The projected rise in sea levels “threatens the very existence of New Orleans,” the city’s mayor, Ray Nagin, said in the New York Times weeks before the 2005 hurricane season. Nagin has pledged—along with, according to the latest talley, 186 other U.S. mayors of both major political parties—to enforce the Kyoto Protocol, known as the global climate treaty. Signed by the European Union and Japan but not the United States, this 1997 document asks industrialized nations to reduce carbon dioxide, methane, and other emissions—greenhouse gases known to cause climate change. (Rising sea levels are one of the many perilous effects of global warming.)
The mayors are instituting policies, each according to his or her city’s needs and resources. In Seattle cruise ships are asked to turn off their diesel engines while in port; Salt Lake City has become the largest buyer of wind power in Utah; and New York City is purchasing hybrid-powered vehicles. On the regional level, the governors of nine Northeast states have pledged to curb greenhouse gases, and a number of Western states are following their lead.
University and college campuses “compete to shrink their mark on the environment,” the Washington Post reports. Kentucky’s tiny Berea College now has a multimillion-dollar Ecovillage that, the paper says, “represents the cutting edge of environmental architecture.” Sprawling Harvard University buys renewable energy. To turn these ideas into real functioning and memorable places, designers in every discipline are needed.
Whether it’s Berea’s composting or low-flush toilets, radiant-heat floors, and recycled-content carpets; or Ball State University’s biofuel-powered shuttles in Indiana, each design is based on a singular decision to make the world cleaner, safer, and more just—one product, one room, one building, one city, one region at a time. This is activism twenty-first-century style.
The visionaries in this issue are among these brave new proponents for the local approach. Among them is Jaime Lerner, an architect-mayor who introduced commonsense measures in his hometown, Curitiba, Brazil, and in the process created a model for sustainable cities. Egyptian architect and Library of Alexandria director Ismaïl Serageldin talks of his institution as “a space of freedom for dialogue and learning” with a potential to radiate enlightenment into the Arab world and beyond. Los Angeles councilwoman Jan Perry works with the belief that great architecture, accompanied by solid social programs, can uplift a downtrodden neighborhood—surely an inspiration for city officials everywhere in search of making their mean streets more beautiful and humane.
Skeptics—some of them cynical naysayers, others understandably overwhelmed by the complexity of global problems—scoff at these actions and ideas, calling them small and inconsequential. They’re wrong. As our visionary John Thackara emphasizes, many small acts undertaken together can create new worlds.