Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature

By: Douglas Farr

One Line:

A well-crafted overview of sustainable planning strategies with a broad lens that is valuable for a range of readers as a foundation to a library of stewardship.

The complexity of sustainability is one of its worse enemies. Our modern attempts to condense information can run counter to helping others understand the intricacies of our biosphere. With only portions of information the solutions can see deceivingly easy, mistakenly small in number or both. Some of the stronger voices end up being the ones that can package complex issues with clarity and brevity for retention in a broader audience. Architecture and Urban Planning are similar animals in this regard, especially with their interface with sustainable goals. Even for design professionals it can be difficult to convey the number of moving parts that comprise the process of making things. In Sustainable Urbanism, Douglas Farr succeeds in wrapping his arms around a large array of pertinent wisdom while shedding light on how many facets exist in the urban design process–and as a result how many opportunities there are for positive impact.

The author begins with a foundation of analysis and data of the suburban condition, making a relatively familiar case for density around the pillars of health, social equity and ecological impact. The numbers are informative though not completely dissimilar to arguments that could be found in Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities or Leigh Gallagher’s The End of Suburbia.

The difference comes in the elements of a solution that Farr begins to paint as a series of design tactics for the American landscape of development. Rather than occupying one of the development poles of suburban vs. urban, Farr outlines a compendium of corollaries meant to flesh out an option in between. Readers familiar with the debate could point to New Urbanism as a similar solution, and while the movement does come up in the book (along with a foreword written by Andres Duany, arguably the father of New Urbanism) I would argue the possibilities can lead to a broader range of outcomes.

Sustainable Urbanism becomes something closer to a reference guide without the dryness of the reference voice. Though the author briefly discusses his perceived shortcomings of the United States Green Building Council’s LEED system, a number of the strategies he suggests can be found in LEED programs. Perhaps more than anything, Farr does a great job of opening the aperture for designers and enthusiasts to the broader realm of variables that affect sustainable urban planning and the resulting breath of opportunities there are to increase the likelihood of positive impact.

Taking the style of a collection of essays on individual topics, the book tries to cover a lot of ground while keeping its page count reasonable. While this may make for a lighter read, it would be great to have more physical samples of design solutions (i.e. design drawings, material suggestions, applicable details) to help push the book into the next level of reference guide. The focus on case studies and general topics make it more of a directional resource to read once rather than a guide one is likely to go back to repeatedly (which it arguably could have been with another layer of information). Additionally, though I appreciate the author’s decision to print the book with the addition of a color (light green) rather than only black and white, some of the choices in font and placement make tables and titles difficult to read.

The book should be required reading for anyone sitting on municipal committees that deal with zoning, building or planning, especially smaller towns that may struggle with updating older, existing policy. The nature of the text and the coordinated use of graphics should make the book accessible to a broad audience outside of design professionals.

Not for nothing, the hardcover book is printed on 100% acid-free, post-consumer recycled paper. While this may not materially affect the quality of the writing within, it does affect the quality of the book as a product of the creative process. Printing a book propagating environmental stewardship on glossy photo paper may make for great looking pictures, but it bears an inherent conflict between ideas and actions. Having the physical artifact embody the message of the knowledge within serves as an example of the mindset that sustainability needs and a dedication to best practices.