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National conference addresses world sustainability issues

Case Studies | March 1, 2008 | By:

Leading educators get together to prepare for the inconvenient truth.

For the first three days in November, administrators and faculty from both architecture and landscape architecture programs across North America and from abroad met in downtown Minneapolis to share ideas and gather information about how to help their own regions, institutions, and schools prepare for the effects that climate change will have on the designed environment. Sponsored by both the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, the conference showed both the seriousness of the problem and the solidarity that exists around the issue of sustainability.

Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley opened the conference with a sobering talk about the unprecedented climate extremes that have begun to occur across North America. Later that same day the polar explorer, Will Steger, recounted his firsthand experience with the polar ice caps melting, and what that will mean not just for polar animals, but also for coastal human settlements worldwide. J. Drake Hamilton, from Fresh Energy, followed with an urgent plea for the design and construction communities to take the dramatic steps necessary to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2C, a point beyond which most scientists think we will start to see catastrophic disruptions of our food and water supply, as well as the global ecology and economy.

The academic administrators came ready to respond. Most in attendance undersigned a proposal put forward by the ACSA President Kim Tanzer, to establish a National Academy of Environmental Design, that would coordinate and disseminate research on sustainability and related social justice issues such as public health and affordable shelter. This new Academy would also connect to the committee work of the National Academy of Science and of Engineering. As Tanzer noted, the other National Academies arose in times of national or international crisis, and the severity and complexity of global climate change demands a new entity that can help us do the research and develop the knowledge necessary to understand and respond appropriately to the environmental problems we now face.

The conference offered hope, in the sense that a tremendous amount is already underway. Sessions ranged from overviews of what state and municipal governments are doing to green their communities, to talks on energy conservation in buildings and habitat preservation in native landscapes, to presentations on zero-carbon developments in China and the reinstalling of streetcars in Vancouver. Anthony Cortese, who directs the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, also challenged every school to lead their institutions in embracing sustainability in all of their facilities and operations.

While fabric architecture, per se, received little attention, the conference left no doubt that one of the major ways in which we can prepare for the inconvenient truth involves living more lightly on the land, and for that, lightweight tensile structures offer an important option. Also, with hundreds of millions of people potentially displaced as a result of the flooding that will come with climate change, there may be no option other than fabric architecture capable of giving us shelter.

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