The Feasibility Gap

On Friday I spent all day at the Regional Plan Association’s annual conference. This year’s terrific event was entitled “Innovation and the American Metropolis.” The RPA, as it always does, cast a wide net, bringing in experts from the fields of architecture, urban planning, sustainable design, transportation, alternative energy, city planning, computer technology, politics, and so on. Bill McDonough—whose lucrative speaking engagements seem to have survived the hatchet job Fast Company did on him two years ago—kicked off the event in the morning with a typically rousing and poetic speech that had attendees still buzzing at lunch. (I, alas, missed him, but I’ve heard some version of Bill’s song and dance before.)

I did attend the morning and afternoon break-out sessions (one on building a green infrastructure, the other on alternative energy) and left those meetings encouraged, even thrilled, by the amount of collective knowledge and brainpower on display, and frustrated by the seemingly intractable obstacles in the way to utilizing it. In areas like energy, transportation, and sustainable design, there is a surprising amount of consensus on what constitutes best practices and, more importantly, what’s possible now. There is, however, a huge gap between the technically possible (in alternative energy, for example, a range of existing technologies, done in tandem, would establish energy independence and drastically cut our carbon footprint) and the politically feasible. Envisioning the smart grid is a done deal (ask experts from IBM), but implementing it across 50 states and countless jurisdictions another matter. Linking regions with high-speed rail—everyone is in agreement on that, and transportation engineers will tell you how to do it; ask Parsons Brinkerhoff—but finding the political will and capital needed to do the job becomes the ultimate make-or-break challenge. Even politicians seem to know, at least on paper, the enlightened way forward: Adolfo Carrión, former Bronx Borough President and now the White House director of urban policy, gave a lunchtime speech that took several pages out of the smart growth/sustainable design/livable cities playbook.

All of this is encouraging, but it does beg the bigger question: How do we get from here (planning to save the planet) to there (actually saving the planet)? How-to-do-something is a design problem, how to implement it, a political one. Narrowing the gap between the two must be design’s next frontier.

Previously: Julia Galef wrote about last year’s RPA assembly in “Sustainable Urbanization: Bold Vision or Oxymoron?

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