Designing a sustainable future, in 80 ideas from today

A new book puts forward dozens of urbanization innovations that spark hope among practitioners — and offer grounding to the new Sustainable Development Goals.
The primary school in Gando, Burkino Faso, built in 2001, won international acclaim for its innovative design and use of local materials. It's featured in a new book offering design ideas for a sustainable future. (Aga Khan Foundation)

As approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) nears next month, much of the global conversation about what’s being called the Post-2015 Development Agenda has shifted to implementation. How will the world meet its ambitious goals and targets to make for a more sustainable planet — not to mention bring about an end to poverty — by 2030?

Designers have been wrestling with sustainability principles for decades and already have a corpus of projects and proposals that can point the way. A new book, Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World (Princeton Architectural Press), indexes a cross-section of viewpoints by landscape architects, urban designers, planners, critics and curators.

The book is the brainchild of Jared Green, who edits The Dirt, the blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects. His work has exposed him to a global array of innovative buildings, parks, plans, public art and landscape restoration. He decided to build on this experience by pointedly asking 80 experts in the field to pick one example or idea that gives them hope for the future. Each response forms a short entry in this new book, which is largely devoid of jargon and is accessible to a wide audience.

“There are too many pie-in-the-sky visions of what could be, and frankly there are too many big plans out there, so we need to get back to looking at what exists.”

Jared Green
American Society of Landscape Architects

While the answers that crop up in Designed for the Future were not specifically tied to the SDGs, they serve as an anchor to the lofty and sometimes abstract rhetoric of the new U. N. agreement, which will guide global development efforts for the next decade and a half.

“There are too many pie-in-the-sky visions of what could be, and frankly there are too many big plans out there, so we need to get back to looking at what exists,” Green says. “I was really looking for replicable, scalable ideas.”

The Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore, for instance, shows how a hospital can be a community center. Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters stormwater-management plan offers improved environmental outcomes with increased public space. A primary school in Gando, Burkina Faso, won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for its cost-efficient use of local materials.

Along the way between these examples, a host of additional trends and innovations make an appearance: green buildings, higher density, pedestrian and bicycle access, metropolitan governance, cultural heritage preservation and more.

Each of these projects could be mapped onto one or more of the goals and targets that make up the SDGs. They also illustrate the cross-cutting nature of many the goals — especially Goal 11, the urban SDG. Indeed, one entry is dedicated solely to “the city” as an idea that gives one hope for a sustainable future.

“A few decades ago the city was not viewed by environmentalists as the answer; it was the problem,” Green says. “The thinking in the last couple decades has really changed.”

With the global sustainability debate increasingly focused on cities, however, reaching beyond the usual suspects is a challenge. Designed for the Future features mostly entries from the developed world, including paragons of urban sustainability such as Copenhagen, San Francisco and Mälmo, as well as the recent progressive moves of mega-cities such as London and New York City.

Moving from the vanguard and into the heartland of rapid urbanization is the next challenge, especially for events like Habitat III, next year’s major summit on urbanization. “These ideas are great, but how do you get them into a second-tier city in China that’s going to have 10 million people?” Green asks.

Designed for the Future isn’t a manual and doesn’t pretend to be. But as an around-the-world tour in 80 ideas that rewards readers who open to a random page as much as those who plow through from front to back, the book makes for great late-summer reading — before September’s Special Summit on Sustainable Development convenes, the countdown to Habitat III picks up pace and the real work begins.

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