Planning Dogmata, Part 1: Sustainability

Yes, I checked, the plural dogma is dogmata, and if this seems Greek to you, you are absolutely right!

But what, exactly, is a dogma?

dogma

/ˈdɔgmə, ˈdɒg-/ [dawg-muh, dog-] noun, plural dog·mas or ( Rare ) dog·ma·ta

/ˈdɔgmətə/ [dawg-muh-tuh]

[…]

3. prescribed doctrine proclaimed as unquestionably true by a particular group: the difficulty of resisting political dogma.

[…]

(Dictionary.com)

As planners, willingly or not, consciously or not, we daily operate with dogmata, paradigms (another good one) and “truths” that are less anchored in objective, provable knowledge, but really are just a belief, such as: Jane Jacobs – good, Robert Moses – bad; density – yea, suburbs – nay; transit – from heaven, car – out of hell (boy, you’ve never taken the subway during rush hour…), and the list goes on, and on, and on…

As the critical urban planning blog of your choice, PlaNYourCity will, in loose sequence, look at some of those dogmata of planning, and you, cherished reader, are invited to tell us about your epiphanies about things you learnt in planning school or read somewhere that on second thought should not be parroted unreflectedly.

We will begin our little series with the very fashionable concept of SUSTAINABILITY.

Don’t get me wrong – I firmly believe that trashing the planet is a genuinely bad idea, and finding the right balance between the environment, social justice and material well-being is a truly existential challenge. And even though one would think that bringing the three “E”s of sustainability (Environment, Economy, Equity) into some sort of relationship that makes sense should be fairly easy (after all, it’s only three vowels that look very much the same, right?) this task is more difficult than one might think.

An example from Germany, where not only the grass, but also politics are greener, shows that especially in the complex world of sustainability the opposite of well done is usually well intended.

Let’s take water consumption. According to an article in the German newsweekly “Der Spiegel” from March 11, through aerators and highly water efficient toilets the consumption of drinking water has been dramatically reduced over the past few years. Wonderful, one would think, but one unintended consequence of this truly German marvel of efficiency and discipline is that the sewage systems in many cities do not function properly any more. In other words, there is not enough water in the pipes to move all the sh&*# to the treatment plants. One of the side effects is that, especially during the summer, there’s a distinct smell over German cities that reminds everyone just how much water they are saving.

One might argue that that would be just a little sacrifice for the greater good, but the problem is that the higher concentrations of all the bad stuff flushed down the drain is corroding the pipes creating huge infrastructure costs. In some cities infrastructure operators are now even forced to flush the sewage system WITH FRESHWATER to keep things moving.

While water conservation obviously is an issue in dry places like the Southwest United States, it is not really an issue in Geemany, where the yearly rainfall is five times as high as the demand. So lesson one to be learned about sustainability is: pick your battle! The same is probably true for New York City. We seem to have sufficient drinking water supplies, so maybe other sustainability issues, such as storm water retention and combined sewage overflows or buildings that are more energy efficient, especially now that it’s brownout season, would make more sense than tricked out (and very expensive) greywater systems. With the summer heat turning garbage piles into an olfactory summer event, we really don’t need our sewers to start stinking as well.

A nice euphemism for “you might swim in poop after a rain storm” – CSO in Long Island City, Queens

Another favorite of mine is the “Ten Dumbest Green Buildings on Earth” which feature classics like a LEED certified gas station, parking garage and water bottling plant, which brings us to sustainability lesson number two: sustainability is complex. You cannot separate the building or structure from its purpose and function; both are part of a system. And this is exactly the problem with LEED and other green building standards. Even though they comprehend the building as a system (which is a big step forward from seeing it just as the sum of its parts), these standards have a hard time comprehending the building as a system within a system. In his book “Green Metropolis – Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability” (one of the more readable books about the topic) author David Owen points out that even the greenest building isn’t green if everyone has to drive there (and yes, even if it’s a Prius).

Not as innovative as you think – electric car, 1897 (via flickr user Kansas Sebastian http://www.flickr.com/photos/kansas_sebastian/3141768903/sizes/m/in/photostream/)

And if you think that a Prius is the Model T of green cars and an electric car is the way to go, think again: An electric car produces 147 grams of carbon emissions per kilometer[1] when powered with conventionally generated electricity, while a diesel powered car with a consumption of 4 liters per 100 kilometers (there are cars that use significantly less) only produces 108 grams of carbon per kilometer[2], that’s more than a quarter less! (If you don’t do metric: it’s roughly 4.2 x 10-25 ounces of carbon per trillion light years). Another teeny tiny problem is that there might not even be enough lithium, one major component of modern batteries, to power all these cars, according to a New York Times article.

All of which goes to say that sustainability is a tricky business that when done right requires a lot of analysis and a systems approach to comprehend and implement. And for sustainability being thrown around like beads on Mardi Gras and for everything being somehow sustainable nowadays, it is our planning dogma of the week.


[1] Based on the aforementioned article from German Newsweekly “Der Spiegel”.

[2] The Australian Government has this nifty carbon calculator for different fuel types.

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