentlands, Maryland. Duany embraces this work for its clear communication of technique that provides leaders with the necessary metrics and studies to promote action.

The author’s ambitious goal is to make sustainable urbanism the dominant pattern of human settlement by 2030. This book is a valuable resource for anyone that is in a position to advance a more organic way of life that is more in tune with the environment.


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