Reasons to be Hopeful on Earth Day

Great challenges are ahead, but so are great possibilities.

by Philip Enquist

Image © NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA GSFC

Earth Day 2017 is dedicated to environmental and climate literacy. Philip Enquist, the leader of SOM’s City Design Practice, tells us why this theme is both timely and crucial — and how all of us can take action.

The environmental challenges we face have rarely felt as urgent as they do now. Yet, despite the fraught politics in Washington, I believe that this should be a time of profound optimism. We are on the cusp of advancements in science and technology that will allow us to reinvent our cities as greener, healthier, and more sustainable places. It’s on us — those who live in urban areas, and the architects, planners, and civic leaders who shape them, both the current and next generation — to seize this moment and build this future together.

We have every reason to be hopeful. The fate of our planet is tied to the future of our cities — where two thirds of the world’s population will live by 2030 — and cities will take the lead on climate change and the environment. At a grassroots level, citizens have a greater awareness than ever about environmental issues. City leaders around the world are setting ambitious agendas for sustainability. And, with the convergence of technology, research, and data science, we are reaching what may become a renaissance moment. This is a time for big, ambitious thinking — and in many ways, this thinking is already happening.

On the San Francisco Bay, the India Basin project will transform a former industrial waterfront to build a new community in balance with the site’s natural hydrology and topography, preserving its marshes and grasslands. Image © SOM | steelblue

First, we are approaching a revolution in transportation. The arrival of autonomous vehicles has the potential to change the paradigm of car ownership. Rather than buying more cars, people may soon use cars more like a utility. As a result, these shared vehicles won’t need to be parked as often — this can liberate an incredible amount of space in our cities, and also reduce carbon emissions. Energy, too, is reaching a tipping point. Renewable and clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, are replacing the heavy fossil fuels of oil and coal. Utility companies are reinventing themselves, because it is no longer economically viable for them to rely on coal power. Finally, we are seeing incredible advances in human health and wellness. Data science is leading to an increased awareness of the importance of healthy environments and access to clean food, water, and air.

It’s up to us — as engaged citizens, architects, and urban planners — to take the lead.

These three areas — transportation, energy, and health — used to be isolated disciplines. Now, they are coming together in quite a remarkable way, and cities will be reinvented to reflect this. Advancements in data science will only accelerate this transformation by giving us metrics to better understand the impact of how we design and what we build.

Left: Wind turbines are built into the upper floors of Pearl River Tower, leading a new generation of sustainable skyscrapers. Photo © Tim Griffith. Right: AMIE 1.0 uses 3D printing and wireless energy technology to demonstrate possibilities for a clean energy future. Photo © Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The challenge is clear: Urban areas have been developed in a way that is damaging to the environment. No matter where we go — whether it’s a city in the United States, in Asia, in South America, in the Middle East, in Africa, or in Europe — we see breaks in the ecological chain. It’s evident in our sprawling cities, in the design of our transportation systems, in the way we build our neighborhoods, and in how we create our energy. All of these tend to collectively erode the environment. It can be seen in the waterfronts that people cannot access, the landscapes that are divided, and the wetlands that are being lost as cities grow. Instead, we can repair these breaks, so that ecologies can be reconnected. We can design our cities for this to happen.

The redevelopment of the former rail yards at Denver Union Station is a case study in the power of sustainable, transit-oriented urban design. Photo © Levi Wells

Here in our Chicago office, which overlooks Lake Michigan, SOM’s City Design Practice became interested in how this thinking could be applied in our own region. Our interest and curiosity led us to develop the Great Lakes Century Vision Plan, a comprehensive vision for the vast watershed that spans from Duluth, Minnesota to the Atlantic Ocean — a region that is home to more than 50 million people. We looked at the cities around the Great Lakes, many of which have been struggling to rebuild their economies since the loss of heavy industry starting in the 1950s. Instead of referring to this vast area as the Rust Belt, we sought to define a more optimistic path forward — a vision to not only restore the economy, but also the environment. This region has an incredible gift: the largest repository of surface freshwater in the world. Yet, when we looked at the urban development around the Great Lakes, we saw that the watershed is being damaged in many ways — from chemical emissions, pollution from coal-fired power plants, and solid waste from cities that currently send most of their trash to landfills.

The Chicago Lakeside Master Plan proposes transforming a vacant brownfield site on Lake Michigan in South Chicago into a sustainable, mixed-use community. Images © SOM

Working with local groups and experts, from economists to environmental scientists, we started to consider the entire Great Lakes region as a single ecosystem. We then began to propose how its cities can be designed in a way that would conserve and restore precious natural resources. Today, we can generate cleaner energy. We can recycle wastewater and develop sustainable food systems. We can reduce our waste, lower carbon emissions, and minimize what we put in landfills. The idea of a regenerative city — an urban environment designed in balance with nature — is where our future lies. We had no client, and no budget, for this initiative. But the pro bono effort has led us to breakthroughs in our thinking about regenerative cities, and we are now applying this thinking in ways we had never imagined.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River watershed, spanning from Duluth, Minnesota to the Atlantic Ocean, is home to over 50 million people. The Great Lakes Century Vision Plan addresses the international watershed comprehensively as a whole ecosystem. Image © SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

Earth Day was founded nearly 50 years ago as a grassroots movement, and it has helped to bring environmental issues to the forefront of a global conversation. Today, we must push this effort even further. At this pivotal moment, I am incredibly optimistic. ​Environmental and climate literacy is critical to our future. Now, it’s up to us — as engaged citizens, architects, and urban planners — to take the lead. We must go beyond “business as usual” to pursue opportunities that are, perhaps, unusual. I encourage the next generation of designers to take up this challenge. It’s an effort on which all future generations may depend.

“Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin” presents a 100-year vision to guide planning and development in this international watershed. SOM produced the exhibition in partnership with the International Secretariat for Water and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Photo © Tom Harris

Visit Earth Day Network to learn about environmental and climate literacy, and how you can get involved.

Find out how designers are creating more sustainable cities and regions here: