Design for a Vulnerable Planet

An excerpt from the introduction.
Design for a Vulnerable Planet

Introduction: Interdisciplinary Design and the Fate of Our Planet

The planet is in peril. The Earth will go on with or without us. But we know enough about how human actions are impacting the planet to change the role we play.

Designers conceive the future. Therefore, design can help us address this planetary emergency. Designs involve plans to guide deliberate actions. Oberlin environmental philosopher David Orr suggests that designers need to learn to make five key contributions: to use nature as the standard, to power the world on current sunlight, to eliminate waste, to pay the full cost of development, and to build prosperity on a durable basis. These contributions derive from looking closer at the world around us, understanding nature better in the process, then applying that knowledge to use the power of the sun and to see waste as a resource. By understanding the full costs—economic, social, and environmental—of development, we can design a brighter future.

Although designers and planners and their educators must think about integrating sustainability at every scale, the regional scale provides a good starting point for thinking about change. Through understanding the landscapes of the regions in which they work, architects and planners can critically consider cultural and ecological processes at the broad scale that can be employed locally.

This book explores how we can make the necessary changes through planning and design. The book contains seven parts. Part I establishes the foundations for a more ecological approach to planning and design. Ecology includes human and natural, urban and wild environments. The second part explores precedents for human ecological planning and design provided by the architect Paul Cret, the landscape architect Ian McHarg, and the developer George P. Mitchell. I discuss emerging Texas urbanism in Part III. This exploration is extended to broader considerations of regionalism in the fourth part, which also expands beyond the Lone Star State. In Part V, I reflect on lessons from abroad, most specifically from Italy and China. The sixth part is dedicated to learning from disaster; the final part to reflection and prospects for the future.

Part I contains five chapters that build the case for new regionalism. In Chapter 1, I look at three essential needs for integrating ecology into architecture and planning: thinking comprehensively, making places matter, and designing with time. I advocate a new approach to architecture. Such an approach is necessary because of the pressing issues we face and the failures of Modernism and Postmodernism. Modernism moved architecture, art, and design away from history and context toward free expression and abstraction. In architecture, the resulting emphasis on geometric form divorced buildings from their surroundings, creating autonomous structures floating in the landscape. Practitioners of Postmodernism, with borrowed images from the past, designed buildings and spaces with little regard for the contemporary city.

In the second chapter, I focus on the University of Texas at Austin’s efforts to advance sustainable design. In addition to establishing a Center for Sustainable Development and a Master of Science in Sustainable Design, our School of Architecture has participated in three Solar Decathlon competitions, organized by the U.S. Department of Energy. These hands-on competitions involve architecture and engineering students designing and building solar-powered houses, then displaying them on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

From these first two chapters, ideas for twenty-first-century architecture, the focus of Chapter 3, begin to emerge. Five elements are suggested as important considerations for architecture: the location of a site, energy efficiency, water conservation, building materials, and beauty. I use examples to explore each of these elements.

Landscape design and planning at all scales will benefit from the Sustainable Sites Initiative, led by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. Chapter 4 reviews how this initiative adds to standards for buildings developed and promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council.

In Chapter 5, I close Part I with an argument in support of the emerging multidisciplinary field of Landscape Urbanism. Seven key concepts contribute to Landscape Urbanism: the constant change of the places where we live, the connective power of technology, the distinctiveness of certain places and regions, the ability of some cities to foster the creative class, the repetition of patterns across scale, the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, and the resiliency of human settlements.

Part II includes two chapters about projects that pioneered alternative paths for design and planning in Texas. If these precedents had been followed more widely, a very different Texas would exist today. The projects offer lessons for the future of Texas and beyond. In Chapter 6, I discuss the design for the University of Texas campus and the Lake Austin drainage area. In both cases, the principal designers and planners—Paul Cret and Ian McHarg—adapted their work to the specific characteristics of the site and the drainage area and significantly improved the quality of the built environment.

The campus and the drainage area are both located in the Austin metropolitan region. In Chapter 7, we shift to the Houston region, where I review the planning and design of The Woodlands. I analyze this community’s environmental, economic, and social successes and shortcomings. The leadership of its developer, George Mitchell, and its ecological planner, Ian McHarg, is central to The Woodlands’ story. Its design, like the Lake Austin plan, was undertaken in the 1970s, an important period in American history when public policy focused on environmental concerns and turned to the environmental design arts for solutions. We need to build on the lessons learned from those pioneering efforts.

Emerging urbanism in Texas is the focus of Part III, which includes four chapters. Texas helps to make the case for a new regionally based approach to design and planning. The state possesses strong regional traditions and identities, and its large cities also have distinct, diverse identities. Indeed, the very word “Texas” sparks strong reactions. Texas iconography has been successfully appropriated by sports teams and musicians. However, except for the extensive use of Lone Stars on highway overpass bridges, regional identities have not been successfully

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