When Green Isn’t Good: Questions about whether resilience is the new sustainablity are missing the point

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Photo:Yuka Yoneda and Benjamin Hait-Campbell

New York magazine’s Nov. 12, 2012, cover, depicting New York City just days after Hurricane Sandy had churned through the Mid-Atlantic, featured an unforgettable image by architectural photographer Iwan Baan. Shot at night, Manhattan’s lower third is dark, the result of a massive power outage brought about by storm flooding. (Because it sits on higher ground, Battery Park City was spared and appears in the photo as a twinkling island amid the urban sea of blackness.) This is partly explained by sustainability.

“ ‘After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEEDcertified, green buildings in the world. But that was answering only part of the problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment – for example, by having redundant power system”, said Jonathan Rose, urban planner and developer of Jonathan Rose Companies. The area was designed to be sustainable, not resilient. “Resilience” as a concept has started to gain public attention since Hurricane Sandy’s havoc. But within the architectural community, it’s being marketed like the newest iPhone; headlines such as “Resilience Is the New ‘Green’“ or “Resilience: The New Sustainability” are everywhere. Though it doesn’t seem to have had the chance yet to prove itself a viable contender against climate change, has resilience already reached what sustainability connotes now? Fashionable, trendy ... perishable?

Contemporary sustainability isabout relieving
symptoms, not addressing causes.



Two years before Hurricane Sandy hit, the Museum of Modern Art showed Rising Currents, an exhibition that highlighted new research and fresh thinking about the use of New York City’s coastline to respond to the impacts of climate change. It was an important display of issues and ideas, designed to revitalize discussion among officials, policy makers, and the general public about climate change and rising sea levels.

And yet despite the exhibit, despite the disasters before and after it, the cumulative effect of which suggested that something was indeed amiss in the climate, it was not until May of this year that the U.S. unveiled a “historic” climate change plan that would cut U.S. carbon pollution by 25% — a number nowhere near the estimated 70%–80% cut in CO2 emissions needed to curb climate change.

By and large, until now sustainability has been the prevailing strategy to defend against climate change. Though sustainability was originally defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, it has maintained an admirable, heroic stance of prevention for the last four decades. Sustainability’s basic agenda was to strive for equilibrium between the built environment and the natural world. Yet in the decades following significant policy reforms like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, sustainability’s once relevant methodology to tackle climate change — identify an environmental problem, develop a technical remedy, and sell it to legislators and the AEC community — began to turn sour because of its restrictive nature and causeeffect obsession. Today’s concept of sustainability is encapsulated in Del Monte’s recent pitch for plastic-wrapped, unpeeled, single-serve bananas. The petroleumbased packaging was argued to be sustainable because the bananas would keep longer in vending machines, resulting in fewer deliveries and,therefore, lower gasoline usage. As Daily Show host Jon Stewart aptly noted,“What function does the bag serve that the peel does not currently serve? A product for people who love bananas but hate their biodegradability?”However absurd the Del Monte concept was, Stewart’s criticism was on point. Contemporary sustainability is no longer an appropriate strategy for risk mitigation against the climate crisis because it fails to create efficient,dynamic, systematic solutions for today’s globalized world. Instead,contemporary sustainability is about relieving symptoms, not addressing


It wasn’t until after World War II that environmentalism grew in popularity as the public began to acknowledge the effects of environmental negligence and widespread air and water pollution. Environmental groups surfaced, and the nation saw a series of game-changing policy modifications that set the precedent of future environmental tactics. Policy-driven enterprises responded to such things as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which discussed how DDT was contributing to a declining bird population; a massive 1969 oil spill at an offshore well in California’s Santa Barbara Channel; and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. As Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus note in their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” the dominant approach to environmental issues originates from the belief that change will occur at policy level. Thus the environment is separated from human identity, turned into a problem that can be controlled and contained.“When we use the term ‘environment,’ it makes it seem as if the problem is ‘out there’ and we need to ‘fix it,’” says Susan Clark, executive director of the Columbia Foundation, in Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s essay. “The problem is not external to us; it’s us. It’s a human problem having to do with how we organize our society.”

An example of environmental objectification can be found in the use of the color green. In 2012, STAR (Strategies and Architecture) released the satirical essay “O’Mighty Green,” which featured photos of iconic buildings and places, such as the Berlin Wall and Le Corbusieur’s Villa Savoye, altered to show them covered in plants. “If the Iconic buildings simply needed to be iconic, the Green buildings simply need to be green. ... Green as a function.Green allows sustainability to be bought per m2, or to be painted on, or glued on. Sustainability is a Photoshop filter in CS6: Ctrl+Green,” asserted STAR. “As if trying to heal cancer with aspirins, Green is the phenomenal formula that turns sustainable everything that it touches.

The damage from the storm.
The damage from the storm.

Yet could humanity possibly be included within that framework? Could poverty, famine, war, psychological trauma, and disease be considered environmental? Could our human fragility and mortality be considered environmental?

In architecture, contemporary sustainable practice hasn’t strayed too far from the same restrictive definitions and cause-effect obsession that defines policy reform. Standards such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED outline proper methods of attacking specific environmental problems within the building industry. But it lacks the strength to tackle carbon and other emissions to a degree that most scientists believe is necessary for a worldwide reversal of climate change. Take, for instance, the dual-flush toilet. The logic is simple enough: to conserve water, produce water-efficient toilets. Yet even if every individual had a dual-flush toilet and was conscientious enough to use it properly, it seems unlikely that a technical fix such as this could create the kind of risk mitigation expected today.

The shift from "us versus the environment" to "us and the environment' is happening as resilience addresses issues ranging from personal health and well-being to economic woes to the rebuilding of New York City's coastline.

Choppy waters below the Statue of Liberty.
The water had risen several feet.
The water had risen several feet.

“Programs that incentivize standards of sustainable building often understand environmental performance as a separate category, one that can be considered when the circumstances favor it — for instance, when the developer anticipates owning the building for long enough that the tax breaks will offset the capital expenses of energy efficient ethnology — and disregarded when they do not,”as was stated in C-Lab’s “Expanding Evironmentalism” article. This phenomenon is well described in MOS’s Afterparty, the winning entry for the 2009 PS1 Young Architects Competition, The design was a grouping of fuzzy conical towers. MOS described its installation as “the need to look for new promiscuities, new methods of design, after the party of a sort of high-formalism which has dominated academic discourse. In this particular case it’s with the basic structural arch and dome geometries, rough base materiality and the production of a totalizing ‘environment,’ (literally cooling down the courtyard through stack effect) looking towards a more primitive state of architecture.” What’s ironic here is that while the intended primary attraction of Afterparty was its high formalism, the public discussion doesn’t extend further than the towers’ functional, technical qualities, which aren’t really new or innovative sustainable tactics. Which is to say: Afterparty’s use of passive design strategies isn’t all that different from STAR’s O’Mighty Green parody. It is this reduction of design to meet standards of sustainability that reinforces ineffective sustainable habits, measured in incremental technical fixes,without prompting a more systematic rethinking of the relationship between building performance and the larger social and political contexts.

Ominous clouds looming over the city skyline.

Ecologist and environmental scientist C.S. Holling defines resilience as “the measure of the system’s capacity to withstand disturbance and assimilate waste.” Adaptation and recovery are both integral to this strategy — and, notably, absent in sustainability’s strategy of prevention. Unlike contemporary sustainability, in which the environment is so acutely defined that it almost becomes meaningless, resilience opens its arms to embrace multiple scales and profession beyond design, such as engineering, psychology, and economics, thereby making the environmental crisis more immediate. Already, the shift from “us versus the environment” to “us and the environment” is happening as resilience addresses issues ranging from personal health and well-being to economic woes to the rebuilding of New York City’s coastline.Compared with sustainability’s focus on lists and checkboxes and scores, resilience’s broad definition has the advantage of being flexible enough to encourage innovation and nontraditional practices, both of which are essential for city growth.According to the United Nations, over half of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, and by 2050 that amount is expected to increase to 70%. This means a rise from 3.3 billion to 6.4 billion people living in urban areas. Yet beyond simply being centers of human density, cities are humankind’s most vulnerable artifact of diversity, innovation and industry.

But growth without diversity can only lead to collapse. A perfect example of this is Detroit: Before Henry Ford showed up, Detroit had a population of 285,000; within a half century, thanks to the demands, and the success, of car manufacturers, it had become a metropolis of 2 million. But its eventual demise was caused by a complete dependence on a single kind of innovation.Lacking contending industries and other modes of innovation, Detroit’s rise and fall paralleled those of the automobile industry.In Matthew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s 2013 book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, city growth is described as dependent upon citizens’ ability to constantly innovate and reinvent themselves: “[Cities] provide a landscape that allows the spectrum of ideas to blossom. As the city grows, this makes it more and more multidimensional. Cities seem to open up: the spectrum of functionalities, job opportunities, connections, etc. that is the key to the vitality and the buzz of successful cities. It’s this densely packed distributed diversity that lends cities their ability to innovate when one economic or industrial wave crests, it ensures that there are always new groups jockeying to embraces the next wave, and different kinds of thinking and capacities that are ready to deal with the inevitable disruptions that ensue.”

The river is almost spilling over the banks.
Parts of the Brooklyn waterfront were completely submerged.

Take, for instance, the North Sea flood of 1953 in the Netherlands, in which 2,000 people died, the equivalent of 60,000 people in the U.S. today. At the time, as a below-sea-level nation, the Netherlands had dikes and other sea defenses to protect it against ocean threats, but after the flood,the country created the impressive Delta Works, a massive set of flood barriers, to protect itself. Since then, the Delta Works have performed well,but now, as rising sea levels become more and more worrisome, it is feared that the rigid infrastructure will not be able to accommodate the ever-rising water tables. Unfortunately, this is the truth for majority of cities that are located on or near the coast. Seawalls, docks, and levees may be something of a defense against water surges, but they were primarily built to be infrastructure for city commerce, and certainly not with our current climate change crisis in mind. In an unfortunate bit of echoing, New York City’s own marshy coastlines were demarcated with seawalls created by the first Dutch colonists — and as seen with Hurricane Sandy, the city experienced the exact issue the Netherlands faced six decades earlier. Today, shorelines require a more flexible defense. Designers are trying to reinvent the city’s edges to not only refortify the needed seawalls, but also to incorporate secondary and tertiary defenses against potential disasters.

The design team of ARO and dlandstudio was one of the five included in Rising Currents, which invited firms to rethink New York’s urban coastal landscape. Their approach incorporated the hard infrastructure of seawalls and the reintegration of New York’s native absorptive marshlands, creating a kind of Venetian waterway to mitigate rising sea levels. Four years later, there is progress on the actual implementation of such resilient systems.This year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $1 billion to be distributed among the six winners of the Rebuild by Design competition, launched in an effort to redesign New York and New Jersey coasts to deal with climate change. Among the winners is Bjarke Ingels Group, which has gained the most attention for its redesign of Lower Manhattan. Like ARO/dlandstudio, BIG’s proposal incorporates both hard and soft infrastructure.This year, for the first time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s annual report shifted its preventative language to terms of adaptation. The problem of climate change can no longer be prevented, as the bricklayers of the environmental movement had once hoped, four decades ago. Unfortunately, however, in its contemporary manifestation, sustainability’s results are not effective enough to confront issues of climate change and risk mitigation. But resilience can. By embracing both adaptation and recovery, it is embedded with tolerance for disaster and encourages flexible, dynamic systems to cope with such disasters. By no means is resilience the new sustainability. It is, instead, the next step after prevention has failed.


- Iwan Baan. “New York Magazine” 2012.

- Various Authors. “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront.” New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Print.

- C-Lab. “Expanding Environmentalism” 2010. Volume 24: 64-65. Print.

- Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. “The Death of Environmentalism” Editorial. The Breakthrough. N.p., 25 Feb. 2011.

- Fridolin Simon Frand and Kurt Jax. “Ecology and Society: Focusing the Meaning(s) of Resilience: Resilience as a Descriptive Concept and a Boundary Object.” 2007. The Resilience Alliance.

- “UN Says Half the World’s Population Will Live in Urban Areas by End of 2008” 26 Feb. 2008. Internet Archive, The Associated Press.

- Various Authors. “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: IPCC WGII AR5 Technical Summary” Rep. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 31 Mars 2014.

- Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. “The Resilient City: How Modern Cities recover from Disaster” 2005. New York: Oxford UP.

- Mathis Wackernagel and William E. Rees. “Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth.” 1996. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society. Print.

- Bryan Walsh. “Sandy: What a Coastal U.S. Can Learn from Other Threatened Cities” TIME. N.p., 05 Nov. 2012.

- Working Together to Build a More Resilient Region. “Working Together to Build a More Resilient Region Comments” N.p., n.d.

- Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.” 2013. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. Print.

- Andrew Zolli. “Learning to Bounce Back.” 02 Nov. 2012. The New York Times.