There are many urbanisms that compete for the affections of urbanists, but there is one concept behind which they all unite: sustainability. The proponents of the different urbanisms don't always agree on what urban (or other) development is sustainable, but they all link urban development with sustainability. Even more important, environmentalists have come to agree. This is progress. Traditional, "back to nature" environmentalists viewed cities as inherently anti-environmental. Cities were, after all, the most concentrated form of human interference with the natural world.
Now that's changed, because (i) the data show that on a per capita basis and on a per economic unit basis cities have less impact on the environment than less dense development patterns, and (ii), from a global perspective, it's now recognized that population growth slows when populations urbanize.
This sense of the city as being environmentally good is an argument based on the urban form writ large, on the density and economics of cities. A key moment in the popular comprehension of the city as sustainable by its very nature was the publication of "Green Manhattan," David Owen's 2004 article in The New Yorker showing how his old apartment and life in Manhattan were more sustainable than the house he moved to and the life he lived in the verdant New England countryside.
Given that we live in an age obsessed with technology, however, it is not surprising that there are environmentalists who seek sustainability in technological solutions, regardless of the form of human settlement. For them, an electric car operating on renewable power is part of the solution, even if the impact would be less if the driver of the car didn't need to drive it in the first place. The same goes for houses that use solar power and are constructed from renewable materials -- they are considered sustainable even if they are accessible only by car and no matter in what wilderness they may be located.
Into this controversy, although not acknowledging it explicitly, enters environmental writer Stephen Snyder. Snyder has written a new and surprisingly edifying book for Rizzoli called A Place in the Sun: Green Living And the Solar Home. I say "surprisingly" because the book looks like a typical coffee table "shelter" book, and the title, focusing on the sun and the solar home, implies that the book will be mostly about technology.
Fortunately, the book offers readers a lot more substance than a typical picture book. (Although that doesn't mean it doesn't have the beautiful photographs that one expects from Rizzoli.) While Snyder writes about plenty of posh digs in the woods with solar energy, recycled materials and cooling breezes, he is not afraid to go urban.
In fact, the book features several urban high-rises, including EnV, a Chicago tower with 249 apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail, the Visionaire, a 35-story, mixed-use tower in New York City with 250 condominiums, Greenbridge, a 215,000 square foot mixed-use development in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as well as smaller urban infill projects such as Cherokee Lofts, a four-story, mixed-use project in Los Angeles, and Step Up on Fifth, a development in downtown Santa Monica that provides residences and services for mentally disabled homeless people. The book also includes many examples of infill single-family homes.
That being said, most of the book is dedicated to one-off residences typically located in hard-to-get-to places. One must question how sustainable it is to locate a house far off the beaten track, no matter what technologically advanced systems it uses to reduce obvious environmental impacts. One has to consider not only the transportation and other logistical costs of supporting the house, but also the loss of habitat that results when nature lovers plunk their homes in the middle of nature.
Snyder is not unaware of this. Regarding a large house built in the high desert of central Oregon, Snyder writes that "[f]or some would-be green homeowners, a remote building site presents a daunting challenge. In addition to logistical hurdles, including exceptionally high construction costs ... owners are obliged to consider the effect on the surroundings." Oddly, however, Snyder goes on to say that a "new generation of sustainable prefabricated homes has greatly reduced these obstacles." Does dropping a prefab house in the middle of nowhere, instead of building one from scratch, solve any of the larger environmental issues?
Snyder does provide an informative catalog of technologies and resources that are now available to reduce the environmental impact of construction that go far beyond solar power. These include renewable sources of materials. Unfortunately, the book does not include an index.
Technology is wonderful, and as less impactful technologies become less expensive they can have tremendous benefits. But on a per capita basis, nothing beats the efficiency of that age-old machine for living, the city.
A Place in the Sun: Green Living and the Solar Home, by Stephen Snyder; Rizzoli (2014); 224 pages with 225 color illustrations; $50.00.