How to Game Urban Design to Shape Sustainable Cities

  • 2016-03-23
  • GreenBiz

Personal heaters are a summer survival tool for many office workers chilled to the bone by hyperactive ventilation systems — an act of self-defense against an epidemic of overcooling that is wasting energy and confounding comfort in not only offices but also large shops, schools and other buildings.

An audit of U.S. government buildings found that over three-fifths of their occupants felt too cold in the summer. The most likely culprit behind this big chill? Engineering conventions — slavish adherence to unfounded and outdated rules of thumb that cause mis-programming of air conditioning systems.

Frozen spaces are but one chilling case of an iceberg of waste. Many technologies, practices and systems that we interact with every day are shaped by default settings in the form of "established practice," professional standards and design codes. Many deliver dysfunction and overconsumption by design.

Zoning rules preclude the construction of affordable microhomes. An outmoded presumption of universal automobile ownership begets wide streets and "gargantuan" gaps between intersections that hog-tie urban planners working to increase density.

Default settings dial in waste in all manner of electronic devices, keeping video game boxes on perpetual standby and pre-programming irrigation controllers to drown gardens in wasted water. And many such controllers revert to their wasteful factory defaults every time there is a power outage, undermining any conservation impulses consumers might have had.

Dysfunctional default settings can take decades to set right.The flip side, however, is that confronting problematic design defaults can open some surprising opportunities to improve living, save money, reduce pollution and conserve precious resources from energy to water to open space — sometimes all at the same time.

Breaking through decades of inertia to overcome embedded defaults will require that engineers, design professionals and policy-makers admit they may have been wrong or even irrational in the past and become activists for reexamining our assumptions about the way things need to be.

And it will require patience: As reformers such as Jeff Speck, a Boston-based city planner and architect and author of "Walkable City," have documented, dysfunctional default settings can take decades to set right.