What is Sustainability?

I have been always interested in sustainability, even before it became the buzz-word that everybody uses today.
My work at Arup Associates involves lifting the sustainability aspects of our design projects, whether they are individual buildings or masterplans, both in terms of environmental impact and social issues. My interest in sustainability has its roots in the considation of the huge responsibility that architecture has towards humanity and how buildings and developments affect the life of people that are immediately in contact with them… think of all monstrosities that we have built in the ‘50s and ‘60s and that we keep on building today! And all environmental disasters associated with the lack of vision or malevolent behaviours! Well, these wouldn’t have happened if we had considered all aspects of design in a holistic way, in which the key aspects of environmental engineering, low-energy design, social wellbeing and economical growth were balanced and integrated in coherent and sensitive proposals.

This can be summarised in the triple bottom line approach represented the sketch here:

I believe in the necessity to integrate the principles of sustainability into all aspects of what we do, thus I enjoy disseminating this approach to architecture wherever possible by talking at conferences, lecturing at university, writing articles and giving interviews for different journals and magazines. The issues that society faces today are complex and have global repercussions; therefore we have to take full responsibility for our actions in our daily lives, in the way we impact the planet, in the way we live, vote, consume, eat, travel and think.

Sustainable Development

Shanghai 2008 – In Shanghai the old is being replaced by the new with methodical precision under the banner of sustainable development. But is this what it’s all about?

Sustainability can be many things to many people. It can simultaneously be an idea, a socio/economic aspiration, a production method, the preservation of a habitat, or a lifestyle. For some people it is little more than an empty buzz word. Although the definition of Sustainable Development given by the Brundtland Commission in 1987:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

is the most frequently quoted, it is not universally accepted and has gone through a multitude interpretations, mainly to do with the fact that sustainability can be seen to encompass all human activity, like a value or a global principle, like "freedom" or "equality". Sustainability has also an intrinsic political value, because typically awareness is directly correlated to action. This has been demonstrated in a study carried out by the Association for the Conservation of Energy and can be visualized in the graph below:

[source Energy Efficiency in Offices: Motivating Action, ACE 2003 available at www.ukace.org]

Furthermore there is never one solution to a problem and the most appropriate sustainability approach will vary depending on the particular conditions and specific local circumstances… Sustainability can be seen as a series of interconnected and interdependent issues, which can only be analysed as a whole, never in isolation, to understand the wider impacts and adopt the most holistic solution.

Key issues of sustainable development are multiple: they go from straightforward issues of environmental protection, land use, transport, energy consumption, ecology and biodiversity, materials use, waste & recycling, water scarcity, to wider issues of food production, equality and justice, social inclusion, accessibility, employment, equal opportunity, diversity…

For instance, at Arup we describe Sustainable Development as made of six core principles:

INTEGRATION - effective integration of environmental, social and economic considerations

STAKEHOLDER INVOLVEMENT - support of all stakeholders

PRECAUTIONARY BEHAVIOR - measures to protect environmental and social integrity should not be postponed due to scientific uncertainty

GENERATIONAL EQUITY - fairness and equal access to opportunities

CONTINUAL IMPROVEMENT - imperative to take action

ECOLOGICAL INTEGRITY - protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes