- Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World
Sustainability. Sustainable. These words are omnipresent today. The context of their use varies widely from insightful to banal to just plain fluff. To assess the quality of what is being said in the name of sustainability, two questions are helpful to ask: “By what standard is something to be regarded as sustainable?” and “Is something important being said about sustainability?” Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities by Patrick M. Condon delivers on both accounts.
In the context of design, the meaning of “sustainable” continues to be a somewhat cloudy idea that evades coalescing into a precise definition (having both a genus and differentia), or at the very least, an agreed set of criteria for assessing its achievement. The definitional standard is evolving and discussions of sustainability tend to avoid directly addressing the issue, leaving the meaning of sustainable as something that is simply understood. There is danger that the understood approach would be the case here—until the end of Chapter 2 (Restore the Streetcar), where Condon uses two critically important paragraphs to describe an optimal transit system. In the first, through the example of cost-effectiveness, Condon speaks sufficiently about defining sustainability for the reader to understand how he thinks about the word. In the second, Condon hits the mark, articulating his criteria for measuring the sustainability of urban design proposals in three practical principles first developed by the Design Centre for Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. They are: “. . . (1) shorter trips are better than long trips, (2) low carbon is better than high carbon, and (3) choose what is most affordable over the long term” (35). Through the rest of the book, Condon constructs seven rules for community design to pursue these principles. Whatever you regard the word “sustainable” to mean, you cannot argue that the author’s construct of the term is not well articulated.
The book’s layout allows it to be read on two levels. The first is the text itself. A slim 166 pages, the book is rich in ideas and well-articulated arguments for those ideas. It frames the problems of our existing urban forms clearly and proposes solutions. The writing is organized and well illustrated with examples. It is very accessible to the casual reader and well suited to policy-makers, elected officials, and the public at large. This is the book to hand to elected officials to help them understand the issues and possible solutions for making their communities more sustainable.
The second level of the book is the side-notes. The side-notes provide the sources for ideas and facts stated in the text with appropriate citations, but go beyond that to provide an secondary narrative that integrates that information into a detailed supplement that takes the reader beyond what is told in the text. This addresses a different audience that wants or needs the detail for professional or educational purposes, and it does so in a way that presents a coherent sub-narrative through the entire book.
The Seven Rules
In his introduction to the seven rules, Condon provides a concise but informative explanation of global warming and why it is a problem (our cities now contribute 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions). A short history of North American cities in the post-World War II boom (when urban sprawl really [End Page 313] took off) explains the path to our present dilemma. Condon briefly reviews the decisions that shaped our cities and raises the big problems that emerged during the urban expansion. In subsequent chapters, these decisions and the problems they caused are discussed and developed in the context of each of the seven rules.
Condon shows that the sustainability problems of our cities stem from their physical design. More precisely, from the model of city design relentlessly pursued since the mid-20th century. The New Urbanists have pointed out that...