June 28, 2010 | bfeldman | Sustainability, Travel

Thoughts about what makes a place “green”

Two things came across my radar screen recently that struck a nerve – particularly with all of the discussion concerning “green design” (I use the term more than most).  What does it mean to be green.  I happened to hear an interview recently with Scott Russell Sanders, author of “A Conservationist Manifesto”  In the interview he makes the case that people become invested in buildings and neighborhoods that are distinct, well designed, aesthetically beautiful places.  It doesn’t matter whether you own this place or not.  People become personally invested in these places – witness Forest Park or Tower Grove Park here in St. Louis.  Entire neighborhoods fall into this category – like the attachment people have to The Hill, or the CWE.    Most people DO NOT become personally invested in the miles of strip malls, big box retail and cookie cutter housing ranging throughout America.

According to Sanders

Increasingly as you travel coast to coast in American we’ve become a nation of places that look and sound and taste more and more like every other place. … The qualities of a real place are those qualities that make sense of where the place is, of its human history, of its natural history.  We can recognize place by, for example the preserving of old buildings that are there.  Instead of tearing them down and replacing them with some standardized new thing, we can restore the old buildings.  We can recover festivals that may have waned over the years, festivals that have to do with the history of the place, so we can preserve or recover aspects of our communities that are already there.  We can also create new institutions in our communities, new buildings, new organizations.  Farmers markets, for example, which are flourishing across the country now were commonplace before world war two and they gradually died out most places because of the advent of the grocery store, and the modern thing to do, you know, was to go and buy your groceries at the grocery store – not to go to the farmers market.   But in the last decade or two farmers markets have blossomed again coast to coast.  And what’s at the farmers market are not standardized products or standardized salespeople wearing uniforms that were designed in some other city.   You are meeting people in most cases who actually raised the produce themselves.  You are seeing neighbors, seeing strangers and just taking pleasure in the variety of folks who show up.”

Shoppers gathering at the Saturday Farmer's Market in Tower Grove Park

Kirkwood Farmer's Market
Kirkwood Farmer's Market
Shoppers gathering at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Tower Grove Park

A similar thought is expressed by Jan Korb in the book “A World without a Manual”

“Huge, drab buildings suddenly started to pop up like mushrooms all over the place. It was if nobody had created them, as if they multiplied by themselves. Sometimes, when we visit other cities and countries, we ask ourselves where the beauty of the olden days has gone. In some places we get the impression that all buildings have been designed by structural glass manufacturers”; all the roads by asphalt companies; and all the parks by lawn mower firms. It seems as though the architects sign on the dotted line but are excluded from the decision-making process. We ask ourselves why everything has to be planned in one go and built at top speed right up to the last minute. In our opinion, things only work if they are allowed to evolve — and that requires time. Perhaps it would be practical to oblige all architects and clients to live for a time in the buildings they construct. If you don’t like a painting, you can take it off the wall, or put it away, or even burn it — but architecture stays standing for at least fifty years and it is impossible to ignore its presence. We should and must do it better.”

So, being green to me means not just designing energy efficient buildings, but helping to shape places that respond to their unique place and time – buildings that hopefully will be adopted by the people who use them as their own.  We spend thousands of dollars to fly to Europe and witness these types of environments firsthand.  We can have this right here in our town.   Food for thought.

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