Greenbuild to Canfield Green: The Missing Link of Social Equity in Sustainability

This now-famous image, St. Louis County’s finest wishing everyone a Merry Christmas from Ferguson, Missouri. Far from the realities of the USGBC holiday party.November 25, 2014. Photo by Charlie Riedel, Associated Press.

In a few short hours, I am going to be attending a holiday party, a joint event put on by the Chicago-based Illinois chapter of the US Green Building Council and the Passive House Alliance Chicago. There will be food, drink, and banter. We’ll talk about the great things Chicago is doing in the green building world and various Passive House projects in the region. Doug Farr might even say some words, Katrin Klingenberg might talk about how Passive House will change the world through so few watts per square foot of energy to heat a building, and we will hear about about green building standards allow us to build better communities that are more sustainable, more affordable, and more socially equitable.

But one thing there won’t be is discussion about something that has been completely dominating Facebook, Twitter feeds, and the news cycles across the world, and that’s what has been going on in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, elsewhere– a ticked-off citizenry standing up against state-sanctioned violence by often white police against often black men, violence often condoned by the media, and invariably exonerated by the judiciary.

Green building, on its own, can’t right the listing ship of urban economy, nor can it combat decades of disinvestment or entrenched, institutional racism that plagues cites like St. Louis. But the community development space at large needs to be talking about this. And anyone talking about sustainable development is living under a rock if they don’t see these crises as completely relevant to the future of cities and the future of sustainability.

Unsurprisingly, few voices from the sustainability community or the well-designed echo chamber that is the urbanist blogosphere have weighed in on the debate. Renowned champion of the (since revealed to be bogus) creative class movement, Richard Florida, wrote an article saying that “we desperately need better data.” Aaron Renn had a couple of tweets. Kristin Jeffers (Black Urbanist) touched on it, and, of course, Dick Florida, Richard Florida’s fake Twitter account, has weighed in as well (“Is this a protest or am I waiting in line for brunch?”). LinkedIn is, of course, quiet, because it’s considered uncouth to talk about how Black Lives Matter on a platform designed for networking and clean headshots of professionals wearing suits.

In the field of green building (or even in that field of “green” that I also spend a considerable amount of time in, a.k.a. Finance), we are ostensibly concerned with how to design and retrofit the built environment in ways that creates minimal adverse environmental impact while also actually improving the quality of life for citizens in a community or tenants in a building. Mull over the language, and very little of it will explicitly avoid mention of making lives better or strengthening communities: If the social component of the triple bottom line is equally as important, why isn’t Ferguson worth mentioning when USGBC would rather focus on the number of LEED certified McDonald’s restaurants? I thought we were getting better at this whole social architecture thing, right? Why is USGBC even interested in talking up the virtues of McDonald’s LEED-certified, let’s-be-honest-they’re-mostly-soy-and-corn-burger joints when they can’t pay their workers fairly?

It’s too simple to say that architecture is an extremely white profession and white people don’t know how to talk about Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. The problem transcends race and is more a structural problem of discourse within the movement– but one we desperately need to address.

Postcards from Ferguson: Contests and Contexts for Urban Sustainability

I spent much of August in a midcentury modern lecture hall on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, a sprawling masterpiece of Walter Netsch (1925-2008) that had been planted by Daley the Elder in a formerly cohesive, diverse neighborhood (rended asunder in the name of Progress because Daley needed to build a physical legacy). I was attending the Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy, or SISE, a joint venture of UIC Energy and a few other pretty big-time co-conspirators. The 60-some students came from all over the globe, a combination of graduates, undergraduates, and postgraduates, many with scientific or engineering backgrounds. The lecturers were also diverse, covering everything from particle physics to sustainable healthcare to energy-efficient architecture to urban gardening.

Since finishing a consulting contract in the spring in Indiana with a private equity group, I had been focusing most of my time on green building and sustainability, (having sworn off the private equity world, hopefully forever), starting with energy efficiency trainings, getting involved in LEED and Passive House. Beyond energy efficiency, I’ve always been interested in sustainability from unconventional perspectives, asking questions about things like ownership, equity, or social benefit in addition to the more finite, straightforward parts like energy metrics or photovoltaic capacity.

Last year I drank the Fundrise Kool-Aid and still believe that one day they’re going to get it together as far as fulfilling their original mission of “democratizing” the process of real estate investment instead of just chasing after big investment money and institutional dollars (not that I have any feelings on this matter, of course).

The politics underlying my career is based on critical assumptions that the work we do does not exist in a vacuum but rather in a complex and interconnected world. This shouldn’t come as a revelation to my average reader, but it is pretty exotic in the world of real estate finance, where there is but one bottom line and it has to do with a 10-20% return for typically wealthy, typically white investors. I’m also pretty interested in people. So, it was pretty disappointing to follow the news in August 2014. I spent many a lecture on my computer taking notes while “multi-tasking” (I think that’s the new euphemism for “not consistently paying attention”) with TweetDeck, which let me track multiple feeds.

During lectures that explained the nuances of things ranging from electrical grids, power generation, experimental battery technologies, photovoltaics, and solar thermal, to job safety, community investment, sustainability in healthcare, and water-retentive streetscaping, I switched back and forth between taking notes (on paper), scanning the Tweet-feeds, and bolstering further knowledge of whatever topic was being discussed through Wikipedia articles. Ferguson was in the news, Gaza was in the news. Palestinians in Gaza were live-tweeting their experiences while protestors in Ferguson were doing the same, and Palestinians were giving advice to Ferguson protestors on things like how to best deal with getting tear gas shot at you. You know, useful stuff that it’s now possible to share instantaneously to people you’ve never met– thousands of miles across the globe- who are struggling against similar violence and police oppression.

It was a stark and bizarre contrast with the sanitized world of sustainability, viewed from a lecture hall. One of my favorite lectures from SISE was actually a gentleman from the South Side who ran an urban farm. He had some extremely prescient, critical things to say about discourse and about sustainability (I remember one quote asking why we should be promoting expensive certifications for USDA organic agriculture when kids don’t even know enough about nutrition to drink water). The architects and engineers, by and large, did not– they were interested in design in a social vacuum and “innovation,” whatever that is, in a social vacuum. But far be it from me to judge one over the other by saying that one is not contributing valuable material; my point is rather to say that we can’t talk about sustainability as having a “triple bottom line” unless we’re actually willing to follow through on the conversation about that pesky third part involving “people.”

I remember attending Structures for Inclusion conference in 2011, where an architect got up in front of the group and  murmured, to introduce the event, some words which, within my brain, did gyrate, and which I now remember as the simple words: “People matter.” He received a standing ovation. People matter! Wild! The unfortunate bit is that architects, like most other commission-dependent employment, are often not driven to innovate so much as they are to, well, cop those commissions to get them dollars.

Moving Beyond Vague Consensus

Later in the fall, I spent a week in New Orleans for Greenbuild, USGBC’s annual conference, making the road trip down with a fellow Illowegian, and leaving my adoptive former home of St. Louis simmering a ways up the Mississippi River. Greenbuild, a who’s who of the world of social architects, community do-gooders, and sustainability professionals, marked my second time in the Big Easy, the first time being a few days in the sweltering late summer of 2011, and the Chicago contingent was greeted by temperate weather and a packed itinerary.

It was my first time at Greenbuild, a conference that has been held every year since 2002, when LEED was a much younger standard for green building, a term that even twelve years ago might have, to the uninitiated, more readily conjured up images of beads and sandals before it did glassy office towers– or at least, in the building world, an image of the Tattoine-esque Taos Earthships before an image of, you know, an ordinary suburban house or condos, where ordinary, middle to upper middle class consumers might live– the patchouli-eschewing crowd who frankly doesn’t care about what’s going on in Ferguson. (I am frequently made fun of at work for being That Beads-And-Sandals Guy who wants to eat organic kale and ride my bike to work solely because I believe in things like Building Codes and have therefore been stereotyped as the Green Building Guy.)

The Greenbuild sessions were, well, par at best. “Learn what LEED ND means for your company,” or, “how large companies and big banks don’t finance small affordable housing projects and what that doesn’t mean for your community. The Expo Hall featured everything from Louisiana’s petroleum industry, touting Vinyl as the Material Of Life (one word: plastics), to exotic building materials and even a Colorado company that makes extremely spendy eBikes that you could test-ride around the Expo hall in a small arena. (Bike lanes! Sharrows!)

The Keynote and celebration, on the other hand, really typified my experience in the green building field: a love of glamour, a strong sense of community, positivity, and energy garnished by plentiful food and drink, but also a substantial amount of hot air. I won’t say that it wasn’t awe-inspiring to listen to a stellar performance of Randy Newman’s Louisiana, 1927, adapted for Hurricane Katrina (“Katrina, they’re trying to wash us away”), while sitting on the 20-yard line in a building I had only seen featured on national news when it was missing a large portion of its exterior shell in September of 2005. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, a.k.a. jazz virtuoso Troy Andrews and company, absolutely killed it.

Rick Fedrizzi, the extremely well-paid executive of the US Green Building Council, said a few words about carbon and things (see the whole speech in its charmingly North Coast accented glory here). Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and billionaire Tom Steyer spoke on a two-man panel moderated by environmentalist Paul Hawken. (Sorry, who?) I picked up a tweet from Ellen Carmichael, a right-of-right travel blogger complaining about the USGBC’s radical political agenda. I watched four white men talk about how to build more sustainable communities for every American. Water, in other news, remains wet.

One of the things that threw me off initially about Fedrizzi’s speech was that it didn’t really have any specifically local relevance. He said, hey, New Orleans almost got washed away nine years ago, remember that? He talked about the Mississippi River, which, if we want to get deep into the social versus environmental versus economic, triple-bottom-line analysis, could be as easily admonished as being the venue for a crazy amount of slave trade alongside, yes, its positive cultural legacy, or, say, its flooding. Fedrizzi rambled about carbon parts per million and showed pictures of pretty buildings, which is pretty much what most sustainability professionals seem to do (there is usually some sort of token graph about how sea levels will rise and we’re all screwed), but which I thought was ironic considering that the catastrophic levee failure of New Orleans in August 2005 is widely considered to be the worst manmade disaster in American history as well as a harbinger of worse things to come. It went unmentioned, and we didn’t hear about the hundreds if not thousands of New Orleanians who died as a result of Katrina. Not a word.

When we talk about building resilient communities, we need to talk about acknowledging the really ugly mistakes in our past and ways to learn from them– to prevent them from happening again. I wasn’t expecting a Kanye West moment (Either “Rick Fedrizzi doesn’t care about black people,” perhaps, or I would have even pushed a, “Rick, I’ma let you finish,” had I been so close to the stage), although I find myself wishing for more moments like that in the sanitized ivory tower of the green building industry.

The keynote was simply lacking in foresight within a larger movement that is increasingly concerned with resiliency (buildings that hold up, or, as a colleague of mine put it, the condition of surviving, i.e., against threats and repeated damage) alongside operational efficiency (buildings that are cheaper and easier to maintain, heat, and cool and therefore generate a lower carbon footprint) and design sustainability (things that are more environmentally friendly to build, like, using cellulose instead of polyiso). But it was also lacking in foresight as far as the social equity component is concerned.

Formerly a mere engineer, USGBC’s jet-setting CEO Rick Fedrizzi flies around the world in first-class on a $400,000-some expense account that is about a third of his annual salary to promote the virtues of sustainability. Al Gore’s celebrity largesse destroyed the credibility of sustainability in the public eye– Rick Fedrizzi hasn’t yet lost his lustre in a field dominated by aggressively apolitical mercenaries questing after that next commission.

Unequivocally: dialogue about “urban sustainability” that excludes direct consideration of poor, disenfranchised, and oppressed peoples is neither urban nor sustainable. There are a lot of renowned green building folk out there and even great developers– who can please shut up about doing their part for the greater good by building energy efficient housing if it’s just housing for the wealthy elite in the suburbs. As far as I’m concerned, energy efficient buildings that can turn a profit but can’t deliver social equity aren’t really doing much in the grand scheme of things, but I similarly believe that a net-zero-energy building that is unaffordable to anyone but the wealthy is also achieving, well, jack shit. It’s easy to appreciate the beauty of a Rolls Royce– but no one teaches about Henry Royce or Charles Stewart Rolls in history classes, they teach about Henry Ford. Scalability means that a product can be accessible. Accessibility means you have to take into account, well, poor people. In America, poverty is hopelessly correlated along racial lines, so if you’re not talking about race and poverty in community development, you’re not talking about sustainability.

Perhaps not at Greenbuild, and perhaps not tonight, but hopefully one day someone will steal Rick’s mic, proverbially or literally. There’s a lot of anger from the protestors in Ferguson, in New York. Many of those folks are black, many are white, many are Latino or Asian. Many of the protestors who march and rally in solidarity may indeed be uneducated or poor, but as many may be educated or wealthy. Black Lives Matter is unequivocally not simply a black issue. If it isn’t an issue that we can’t all get behind– finding a meeting point where we can all agree that it’s pretty messed up that there is so much social distance between the glorified, legally-immune cops that patrol our streets and the scores of black men who live on them- seems to me that we have failed as a society.

And if my profession– the one that gazes out through expensively-designed eyewear from its claimed moral high ground in its quest to build, allegedly, more sustainable, more connected, more resilient communities, where human beings can live in better conditions, better housing, and lead more productive lives- can’t talk about the complete lack of connectivity and lack of resiliency that has led cities like Ferguson to melt down based on entrenched systems of oppression and racism perpetuated in large part by the very municipal powers that are ostensibly designed to protect the populations they end up victimizing, then we’re not worth our weight in reclaimed wood flooring.

About Nat Zorach

Nat Zorach is an urban development and energy professional working in Detroit and Chicago.
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