The Human Side of Sustainable Design

Sustainably sourced and environmentally friendly are two
very familiar phrases. As consumers, we encounter them every day. In
theory, they work rather well to invoke images of clear-cut rainforests and melting
ice caps that prompt us to make ethical choices. Large corporations have responded to these threats by
rolling out ambitious sustainability goals. Take Unilever, the multinational
behind such brands as Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not
Butter, which has promised to buy all of its agricultural raw materials from
sustainable sources by 2020. While the legitimacy of these promises is a
subject of heated debate, there’s no doubt that multinational corporations and organizations
are the only entities whose impact is large enough to solve our climate crisis. 

But the calculus of environmentally friendly sourcing is in
conflict with the humanitarian goals of the sustainability movement, subjecting
farmers and factory workers to the ebb and flow of globalized production and the
boom and bust cycles it produces on a local level. Multinational corporations
can move employment centers halfway around the world in a matter of months in
search of cheaper and better-educated employees, while communities are left
vying for the next big employer. In some ways, the global market makes it
easier to reduce environmental impact by increasing efficiency—production can
occur wherever damage to the environment is minimized. But what happens to
individual people whose livelihoods may be pulled out from under them in the
name of environmental sourcing?

In the global economy, cities and communities are growth
engines, providing us with jobs, currency, products, and services on which to
sustain ourselves. On a cultural level, place is a lot more difficult to
define. The places we live mean a lot more than just employment—they involve
complex webs of relationships among people based on close physical proximity. When
communities are subjected to the speed of the global economy, it becomes clear
that the way we experience life is attached to the physical spaces we inhabit.

Our built environment also sets the stage for environmental
and social injustice: Public resources such as good education, parks,
and police and fire services are concentrated in wealthy areas while
communities of color and the poor are relegated to ghettos and environmentally
degraded spaces. Geographic disparities in wealth are even more drastic on a
global scale, with some cities benefiting from an influx of executive-level
jobs and others coping with the fallout from an influx of low-paying and
dangerous jobs in heavy industry. 

In short, while globalized environmental problems like climate
change are not necessarily regionalized, their effects play out on a local scale. Sustainable design is
interested in the health and welfare of the communities we live in, serving as
an attempt to counterbalance the negative effects of global environmental

Thus, the sustainable design of our communities is as much
about the social sciences as it is about ecology, earth science, and
engineering. In the past, architects drew up grand plans that relied on and
perpetuated assumptions of growing production, consumption, and progress. Now landscape architects, urban planners, and architects are asked to reimagine an
urban landscape without these constants.

One way to begin doing this is to design communities for
people rather than for corporations and the movement of products and capital.
At the 5Cs, we have the privilege of experiencing life at human speed. On a
typical walk or bike to class, one sees countless familiar faces, maybe stops
to have a chat with someone, and sometimes even has a chance to admire the
weather. It is difficult to imagine an urban area that feels like the Claremont
Colleges, but it’s these face-to-face interactions that form the building
blocks of human-centered communities. 

Consider the Inland Empire. Our current urban spaces,
with a few exceptions, are built to be experienced at automobile speeds.
Instead of building another freeway office park, why don’t we focus on
revitalizing an abandoned one in a run-down neighborhood, and use the extra
money to build a park or renovate the library next door? Obviously, there could
be countless reasons why not, but it’s the designer’s job to imagine how communities
can use spaces more creatively and, in particular, make them accessible to people who don’t own

But this type of creative thinking can’t happen without a
change in the way communities are planned. Architects and planners
overwhelmingly employ a top-down approach to making decisions about cities.

Say Upland receives a grant to revitalize the city’s downtown. Traditionally, the architect or city planner would consult the city
council or chamber of commerce, walk the site, and draw up several plans. These
plans would then be presented to the public in an outreach hearing and the
architects would receive retroactive feedback on design proposals. If there’s
one thing I’ve learned about design, it’s that you can’t really save a project
with a flawed concept. Rather than treating revitalizations and greening as
one-time, fix-all projects, architects and planners should work with
communities on projects that set smaller, commonly shared goals for

As long as architects and planners continue to impose plans
for sustainable and eco-friendly projects upon communities, we will never see
genuine changes in sustainability and environmental justice. Rather, architects and
planners should provide people with the tools to take control of and revitalize
their own communities and environments.

Take ownership of your own community. When you encounter new
development projects, ask yourself who wins and who loses. Ask why things are
built the way they are, and find out who’s in charge of making those decisions.

Ben Hackenberger PO ’15 is an environmental analysis major currently studying sustainable design in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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