According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the meaning of sustainable is:

“a. relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

Interestingly, it was first used circa 1727.

In architecture, sustainability is associated with attempts at reducing energy costs through improved insulation, water management and electrical usage.  The ideal is a carbon neutral building which uses less energy than it produces.

But there are additional ways by which we can sustain the environment.  They include reuse of existing buildings and the preservation of neighborhoods.  The renovation and reuse of an existing building uses far less energy than building from scratch.  The maintenance of neighborhoods encourages the use of local stores and restaurants.

Until recently, cities have been thought of as environmental culprits.  But the density that city provide is far more significant than the problems, such as the heat island effect that they produce.  Density reduces automobile travel and encourages the use of local amenities.

Thought of in this way, sustainability is closely linked to historic preservation and land use planning.

But cities are constantly evolving.  Without highway and rail systems, they cannot remain economically vibrant.  The trick is balance.

Paris, at its center, has sustained itself for millenia.  But it has also evolved to keep itself modern.  The boulevards cut through by Haussmann in the 19th Century proved invaluable to the modernization of an antiquated street pattern.  This came at a price, of course.  The work is said to have effected 60% of the buildings in Paris and destroyed much of the Medieval city.

Similarly, the bridges and roads installed by Robert Moses in New York are essential to its continued vitality.  At the same time, the Cross-Bronx Expressway could certainly have been more sensitively built and we are all better off that the Lower Manhattan Expressway did not see the light of day.

Historic Preservation

Fordham Prep Blog © ernest harris architects 2014