Sunday, July 15, 2007


(published at

“What kind of scissors are we going to need for decoupling? Maybe they’ll have to be silver scissors, or golden!” A colleague was joking about a serious issue: How to fulfill the basic needs of people, and at the same time decouple economic growth from environmental and social destruction? How to secure human well-being without wasting natural and human resources? How to break the assumed link between success and happiness?

Water and energy create the physical foundations of sustainable development. For billions of people worldwide they are still a daily question of availability. Thousands of cities are faced with the same question: how to secure the citizen access to safe drinking water and energy. Once there is water, it has to be kept clean, and sanitation and waste water treatment are needed. Once there is energy, it must also be clean so that it does not pollute the air and become a health or fire hazard. The production process of energy must be safe, otherwise it creates dangerous jobs and new environmental problems. A vicious circle!

The step from poverty, from no freshwater and no energy, to having basic human needs fulfilled is huge, but millions of people take it every year. Waves of industrialization and economic growth bring people from rural areas to cities and to urban lifestyles that focus on consumption: cars, fashion, entertainment, industrial food and drink – and more economic growth.

“Sustainable Consumption and Production”

In two years, China will host the 4th International Expert Meeting on the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production. The 3rd meeting was recently held in Sweden. The name of the conference is too complicated, the United Nations –led process is called the Marrakech Process for short. Its origins are in Johannesburg 2002, in the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, where governments agreed that consumption and production patterns are inextricably interlinked. If we want cleaner products, someone will have to ask and pay for them.

One of the conclusions is that public procurement is an important mechanism in promoting sustainability. Local and national governments can become model clients and create markets for better products. This is also true for services and buildings: private companies and citizen will hardly construct better buildings if they don’t see that the public sector does it, first.

It is easy to agree that we need more sustainable products and services – but what does it mean in real life? There is no globally agreed list of criteria telling which product is sustainable, yet. Some characteristics are obvious: efficient use of resources, no pollution, no health risks, decent work, social and gender equity, transparent governance. Not only the product or service as such matter, but the production process and use of the product, the whole life cycle have to be analyzed. Did people become happier and healthier by making, using and recycling the product – or did they get ill and abused?

“Environmentally friendly” – or just a little less dangerous?

Some clever advertisers and urban developers have noticed that the “brand” and sales of a product can be improved by promoting it as “environmentally friendly” or as “eco-city” without showing hard facts. To oppose this trend the Norwegian government has forbidden the advertisement of any car as “environmentally friendly”, because no car is ever going to be environmentally friendly in the first place. Cars and their manufacture will always burn energy, pollute, injure and kill thousands of people, force cities to invest in highways that destroy urban fabric, and so on.

Imagine this: A company informs its shareholders and stockbrokers that it is going to make only products that don’t have to be thrown away, because they will not become unfashionable or technologically obsolete in a couple of months or years. Instead, they’ll be beautiful and easy to use for hundred years - just like your grandmother’s scissors, a bicycle or a kitchen knife. Their manufacture will cause no harmful waste, require no non-renewable resources, the employees will get a decent salary, and instead of bribes, the company will pay taxes to local and national government.

Earthland and global equity

A justified question is posed by developing countries to industrialized nations: Are you trying to tell our millions of people that they should not reach the same standard of living as your citizen? You have been polluting the Planet for centuries, and now you are teaching us that we should learn from your mistakes! How dare you suggest that we should not buy cars but create more innovative mobility systems, as an example!

Many people say that countries have to develop first, and worry about the environment only after they can afford it. Unfortunately the world does not work that way: Contemporary, industrial urban poverty means dirty water, poor sanitation, polluting energy, no public transport, no decent work, no housing, no sense of community, no education, no equal opportunities, more global competition. We are back at decoupling: How to secure access to basic services for all without an economic growth that is based on exploitation of human and natural resources, and that only brings success to a few?

In a relatively short period of time we’ve been through industrial and information technology revolutions. What is the quantum leap that we have to take today? Eco-efficiency will not be enough. Can there be a “business case” for multinational industries in producing less for more people with fewer resources? Who will be the first politician to win elections without promising growth, only more happiness?

Tariq Banuri, also a World Future Councillor, gave a speech at the conference. “Think of the world as one country, Earthland, where people will have to think and act collectively. Stop talking about the earth as a forgiving mother. The Earth does not forgive,” he said.


(this is a post-scriptum to two EU-conferences on this topic this year, first in Helsinki, second in Hamburg)

Let me open with a polemical question: Do we need “Architectural policies” – or should we focus on other policies, which could have a more direct impact on the built environment than the art of building?

“Cities”, the urban scale has become the talk of the town. Analysts, strategists, bankers, business people, sociologists, ICT gurus, R&D thinkers, politicians, everyone loves to talk about the changing role of cites on the global scene, glocalization. Local politicians may not exactly know what it means – but as long as it seems to give them more clout, they’ll repeat that “cities are drivers of national and global economies”. Urban planners, often with a background in architecture, are dumbfounded. They don’t know how to interpret the changing urban paradigm, which now embraces also the metropolitan dimension, or regionalization that professor Jefferey M. Sellers talks about. This means two more policies to deal with: Urban policies and Metropolitan policies.

Let’s turn the question around for a moment: What do we want to gain with an architectural policy? Do architects feel misunderstood, not truly appreciated and sufficiently honor(ari)ed? In other words: are architectural policies supposed to strengthen the role of architects in society? Or is the goal to make our cities and communities more liveable?

If the aim is to ask governments to sign something like a trade union declaration of architects as a profession, I’d like to distance myself. Even professionally, this is not the age of guilds and clubs any more, but of roundtables and forums, where the most diverse points of view should converge. One of professor Julian Wékel’s conclusions is that “planners in today’s radical changes have to rethink urban planning, have to rethink the city, and have to rethink society”. He notes that this is “a task not to be solved only by planners, but by of all us”.

If the intention is, however, to find new answers to old and new questions of urbanization and metropolitanization, such as upgrading urban structures, housing for all, mobile work, services to the aged, mobility, energy consumption, public space, urban agriculture, you name it, I’m all for it. This brings me back to my original question: Are we convinced that architectural policies – and not something else – will do the trick? Let me list some of the policies that I’ve in mind.

Transparency. Unfortunately, real estate development and construction are infamous for corruption all over the world. Any policies and the best of intentions won’t make construction any more sustainable, if corruption cuts long processes short. Action against corruption could be the most efficient architectural policy, not only in developing countries and countries in transition, but also in our so-called ‘transparent’ welfare states? The basic problem with corruption is, of course, not that someone earns big money without really having earned it, but that jointly agreed goals get blurred, and technical, social, contextual and functional priorities are pushed aside.

Energy policies. Worldwide 30-40% of all energy is used in buildings and construction. Almost all of this energy is consumed during the operational phase of buildings (heating, cooling, lighting, appliances). We know that the savings potential is huge and that saving energy saves money, human health and the climate. Another 20% are poured into mobility and logistics.

Increasing the proportion of renewable energy sources in energy production is the third pillar of sustainable energy consumption – after savings and increasing efficiency. Given the present construction boom in many parts of the world, low-energy construction should be the rule, not the exception! It does not need rocket science but mainly basic technology, which is already available. How can public policies and architects promote sustainable energy use in the built environment?

Privatization policies. Andres Kurg paints a lively picture of two opposite housing ideals in post-Soviet Estonia. The more recent Aaviku area consists of colourful detached single family suburban dwellings for predominantly better-off Estonian residents, whereas the area of Lasnamäe with grim 1970s pre-fabricated multi-storey apartment buildings is inhabited by mostly Russians. Kurg highlights, not the architecture as such, but the way how neo-liberal economy has transformed the socialist city. In Lasnamäe, privatization has become visible in particular in the courtyards which are fragmented into portions, making the coordinated use of public space almost impossible. In Aaviku, this boxing-in is taken for granted from the beginning.

Anything and everything in our daily environment is being privatized: water, energy, public transport, schools, childcare, care for the elderly, the whole “public sphere”. Privatization, sometimes the mere outsourcing, of basic public services means that decision-making is moved to closed chambers, also decisions concerning architecture.

Real estate policies. Whereas Kurg looks at the change of politics from close-up, Valentina Croci has followed the same phenomenon from a distance, analyzing how the redefinition of the European Union, the joining of ten countries in May 2004 not only changed ‘Old’ into ‘New’ Europe, but put unpredictable, non-linear cultural processes into motion. “As the economic and political balance of the enlarged European Union is being redrawn, the identities of the newly joined countries are in flux”, she writes. Real estate policies and political attitudes to historic preservation of the cultural heritage will determine the future of cities in the former ‘Eastern’ Europe within a few quickly passing years. How much of the built environment that was saved by poverty will be erased by newly acquired economic wealth?


Public procurement policies. Public sector purchasing amounts to about 15% of the GDP of OECD countries. If wisely used, it can be a powerful strategic tool to support innovation, decent work and fair trade, and to save energy and other resources. As an example, one of the goals of the Sustainable Procurement Action Plan in the United Kingdom is a sustainably built and managed central government estate that minimises carbon emissions, waste and water consumption and increases energy efficiency.

Organizing open architectural competitions in order to find the best architect and best solution is a well-know form of public procurement. Not only can the use of different kinds of competitions be mainstreamed, but the award criteria have to be updated continuously. Energy has to be everywhere.

As a conclusion, I’m afraid that architectural policies won’t do the trick alone. The point of view of the built environment as the context of human life – not of architecture – has to be omnipresent in all policies. In order for this to happen, architects will have to step into politics and push for other policies, as well.