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Ulf Hackauf: The black and white of green

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Ulf Hackauf, principal of MVRDV’s think-tank The Why Factory, explains why his book advocates less hype and more ambition in building the future’s sustainable cities

‘We’re all keen to participate, but not sure if we know what sustainability actually is.’ This sentiment of one of the participants behind the Green Dream project was typical of the curious yet uncertain enthusiasm toward ‘green issues’ common to many architects and planners.

Together with a group of master students at the Delft University of Technology, the researchers of The Why Factory (Dutch practice MVRDV’s think-tank) took a position as curious outsiders and started collecting their observations on today’s state of ‘green’ as it plays out in architecture, politics, technology, economics and our personal lives. It resulted in the book Green Dream, an exploration of the topic in an analytical, yet experimental way, with the aim to provide a basis for new angles of debate.

We discovered a confusing and often contradicting number of facts and arguments, a green mess in which apples are compared to pears (and their respective food miles) and in which the discussion tends to lean towards religious passion rather than cool rationalism. Our findings led to 22 observations on today’s green, collecting its flaws, contradictions and missed opportunities, some of which feature above and on the previous page.
We describe how green’s ideology is split in two movements. Since Thomas More’s Utopia (1551) and Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1624), there has been a difference between utopias of sufficiency - which envisioned a future in which we are satisfied with less - and utopias of abundance, which predicted a development where more is available for everybody.

We criticise how today green focuses on the small scale and the individual impact rather than discussing large-scale improvement. It is fascinating to see that the ecological footprint of even a goldfish can be calculated (it allegedly equals that of two mobile phones), but the effective planning of an offshore wind park seems to us a more fruitful subject of discussion.

And we see an imbalance between how much green is talked about and how much it is actually improving. While the first photovoltaic solar cell had been developed as early as 1877, the technology contributed as little as 0.15 per cent of the global energy demand in 2008. This could change if investments in green research would increase. Federal institutions in the US spend about $100 million (£65 million) per year on renewable research and development (R&D) programmes. In 2009, Apple alone had an R&D budget of $1.3 billion.

‘Green’ is a complex topic and it seems difficult to determine what really matters in the green debate. As a consequence, it’s in danger of becoming pure marketing; ‘green-washing’ that exploits the current interest in green for selling products. The results are all around us: whatever you can do, there seems to be a greener way to do it - green skates, sustainable pizzas and environmentally friendly toothbrushes. You can even buy eco-friendly vodka and help save the planet - one glass at a time. In 2006, The Sunday Times reported that even British arms manufacturer BAE Systems saw it necessary to promote itself as green by introducing ‘environmentally friendly’ weapons including ‘reduced lead’ bullets and rockets with fewer toxins. Perhaps not the brightest moment of company PR, but it shows that if green remains vague, it is in danger of becoming a temporary hype, which will be arbitrary in the future.

To escape this green vagueness and abuse, we make a plea for a more rational, quantifiable and measurable approach to green. As one step in that direction, we describe the concept of the ‘green city calculator’, a software tool that can be used for the evaluation and design of sustainable cities or regions. The focus is less on newly built eco-cities, but more on extending and adjusting existing cities.

This rational calculator approach could lead to new, different proposals and green designs. It could lead to less visible but effective strategies for energy networks, as well as other ways to make use of synergetic effects in the city. It should leave space for experiments and support research in new technologies of energy generation, waste management and food production.

It would result in a different scale in green, away from an emphasis of reduction towards new, larger structures. And it could lead to a new aesthetic in green design that goes beyond biomimicry and dares to compete with the beauty of nature.

Green Dream: How Future Cities Can Outsmart Nature, edited by Winy Maas, Ulf Hackauf and Pirjo Haikola, NAi Publishers, 2010, 35 euros


The Why Factory is a global think-tank and research institute, run by MVRDV and Delft University of Technology and led by Winy Maas, a founding partner of MVRDV

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