Sustainability is somewhat of a nebulous idea. What is sustainability and how is it defined when referring to the practice of city planning? Sustainability as we know and hear everywhere is about natural systems that maintain their viability through reuse and using our natural resources in a way that do not harm future generations. Sustainability in the realm of city planning encompasses more than just protecting open space, it is also about human systems such as housing, transportation, and jobs. We can work to protect the environment, but that is not enough if human systems are left they way they are. That is where sustainable community development comes into play.
According to Mark Roseland in his guidebook, Toward Sustainable Communities: solutions for citizens and their governments, sustainable community development “is about changing communities in qualitative ways to a level that is optimal to sustain our existence on the planet.” So what constitutes qualitative, well Roseland describes qualitative changes as “improvements in health care, knowledge, quality of life, walkability, density and efficient resource use.” Most importantly sustainable community development encompasses not only the environment, but social equity and economic objectives as well.
There are many building blocks that fit together to create sustainable communities, but there are a few blocks in particular that interest me. The first is infill development of underutilized shopping centers known as greyfields. The second is plant life within the built environment.
Infill development is an opportunity for cities to redesign underutilized or vacant shopping centers to create walkable, liveable and aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods. Essentially infill development is an opportunity for the practice of better land use by creating mixed-use neighborhoods that result in such benefits as increased public transportation ridership, less driving due to closer proximity to shops, more housing options and the protection of open space. As an example I was recently in the Cole Valley and Upper Haight neighborhoods of San Francisco. The neighborhoods are mixed-use with housing, restaurants, shops, and more. It is a wonderful experience to walk around a neighborhood without the need of a car. People are out and about lending to the experience of vibrancy and community.
There is much literature about the benefits of infill including this 2002 report by Greenbelt Alliance, Smart Infill: creating more livable communities in the Bay Area. Yet, what can be done by communities to push for this type of development? In his book Roseland offers a variety of tools to help implement infill. Some of those tools include accelerated planning approvals, utilizing energy efficient land use planning and more strategic structuring of development fees.
So what are the benefits of plants in the built environment? Well, they range from design aesthetics to public health to environmental. In his book Roseland outlines “the case for greening”, which includes the following: saves money, regulates temperature, conserves water, absorbs pollution, hosts wildlife and plants, manages water resources, supports public health, creates more livable cities in connection with nature, produces food and enhances well-being. That is a strong case in my book! Such roles of plant life are green roofs, rain gardens, permeable surfaces, urban forests, bioswales, neighborhood food gardens and ecological landscaping.
All of those reasons aside, there is the simple fact that plants bring beauty and life to the hardness of the built environment. As someone who lives amongst the majestic redwood trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains, I cannot get enough of the beauty, peace, and sense of calm I receive from being in nature. An example of how plants can be expressed in the built environment is by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist, who creates artistic vertical garden pieces around the world. Some of his work can be spotted in San Francisco, Paris, Singapore, etc.
Of course vertical gardens are more of an aesthetic reason for plant life in cities, but one cannot forget the myriad of functional benefits of nature. If we as planners could communicate better the benefit of plants within the life of communities, then maybe we could collectively make a start towards creating a better human system.