What if a city could create life and nurture health? Can you see that future on the horizon?
A few years ago, I spoke in Charlottesville, Virginia. Michael Braungart was in the audience. Braungart, the German business partner of the famous designer William McDonough, invited me to McDonough’s office the next day. I had never met McDonough, but had long admired his work. Designer McDonough and chemist Braungart co-authored the book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in which they argued against the old “cradle to grave” manufacturing model that casts off most of the materials it uses as (often) toxic waste. Why not follow nature’s example? A tree blossoms and spreads seeds. No one ever calls a tree blossom waste. Don’t just recycle — reuse, replant, rebirth everything — cradle to cradle. Rather than doing more with less, do more with more. (One of McDonough’s slogans is, “Being less bad is not being good.”)
Just how do we do that? It’s complicated.
Controversial in some circles, McDonough likes to provoke. He told me: “Environmentalists (and McDonough is one) lecture us about our carbon footprints, but here’s a different way to think about footprints.” Wherever we humans step, why not create wetlands in our footprints? He was speaking metaphorically, of course. And literally. Because a majority of human beings now live in cities, conservation is no longer enough. Now we need to create nature where we live, work, learn and play.
As we walked around the office, a large architectural drawing on a table captured my imagination.
It was the design for a multi-story, three-sided hospital in Spain. According to the plan, one side would be a green wall; another side made of solar panels done in the colors of a butterfly that is about to go extinct in that bioregion; the third side would be a vertical farm that would feed people in the hospital.
If it ever becomes a reality, this would be a building that would not only conserve energy but also produce human energy through the food grow grown on the balconies— and by the restorative psychological impact from the view of plants and more natural habitat. Such design, called biophilic architecture, is gaining traction around the world. Studies suggest that people in hospital beds with views of nature get well faster and don’t require as much pain medication. Research also shows that people who work in nature-rich buildings (in this case medical professionals) are more productive and use fewer days of sick time. In these work environments, employee turnover improves. The same results are seen in schools designed with natural habitats around and in them.
This kind of design could transform the way we experience urban life. But McDonough’s hospital plan doesn’t stop with energy efficiency and productivity. More about a third value later. First, let me tell you about a class of graduate students in architecture and urban design that I visited. I think of it as the class that couldn’t see the future.
The instructor of that class was Mike Stepner, a visionary planner and architect who served a stint in the 1990s as San Diego’s official City Architect – but quit in deep frustration because of the lack of vision in city government. In the previous decade, Stepner had helped revive the city’s Gaslamp Quarter, a walkable commercial and residential downtown neighborhood steeped in Victorian architecture. The success of that project jump-started the revitalization of most of the center city. He came to believe that San Diego’s special network of urban canyons could stimulate a new sense of unity and uniqueness to the city. “I’m not only interested in preserving the canyons, but bringing their design forms, their spirit, up into the surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. As a newspaper columnist at the time, I supported the idea of transforming those canyons into a ready-made San Diego Urban Canyonlands Park. Not only would such a unified park model protect the fragile canyons (hurt one, you hurt them all), but it could be restored with native plants to nourish the natural food chain, and it could improve human health and build social capital.
In Stepner’s class, we talked about that idea and others. And then I asked the students to offer their vision for a great city for the middle years of the 21st century. No one raised a hand. The students seemed puzzled. Finally, a few offered a handful of descriptors ranging from “walkable” to “equitable services.” Asked to elaborate, they pretty much drew a blank. During a break, I asked Stepner why the class had fallen silent when asked to describe the ideal urban future.
“Maybe we don’t think that way in this culture anymore,” he said.
Admittedly, this is my interpretation of their response. They might have offered more details if we had more time, or perhaps their answers might be more inspiring today. But the reticent students in that class seemed to epitomize the zeitgeist of our time. Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed thousands of Americans. One of the themes that come up often in these conversations, particularly among teachers, is that the young are running out of physical space and freedom, and, combined with increasingly digital experience, this may be stunting their ability to visualize — and to imagine. One teacher told me she had resorted to putting a TV with a black cloth over it in front of her class, then asking her students to produce their own images. In this developing context, defining a city by its limitations rather than its possibilities would make sense. Another factor: Our culture seems to have fallen into a Dystopian Trance. We’re increasingly drawn to visions of a post-apocalyptic future. The future, as the cliché goes, isn’t what it used to be. But wait. We may have more envisioning power than we think. Here’s a different possibility. The city of the future could offer both energy savings and human restoration. It could become an engine of biodiversity and human health, through nature.
Think again of McDonough’s design for that proposed hospital in Spain. Yes, it would be energy efficient, and it would help patients heal faster and help the medical professionals do their work better. All of that creates the baseline of future design. But there’s a third step, and it’s what really captured my attention about McDonough’s hospital design.
The bottom floor of the hospital would be entirely glassed in, and anybody who walked into that hospital would stand a good chance of having a butterfly land on them – the same species of butterfly threatened with extinction in that region. The hospital’s bottom floor would be turned into a “butterfly factory.” If the plan becomes reality, once a week, or whenever the butterflies emerge from their crysalises, hospital workers would open the doors and let them fly free into the surrounding community. McDonough’s plan didn’t end there. The hospital staff could go to every school, place of worship, business, the whole city, encourage the planting of native plants for pollination, and say: “You can do this, too. We can bring this butterfly back.” So, this building would not only conserve energy, and produce human energy through biophilic principles; it would restore a species, give birth — create life.
In a thousand ways, why can’t whole cities be like this?
I’m hoping times have changed since my visit with that class of future architects and city planners. Despite considerable odds, something’s in the air. Today, I meet plenty of college students who hunger for a new vision, for a future worth creating and moving to. But first, they have to visualize it.
Two weeks after my visit to McDonough’s office, I received a cardboard tube in the mail. Inside it was the architectural drawing of the hospital, with McDonough’s signature. Above his name he had scrawled one word. “Hope.”
Richard Louv’s newest book, VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban and rural communities. His other books include: LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age. He is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.
12 Principles for a Nature-Rich City
Seven Cities Activate Strategies to Connect Kids to Nature
Let’s Create a Worldwide Homegrown Park
‘Forest Cities’: The Radical Plan to Save China From Air Pollution
Technology, Apps and Butterflies, at the Children & Nature Conference
Three Ways Kids Can Help Butterflies
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year, by Robert Michael Pyle
Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy
Butterflies Helping Make the End Beautiful
NCL AND C&NN PARTNERSHIP: CITIES CONNECTING CHILDREN TO NATURE
CHILDREN & NATURE NETWORK’S RESEARCH LIBRARY
C&NN’s GREEN SCHOOLYARDS INITIATIVE
8 80 CITIES
WILLIAM MCDONOUGH + PARTNERS
Photo by Doug Tallamy