Friday, February 19, 2010

First, Do No Harm

This term, generally used in medical contexts (but is not formally part of the Hippocratic Oath) has spread to other disciplines as an ethical standard. This point of view is part of the "net zero" idea with respect to the impact of human activities on the biosphere, and that is informing ways that the built environment is now being put into place.

Sustainable communities are being established worldwide, and have been, for decades now. This trend is reminiscent of the "Utopian" communities of the early 1800's which centered around cooperative secular agrarian philosophies and some form of productive enterprise, such as Corning and Oneida in the US. These ideas fermented during the French Revolution which not only helped create our original 13 colonies, but established philosophies in the late 1790's that led to experimental communities in England and France as well. Thomas Spence's writings built upon those of Tom Paine in his "Rights of Man" that advocated republicanism, with the state providing universal education, poor relief, old age pensions and public works, all of which would be financed by a progressive income tax. He ultimately defended the agrarian lifestyle against the inexorable pressures of the Industrial Revolution in 1800, but the written word and poltical will were no match against the economics that ultimately forced many off their land and into the urban workforce.

Today, prototype communities are being established in many ways to attempt a problem solution to the impact of human living on the land, the guiding principle being to do no harm by developing projects and communities that have a net zero consumption of energy and water. At the same time, it creates a delightful place to live.

Our Federal Government is also attempting to fund some pilot projects in sustainable redevelopment using the strategy of cleaning up brownfields, which are contaminated and polluted sites that need urban renewal in order to repair the ecological damage done mostly by old industrial sites. Some privately funded refurbishment attempts at "green building" have been going on in NYC, in fact, for a couple of decades.

Other Federal programs, such as the Preserve America program, steers funding towards the preservation of significant and historic structures in order to rejuvenate the existing urban fabric. The strategy of leaving structures in place and repairing and reusing them is being encouraged. Europe has done this for centuries, they don't throw buildings up and tear them down, mostly due to more limited resources and an older built-out urban fabric at smaller scale.

This is a result of public policy receiving a new emphasis by the current administration, which involves a change in how funding is given out for urban renewal. The emphasis is on energy upgrades, transit, and environmental cleanup in these urban areas, and for fast implementation. The funding is now being given priority because historically, renewal funds have generally been cut as other program costs ballooned. A multitude of other programs are being put into place at the risk of some confusion over the various programs.

These sustainable efforts that salvage older communities and reduce the destructive impact of degraded urban environments, as well as attempting to curb development sprawl, go back to these visions of Utopia, where living on the land in cooperation with the community led to a bucolic existence. The idea, do no harm, is Utopian but has had successes at the smaller scale, in the same way that many experiments and "rapid prototyping" manufacturing produce models for the large-scale implementations. There's a great potential upside here once we find new models of living that work with natural ecosystems and scale up to the big urban centers. This kind of innovation can spur real opportunities to mend cities that fail to work for residents and business, and do it constructively.