William McDonough: The city as an organism | GreenBiz
Articles Blog

William McDonough: The city as an organism | GreenBiz


My names John Davies with GreenBiz and I’m
here with Bill McDonough. Bill, welcome. Thank you. So Bill you’re here at Verge which is
sort of our phrase for describing the convergence of energy and built environment transportation
information, so how do you see designs roll in all of that? Well I think all of the things
you just described could be seen as tools and then the question of the value of the
tool is how it’s used and what intention that we find it’s been put to. So the real
question is, what do we do with all of these things? Design is the first signal of intention,
so what do we do about the city as part of an organism on the planet? How does it affect
that larger condition as well as the small focus condition? And thats really a design
question. And you know you do everything from, and I’ll start with that, cities from scratch.
Thats how I know you’ve been involved in efforts with China, can you tell me a little bit about
that? Yeah, well the Chinese you know obviously with so many cities is over a million people,
we’ve had to help on a few fronts where we would come in on existing plans that they
were concerned about where the designers of the city have not seen the territory. It’s
been absolutely amazing to me that we’ll come in and see a city planned as a grid that takes
out mountains as if they didn’t exist and cover up all the rivers as if they don’t exists,
it’s truly amazing on one sort of crazy end of the spectrum, but on the other, there’s
a lot of concern on what the livability of the cities will be you know if there in a
uniform development protocol or they’re sucking water out of the ground beyond the ability
of the water to be manifested and now they’re talking about doubling the size of Beijing
for example in a number of years, even five years, to go from twenty forty million of
people, and they’re already out of water, they’ve already had to shut down power plants
and how is this going to happen? It’s just going to happen. And so the question becomes,
what do we do about that? How do we think about it? So it’s really been quite dynamic.
So how do you approach finding solutions for that? Well I think there are two approaches
to these things. One is the traditional one of trying to be more efficient but thats obviously
insufficient. So we don’t just say reduce your carbon mission or something. We say the
things that are going down to the right, we should actually, the things we don’t want
should be below the line because your goal is zero which is nothing, so really they should
be below the line and you should be moving toward the zero of carbon or whatever fine,
but they belong in the negative category. And then we should articulate the positive agenda and then
set our goals as one hundred percent good and then start to reinvigorate the whole dynamic
of reducing bad and increasing good rather than just decreasing bad. So when you look
at the cities for example, we can look at the old cities and say, the new city can mine
the old city, so if you want to build a new apartment building for four hundred people,
go into the old city find four hundred per capita worth of uses, cut that in half,
that gives you the license to build the new and if we increase that by fifty percent which
we can do than the new city mines the old cities inefficiency creates the new city highly
inefficient and the entire city ends up reducing its energy consumption or water consumption
by twenty five percent. So you double in size and yet reduce the demand as well as increase
the supply of renewables and so on. So you really have to do it all together, it’s a
very rich opportunity and has to be looked at in a multidimensional way. Oh thats great,
so you live in a very historic house, I recall. So how do you integrate sort of history into
these new cities and you know, like Beijing you were talking about and it has a history
you’re going to remake it in a much different way at least from an efficiency and self generating
energy and all that, so how do you look at that from a design perspective you know integrating
that history? Well I used to live in a house designed by Jefferson and I think one of the
important things about The Lawn at the University of Virginia which is where I was living is
that he took the library and that was really plutonic form and truth of beauty and then
on the ranks on either side of the lawn are Aristotelian soldiers in effect, so this is
math and science. So I think it’s really critical that we merge the issues of truth, beauty,
and culture with the math and science and so on and then it becomes this very rich milage.
And it’s not like anybody does these things, I just comment on what we’re seeing and help.
But these are fierce commotions that are going on. I think the most important thing that
I’m trying to focus on is how do they all become one organism within themselves and thats
what we just heard for example here at Verge about Las Vegas was at, what they’re trying to create
an organism really. If you look at what they’re doing with these accidental meetings and you
know developing community, what that is is a fierce commotion it is an organism that
is like life made of complex interactions going on in an astonishing ways. Many of which
are serendipitous and so you have luck involved and so I think you have to open yourself to
all that kind of creativity and create the most creative space you can because to be
a living thing as Crick pointed out nine years after discovering DNA, you have to have growth
and you have to have free energy from outside the system, which in living things is the
sun and we can do that too. But you also have to have an open metabolism of chemicals operating
for the benefit of the organisms and their reproduction. So it’s really about this fierce
commotion of integration of energy of material and human creativity all at once. But the
city should be seen as part of the same organism as the countryside. So I think ultimately that’s
the part for me that is most exciting, is that we can see that we get rid of things
like sewage treatment plants, we eliminate that language. We now say nutrient management
system, so we want the phosphite back we want the nitrogen back, we want it to go to the
farmers, not pollute the rivers and then come back in our food, otherwise we’re going to
have to to Morocco for our phosphite which is silly, see. So the cities and the country is
one organism. I think it’s really an important part of events. So you sound optimistic, do
you see the future as a bright Cradle to Cradle environment where we’re constantly feeding
back into the system? Well I can’t really help it because designers have to be inertially
optimistic because we’re trying to imagine a better future, thats our job so there’s that.
But, people used to make jokes about me that you know people were pessimistic see, glasses
half empty and optimistic half full. See I see glasses as full all the time, they’re
just full of water and air but they’re both essential so there is still science here you
know they’re full always. And yet, from a zen perspective the value of a vessel is its
emptiness so you also have that and when you put it all together, my issue is I just don’t
think the glass is big enough. So that’s optimistic because right now everybody all they see are
all the limits that we’re bumping into but it’s because the systems are not designed
to be able to share so we end up with everybody being afraid of limits or amounting even our
population that’s such a sad thing for our children to feel like they’re part of a population
problem, thats terrible, we should celebrate their creativity. So I look at a world of
endless resourcefulness of energy of materials and of human creativity. So growth is good
because it is powered by the sun, it’s a form of negative entropy so why wouldn’t I like
that? That’s great. Thanks a lot.

One thought on “William McDonough: The city as an organism | GreenBiz

  1. Thank you for uploading this, I particularly enjoyed listening to William's comment about the glass always being full. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top