The following is an excerpt of "Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World" by Jared Green, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2015. Save 30% (plus free shipping in the U.S.) when you purchase Designed for the Future from papress.com. Enter promo code GREEN at checkout.
Show how cool it can be to live in the city.
Revitalized historical places are emblematic of a sustainable future. It’s been said that “the greenest building is the one that has already been built,” when considering the embodied energy in the materials that we’d otherwise have to ship, throw away, or reuse in the structure.
The preservation movement began around the idea of protecting places because they are rich in character. We develop attachments to places because of their architecture and feeling, not from their machinery. Historical buildings tend to be low-tech but often feature a smart use of resources. For example, those old thick walls have thermal mass, which helps the building stay cooler on summer days and warmer on winter nights.
Old buildings often have a great building-to-street relationship, too. Their fronts—doors, windows, storefronts, balconies—face the street and the public.
Seven Dials in London is a curious intersection not far from Covent Garden. In the 1600s the developer built it with diagonal streets, which, in plan, vaguely resemble the Union Jack. At the center, the diagonal roads converge, intersecting in a square with a column in the middle.
There are no signature works of architecture around it, and the column is very simple, but there’s a bench at its base, where people gather. There’s something about the size, proportion, and pace of the space; people love being there. The scale feels comfortable, and the intersection slows everyone down. You can watch the human parade go by, on foot, on bikes, in cars.
Seven Dials is preserved as a national heritage site, and as is often the case, historic preservation points the way. If we had more places like it, people wouldn’t need to feel like they’re stuck in their cars. If people felt that good in every city, we’d have a stronger, smarter planet. Once you see the place, you know ideas fly back and forth there.
Seven Dials makes the city a place where you want to be. One no longer needs to retreat from the city to hide in backyards in the exurbs or little houses on the prairie. With this kind of urban living, there are fewer burdens on the planet because there’s no impulse to flee. With more places like Seven Dials, more forests and farmland would be saved.
As Parris Glendening, former governor of Maryland, once said, “People hate sprawl, but they hate density more.” But that’s exactly what we need if we are going to create a sustainable future. We need more places that show how cool it can be to live in the city.
Victor Dover is a planner and principal at Dover, Kohl & Partners.
Photo caption: Seven Dials, London; Photo credit: Aurellen Guichard, Creative Commons, Cropped, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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