DesignIntelligence Media Group

The Shift in Sustainability

by Sandy Mendler

During this time of extreme income inequality and a growing political divide in the country, support for sustainability is challenged by what Alex Schafran refers to as an “Incomplete Coalition” — we have been focusing on sustainability now for a long time, and if it was a complete idea, if it was sufficiently inclusive, we would have the widespread support that is needed to solve the problem by now. People living in urban, suburban and rural areas, home owners and renters, rich and poor, all need healthy neighborhoods to live in, but instead, we have promoted idealized technical solutions and turned a blind eye to the racialized economic drivers that determine where people can live — it is an incomplete approach. Today’s push for sustainability must place an increased emphasis on the design of our communities to address climate change, public health, and the relationship of the environment and social inequality.

I started my focus on sustainability back in the early 1990s, working with HOK and in Washington, D.C. It was a very interesting time because the federal government was exploring through the greening of the White House and a series of executive orders — how to support the idea of sustainability in architecture and the larger built environment. I was also heavily involved in the early days of the U.S. Green Building Council and on the original committee for the development of the LEED green building rating system. The main issue we were looking at was efficiency: how could we, through design, “do well by doing good,” as Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpets, used to say. Where could we be more efficient — and resource-efficient — and get the pollutants out of the production process? It was a focus on finding those win-win design solutions that would be both better ecologically and also produce a better economic return.

The U.S. Green Building Council was also very much focused on market transformation — this idea that the market would reward this focus on providing a social benefit at the same time as an economic benefit. In the LEED system, it was a conscious decision to measure energy efficiency in terms of the cost of energy rather than in terms of energy itself, underscoring that this was both an environmental and an economic savings.

The Changing Movement

All of that is important to understanding where this movement started, but also the limitations of it. Now, there is a sense that looking only at the issues of efficiency — though there have been some great successes — is not going to be sufficient to address the disconnect in terms of who benefits when we reduce carbon emissions and protect ecological resources. In the evolution of this movement, people are looking more than ever at issues of equity — is the green building movement seen as a luxury for people that can afford to invest in green buildings, or is it having a much more widespread impact?

We are also seeing greater urgency in the movement as the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent — sea-level rise, increasingly powerful storms and flooding, and wildfires are costly. We also need to ask how environmental impacts affect human health and well-being, both in the present as well as looking toward the future. And then, how are those impacts distributed? We are seeing evidence that the people at the low end of the income spectrum are also exposed to the most environmental challenges in terms of health. Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative, also known as BARHII, published a report in 2015 describing what they call a “social gradient,” with people in low-income neighborhoods systematically having lower life expectancy than people in higher income neighborhoods. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, people in West Oakland live on average 10 years less than people who live in the Berkeley Hills, and people living in Bay View Hunters Point live on average 14 years less than people who live in the Russian Hill neighborhood.

Win-wins become apparent when carbon reduction goals are aligned with public health goals. A 2014 study showed that investments in emissions reductions have real financial benefits — and can actually pay for themselves in terms of avoided costs for health care — as each dollar spent on air quality improvements can yield between 26 cents and $10.50 in savings associated with health costs. In fact, we are seeing public hospitals invest in housing and other community improvements as a strategy to reduce the cost of services. This is one of the innovations of the Affordable Care Act, as it provides for shared savings to the hospital when the population it serves has improved health outcomes.

Instead of thinking about incremental improvement, we can work toward design that addresses whole communities to improve health, create jobs, and build resilience with green infrastructure while meeting carbon reduction goals. This is the bigger question: how do we transform our cities and our economy to produce an environment that we will all be able to live with for a long time? So, in this sense, design is needed more than ever for the new models that will be fundamentally more sustainable over time, while addressing health and climate challenges.

Sustainability and the Community

Today, the challenge is to bring these issues down to the community scale, because it is at that scale where the benefits of sustainability truly become evident. For example, we can look at shoreline areas that are at risk from sea-level rise, many of which are degraded industrial areas that have been long neglected. When those areas are restored as part of a natural living system, it protects the shoreline. Our team at Mithun has been working with a task force group in West Contra Costa county to develop a “living levee” solution similar to an earlier pilot developed for Ora Loma. The living levee involves an expanded marsh built on a slope to accommodate sea-level rise over time, providing a beautiful natural amenity that sequesters carbon, a great alternative to building a sea wall.

When we provide an environmental asset, parkland, or open space, we can connect it to restorative efforts in the adjacent communities. Those are places where we get the most sustainability multiplier effects. For example, North Richmond is a fenceline community in West Contra Costa county that has struggled with the legacy of racism, through red lining in the past and pollution and disinvestment in the present. While the proposed living levee will provide protection, we have also been supporting community-driven efforts to increase afford-able housing, community gathering space and local business opportunities together with tree planting to filter air pollution and manage storm water. The combination of protective measures with affordable housing and community health investments will be transformative.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined “social determinants of health” as the environmental conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. Research shows that 80–90% of the impact on long-term health outcomes is related to these social determinants, with health access and health treatment only impacting approximately 10–20% of a person’s health. So, designers can have a strong influence, creating healthier communities that are more walkable with more access to green space, and addressing air quality impacts. The design community must make the case for how the decisions around the built environment have a tangible impact on peoples’ lives.

Of course, it is important to have policy at the federal and state levels to address the issues that drive decisions around fuel sources and energy; but in addition, architects, planners, and designers need to communicate to the public that the way we design communities is fundamental to creating sustainable solutions. It is possible that if we do this right in a very transparent and inclusive manner, some of the social divides could be addressed at the same time. Communities with strong local economies and local services are inherently more sustainable and resilient and provide greater access to opportunity.

Changing the Investment Value

We also need to shift the way we think about sustainability from one of, “How much will it cost to address this terrible problem?” to “What are the potential gains and the benefits of providing this necessary investment?” It goes from the cost column to the investment column. Instead of addressing our decisions around communities solely in terms of an economic metric, we can look at value in a much more multifaceted way.

In addition to the economic return, we can also look at how we build social capital, how we build community connections, how we build health, and impact opportunity, access to jobs, access to transportation, and all those other aspects that provide a community with a higher quality of life. We can look at the value of that investment and work with communities to make sure it reflects their values.

Ultimately, the conversation around climate is happening at the national level, it is happening at the international level, and it does feel abstract. It does feel like the decisions that any individual or any community make will be a drop in the bucket. But if we can shift practices and find the new models that produce less carbon emissions while addressing all the other human needs, then we provide a systemic solution that will have a chance of having a widespread impact.

Equity and Sustainable Design

The issues of inequity and inequality are not new at all to the people that are experiencing them. There has been a consistent effort in the marginalized communities to address these challenges. It would be wrong to think of this as a new movement, but it does seem that a tipping point has been reached, where the corrosive effect of inequality is becoming more evident to our society as whole. The environmental justice community has been working for a long time to bring attention to the impacts to under-invested and marginalized communities, but we are seeing a greater recognition now of how essential it is to address environmental justice as an integral part of a larger sustainable design agenda with equity at the core. In California, which was revolutionary in creating a Cap-and-Trade program to address its climate goals, there has been tension between those advocating for a primary focus on carbon reduction and environmental justice advocates calling for an approach that benefits impacted communities. In fact, environmental justice activists in California initially fought against the re-authorization of Cap-and-Trade because the program was actually making localized health impacts worse in communities of color. Capital tends to flow to the places that have the highest return, so the projects that were reducing carbon emissions were all occurring in the higher income areas or out of state, and many lower income areas and communities of color were actually experiencing greater emissions. So, the market-based system was not only not helping those under-invested communities, it was making the situation worse.

In the end, two additional laws were passed as a compromise to win support for re-authorization, changing the direction of the Cap-and-Trade program to require a portion of the investments in carbon emission reductions to be made in those neighborhoods that are most impacted. This also led to the creation of the Transformative Climate Communities program, which funds the development of neighborhood- level community plans providing local economic, environmental and health benefits to disadvantaged communities. In the end, climate advocates realized they could not abstractly look for the most economically efficient place to reduce carbon emissions — they had to look at the human side as well.

We are at a level of income inequality that we have not seen nationally since the 1920s, and the current economic dynamic — concentrating wealth and concentrating poverty — is not only unjust, but it is also going to limit the ability of the economy to continue to grow. Looking ahead, there is an opportunity to replace unsustainable extractive growth with healthy, sustainable and inclusive growth.

A Year, Reviewed

Looking back at 2019, Greta Thunberg has been an amazing advocate. She has not only spoken to youth in this country in a way that has grabbed their attention, but also to the parents of young people. Her message that we cannot be complacent about the future and that our kids need us to act with urgency has been very powerful. We are also seeing the mounting evidence of the impacts of climate change, and that the impacts are greater than what was predicted. We are seeing a trendline that is going in the wrong direction. Considering the Green New Deal, which is an exciting idea in general, it is very important the design industry finds a way to provide our input to this thinking. Should the Green New Deal go forward, the focus needs to include an understanding of the opportunity to make transformative change through development in local communities. That application in real places by real communities is going to be fundamental to the success and to the realization of public benefit.

Into the Future

I tend to be reflexively optimistic, but it is harder these days. We are at a serious inflection point, to borrow a term, and the decisions that are made in the coming decade will be very important. In California, there is an estimated housing deficit of 3.5 million units, and the governor has stated that he is committed to getting those built between now and 2025. So, it really matters where those housing units are built, how they are built, and how they align with a set of equitable sustain-ability goals and land-use priorities. This is a hugely important time for designers and people in the design community to step up and help set that direction.

The design community can provide fresh thinking through design challenges. Two recent examples are the recent Resilient by Design and Rebuild by Design projects. Rebuild by Design was a collaborative design exercise with both local designers and people from all over the world to look at how to rebuild New York City after Hurricane Sandy. They created innovative models that would address both climate adaption needs and sustainability goals. The Resilient by Design project was modeled after Rebuild by Design and developed as an exercise to plan in advance of a crisis, rather than after it. It was also was done in advance of funding to build the prototypes. Nine design concepts were developed, together with community partners, to address the challenges of climate adaptation with new sustainable models that also addressed the social equity needs in the community. This is a good model of bringing a cross-section of talent from local, national, and international groups to invest in real solutions within real communities.

There are always leading clients who are interested in making something unique as well. Some of the places where we have had great success working with innovative clients have been in the university realm. We had the opportunity to work with Chatham University to create their new Eden Hall campus, an innovative net-zero energy, net-zero water, net-zero waste campus from the ground up as a living-learning environment for sustainability. As it has been built out, they are learning how important the project is, but also how it challenges the way they interact with students, develop new governance structures, and create new ways of engaging in collaborative learning on-campus.

On the city side, we see desire for innovation to address growing affordable housing challenges, as the market will not solve this problem on its own. But the problem is often that public funds seem to be siloed. We can make the case for how design will produce what we call “avoided costs” — a reduction in spending for health and public safety with a healthier, better built environment. But it is still hard to allocate dollars across one silo to the other.

There has been some success with community-benefit agreements, essentially a tax on new development that is targeted to the desires of the local community. Yet, a community-benefit agreement is a more difficult approach to take, particularly if the community does not have a strong market and does not have the ability to attract the kind of development that can afford to pay the premium. In those communities, mitigation funds become really important.

One program that has been effective in building the partnerships needed to create innovative new development models is EcoDistricts, a nonprofit formed to guide the collaborative community development process, engaging public, private and civic participation. Sun Valley in Denver, Colorado, is an example where Mithun worked to establish healthy development goals for a community where 70% of the residents currently live below the poverty line. It is being redeveloped as an EcoDistrict, to transform existing low-density public housing into an inclusive, mixed-income community with access to healthy food and family-friendly places, while offering all existing residents subsidized housing in the new development. The development includes renewables, green infrastructure, community gardens and a walkable community with ample services — an exciting model of community revitalization without displacement.

In the end, it is crucial that we, as architects, develop strong partnerships to look holistically at solutions. It is not possible to effectively address the challenges of climate change, adaption, and social equity just at the building scale, or at the large landscape scale, or independently in land-use planning.
It requires a larger collaborative effort to develop the brilliant climate positive solutions that address challenges comprehensively, creating virtuous cycles of investment that build health and wealth in communities. At the same time, community voice is fundamental. Gathering all of the expertise and supporting community leaders to develop solutions collaboratively — that is the largest shift.

A principal with Mithun, Sandy is a nationally recognized design leader, author and advocate focused on creating inspiring, healthy places for sustainable living. A pio-neering member of the USGBC and AIA Committee on the Environment, Sandy was national Chair of AIA COTE in 2000 and 2001, and served twice on the USGBC national board contributing to the early development of the LEED green building rating system. She is currently involved with EcoDistricts and has contributed to devel-opment of their standard. Lead author of the seminal book, “The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design,” Sandy teaches, lectures and serves on numerous peer review and expert panels. Her current research and writing focuses on sustainability, resilience and equity at the neighborhood scale.

BACEI (2016). Another Inconvenient Truth: To Achieve Climate Change Goals, California Must Remove Barriers to Sustainable Land Use, August 2016, accessed at: http://www. bayarea Another_Inconvenient_Truth_ BACEI16.pdf

BACEI (2018). Continuing Growth and Unparalleled Innova-tion: Bay Area Economic Profile, Tenth in a Series, July 2018, accessed at:

BARHII (2015). Health Inequities in the Bay Area. Published online by Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative. Accessed at:

California Environmental Justice Alliance (2016). Transformative Climate Communities: Community Vision and Principals for a Successful Program, California Environmental Justice Alliance, Accessed at TCCReport.2016.FINAL-OCR.pdf

Chatham Eden Hall Campus, see: https://www.edenhall.

Cushing, L., Morello-Frosch, R., Wander, M., & Pastor, M. (2015). The Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Health of Everyone: The Relationship Between Social Inequality and Environmental Quality, Annual Review of Public Health 36 (March 2015): 193–209

Detter, D. and Fölster, S. (2017). The Public Wealth of Cities: How to Unlock Hidden Assets to Boost Growth and Prosperity, Washington DC: The Brookings Institution Press.

EcoDistricts (2016). EcoDistricts Protocol Version 1.1, see

Florida, R. (2017). The New Urban Crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class – and what we can do about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Linden, E. (2019). How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong: Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios. “The New York Times”, November 8, 2019.

McKinsey Institute (2016). A Toolkit to Close California’s Housing Gap: 3.5 Million Homes by 2025, October 2016.

Mendez, M.A. (2015). Assessing local climate action plans for public health co-benefits in environmental justice communities, Local Environment, 20:6, 637-663, DOI:10.1080/13549839.201 5.1038227

Resilient by Design, see:

Roseland, M. (2005). Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and their Communities. New Society Publishers, Garbriola Island, BC Canada.

Schafran, A. (2018). The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics. Oakland, California: University of California Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv65svzf

Stiglitz, J.E., Sen, A. and Fitoussi, J.P. (2010). Mismeasuring our lives: Why GDP Doesn’t add up. New York, NY: The New Press.

Sun Valley EcoDistrict, see: profile/sun-valley-ecodistrict/

i“In a study of emissions reductions in the USA, researchers estimated that the monetised human health benefits associated with air quality improvements have the potential to offset between26% and 1050% of the cost of various carbon policies. In other words, each dollar spent on air quality improvements can yield between 26 cents and$10.50 in savings associated with health costs” (Mendez 2015; citing Thompson et al. 2014).

ii In a report developed by researchers at UC Berkeley, USC, UCLA, and Occidental College, researchers found that large GHG-emitting facilities, particularly those producing a public health concern from PM10 pollution, are located in neighbor-hoods with higher proportions of residents of color and residents living in poverty. They also found that those large pollution sources actually increased during the time that cap-and-trade was in effect, and that many emissions reductions associated with the program were linked to offset projects located outside of California. (Cushing et al. 2015, p. 10)