Envisioning the Living City

This morning, the International Living Building Institute (ILBI) announced its Living City Design Competition, which asks designers, engineers, and urban planners to imagine cities capable of meeting all the requirements of the Living Building Challenge 2.0. Participants must select an existing city anywhere in the world and transform it through computer renderings and 3-D models. Successful entries will capture the attention of a broad audience while including technical information that will stand up to expert scrutiny.

Below, Jason F. McLennan and Sarah Costello, the CEO and development director, respectively, of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council—which founded the ILBI in 2009—introduce the new competition.

Close your eyes for a moment and think of the cities of the future. What do you see? Vast stretches of gleaming skyscrapers connected by speeding trains or hovercraft? Dark, crowded streets whose only greenery comes from the weeds that assert themselves in untended pavement? For over a century, novelists and filmmakers have helped define our visions of the future, shaping our dreams and our assumptions about what is possible. Think of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner–or even the cartoon future of The Jetsons. Our manifold imaginings of tomorrow’s cities run the gamut from hopeful to despairing, from silly to deadly serious; yet all reflect a profound sense of ecological dislocation. We seem to take it as inevitable that the cities we bequeath to our grandchildren will be massive and developed without reference to the ecosystems they inhabit. Exactly how these cities will be powered, how their inhabitants will secure food, water, and clothing, is anybody’s guess.

We have grown used to predicting an increasingly mechanistic future, but what we have forgotten is that a future that crowds out the natural world is not simply bleak: it is impossible.  A world without a healthy and vibrant natural biosphere simply cannot sustain human life.

We currently stand at a tipping point.  The planet is warming rapidly. Toxic chemicals permeate our air and water. We as a species are consuming resources at a rate that far exceeds the Earth’s carrying capacity. Exacerbating the problem, our cities, suburbs, towns, and villages rely on infrastructure and systems that are fundamentally unsustainable—and rather than correcting our course, we seem compelled to re-invest in these sunk costs.  We know that we must radically alter our current practices if we are to reverse these planetary stressors. But a general sense that we are headed in the wrong direction is not the same thing as a map that shows us where we need to go. Unfortunately, when we look for models of a truly sustainable future to serve as a guide, we are met only with vague notions and impractical utopian schemes.

The Living City Design Competition arose from our belief that we can remake our cities by tapping into the collective wisdom and technical skills that the green building movement has already made manifest.

This is where you come in.

The International Living Building Institute asks you to help create a powerful counter-vision, an inspiring but realistic model for future cities. As Sim van der Ryn has argued, “the environmental crisis is a design crisis.” With this in mind, we call upon the design community to help us find our way. We need powerful conceptual designs for the cities of the near future, the cities that we will retrofit for our children to inhabit and our grandchildren to inherit.

With the Living City Design Competition, we invite the leaders of the design, engineering, and urban planning communities to use the framework of the Living Building Challenge 2.0 to visualize the city of a LIVING future: the tomorrow we hope for, not the future we fear. To learn more about the competition, please visit us at  www.ilbi.org/livingcity.

Categories: Cities