Toggle menu

Where next for sustainability?

By Sebastien Miller
Our definitions of sustainability are becoming outdated, and landscape professionals need to find a way to effect real change, not just tick boxes.

It is almost 30 years since the publication of the Brundtland Commission report which both
defined and popularized the meaning of sustainable development:  ‘Development which meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’1. In that time, there have been countless books, planning policies, toolkits and technical innovations which have had a meaningful impact on the way we design our built environment.

Governments have even begun to put sustainability at the forefront of their strategic development and thinking, rather than as an afterthought. For example in 2007, the Scottish Government prioritised its role as ‘Creating a more successful country (sic) through increasing sustainable economic growth’ 2.

Up to the tipping point
There has been criticism of the Brundtland definition as being too people-focused, rather than environmentally focused, and there is some validity to this. Cynically, one could read it as a challenge; how much development can society accommodate, without any critical loss to our environmental self-regulatory systems? Our economically driven society could legitimately continue exploiting resources and developing natural habitats, up until they fail in their functions and the planet’s capacity to support us begins to falter. Think of the recent approval of Heathrow’s third runway as an example, sold to the public in the interests of 77,000 additional jobs and £61 billion in economic benefits4.  Somewhere in that decision, the UK’s agreed goal of reducing its carbon output as part of the 21st Conference of the Parties(COP-21) Agreement has been quietly forgotten.

In its defence, Brundtland and its supporting action plans should be seen as evolutionary steps towards a more robust definition and enforcement of sustainability, which places increasing emphasis on the environment and natural systems. Slowly we are witnessing those steps and there is cause for optimism. The Paris Agreement (COP-21) came into effect in November 2016. Under this agreement, countries have an obligation to move their economies away from fossil fuels and limit global warming to no more than 2.0°C.  

Many countries are quietly getting on with the task of switching to renewables, including Britain. In 2015, Costa Rica generated 99% of its energy for housing, industry and streets from renewable sources, which is a phenomenal achievement.  

This movement is not limited to just building development, but also affects the way our cities are connected. Germany’s Federal Government recently passed a resolution calling for a total ban on combustion-engine cars by 2030. This is evidence of a growing trend in Europe with its increasingly tough emissions laws. If approved, such a shift towards a cleaner transport system with carbon-free emissions would be an example of ‘dark green’ sustainability. For once, the environmental needs have been put ahead of the immediate economic and social goals, and this move will shake up one of the largest sectors of Germany’s economy. In the long run, such a transformation would probably be of benefit to German car manufacturers as they maintain their lead in clean energy technology.

Despite these recent national level ‘wins’, at a local level or for individual development projects, economic and social goals continue to be contradictory or to exclude environmental considerations. As landscape professionals, our understanding of sustainability and its implementation typically achieves small-scale or isolated environmental gains. These green initiatives are definitely an important step in the right direction, but sometimes they are used to justify almost any type of scheme as being ‘sustainable’.

Risk or reward
There are various reasons why the landscape industry has been unable to achieve as dark green an approach to sustainability as we would have hoped. Principally, this comes down to who controls the funding of projects, which is typically the owner, investor or developer (or a combination of all three). Good sustainable design need not cost more in the long run, but designers and policy makers need to look at it from the developer’s perspective, which is essentially market driven. Developers want to construct and sell a quality scheme in as short a time as possible, in a way that maximizes profit and minimizes risk. If not understood in the wider context of what it aims to achieve and the cost saving benefits it can bring to the developer, sustainability will appear more of a risk than a reward.

Is there a way for sustainable design approaches to be accepted by developers as part of their way of thinking and business models? Typically, projects are handed over as soon as they are built, so they do not benefit directly from the rewards of sustainability, nor will they recoup any cost savings associated with environmentally sensitive design. Understanding this disconnect of risk and reward makes it obvious why ‘sustainable economic development’ is an essential pillar of environmental design and protection (see the Venn diagram), and is an aspect of sustainable design that is often overlooked.  

Landscape guidelines – towards dark green sustainability
Landscape architects were undertaking sustainable design long before it became popular. Yet as always, we have to ask ourselves if we are acting to the best of our ability.  The following guidelines will assist landscape architects, design managers, planners and policy makers to think about the way we practise. All of these are simple, yet meaningful ideas that we can use to influence our contribution to sustainable developments.

Avoid green wash: Ask hard questions as to why a design or approach qualifies an entire project as being sustainable. Many projects have elements of sustainability embedded within them, but they are not sustainable projects when viewed holistically and critically. We have to recognize the difference between the two and be less naive in the way we look at the built environment.

Go beyond the minimum: Recognize that design codes and sustainability assessments such as BREEAM and LEED only force developers to go so far. For all their good intent, they establish minimum benchmarks, and designers should look for other environmental best practice approaches that will further enhance a particular project.  

Have a vision and a willingness to do things differently: Upholding the status quo may ensure standards or developer expectations are met.  However there are literally hundreds of pioneering projects that take different approaches to sustainability.  We should always seek to explore innovative, environmentally based approaches and alternatives, especially where they do not cost more. 

Be realistic: Often the simplest approaches are better than complex, over-ambitious, or technically driven solutions. (An example is the BedZED scheme in London. After review, the architect and developers noted that 80% of the sustainability goals could have been achieved with only 20% of the actual spend)6
Prioritise function over form: Aesthetics have always been the main driver within our profession, often to the exclusion of sustainability.  Appreciation of what is beautiful is subjective, changing with familiarity, understanding and time. (Community urban farming is an example. To a developer who wants to market and sell a scheme, they may not look as attractive as a well manicured lawn.  But if well designed, integrated and managed, productive plots can add value to a development).

Look for opportunity everywhere: Let the environmental focus drive all aspects of the design, rather than trying to shoe-horn in sustainability credentials at the end of the process.  (Pick materials and develop a hardscape / softscape palette based not on aesthetics as the primary driver, but on what local regions can supply. This approach also reinforces localism and cultural sustainability)7.

Look at the bigger picture: Landscape professionals need to gain a better understanding of how other built environment disciplines work, thus allowing us to grow in depth and scope. We need to be familiar with developer mindsets, so that we can propose solutions and interventions that meet their needs and are more likely to get their approval. Landscape architecture should never be a narrowly focused profession.

Get involved early: On most projects, approximately three quarters of total construction costs are determined at the concept stage. Likewise, once a plan begins to take form and a project gains momentum, opportunities for sustainability interventions are considerably reduced with each design stage. Landscape architects should be involved at the earliest design stages to maximize opportunities for environmental design. Regulations would need to change to enforce this and ensure our contribution is not seen as an after-thought to an already determined scheme.

Policy needs to change: Developers should be forced to retain a level of ownership of or involvement with their schemes after completion. This would immediately give them a vested interest in cost-saving sustainability measures, which may cost more as an initial outlay, but pay for themselves in the long run combine risk with reward.

Looking ahead
30 years after being introduced, Brundtland has directed us towards sustainability, but for all its idealism it has proven insufficient in actually getting us to that goal. A revised definition, or at the very least, a more stringent action plan of sustainability is needed to take us to the beginning 
of the post-carbon era of living. Recent UN reports acknowledge that ‘Deep structural changes are needed in the ways that societies manage their economic, social, and environmental affairs; and hard choices are needed to move from talk to action’7.

The world’s population is around 7.5 billion and is growing by 78 million a year8. Massive amounts of new development are needed to accommodate this growth, as well as changing demographics and the continuing human migration towards urban living. The speed and scale of this change is staggering and just as it presents challenges, it also offers opportunities. It is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s most pressing issue is finding a model of sustainable development that meets our needs yet protects environmental systems. Landscape architects will play a role in both defining and contributing to such development, though we need to strengthen our commitment to a more ‘dark green’ sustainability.

The decisions we make today must not condemn others to continuing such unsustainable ways of living.

Sebastian Miller is a landscape architect and urban planner.

1   Bruntland Commission, (1987), p. 43
2   Scottish Government, (2014) National Planning Framework – NPF3
3   Dr Brown, C. and Dr Matthews, P. (2015)
7   Drexhage, J. and Murphy, D. (2010) Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012, p.2

Leave a comment

We use cookies to improve the browsing experience for you and others. If you would like to learn more about cookies please view our cookie policy. To accept cookies continue browsing as normal. Continue