We live in disconnected times. We occupy space but know little about it. Instead of joining communities or neighborhoods, we buy houses and make real estate investments.

Sustainable design offers us the chance to rekindle these lost connections, to rebuild knowledge of place. New residential development is commonly thought to bring more cars and traffic, higher taxes, overcrowded schools, diminished views, and open spaces. But there is a way to turn this around—if we can imagine new growth connecting with and strengthening our sense of place. This kind of green design might take many forms, but just a few possibilities are mentioned here.

acting locally
  • The author has visited BedZED in England, among other locations, in his search for sustainable communities.

    Credit: Tim Beatley

    The author has visited BedZED in England, among other locations, in his search for sustainable communities.

One idea is to locally source building materials. In our globalized economy, such materials can originate hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they are eventually installed or assembled. They contain a high embodied energy, and their extraction often entails substantial ecological impact. Paradoxically, much of the practice of green building has emphasized materials, such as bamboo flooring, that are transported great distances.

We need to look much closer to home, to materials that nurture local livelihoods and reconnect us to place and land. An innovative sustainable wood initiative here in Virginia holds some clues and offers some inspiration. Operated by Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), it supports the local economy by working with small woodlot owners who are willing to manage and harvest sustainably. The wood produced is beautiful, durable, and distinctive (more of the tree is used, with knotty “character” wood a key result), and it is certified under ASD's Sustainable Wood label. It is then dried in a solar- and wood-waste-powered kiln and cut into flooring at ASD's mill.

My family and I recently installed ASD-certified white-ash flooring in our home. As a result, I know where the wood was grown, and I have some assurance that the result for the landscape is not destructive but rather restorative. In this case, a sustainable material close to home was actually less expensive than its standard commercial alternative. It is a small expression of commitment to sustainability but an important step on the way to a deeper connection and duty to place.

Using local materials is a growing practice in sustainable design communities. Innovative green projects like BedZED, the Beddington Zero Energy Development in the London borough of Sutton, have explicit targets for local materials. At BedZED, more than half of the building materials arrive from sources within a 35-mile radius of the site. Wood siding comes from local municipal forests, bricks from a local brick company.

In Western Australia, there has been a creative effort to nurture furniture building and wood artistry. Rather than exporting logs (or allowing them to be converted to low-value wood chips and then exported), there is a growing sentiment that these resources can be the foundation of a high-value-added, labor-intensive economy, of which sustainably managed forests can serve as a linchpin. Among other steps, a forest heritage center and school of fine furniture making has been established there, and the number of outlets for locally made wood products and crafts is growing.

food for thought

Much of our food comes from very far away. It typically travels some 1,500 miles from where it is grown to where it is eaten, according to the 2001 report “Food, Fuel, and Freeways,” and we are usually oblivious to these origins. New developments could begin to think more carefully about the food needs of their future residents, perhaps developing long-term relationships with local growers. This is essentially the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)—residents buy a share in a local farm that provides (often delivered) a basket or box full of produce each week during the growing season. CSA farms are growing in popularity—there are now more than 1,500 of them nationally—and they could be offered as part of the package that goes along with a new home (or at least as an option).

Designing in opportunities to grow food directly is another way of promoting sustainability (and healthier living), strengthening place, and re-earthing us. This is a trend in Europe, where ecological, mixed-use projects such as Viikki in Helsinki, Finland, have left green fingers between major buildings for garden plots. Single-family homes might be designed to facilitate this as well. A model sustainable home in the Perth, Australia, suburb of Subiaco, for instance, includes extensive edible landscaping and a built-in raised-bed vegetable garden in its backyard. The garden is large enough to produce all the vegetables a typical family needs.

  • The author has visited Aeroe Island in Denmark, among other locations, in his search for sustainable communities.

    Credit: Tim Beatley

    The author has visited Aeroe Island in Denmark, among other locations, in his search for sustainable communities.

energy alternatives

Energy use is another way to reconnect with local places. Every place has opportunities to generate its own power, whether through wind, sunlight, or biomass. Strong European examples exist of communities that have been able to redirect community resources to local energy production. In Aeroe Island, Denmark, which aspires to be 100 percent energy independent, small power plants generate energy from the sun and from locally grown straw and hay. Expenditures for energy stay local and help to strengthen, not diminish, the region's economy.