Sustainability 11: Priorities

Let sustainable design sprout anew.
Let sustainable design sprout anew.

Just about every aspiring young architect or designer dreams of someday completing their own Taj Mahal or Fallingwater — their masterpiece of ingenuity, set apart from all mundane surroundings, isolated in its own particular, and preferably dramatic, setting. But grand gestures often consume grand amounts of land and other resources. They can also disrupt or disrespect any existing community fabric. In the pursuit of long-term sustainability of our cities and neighborhoods, more modest priorities may provide better paths to success.

Sustainable design may best be pursued through infill development, reuse, re-purposing, or redevelopment.

In infill development, one seeks to fill in an existing gap within the prevailing community pattern. That gap may be strictly a physical gap — as in, say, a vacant lot between two townhouses or two commercial buildings. Or, that gap may be not only a physical gap, but also a functional gap; perhaps there’s a lack of transitional housing types between single-family lots and high-rise apartments. The aim of infill development is to maintain and enhance existing patterns of land use and development by artfully inserting the appropriate design or structure(s).

Reuse is development in which the previous use or function of structures is restored. Perhaps an outdated elementary school is renovated into a classroom for college extension classes. Or a corporate office structure is subdivided for multi-tenant office lease spaces. In each case, the value of the existing community fabric, infrastructure, land and buildings is substantially retained and restored by the reuse.

In re-purposing, land and buildings may be substantially retained, but use and function are altered to meet new market demands. Thus, a big-box retail store may become an indoor community recreation facility, or a corner service station may be renovated into a drive-by coffee shop, or a former warehouse may be converted into live/work spaces for artists and artisans.

Redevelopment often entails changes to land and buildings, as well as to uses and functions. A prime example exists at the site of the former Denver Stapleton Airport, where old runways, terminals and hangar facilities have given way to an entirely new planed urban community of Stapleton, replete with a variety of housing types, offices, retail uses and industrial facilities, interwoven with new infrastructure. In this way, a substantial portion of the city has been reclaimed for new residents and future growth.

When one travels through the city of Rome, one encounters structures 10 years old and 50 years old — as well as those that are 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years and 2000 years old. To achieve long-term sustainability, we should embrace timeless design and the creative reuse and adaptation of structures for all of the cities of the world. 

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