Wednesday, February 4, 2009

An Evening with Douglas Farr

Saints Luke & Simon Cyrene Episcopal Church, the oldest continually occupied building in Rochester (the church was founded by Nathaniel Rochester himself in 1816, the current structure opening in 1823), was the site of an energetic, optimistic, and thoughful lecture by Douglas Farr. Farr is the founding principal of Farr Associates (a leader in LEED-Platinum certified architecture), a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and the author of Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature.

The lecture began with a tour of the standard crises facing the nation from a human habitat perspective. It was noted that Illinois will assume the climate of East Texas by 2095 if no swift action is taken. The increases in obesity rate over time and the upcoming decrease in life expectancy were rolled out designed to shock as the monumental challenge of decreasing carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050 considering a national population that is expected to increase by 100 million people during that timeframe was proposed as a suitable end result.

Like the proverbial White Knight, Farr posited that sustainability, as a movement, could come to the rescue. Unfortunately, we as a culture are still completely obsessed with the minor actions, fringe details like changing one's light bulbs and driving a hybrid gasoline/electric motor that don't get to the root of our behavioral issues.

Farr cited the Charter of the New Urbanism as a seminal document in the mission of promoting sustainability coupled with urbanism as opposed to urbanism at the expense of environmental concerns. Based on documents like these a definition emerges for Sustainable Urbanism: Walkable, transit-served urbanism integrated with high-performance buildings and high-performance infrastructure. He went on to describe techniques for natural processing of stormwater runoff in community greens, water features, and the fashionable new name for the 'ditch' of yesteryear, the 'bioswale.'

Some very brief case-studies of SU projects included:

  • Uptown Normal Circle - Normal, IL (pictured, 1st municipality to require LEED certification of all new downtown construction)
  • Dockside Green - Victoria, BC
  • BedZED - South London, England (Pictured below, left. Zero net carbon emissions!)

Mr. Farr sincerely believes that sustainable urbanism will out-compete sprawl to become the dominant form of development by the year 2030 and proposes a three-step plan for 'world domination.'

  1. Establish Sustainable Urbanism as a commodity
  2. Revise Regulations/Codes
  3. Mount a National Campaign to make SU preeminent by 2030

To speak to #2, Farr went back to the argument of behavioral modification, characterizing codes as requiring minimums of things we need less of such as building setbacks, parking lots, and street width. The 2030 Communities Campaign attempts to get the ball rolling on number three by reversing the trend of increased vehicle miles traveled by Americans (and reducing it to half of its current level) and ensuring that 100% of new construction in the year 2030 will be LEED-certified.

Tying things up in a nice tight package, Farr likened the necessary cultural shift to the attitudes about smoking in 1969 and how no one could have imagined such widespread prohibitions of the behavior going forward. He believes that the young professional generation of today, which grew up with the instituting of recycling, programs to save endangered species, and the concept of urbanism as trendy rather than something to be feared bodes well for the prospects of making such a transition.

I found Mr. Farr very engaging and funny as he implored Rochesterians to not just accept their destiny, but instead be proactive with appropriate civic pride belying our status as a great American city. As a companion activity to the lecture, the Rochester Regional Community Design Center is hosting a gallery show entitled Healthy and Happy Cities which will showcase Sustainable Urbanism efforts from Farr's book in cities across the nation. The gallery is at 1115 E. Main St. and will be open from 6-9PM. The next lecture in the Reshaping Rochester series will be presented by Robert Fishman, author of Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia.

1 comment:

Daniel Nairn said...

I would love to get a chance to hear Doug Farr speak. Good summary. Sounds like you've really got your finger on the pulse of Rochester.