First of all a bit of a confession. I’m kind of a numbers geek. I do Sudoku and KenKen puzzles to unwind. I balance my checkbook to the penny. Every month. Pie charts are a favorite way of analyzing information on just about any topic. And I find ratios the most interesting way of measuring just about anything.
So what does this have to do with the built environment or our recent trip to Hong Kong? As one of my travel partners noted in a previous post, we’re pretty good as architects, builders, developers and owners at measuring our successes, but often times we ignore or significantly undervalue the damages that are done in the process of acheiving those results.
Choosing to measure only part of the equation yields incomplete (at best) or truly misleading (at worst) results. A more holistic view is needed. And it’s really pretty simple – in any ratio, there are only two ways to acheive a greater result: 1) increase the numerator, or 2) decrease the denominator.
In the built environment space, we’ve done a pretty good job lately at increasing the numerator. Green building efforts like LEED or Built Green are examples of programs that recognize measures that include environmental capital in the value equation. These programs have been gaining wide acceptance and are being used as laudible targets in many of today’s projects. But that only tells part of the story. Unfortuantely, we’ve not done such a good job at measuring the damages caused by the built environment to our human or natural resources. While there are new programs such as the Living Building Challenge that seek to guide projects to be restorative, rather than simply less bad, only the early adopters or truly committed owners have embraced this program so far.
Our trip to Hong Kong demonstrated that there are an abundance of successes there driving the numerator (transit, density, development patterns, public/private partnerships, etc…..). When Hong Kong is held up as an example of a highly sustainable city, the reasons cited often focus on its various succeses. There are, however, also a significant number of damages that result from these successes (air quality issues, lack of personal space, environmental impacts associated with land reclamation and solid waste disposal, etc….).
I’m not sure there are more successes or damages in Hong Kong than there are here at home – it’s just that the successes and damages are different. What I am quite sure of is that it’s time to start recognizing that there is indeed a denominator in the equation at all. The days of ignoring what many folks conveniently call “externalities” is over. There is nothing “external” in the real equation……that is just a term used to make us feel better about ignoring the complete (and often negative) impacts of our actions.
Let’s start looking at the whole equation, not just the parts that give us the results that we want to see. Increase the numerator and decrease – but don’t ignore – the denominator. It’s that simple.
And check out KenKen. But be careful. It’s pretty addictive.