Chris Turner is an observer of the environmental lobby’s failure to engage the public on the subject of climate change. The problem, he maintains, is the gloomy message purveyed by the lobby; no one wants to listen. Instead, Turner taps into a vital human need for stories of ordinary people who are transforming society. In his book, The Geography of Hope, he paints pictures of a new landscape where alternative energy sources prevail and people live more in synch with the natural world. In fact today you can easily find professional and known commercial construction company in Perth.

And he answers a big question: what does it take to get communities on a sustainable trajectory?

Defining Truly Sustainable Design

  1. F. Schumacher, writing about sustainable development in the early 1970’s, recognized that any definition of sustainability must account for externalities, or unaccounted for consequences of development. His own definition in the book Small is Beautiful focused on a lifestyle designed for permanence. As Turner discovered during his travels, one person’s understanding of sustainability can be remarkably different from another’s.

In the master planned community of Drake’s Landing in Okotoks, Alberta, a new housing development features a variety of renewable energy technologies: solar panels, borehole thermal energy storage, and a district heating system. There’s a problem with this idyll: as Turner points out, this is still suburbia and car-dependent, with people commuting into the city of Calgary. Cars and suburban sprawl are twin evils that enable each other and need to be eliminated by future planning efforts if CO2 levels are to come down, and the quality of the environment preserved.

Turner finds sustainability alive and well in unexpected places: on the Danish island of Samsø, in the Taos Valley of New Mexico, and in Cuba’s organic urban agricultural practices. The heroes of sustainability are often unassuming and include a former farmer and renewable energy enthusiast, Søren Hermansen, and a renegade architect named Michael Reynolds.

What these people and communities share is “rational exuberance”, or an intelligent embrace of a more sustainable way of life. Turner’s own definition of sustainability sums it up: sustainability is “a wellspring of social change, a revolutionary concept as powerfully progressively disruptive as democracy once was.” For communities to become sustainable requires social change, not political mantras or policies.

Promoting Sustainable Design with Examples of Built Developments

Rather than selling sustainable development, Turner attracts converts with exhilarating illustrations of a renewable future. Sustainable design examples include:

  • Seaside, a new urbanism community in Florida; it demonstrates there are better ways to organize a community than around cars, and that pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods are nicer to live in.
  • Freiburg in Germany hosts a model sustainable community called Vauban, featuring mixed-use design, medium density housing, hyper-insulated homes, renewable technologies and a family-friendly environment.

The impetus for Vauban came from a citizens’ group called Forum Vauban. A redevelopment of what was a French barracks, the neighbourhood of Vauban is a reminder that the technologies necessary for developing sustainable cities already exist. What’s needed for sustainable development to occur are social will and collaboration.

The answer to Turner’s big question about how to promote sustainable development is that real change, the kind that will produce a sustainable future, is being created by local-level initiatives, conceived and carried out by regular folk. No one needs to scare these people into adopting sustainable lifestyles. Sustainable communities will become commonplace when citizens become more involved in planning their own neighbourhoods and cities.