Thoughts on Sustainable Neighborhoods

By Molly Parris

As we adapt to our current environment created through decades of careless development, ideas of future sustainable cities and towns have begun to take root in the everyday thinking of students and apprentice designers.  This semester at the BAC (Boston Architectural College) I had the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary ideas including food access and ecological systems.  The BAC encourages dialogue between all degree programs that results in a cross-discipline understanding and, I believe, a change of attitude in the next generation of designers.  Most up-and-coming designers do not need to be convinced that drastic change in design approaches is critical in both the short and long term.  Architecture, urban design and landscape architecture are fundamentally inseparable in sustainable systems.

So what does food access have to do with an architectural degree?  Food access is a great driver of the social health of neighborhoods, but the current supermarket model, while often capable of providing affordable fresh food, can carry potentially damaging side effects.  Urban village ideals will only be realized when architects take responsibility for the impacts of physical form on social structures, not just at street level, but also in the greater neighborhood.  Industry excitement is too often focused on the newest high-rise when, perhaps, we should be excited about the change caused by rescuing negative urban spaces and reviving them with, less glamorous but, more impactful designs.

How do ecological systems relate to my design approach as an architect?  As negative spaces are rescued it is no longer reasonable to separate building design from landscape design.  To promote a healthy atmosphere, reduce private and public maintenance costs, encourage responsible waste management, and to establish routine urban agriculture practices architects will begin to work from the beginning of a project using an integrated building/landscape approach.  The role of landscape design does not need to be considered only for park spaces, streetscapes, or sculptural enhancements to a building, but could be integrated in concept, programming and the building envelope itself.  When architects partner with landscape architects and landscape ecologists, responsible design can be accomplished simultaneously at multiple scales.  It’s important to know what parameters define healthy micro-ecosystems.  These have become and will continue to develop as the everyday priority of architects.

Creating working relationships across multiple disciplines in a learning environment should be adopted by all design programs to prepare future architects and landscape architects for new sustainable design approaches.  By working together, vegetated roofing and façade systems can become affordable applications.  Healthy functioning urban environments can be experienced every day across all socio-economic boundaries.