Monday, September 20, 2010

Sustainable Design

A Brief Introduction:
Once upon a time, while in college, I began researching Sustainable Design. At that time, it came in the form of a summer research project in London, with the results contained in one of my previous blogging attempts. I never felt quite satisfied with my research, I think in part because it really was the seedling idea for this current, more comprehensive project, but also because I never quite concluded it.

Last summer, in an attempt to calm some self-criticism, I returned to my thoughts and notes from the original research, and mapped out what I had learned. The mapping, done on a giant piece of newsprint, has been hanging on my wall since February, and I finally determined the time was ripe for another version, a public version. The results are contained in the following essay.

Sustainable Design

Let us first discuss the broad subject of design. Pulling on my good friend, Wikipedia, design can be formally understood as, ‘a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.’ While this can apply to a particular thing: say the architectural plan for a house, lets consider it in slightly broader terms, as the discipline of design. As a discipline, the ‘manifesting agents’ are designers, in the broad understanding as ‘someone who designs.’ This may be a trained designer, an architect, an engineer, a scientist ‘designing’ an experiment, you – designing a solution to your CD tray needing to be propped up in one corner to play correctly. All of these people can be considered designers: at its core, design is about problem solving. While our formal definition of design declares ‘specification of an object,’ it really can move beyond just physical things: designers generate ideas, make things, work on services (Check out thinkpublic, who I worked with a couple days in that original project), create experiences (neils peter flint), or perhaps designing whole communities or systems. Basically, the design process can be applied for all scales of problems. In that last statement, I touch on an important part of design: it is a process. Not all design processes are the same, in fixing the CD tray, we go through most of that process in our head, and the problem is relatively simple. The more complex the problem, the more complicated or challenging the intended goals, requirements, and constraints are, the longer the design process becomes. But basically, the process can be broken down into the following (sometimes non-linear) processes: state the problem. Break the problem down into its component parts, keeping in mind links between these parts. Determine the context of the problem. State the goals. Determine the requirements and restraints of the solution. Brainstorm and model solutions. See how they work and re-design. The collective thinking of Wikipedia once again kicks my ass, summing up the process into research, thinking, modeling, interactive adjustment, and re-design. In almost all cases, design is people oriented, and attempts to better the object, service, or community to make it easier to use, better looking, more efficient, etc. etc. for the people interacting with it.

So know that we know about what the design process is, lets consider the people doing the designing. As we already know, inherent in design is problem solving. The other core characteristic of design is the element of artistry or craftsmanship, which introduces subjectivism into the mix. Looking to not only solve the problem, the design usually involves some ‘higher values’ by which to judge success, traditionally values addressing aesthetics. In actuality, the flexibility and variety of potential value sets makes design a cross-discipline skill. Returning to the role of designers, larger scale design processes often involve interdisciplinary work, with many people contributing specialized knowledge, and in this situation, a professionally trained designer can play a translator role. Through the process, designers are decision makers, prioritizing requirements, deciding where to make compromises. Through design, designers can affect peoples self-perception, change their sense of responsibility towards a thing or system, and can enhance engagement. In this way, designers can be visionaries and agents of change… which brings us to sustainability.

As I’ve come to understand, sustainability is a vision for the future characterized by ecological respect, responsible economic development, and social equality. From this vision stems the value set by which we can decide good design from bad design. Sustainability, as by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs the of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This sounds great but difficulties arise when people start figuring out the details. Conflicting interests, differing opinions concerning method, how to compromise, what consequences may result – the specifics of the value set become more difficult to determine.

Many groups are working to create value sets, usually in specific sectors of society. LEED, for example, works to create a green building code and certify the sustainability of buildings. EnergyStar ratings on appliances and the USDA Organic seal on your pear could also be considered manifestations of an effort to design a more sustainable community. These marking or brandings are also important educational systems for American consumers, and allow us to make more informed decisions.

I worked for a group, [re]design, for a couple of days during my summer research. They create public sustainable design exhibitions in London, and have also put together a sustainable design booklet, offering designers multiple strategies by which to make products more sustainable. Major aspects for consideration are observing the entire life-cycle of a product, considering materials, making the product more user friendly. In the case of Thinkpublic, who use design to improve social services, it’s the application that makes it ‘sustainable design.’

Unfortunately, while designers can use their products to educate the public and make positive change, everyone I talked with admitted that design education will need to change too. Apparently in most design programs, the sustainable value set isn’t even discussed. Fortunately, these designers also said that awareness was increasing, as it is in the general public.

My sound bite conclusion: Sustainable design is design attending to problems or issues currently challenging our vision for a lasting, healthy future and measuring its success based on priorities determined by that vision.

I would greatly appreciate feedback on this post, especially any questions that you have, or areas you would like me to discuss further.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Summer Farmer's Market

Food. Such a small, innocuous word and yet the essence of life.

It is my personal opinion that American culture often neglects, forgets, and rejects the importance of quality food, well grown and well prepared. And that’s a damn shame. Fortunately, some people do care, and for those people, there are farmers markets.

In an April blog post, I discussed the sustainability of my food choices: I was buying mostly organic goods from the grocery store. Since then, summer struck and with it weekly Sunday Farmer’s Market at the south end of Main St. Since that first one, I’ve gone every Sunday to get my produce, which amounts to about half the food I eat (though only about a quarter of the money I spend on food.) The only thing more sustainable would be raising my own fruits and vegetables.

What makes a farmers market so sustainable you ask?
  1. You know the food is fresh and local (within 250 miles) and that means more flavor and more nutrition than those 5000 miles Australian apples (which I found in the supermarket yesterday).
  2. You can ask how, who, and where it’s produced and while perhaps not certified USDA, most growers at farmers markets grow organically.
  3. Your money goes directly to the farmer, supporting the better quality food you desire, as well as keeping your money in your community.
  4. Your farm stand friends become part of your community…
In August, I went on vacation for two weeks. When I returned to Breckenridge and went to the market, my friends Stanley and Alicia at the Miller Farm Stand remarked, “Ahh where were you? You’ve been gone for two weeks! Last Sunday there we were late in the day, wondering ‘Where is our smiling friend? We’ll wait just a few more minutes. He needs his vegetables!’” And when you’re that regular, loyalty doesn’t go unrewarded – the last three Sundays, Stanley has given me an extra bag with peaches, pears and blueberries.

For people who think they lack the time to go to the farmers market, there are CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, where you buy a share of crops and receiving a weekly shipment of produce, which can force creativity with items you might not normally purchase.

One final thing I love about the farmers market is watching the seasons change with the available harvest. In the beginning of the summer, there were cherries, plums and strawberries, gradually replaced by peaches and pears. Fall arrives with the presence of all sorts of squash – spaghetti, acorn, butternut. Sadly, only two weeks remain in the market season, but my memory of summer in Breckenridge will always be accompanied by my Sunday trip to the Farmer’s Market.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

'Switch' Book Response

One of my Big Questions: How do you create meaningful change?

I recently read Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath, which serves as a good starting point for understanding how and why effective change occurs. Using a huge variety of case studies, they break down change into three key steps, and explain practical strategies for achieving these steps.

Throughout the book, they weave a common thread of the battle of Elephant and Rider: our emotional and rational sides competing for control. Each has its own aptitudes and deficiencies and the Heath brothers make a solid argument for appealing to both sides. Here’s a quick outline of their ideas:

1. Direct the Rider: our long-term, rational thinker
  • Find the Bright Spots – success in similar situations
  • Give direction: script the critical moves – precise steps towards change
  • Send a destination postcard – give an image of the goal
2. Motivate the Elephant: our impulsive, emotional thinker
  • Find the Feeling – something dramatic and visible to prompt emotional response
  • Shrink the Change – when the change is smaller, it seems more accomplishable, so we work harder
  • Grow your people – Cultivate a sense of identity; Instill a growth mindset (Who I am is not set in stone.)
3. Shape the Path:
  • Tweak the Environment – make the old behavior harder or the new one easier
  • Build Habits – our Rider gets tired, habits allow for auto-pilot
  • Rally the Herd – use the power of community identity (peer pressure)

While the Heath brothers point out that change has been initiated by people of vastly different backgrounds, they underplay the fact that all these people had the motivation and energy to get it going. Personally, I may see the need for change, but may not have that energy to take it on. I think this lack results in part from my temporary localities. The transition period requires some attention and reaffirmation of that Destination Postcard that someone moving once a year (that’s me) can’t do well to maintain. (All I can think is “excuses, excuses.”)

One final comment about the book: they discuss two types of decision making. The first is the classic cost/benefit based decision (exalted by economists). The second is decisions based on identity – 'I’ll do this because I’m the type of person who does this'. The distinction struck me because I realized many of the decisions I make are based in the second type and being presented with the idea helped my self understanding.

I recommend the read (though there is some slogging through repetition of the same ideas) for anyone interested in creating change, or just looking to read some inspirational stories. It's just as applicable for small personal change as large scale community change.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Greening a Community

If my blog on Town Planning was called ‘A View from the Inside,’ this could be called ‘A View from the Outside.’ I’ve attended recent Breckenridge town meetings which comprise the first step in an effort to create and implement a Sustainable Breck Action Plan.

First thoughts upon hearing of the meetings: fantastic. The very fact that the a plan was off and running to create an Action Plan signals that the ‘Green’ movement is not just a trend, as some fear, but an substantial public mindset. From the perspective of citizen, the process began with an introductory meeting, followed by breakout workshops on individual focus topic – I attended workshops on Energy, Forest Health, Economy, and Open Space & Recreation. Since I’m a bit far away form the introductory meeting, I forget if the town officials informed the audience of specific goals for the meetings and for the Action Plan, but as I remember, the most we got was ‘get a feeling of how the town stands.’ A great goal, but as an attendee, it was not useful for directing my thinking. If they did inform us, they have not done so at the breakout meetings, which would most definitely help. Because of this vagueness, I had to sort out the idea of an Action Plan myself.

To build an action plan, you first must determine ( as fully as possible) the current conditions. Then you predict the future conditions based on current trends. Both of these tasks were performed by the town officials, and presented in each workshop. While people may not agree with the projections, in the context of the Action Plan, these projections exist mainly to identify potential issues which exist now, or may exist in the future. The truly important part is the next step: determining the optimal desired future conditions. The difference between anticipated and desired futures is the land of the sustainability Action Plan. So these beginning meetings are about determining the desired future and the priority of the issues at hand. Then, you determine the actions necessary to make the changes. From my outsiders perspective. It seemed like the meetings have been blending all these components together, to the detriment of attendee understanding. Other considerations for the Action Plan include building it so it can evolve with changing conditions, both economic and environment and including a measure of accountability, allowing people to observe the progress.

On a personal note, participating in the process presents a different type of action, an involved, informed citizen helping to direct the town, but without taking an official role. In my musings on how I could positively affect the world, I’ve noticed the significance and practicality of the mantra, ‘Think global, act local.’ Especially right now, the most global influence I have is educating myself of global issues. But locally, I have a voice, and can help shape local conditions. And as another attendee pointed out, ‘Those who show up rule the world.’ Finding that though my voice may be weaker and more indirect compared to that of an official position inside the planning department, it allows both local involvement, as well as time for more engaging passions (i.e. a job better fitting to my skills and interests.)

I’m looking forward to the rest of this initial step, as officials are building questions for larger online poling of the community, as well as their closing event in September. I hope the information they’re gathering now can be successfully sorted and organized to help design and implement Breck’s Sustainable Action Plan and thus green this amazing mountain community.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Coffee: On Quality and Sustainability

Dedicated to Ben Schultz, fellow coffee drinker, motivator, and friend.

'The powers of a man's mind are directly proportional to the quality of the coffee he drinks.'
- Sir James MacKintosh, 18th century philosopher

I will admit, without hestitation, reservation of guilt, that I am addicted to that delicious hot and dark beverage known as coffee. It starts every morning, whether by drip or press, without adulterations of milk or sugar, energizing my body, mind, and spirit.

But where do those precious grounds of life originate? Who are the people bringing happiness to my morning? I hope that my purchase supports the farmer who made the beans, but most commonly, this is barely the case.

Yesterday, I purchased some coffee at the grocery store. I bought organic free trade coffee, 12 ounces for $10. Looking down the aisle, there was a Kroger brand can, 34 ounces for $4.88. And probably 2/3 of the coffee section were shelves of the cheaper fare. How could a farmer possibly earn anything at that price?!

The problem here (as is the case with feed-quality corn) is the circular degeneration of price and production. With profits driven by quantity, farms produce more to gain more. But with more made, prices diminish, so even more is produced, and round and round we go. Sound sustainable? Not really. Furthermore, to produce bigger yields, farmers generally shift from (traditional) shade grown coffee to (agro-industrial) direct-sun methods, which demand fertilizers as well. But such practices come at cost: clearing land (sometimes rain forest), creating a monoculture, and reducing biodiversity. Frankly, a cheap cup of coffee is not worth the cost of a rainforest.

So change the game: improve the quality of the coffee to improve profits. This strategy is exactly what the specialty coffee culture (I hesitate to call it an industry) in the United States is attempting to do. A few months ago, I read God in a Cup by Michaele Weissman, an exploration into the culture being created by the 'Third Wave' coffee guys. Passionate about coffee, these businessmen are still about profit, but not just for themselves. They recognize that to ensure continued production of great coffee means farmers producing it must both survive and see value in improving their coffee. Not an easy task, but with Starbucks popularizing a more expensive cup of coffee, people, lots of people, are demanding better taste than bitter burnt diner coffee. I'll leave you to read 'God in a Cup' to learn the intricate details of the new emerging coffee culture, but here's the basic needs for a sustainable coffee industry:
  • Buyers, middle-men, and farmers who care
  • Consumers willing to pay more for quality
  • Farmers see value in improving quality
  • Stable financial situation for farmers
Now, at some point the average person will say, 'Woah, I'm not paying $12.50 for a cup of coffee.' (Apparently they exist.) This brings us to the uncomfortable situation of who gets to enjoy this quality coffee - if you have the money to afford quality, you can enjoy it. But if your situation puts you tight on cash, why are you stuck inside the unsustainable cheep coffee complex? And that carries the conversation right over to food dilemma in general, where separation between rich and poor can be determined simply by the quality of their respective diets, which may simply be an unavoidable symptom in our capitalist society. But with politics aside, my dollar is my vote, and at least I can buy what I believe in. While climate prevents local coffee growers here in the United States, we can demand better trade relationships and responsible business. We can purchase shade-grown coffee to promote biodiversity. We can buy organic to fight chemical fertilizers. And perhaps, as Sire James MacKintosh declares, the quality of our thoughts will increase with the quality of our coffee.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's going around here? Urban Planners Know!

Wondering where all the strange rules about pink flamingos in front lawns and excessive showings of flags originate? Maybe these pesky details of town code irk you, but they’ve been put in place for a reason, or at least what someone called a reason. And you have your town urban planners to blame.

But on the other hand, if you’re looking to change your communities relationship with its land, its goals for development, industry, community, you’ll be headed to the same people: your town planners. If you wonder where your town sees itself in ten or twenty years, you can check out the master plans – it’s all about, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if…’ and frankly, that sounds like a cool place to be involved, which is why urban planning is interesting to me.

My rough idea of city or town planners related them to building codes, zoning, and permits, sort of the policemen of the built environment. On the details, I was pretty clueless. Fortunately, I know one of Breckenridge’s town planners, Chris Neubecker, so last week we sat down for a coffee and chatted about urban planning in Breckenridge, which we’ll soon find out, is somewhat unusual.

For those of you annoyed by seemingly strange rules and permit requirements, consider the overarching purpose of the planning department: enhance community value. And while this is really the goal for the entire municipal government, the planners make positive change determining how the town uses its land. So how do town planners achieve this vague but admirable goal? It starts with a town mission statement and master plan. This gets broken down into more concrete goals, according to different sections of the mission statement. In Breckenridge, town planners work on current and long term development, land use (zoning), historic district standards, arts district development, affordable housing, childcare, open space and trails (recreation areas and forest health). They develop and amend town policy and code, both for long and short term development. about the type of use (commercial, residential, etc.), architecture, site planning, landscaping, etc. (how the project looks and is used, and less to do with safety issues.)

Chris explained that he worked on current planning: developers approach the town with an idea, with anything from small things – a home owner installing solar panels – to huge developments – Vail Resorts building a massive hotel. With the smaller projects, the planning department may say, ‘Great, you’re good to go!’ if everything’s up to code. With the larger projects however, the long term planning department will work with the Home Owners Association, the Town Manager, and the development crew (architects, contractors, engineers) to ensure compliance with the town code and accordance with the town’s vision for development. In some cases, say affordable housing, where the town recognizes community improvement, allowances are made with developers to enable financial viability. Don’t go thinking such compromises are given out willy-nilly though: they all go through extended reviewing processes with the planning department, the town council, as well as discussion in open-to-public planning meetings, with the content to be discussed available before the meeting as well.

To some extent, this sort of give and take is built into the town code, which is what makes Breckenridge’s zoning methods nationally unusual. They use what’s called performance or flex zoning, where plans are awarded points for positive developments, and penalized for not-so-good stuff. The system allowed for easy integration of code promoting sustainability… which brought us to what really interested me: making change in the community.

One of the reasons Chris enjoys urban planning, and one which directed him towards the field in the first place, was the ability to make change in the community. It turns out this influence is mostly enacted through a constantly changing code. How does it change? Through the year, the department keeps tabs on issues, and continually updates a Top 10 list prioritizing developments. Planners can’t just introduce random code changes though, like all houses must be red. In lawyer speak, they must have a rational nexus: basically, there needs to be a reason for passing based on improving public good. Apparently planners will often have to find studies and examples from other towns to back up their decisions. And the performance point values will occasionally be reviewed and adjusted. The process is admittedly complex and requires constant attention, which is why it hasn’t been widely adopted, but Chris believes that it is succeeding quite well in Breckenridge, because of good staff on the planning department and overall community support. Apparently, bigger municipalities lead to more politically-driven decisions, as opposed to true commitment to bettering the city. When I meet more people in other cities, I’ll discover first-hand if this is true, but it certainly seems probable.

So the next time you find yourself wondering where the town is headed, or hoping the town would improve bike lanes, or keep some land free from development, or keep national chains off Main Street, head over to your planning department. They’re the ones designing the future of your town.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Getting the Camera Focused

Worry no longer my friends! I have escaped the beautiful wilderness that kept me from electronic communications with the common world. For once, I have a good reason to have taken so long to write: a brilliant week backpacking through the Grand Canyon.

As I mentioned previously, and as I obscurely state in the title, I shall be discussing the realignment of my project. But first, let us journey back to the original plan with a quick summary:
'I aim to flesh out and provide structure to my knowledge of sustainability, as well as possible careers in sustainability. And finally, the more self interested focus: what next for me? How can I join the sustainability movement? Grad school? A move towards a career? A new exploration?'
- (from my very first post)

In March, one of the great sources of wisdom in my life, my Mom, visited the high mountains, and an unfortunate bout of altitude sickness prompted a day of conversation. At that time, I hadn't written anything for a couple months, and felt like a shipwrecked sailor. Our conversation reminded me of the projects long term purpose, making some decision about a career direction, and with that in mind, helped me determine some concrete short term goals to get the wind back in my sails.

So without further narrations, here's the new plan:
Long-Term Goal: make decision about career direction

In my years of adventure, this year being the first in three to five, investigate the following five potential directions:
  1. Municipal Planning - building sustainability into a community
  2. Artist - sculpture; making a statement with art
  3. Design - focused on Sustainable Design
  4. Engineering - environmental engineering, alternative fuels
  5. Policy - environmental policy and its ability to generate change
To make a successful year in Breckenridge, at least in the context of my project, I'll focus on how groups build a sustainable community, from both a governmental standpoint and a non-profit standpoint (potential direction#1). So current short term goals are setting up interviews with a friend of mine in the Breckenridge Planning Department and contacting the High Country Conservation Center.

And intermingled with notes from the focused study will remain blogs of spontaneity, when pondering the world overwhelms me, and I'm too inspired to stop myself.