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Is The World Approaching Green Architecture All Wrong?

How does social resilience merge with architectural design to increase community adaptation to the climate crisis?

A Washington Post article this week featured two renowned Miami-based architects whose life work has focused on eco-conscious aesthetics. They’ve always been conscious of design features that would appeal to buyers who had not yet embraced awareness of fossil fuel consequences. Today, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk want to see “a tougher, more urgent type of green architecture that works to ensure our built environment can stand up to the next century of climatic assaults.”

green architecture

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The IPCC has warned that, even if humanity manages to cap emissions at 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels, the world will likely experience severe climate effects, including increased flooding, sea-level rise, heat waves, food insecurity, and population displacement.

So, instead of focusing on mitigating and reducing emissions, Duany and Plater-Zyberk propose a shift to a new type of green architecture where adaptation and resilience readies communities for the changes wrought by the climate crisis.

Rethinking of green architecture in this way acknowledges the importance of adaptive architecture. On the level of town planning, this means incorporating weather shelters, water caches, and emergency coordination centers in residential neighborhoods. On a building level, climate-resiliency would include flood protection, backup generators, and building fortifications.

Building Prototypes for Climate Resiliency

Impacted by the compounding effects of climate change and urbanization, cities are facing a panoply of risks that threaten their sustainability. Resiliency requirements for reimagined architecture must take into account continuity of critical services and functions, such as power distribution, telecommunication, energy, and transportation.

Moreover, today’s urban development replaces natural environments with built environments, yet access to outdoor environments is critical to human health and well-being. Communities as well as physical urban spaces are made up of dynamic linkages of physical and social networks. The dynamics of that reciprocity include physical factors such as natural and built elements, and changing the physics of a city can lead to changes in social interactions. For example, objective criteria such as performance quality, spatial facilities, possibility of activity, permeability, and access affect the quantity and quality of social interactions.

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Conscious of the physical/ social dynamic in green architecture, Duany and Plater-Zyberk envision that wealthier individuals could build walled courtyard houses such as are already found in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Constructed to protect against wind, rain, and storm surge, these would comprise 8 or so walled compounds circling a central green. That common area would be a gathering site for vegetable farming, exercising, or conducting education classes. Backup generators, solar panels, and water purification facilities would allow for relative self-sufficient after storms and be the norm.

Individuals less affluent would reside in linked networks of townhouse and apartment complexes, 5 stories high maximum to shield against extreme weather, with outdoor common areas covered by pergolas or arcades. These elements, too, would guard against wind, snow, and fierce sunlight. Community gardens, recycling spaces, hobby sheds, and gathering places would be part of such architectural design, which tends to strengthen bonds and foster what’s often termed “social resilience.”

What is Green Architecture Resilience?

Social resilience involves consistent efforts to build stronger and more cohesive communities in themselves, not only to respond to adversities and ward off future threats, but also as a means to strengthen social ties and address inequities that may exist for vulnerable or marginalized groups. Such communities are better prepared when adversity strikes, positioned for a sustainable future, and situated to embrace the tenets of inclusiveness, equality, participatory involvement, and strong governance.

Resilience helps individuals, families, and communities to adapt within ecological systems to random and unexpected events. For architects and building owners, building design must take into account a not entirely predictable future. Urban designers must also envision how the larger municipal district might adapt to future physical, economic, and social changes.

Often, climate change resilience is described across 4 academic domains: ecology, engineering, disaster risk reduction, and the social sciences. Up until this point of time, architectural resilience has mostly centered on bouncing back, preserving the status quo, and/or developing emergency responses to major hazards. Hana Kassem, principal and sustainability expert at the New York office of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, suggests that climate resilient architecture has an adaptive design that is largely invisible: strengthening foundations, insulating core mechanical systems, and tucking away backup generators.

The mission for today’s architects is to re-engineer a more historic architectural durability and environmental sensitivity alongside an unpredictable and increasingly unforgiving climate. Ecological resilience has emerged as a major approach to understanding and managing social-ecological systems, including urban design. Maintaining urban resilience requires the ability of a city to persist without changing its basic structure, function, and identity. Architecture must withstand an unforeseen shock that would fundamentally alter or erase the city’s identity.

For cities to be sustainable, urban design must explicitly account for the influence of both internal and external changes now and in the future.

Final Thoughts

The practice of architects is slowly being re-designed to accommodate a better understanding of the effects of the climate crisis — it’s now considered a rapidly urbanized process amidst an economic crisis.

Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s vision about designers’ ability to offset climate change embraces the idea that architecture has the capacity to better marry people’s lives with their environments.

“If you want to do mitigation, you have to do what Greta [Thunberg] does. You have to write letters to the senators, and the senators have to write letters to the president, and the president has to lobby the oil companies,” Duany says. “But adaptation says you can begin tomorrow. Adaptation is absolutely local. It prepares your community for the coming tough times. It’s very empowering.”

Duany offers a final precept for climate-resilient architecture.

“You have to remember not to be Calvinist about it. A lot of the climate mitigation stuff wants you to suffer. It’s about penance: You screwed up nature, so you have to suffer. You have to live badly and in the cold and dark … and it has to look bad. What we’re saying is no. It’s a pleasure to be able to open a window. It’s a pleasure to have your children go out and go to the pond and find fish for dinner.”

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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