In architecture the terms sustainable and green are used to signify a design or construction method implemented for the betterment of the environment. (At least these terms started off being used for that purpose, and not for the marketing effort that seems to be more prevalent today.) These terms form the perception of designers and builders being more ecologically responsible. But true sustainability is a balance between energy in and energy out. If you consume more of the environment than can be replenished (both naturally and artificially) then the balance is off.
So architecturally speaking, can a building be considered sustainable if the environment around the building is not considered sustainable? Is a building green if everything serving the building (such as the roads, utilities, artificial landscape) is really not all that green? If every single building in the Phoenix metropolitan area was LEED Platinum and the metro area still had the suburban sprawl that it has today, would Phoenix become the quintessential sustainable city?
In Green Metropolis, David Owen makes the argument that the keys to sustainability are living smaller, living closer, and driving less. His arguments coincide with the Reduce part of the sustainability mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Reduce your living quarters. Reduce the amount of area in your home you need to fill with your stuff, and clean, and maintain, and pay taxes on. Reduce the amount of volume in your home you need to heat and cool. Reduce the amount of lawn you need to water, spread fertilizer on, and mow.
Reduce your separation from the places you need and want to go. Reduce the number of places you can frequent without always having to drive your car. Reduce your risk of becoming obese and contracting diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, respiratory disease, and a score of other ailments. Reduce the number of excuses for not getting enough exercise (walking to go somewhere rather than walking for the sake of walking). Reduce the area that public services (police, fire, power, sewer, trash) need to cover.
Reduce your dependence on the automobile. Reduce the amount of miles you put on your car, thus reducing the amount of maintenance, gas, and other services done to your car. Reduce the amount of money you pay on car insurance (typically based on the number of miles you drive in a given year). Reduce your dependence on the cost of gas. Reduce the amount and size of roads needing to be built, and reduce the amount of maintenance required for these roads. Reduce the amount of traffic for the people who still require a car to get around.
The big idea that Green Metropolis is pushing is having communities designed for people rather than for automobiles. Of course there are still people in New York City that still have to drive. Public transportation and walking will not work for every single person. But wouldn’t you like the choice of being able to choose a method for getting somewhere?
Almost all of the cities and towns of North America are designed as a car monopoly. If you want to go anywhere you typically have the only choice of driving your car. Imagine if the only way to buy food was going to McDonald’s, and the only way you could get on the internet was through America Online. I’m not against the car. In fact, I love driving. I just like having a choice.