Sustainable Design and the City

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of participating as a team member on an American Institute of Architects Sustainability Design Assessment Team. The AIA says that the SDAT process “brings together multidisciplinary teams of professionals from across the country to provide a road map for communities seeking to improve their sustainability—as defined by a community’s ability to meet the needs of today without reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This is a broad brush assessment that results in a series of recommendations based on a rapid assessment by the team.

The SDAT community assessment that I participated in was southeastern Tennessee, centered on Chattanooga. The team spent two twelve-hour days (with preparation beforehand) questioning, listening, and touring with members of the community. The third 12-hr day consisted of the team members sitting down with our information and impressions to put together a presentation of our recommendations, which we delivered in an open meeting at the University of Tennessee from about 6:30 to 8:30 pm. At least one mayor in the region attended our presentation and we were covered by two local newspapers. The next day we flew home, with the assignment to write up our recommendations, which the AIA staff then melds into a coherent report for the community. The hope is that our recommendations are useful enough to allow the community to affect the desired change.

Why SE Tennessee? A major challenge for the region is the coming of Volkswagen, which is building a $1 billion car manufacturing facility on a large piece of land outside town. VW will directly employ 2,000 people, with another 9,000 or so in associated jobs. We were told they were looking at a projected increase in population of roughly 80,000 over the next 10 years. This is not a very large increase from the viewpoint of a large metropolitan region like Los Angeles, but for SE Tennessee, a largely low density region with a current population of 450,000, this is major.

The issues were all summed up in one phrase we heard over and over again – “We don’t want to become Atlanta.” The local weekly, the Chattanooga Pulse, says they don’t want to be “Chatlanta.” How many times have those of us Los Angelenos heard that refrain from cities that don’t want to be us?

So what are the problems of Atlanta that people want no part of? Traffic, for one. This is a region in which at rush hour on a major artery a flock of ducks could cross the street with no problem. And yet you can see the future, as locals resist regional planning and much of the development in the last decade has taken place in unincorporated County areas that have almost no zoning codes and even less enforcement. Sprawling suburban and subrural development results in developments designed 100% for car traffic.

What makes this region so interesting, however, is Chattanooga’s commitment to sustainability. In 2006, Mayor Ron Littlefield signed the U.S. Council of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and by 2009 a citizen’s commission had written a climate action plan. Chattanooga Green is a City-endorsed organization to ensure implementation. Reading their implementation plan, I almost wondered why they called in the AIA SDAT for help.

This is a community that thinks big, however, and thinks systematically. When Chattanooga won the VW manufacturing plant, they started asking what they could do to maintain and improve quality of life in the region. They were looking for all the resources that could help them to maintain quality of life.

The SE Tennessee position paper, submitted in application for the SDAT grant, is a comprehensive list of their concerns:

“To us, sustainable growth would address community issues as they relate to quality of life and quality of growth for the region including:

– continuing to allow food to be grown locally,

– cleaning surface water and recharge storm water runoff,

– water conservation due to recent regional drought conditions,

– providing for multiple mass transportation options,

– reducing air pollutants,

– creating convenient and cost effective recycling solutions,

– defining appropriate building zones,

– planning for open space and parkland,

– and promoting energy efficiency.”

There is almost nothing on that list that doesn’t apply to any metropolitan area. Of interest to me, is how these goals for sustainability play out in my adopted town, Los Angeles (as in the metropolitan area), and the communities of the San Gabriel Valley.

It turns out that Los Angeles has an SDAT grant, too, and will experience the SDAT process in the near future. The application was spearheaded by the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, which has a sustainability committee. You can join in or follow the process by getting on their list. I will be covering this process as I reflect more on my experience in SE Tennessee and sustainability in the Los Angeles Basin.

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