Building cities that celebrate life

A Thought Leader Series Piece

By William McDonough

Note: William McDonough is a globally recognized leader in sustainable development. Trained as an architect, Mr. McDonough’s interests and influence range widely, and he works at all scales. Mr. McDonough has written and lectured extensively on design as the first signal of human intention.

Living in the age of cities
We live in the age of cities, in the midst of the most dramatic transformation of urban life and the urban landscape the world has ever seen. Cities have always been engines of growth, innovation and opportunity, drawing people from afar since the ancient settlements of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus, and the Yellow River gave urban form to “a certain energized crowding” along their alluvial plains.

But urbanization on a global scale has happened in a heartbeat. It took more than 5,000 years of human development for the world’s urban population to approach one billion, in the early 1960s, but in the short half-century since it has more than tripled, reaching 3.5 billion in 2010. By 2030, according to the latest United Nations estimates, five billion people will live in cities, nearly half of them making their lives in homes, schools, workplaces and parks that do not yet exist.

To be sure, the global urban boom, “the big build-out,” presents formidable challenges, but it also offers extraordinary opportunities for regenerative urban growth—growth that supports healthy communities, thriving ecosystems and productive, vigorous economies in cities old and new.

Good design supports sustainable growth
One fast-growing city in which I’m very excited to be working is the Municipality of Haarlemmermeer, in the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s nearby neighbor, the relatively new city of Haarlemmermeer has an international reputation as a supportive, innovative place to establish a sustainable business, and William McDonough + Partners had the privilege of designing the master plan for a new development there.

Working closely with Haarlemmermeer and Delta Development, we designed the first large-scale Cradle to Cradle®-inspired urban development in the Netherlands, Park 20|20. Designed as a dynamic environmental system, the 28-acre site now supports a vibrant, sustainable business community, home to Bosch Siemens Hausgerate, Fox Vakanties and FIFPro, among others. It is a healthy, delightful, productive place, a beacon of good urban growth.

Park 20|20 supports sustainable growth by enhancing the positive, productive effects of good design. Rather than seeking to simply minimize the negative environmental impacts of real estate development, it celebrates the use and re-use of safe, healthy materials; the generation and harvesting of renewable energy, food, clean water and oxygen-rich air; the restoration of ecological health and biodiversity. In other words, it celebrates life. As the marble cutters in Italy like to say when looking at a beautiful piece of stone, “God never has a bad day.”

Natural systems as a model for urban design
Cradle to Cradle generates life-enhancing growth by recognizing healthy, productive natural systems as the model for human designs. From an urban planning perspective, that means seeing each site as a unique ecological system; responding creatively to its natural and cultural landscapes; and enhancing the natural flows of nutrients, water, and clean energy that support life and regenerative growth. It means creating a community of integrated buildings and systems that perform like natural nutrient cycles, an organism or metabolism of viable size and density to serve as urban-scale infrastructure.

Park 20|20 can be seen as an “essay of clues” in Cradle to Cradle-inspired urban design, its network of gardens, green roofs and living buildings making regenerative growth part of the development landscape. Greenhouses grow food and supply Park 20/20 restaurants, where the meals could not be fresher. Green roofs provide habitat for butterflies and birds, while green walls produce oxygen for human inhabitants. Landscape connectivity links the community to a regional system of parks, wetlands and greenways, strengthening an emerging foundation of biodiversity.

Preparing for the future through Cradle to Cradle strategies
Park 20|20’s buildings employ many Cradle to Cradle-inspired strategies, wherever possible, from orientation to the daily and seasonal path of the sun to maximize exposure to natural light, to photosynthetic optimization of surfaces. Photovoltaic arrays and green roofs serve as the buildings’ “leaves and roots,” harvesting clean renewable energy, absorbing and filtering water, and providing habitats.

Wastewater is collected through a district loop and treated in a solar aquatic system on site. Bio-gas from water treatment powers turbines for electricity. Heat generated in that process produces hot water for the hotel. As many Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products as possible have been used throughout. Their coherent use turns buildings into material banks, storage sites of valuable commodities for future generations.

A city designed to celebrate life
These elements underpin the productivity of Park 20|20, and people who come here to spend their day are finding that it is a wonderful place to be. Fresh air, sunlight, and water are plentiful. The environment, indoors and out, is beautiful, comfortable and safe. People have easy access to gardens, parks, waterways and transit, as well as new ideas, knowledge and a creative, innovative community.

There are markets and theaters, athletic fields and restaurants. And more. That’s the bounty cities can offer when they’re designed to celebrate life. And when they are, cities can perform the essential service of 21st century urbanism: creating regenerative buildings and landscapes that produce more good for more people rather than places that are merely less bad. More clean energy, more fresh water, more fertile soil, more food, more productivity, more biodiversity—more health and well-being for all.

William McDonough FAIA, Int. FRIBA, is a globally recognized designer, thought leader, author, sustainable growth pioneer—and a member of the Board of Directors for Sustainability at ASU. Mr. McDonough speaks around the country and the world on these issues, and has spoken at ASU’s Wrigley Lecture Series and the ASU Sustainability Series.

William McDonough is the architect of Delta Development’s Park 20|20, which the Arizona State University Global Sustainability Solutions Center at Haarlemmermeer is analyzing to evaluate the connection between productivity and a sustainable, optimized working environment. The goal is for Park 20|20 to utilize the findings of the project to continue to revolutionize and optimize the working environment for its clients.