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The tipping point into the Green Revolution

By: Mary McLellan and Michael Stepner

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“The mayor (public servant) who tends only to current necessities forfeits the City of Tomorrow while the mere visionary stumbles over the pot holes of the present. City chiefs must know how to balance two vital items, necessity and possibility.”
— Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil.

[space]Jaime Lerner is an architect and was appointed by the Brazilian junta as mayor of Curitiba because it believed that an architect would not “make waves.” Instead, he made Curitiba one of the world’s most sustainable cities and when the junta was overthrown, he was democratically elected mayor for a third term and went on to become governor of the state.

[space]Lerner was the keynote speaker last month at a conference sponsored by the Urban Land Institute and the U.S. Green Building Conference titled “Developing Green: Sustainability Entering the Mainstream.” The host city, Seattle, provided a perfect backdrop to showcase sustainable leadership at its finest and provided pertinent information regarding needs to happen in San Diego.

[space]Lerner said, “Every problem has a co-responsibility” and that sustainability should be a true partnership between those elected to run the city and the people who choose to inhabit it. He insisted, “Every city has to find its own design for structure of growth and priority” and argued that “separating where you live from where you work leads to a disaster.” Lerner’s leadership is known around the world as practical and visionary, and he has been an innovator in planning for the past 35 years. He doesn’t believe in experts because they only tell him why something can’t possibly work. He surrounds himself with pragmatic designers and developers who have helped to build a city that was struggling in poverty to one that has one of the most efficient public transits systems in the world and is now seen as a leader in sustainability.

[space]Another leader is Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols, who was greatly concerned when in 2005 the Kyoto Protocol took effect without the participation of the United States. Seattle is one of those experiencing first-hand the dramatic effects of global warming; for example, the snow packs of the Cascade Mountains have been reduced by 50 percent since 1950 and are projected to decline another 7 percent by 2012. Nichols challenged mayors across the country to join him in a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 and sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection agreement. To date, more than 220 mayors across the United States have signed this agreement — San Diego has yet to sign.

[space]Highlighting practical steps was conference chair Chris Glenn Sawyer, partner of Alston & Bird and a national leader in smart growth, green development and conservation finance issues, who kicked off the conference by stating, “Sustainability is not an esoteric issue.” In the last five years, 300 million square feet of buildings have been LEED certified. Scot Horst, chair of USGBC LEED Certification Committee presented the big picture of how LEED fits into the next generation of community building. He stressed that LEED connects the land to the city and is about a relationship between the land and buildings, and people and nature. These relationships lead to strong connections, which lead to hope, love and a shared vision. This shared vision for our communities and our planet are bubbling up in all of us lately as we are evolving to a new way of “sustainably” existing in balance with the land and each other. The LEED system is a technical tool that pushes architects, engineers and building owners to rethink and create measurable standards for a system that resides symbiotically within its environment.

[space]Bert Gregory, CEO of Mithun Architects, a leading firm in green building design, emphasized that quality of life issues are pushing developments to decrease energy and water consumption, and increase open space. The frontier for these sustainability strategies for the most part has come from private development, and our challenge now is to connect the private to the public. Gregory invites us to think of streets as open space and how to make them green; he also encourages us to make better use of them for walkability. Also, we need to think of neighborhoods as a system and be creative in how we connect them. In San Diego this would be an easy strategy to implement using our beloved canyons as the connectors.

[space]With all these ideas and practitioners coming to the fore, the greatest barrier to implementing sustainability now is overcoming our reticence to change. We have the technology and the know-how. Investors are looking for green projects to invest in, and leaders are stepping up to the plate around the world. Our greatest challenge, both in the United States and in San Diego, is allowing the transformation to occur. This will require sacrifice while the process morphs our economy, our cities and us from the chaos of change into the order of a new sustainable planet that provides a quality of life for the next seven generations. Write us and tell us what you, as a San Diegan, are doing to promote this change. We’ll write about it in our next column. We feel a great excitement in the air, a tipping point, into a world where a forward economy incorporates ecology and social equity.

[space]This is the Green Revolution and we know that San Diego won’t want to miss this call.

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Greening the city with parks, plazas, open spaces

By: Mary McLellan and Michael Stepner

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“In building the city, let us remember that the material things which will endure the longest are those that express the spirit of man in art. In the art of landscape and architecture, the spirit of a city can be preserved for ages.” –George White Marston at the dedication of Presidio Park, July 16, 1926.[space]

The San Diego Chapter of Partners for Livable Places sponsored the “Greening the City — Love it or Leaf it Conference” earlier this month at the new McMillin Event Center at NTC Promenade. The conference brought together several hundred people to hear local and national speakers talk about the critical need to plan our region for sustainable development. The conference was designed to cultivate a “better understanding of the economic, environmental, psychological and special benefits of parks, gardens, greenbelts, trails and inspired green urban spaces.”

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The conference once again reminded us that a “green” city with adequate parks, plazas and green spaces is also a healthful city. This has been an overriding theme of city planning and community building since the beginning of the “modern” city-planning movement in the 1890s. The importance of parks and open spaces was seen as the lungs of the industrialized city and the key to a more healthful urban environment. In San Diego, this became official city policy with the adoption of our first general plan prepared by John Nolen at the behest of George Marston 100 years ago.

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The speakers at the conference all spoke to the intrinsic benefits of a “green” city. Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Lands, spoke of the broad benefits of parks and open space to the community. His presentation highlighted the environmental value of clean air, the value to the resident through direct access and improved health, and the economic value of parks and open space from tourism and increased property values.

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The economic value of parks and open space is not new but is something that has been recently rediscovered. On a national level, the economic value of parks goes back to discussions in the late 1880s when the Minneapolis Board of Trade stated: “Parkland, when secured and located as it is now, be at comparatively small expense, will in the near future add millions to the real estate value of the city.”

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In San Diego, we had Minneapolis beat by 20 years when in the late 1860s the city board of trustees had the foresight to set aside 1,400 acres for a city park, now Balboa Park, which at that time equated to almost one acre per capita.

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Dr. Kathleen Wolf of the University of Washington urged everyone to “get their greens” when she spoke to the importance of nature and trees to our overall quality of life including our moods, our emotions, and our physiological and physical health.

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Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces founded by William H. Whyte in the 1960s, spoke to public spaces. Kent worked with Holly Whyte on the groundbreaking study, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” which was the first scientific study of how people use parks and public space and how to design them so that they can and will be used.

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Kent’s comments spoke to the need to pay attention to the small planning details to take best advantage of our great assets here in San Diego. He suggested carefully observing how our public plazas are designed for use and making sure parks are accessible and safe and streets serve pedestrians as well as cars. Another key to successful open-space use is waterfront development and the careful balance needed between public use and privatization.

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Kent’s presentation questioned directly how we in San Diego are implementing the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. We need to take a fresh look at that plan to assure that we are taking best advantage of our unique waterfront opportunities. The U.S. Navy Broadway Complex development process provides a great opportunity to revisit the plan and to assure that what gets developed at that site is indeed a reflection of sustainability, which not only generates economic growth but also pays attention to wider social and environment issues. To create a viable city of the future we must demand that sustainability be the key component of our waterfront plan equation.

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Another major asset is our canyons. A start has been made with the Multiple Species Conservation Plan but we need to build upon that. Kent said: “Parks should reach out like an octopus and bring the parks into the neighborhoods.” This is the pointed theme of the Canyonlands Initiative developed by San Diego Civic Solutions. We should preserve these natural features that form our communities not only for environmental reasons but also for the health of San Diegans. How do we make the canyons accessible for people where appropriate? Equally as important, how do we bring the canyons up and into our neighborhoods and create view corridors into the canyons? Connecting canyons through pathways, boulevards and tree plantings with major community anchors provides a great solution to storm water runoff. It also provides a network of arteries carrying the blood life of this community to the heart — the citizens of San Diego.

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In the 1908 Comprehensive Plan for San Diego’s Improvement, John Nolen wrote: “A system of parks is unquestionably demanded. Such a system can be secured more easily than in any other city that I know of, … connect this system of parks by the boulevards and parkways already planned, develop it naturally, simply, harmoniously, and then confidently invite comparison with it to any park system in the world. It would give the citizens health, joy and more abundant life, and to the city, itself, wealth and enduring fame.”

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Greening the city is critical to the region’s sustainability and quality of life — socially, physically and economically. In an article by Gruen, Gruen + Associates, they state: “The success of a place is determined by how well it responds to the economic, technical, institutional/cultural and social fabric of the times.” Will San Diego rise to the occasion to build the city of our dreams or will we fall into mediocrity? It’s all up to us!

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Integrated communities key to economic evolution

By: Mary McLellan and Michael Stepner

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“No neighborhood can be truly livable without retail services, and no metropolitan area can be truly sustainable with rot at its core.”
— Michael Beyard, ULI Fellow for Retail and Entertainment, Urban Land, The Forgotten Frontier

[space]Michael Beyard’s quote is music to our ears. What we can infer is that we cannot build a foundation of sustainability in our city when there are components that are failing. This means that we must authentically step into the next phase of city building using holistic models where the social composite of the entire region is a serious consideration when planning for our economic well being. In other words, the Barrio is as important as Science Park in La Jolla and they each have strengths to offer one another.

[space]With each evolutionary step of city growth, new generations of planning issues emerge. Early on in the revitalization of blighted areas, permission may be given to build anything, including mistakes, to keep an economic engine fueled. As an area begins its ascension and a new form begins to take place, quality of life issues begin to present themselves. Strategies to mitigate homeless populations and liquor stores arise alongside sidewalk cafÈ permit requests and demands for community-serving retail. The new economy, and the people driving that economy, move in and a battle ensues for the community that was and the new one that is emerging. But what we see emerging now is that rather than a battle of opposite interests, there is an integration of interests, and no sector of the population is viewed as right or wrong.

[space]The next rung on the ascension ladder, which San Diego is moving into, is a step into connectivity and integration in large part due to increased population, diversity, expensive limited land, reviled long commutes and the desire for community amenities. This alchemy of evolutionary forces — with an aggressive move by the city’s redevelopment agency in acquiring and assembling land with tax increment funds being used to improve infrastructure and to finance affordable units — has created an interesting amalgamation that turns out to be an outstanding economic development tool.

[space]Great creativity arises by integrating cultures, races, income levels and age groups. This helps to fuel the economy, and as Richard Florida, MIT Economics Professor promotes, “creativity is the most important commodity in our economy, and thus the economic health of a place — be it a city, region, or nation — depends on its ability to attract creative people.” In the new “creative economy,” companies choose to relocate to the place with the best pool of talent. Talented people, in turn, are drawn to places that are dynamic and creative. Hence the future sustainability of our economies will be driven by creativity, connectivity and integration.

[space]A report by Partners for Livable Communities linking quality of life and the economic success of cities concluded “cities that are not livable places are not likely to perform economic functions in the future. Enhancing livability therefore should be a central objective in every city’s economic transition strategy and the elements of livability should be employed as economic development tools.”

[space]The renaissance of our downtown is the seed of our region’s future. Components of the Downtown Community Plan Update focus much more on “soft” programming — connectivity, open space, walk ability, art, affordable housing. Centre City Development Corp. and the Updated Downtown Community Plan are providing community and economic development models for a creative city of the future, but in order for effective implementation, these models must be applied to all parts of our region, including the City of Villages, San Diego General Plan and County General Plan.

[space]In actuality, these models are really nothing all that new. They can be found in many plans in the past but the shortfall has come in the follow-through. We are now experiencing, more than ever, the lack of follow-through in these plans with the increase in potholes and the lack of sufficient fire stations and libraries. The pain has gotten so great that we have no choice but to force ourselves to follow through or, in other words, evolve. Evolving is excruciating, hence the reason we seek comfort and ease for as long as possible. Evolution forces us to understand our values and to make decisions that align with those values rather than let it slide to the next generation. Evolution equates to sacrifice and hard work.

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In a city with cultural, social and economic integration, it is clear to see that if one part of the city is “rotting,” the city cannot be sustainable. There is evidence that here in San Diego we are evolving into a creative city of the future. It is emerging and we invite you to look for it, because this is where the greatest sustainable economic opportunities for our region lie.

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San Diego must grow up

By: Mary McLellan and Michael Stepner

 

“Smart growth is a compact, efficient and environmentally sensitive pattern of development that provides people with additional travel, housing and employment choices by focusing future growth away from rural areas and closer to existing and planned job centers and public facilities.”

— SANDAG

“Smart Growth” is just the latest planning buzzword for what used to be called growth management and, more recently, “New Urbanism,” “Sustainable Design” or, in bygone days, just plain old city planning. But whatever it’s called, the need to build community is, today, as important as ever. While we may differ on how to do what needs to be done, it is reassuring to note that, for the most part, we all agree on what it is that needs to be done.

Building a city is not unlike maintaining a personal relationship: both must be nurtured continuously by all the parties involved. The key is to have a framework that allows us to understand the relationships of all the issues so that we may respond accordingly.

So what are the issues we, as a community, need to address? To compile a list of the issues facing San Diego’s future, we need to take a look at San Diego’s past. Such an exercise reinforces the old adage that “planning is a continuous process.” The process is not so much about completing a particular task that once and for all resolves the issues and solves the problem, but rather recognizing that we must work at these issues continuously.

Many organizations in San Diego, from small grassroots groups to internationally respected land use institutions, continue to conduct planning sessions, focus groups, design charters and strategic plans around all the planning issues that we have been grappling with for decades. But along the way, planning has changed. Major land use decisions can no longer be put off to the next funding cycle, the next political term or the next generation. We are beyond planning for the future because the future has caught up to us and we have jumped from planning for the future to being forced to implement thoughtful solutions now. If we relate the building of our city to a personal relationship, it is time to make a commitment, because the baby is ready to be born whether we’re ready or not.

Periodically, the government, the media and the community compile lists of the important issues facing our region. If we look back to the days of John Nolen and the region’s first plan in 1907, the lists have been remarkably similar to today: neighborhood improvement, housing, infrastructure and services, sewer and water, the natural environment and, of course, the airport.

In undertaking some research recently, we uncovered a 1957 New Year’s edition of the San Diego Union in which the question was asked, “Can a city grow and stay beautiful?”

And, the Union’s conclusion: The community must plan. “There must be plans to provide for efficient patterns of air, land and water transportation, for recreational facilities and for public service facilities, including water and sewage systems. Plans also must be laid to provide for public buildings, modern and efficient community design, renewal and redevelopment of some areas to eliminate substandard buildings and control blight.” The Union commended the community for having approved $56 million in bonds for public improvements.

The issues have not changed. The needs have not changed. What has changed is our willingness to pay for those things we, as a community, require to maintain our quality of life. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Taxes are the price of a civilized society.”

There comes a time when we look at our lives, our relationships to each other and to life itself and we realize we are being called to grow up, to mature. This is the exact place where we find our city. It is time to grow up. We need to make commitments, keep them, pay for them, live within our means and plan to leave our city better than we found it.

As a community, San Diego is not short on vision. We know what needs to be done. We have prepared community plans that identify what needs to be done to accomplish our goals. The question is, do we have the commitment to follow through?

Commitment equates to trust, and commitment is usually built over time. It takes integrity and faith to nurture. But if self-serving interests get out of proportion, a quality relationship or a well-planned city cannot be cultivated, and the chasm of trust may appear to be too great to bridge. But we’re out of time and space and all we’re faced with is each other. It’s time to put childishness aside and deal with the reality of the mess we have created and commit to one another to rebuild our community, our city, our relationship to one another on a foundation of integrity and trust.

 

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Wake up to the sustainability revolution

By: Mary McLellan and Michael Stepner

Sustain\ se-‘stan\ 1: to give support or relief to 2: to supply with sustenance: nourish 3: to keep up: prolong

Degrade\ di’grad\ 1: reduced far below ordinary standards of civilized life and conduct 2: characterized by degeneration of structure or function

Optimum\ ap-te-mem\ 1: the most favorable condition for the growth and reproduction of an organism

So what is this sustainability movement that seems to be sweeping the country all about anyway? LEED certified buildings; renewable energy; alternative fuels; eco-municipalities; recycled materials; sustainable land use and planning; open space.

It seems we have been headed in the direction of degradation as of late, and it is time to bring our cities back to sustainability and then look to the future to optimize building better communities.

Across the United States the interest in, and desire for, a sustainable environment continues to grow. This interest has many names: Smart Growth, Livable Neighborhoods, Sustainable Design, New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism. All have the identifier “green.” Green Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism focus on urban ecology, open space and natural systems as the definer of urban form.

Author Richard Louv, in his book, Last Child in the Woods, wrote: “According to current ecological theory, preserving islands of wild land-parks and preserves in urban areas is not enough. Instead, a healthy urban environment requires natural corridors for movement and genetic diversity. What if such theory were applied to an entire urban region? What if natural corridors for wildlife extended deep into urban territory and urban psyche and thereby created an entirely different environment in which children would grow up and adults could grow old?”

At the autumn meeting of the Urban Land Institute in November of last year, from the keynote speakers to the breakout sessions, the topic of sustainability consistently arose. It was remarkable that when Paul Hawken, entrepreneur, author and international environmentalist, spoke to a room of 5,000 developers, architects, economists and other real estate disciplines about the importance of building our communities in a more sustainable way, the room was keenly attentive.

Last June, the ULI San Diego/Tijuana District Council invited Ed McMahon, a senior Fellow from ULI in Washington, D.C., to speak about Smart Growth. McMahon talked about the accelerating consumption and fragmentation of open land. “Twenty percent of new lots are ‘large lots,’ consuming about 80 percent of the land. In 1960 in the United States, there was six square feet of retail per person; by 2000, the number had increased to 30 square feet of retail per person.” Not surprisingly, one reason for the change is the spread-out nature of development.

McMahon challenged the audience to ask three questions when discussing growth decisions: Where do you put it? How do you arrange it? What does it look like?

When we respond to those questions, our goals should be a healthy environment, vigorous economy and a vibrant community. Community image is critical to economic vitality and quality of life. Why would someone invest in a city that won’t invest in itself?

There is an amalgamation between developers and environmentalists occurring at the edges. Together they are seeing the importance of listening to one another and the benefit that each brings to the table. The future, which is here now, holds a new definition for developers and environmentalists: perhaps eco-developers, where a development team has environmental expertise as part of its team, not to do the minimal amount required to get their project off the ground but to look for optimal ways to use the land. It will require a whole new way of problem-solving skills and vision, and our communities will evolve to places of well-being.

The most powerful catalyst for action occurs when the mission is driven by what matters most. Two years ago San Diego Civic Solutions, an all-volunteer civic organization focused on quality of life issues, posed the question to its 75 members, asking them to list the top 10 things they loved about San Diego — not what the problems are or what we need to be more competitive or how to improve our economy, but what were the core values that they personally held for being in San Diego. Overwhelming, the top five items that emerged were related to our environment. They included: the beaches; the mountains; the canyons; the walkable neighborhoods; the climate and the light. From there emerged the mission of Civic Solutions: working on infrastructure issues, housing affordability and canyons — our revered and unique open space.

This small sampling of engaged civic leaders may represent a larger sentiment in the hearts of San Diegans. This would be an excellent way for Mayor Sanders and his administration to engage the citizenry toward rebuilding public trust. Yes, we have tremendous fiscal challenges, but the people’s hearts are not engaged. San Diego is about to have a new start and what we love may be just the focus that would reignite the passions of the people of San Diego.

There’s a green revolution going on, and either the United States will wake up and lead the way or, as Thomas Friedman suggests in his latest book The World is Flat, China or India will. So join us in the dialogue over the course of the next few months as we present concepts, implementation strategies and call for action on emerging trends in sustainability.

 

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