By Deidre Miller…
Close To Nature
There was a time not so long ago when people who were concerned with conservation and environmentalism almost exclusively dreamed of a life in the country or the wilderness, where they could be close to nature. When people thought about living in harmony with nature, they pictured an idealised First Nations community or self sufficient farmers living in a close knit and isolated community. Of course, many people did and do aim for this type of sustainable living, and some do it well. From 1960s hippy communes to religious communities to environmentally conscious small farmers, there are people who have chosen to live far from cities and who use little and need little.
But, unfortunately, that’s not how things play out most of the time. Nobody would say that a wealthy man who builds a huge house two hours outside the city and then commutes in by Hummer is an environmentalist. Is he an environmentalist if his house has a green building certification and he’s driving an electric car? Well, his heart is in the right place. However, isolated houses with pretty views, even houses that are energy efficient on a per square foot basis, are not truly part of a sustainable way of life for most people. Can you imagine how hard it would be on the environment if every one of the world’s seven billion people were somehow able to live that way? There’d be no wilderness left, and it would be energy and carbon-intensive for people to travel. Car-based suburbia and commuter towns, the populist answers to living in the country, certainly do not offer very environmentally friendly ways of life, either.
The Natural City
More than half the world’s population lives in cities and contiguous suburbs, and that percentage is growing. If you think about it, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that people who live in urban and suburban areas have smaller carbon footprints, or average, than rural dwellers. Urbanites are more likely to live in smaller spaces and in large, shared buildings that don’t lose and gain heat as easily as small detached houses. They have fewer square feet per person. They have shorter commutes and often walk, bike or use public transport. More of the space they use is shared with other people.
However, cities could be doing better, both with energy use and as human habitats. People in cities could be more mindful about energy conservation. There is no reason why the office lights should stay on all night in city centre skyscrapers. The management of the mechanical systems in most large buildings could be much better with the use of zoned mechanical systems and building information management. Many historic buildings could become more efficient with the elimination of drafts, the addition of more efficient mechanical systems and even a little occupant training on how to use features like double hung windows for natural cooling and ventilation. Focusing on maintaining and improving existing properties rather than constantly building outward would help to stretch the embodied energy in cities and protect the green space around them.
Many of the same actions that save energy and reduce emissions can also improve quality of life. Expanding and improving public transport, making it easier for people to walk and bike to work and helping cities to breathe better by using permeable pavement, nurturing green space and even making buildings partly organic through green roofs and green walls: all of this would help make cities more sustainable and more pleasant to live in.
At it’s core, the idea of the natural city means balancing urban density, with all of its inherent efficiencies, with an understanding of human psychology and the health and aesthetic advantages of living among other creatures and green, growing things. After all, vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide, emits oxygen, helps mitigate the urban heat island effect, improves the appearance of cityscapes and just generally makes people feel happier.
Cities are Our Future
The idea of living in a natural and sustainable home nestled in the woods, the mountains or the desert is compelling. It’s a beautiful dream, and it’s a hard ideal to let go of. However, it isn’t a viable plan for most of us. The challenge in the coming generations may be to learn to do an even better job of shaping our cities and learning to live with all sorts of other people around us. Being close to nature suggests spiritual wholeness and connectedness, but in reality, elevating the idea of a life in a remote wilderness may be the easy way out. The difficult thing to do – the right thing to do – might be to learn to how make our cities serve us better and exist more in harmony with their surroundings, and then to learn how to live in them together.
Deidre Miller is an engineer with an architecture degree who has lived in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and worked in building design, evaluation and regulation.