Barrie Barton, founder of research and strategy firm Right Angle Studios, led a thoughtful session at a recent ULI Australia event in Sydney, saying that the property industry needs to do better and move away from past practices that no longer work.
Barton showed a slide plotting technical system design types along an axis from degenerative to regenerative. “It describes the sort of development that we have been doing: degenerative development—development which leaves the planet worse off for the fact that it’s occurred,” he said.
“We’re moving slowly from degenerative development through ‘green’—that was a bit of a win. Now we’re here roughly around ‘sustainable,’ where we throw our hands up in the air and go, ‘Amazing! Zero carbon! No footprint!’
“That, unfortunately, is not enough. We’ve taken so much from the planet that we need to get, here, into development and design which is more restorative and more regenerative. So, as much as I commend any company for spending money on zero footprint, unfortunately it forgets the past and it also forgets the future. It’s actually not a good enough standard.”
To illustrate his thinking, Barton showed a slide of a room in the Omega Center development in Rhinebeck, New York, designed by BNIM. It showed people doing yoga in what was once a wastewater treatment plant. He noted that the building generates more energy than it consumes. But, he went on, “the more interesting thing is what it does on a social level, on a human level.
“It is encouraging people to connect with their environment, to think that sustainability is not just about how we manage our resources, our physical resources. What it is, is that we human beings are physical resources as well, right? We deplete. We run out. We run down. So, this is a really great exercise in taking sustainability out of just being about the ‘green-y’ stuff and about the environment, and making it into the community stuff and the social stuff as well.”
While Barton pointed approvingly to Parisian urban reuse projects Tour Bois-le-Prêtre and Palais de Tokyo by architects Lacaton and Vassal, he also pointed to the even more visionary South Lake Union in Seattle to show how progressive design can be. There, developers worked closely with the city council to create a site where “the normal rules do not apply for planning.”
He called the neighborhood a “charter city.” “They’ve been given permission, and they’ve been enabled, to do the sorts of development that the world actually needs and that the government’s actually asked for.” The project started in 2004, when the Seattle City Council designated the South Lake Union neighborhood one of the city’s six urban centers.
In 2013, the council also adopted an incentive zoning ordinance under which, the city’s website explains, projects may gain extra floor area or height by providing affordable housing and participating in a regional transfer-of-development-rights program. The incentives program is intended to provide capacity for up to 12,000 households and 22,000 new jobs over the next 20 years, the city says, and is expected to generate $45 million for affordable housing and $27 million in new infrastructure investments, as well as preserve 25,000 acres (10,000 ha) of rural farm and forest land over the next 25 years.
Barton emphasized several times during his talk the importance of developers bringing the community along with them by acknowledging in their plans the original uses of sites.
He cited a development in Sydney that is part of the New South Wales government’s Bays Precinct redevelopment of the White Bay Power Station, an industrial site unused for decades. “There was a hornet’s nest of community sentiment around that as well,” he said. “It seems people really care about what was there, even if they have never set foot on the site.”
He encouraged those in the room also to think more carefully about the resources at their disposal for each project and to find ways to upcycle—rather than the more common recycle—old buildings.
Barton noted that language matters: “The words we use to describe cities are often poorly chosen and misunderstood,” he said.
“Sorry to throw rocks early, but I object to the word recycle. There’s no ambition in that. ‘Recycle’—the idea that we would just do something again. ‘Rinse, repeat’: that’s what recycle means. It’s not particularly inspiring, I don’t think.
“Our job, in property, where we’re creating things that last for 70 years, 100 years, if you’ve got a good builder: you’d better be doing something better than currently exists today, right? It’s about upcycling; it’s about moving things along and making them better. And it’s a really, really exciting and challenging thing to do in all properties.”
Finally, Barton urged the people in the room to find new allies in the battles that lie ahead as the future of the world is decided.
“We all work for developers, builders, architects in here. Where is the person from Google or Apple? Where are all of the other people that we need to create worlds? They’re not in this room. It’s just us in our little microcosm.”
Town planners, architects, developers, and government officials need to work with people outside the bubble to get the desired results, he said.
“We’re all in this together. So, stop thinking about the people that are just in our direct industry and [think of] all of the brands and all of the incredibly smart, creative people that you can work with to get together with the same objectives. We’re not that different, really. And there are some really exciting opportunities with people outside of the property bubble—to misuse that phrase—not the least of which is our citizens.”