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Philadelphia Design Supergroup Biophilia Reunion Tour

By Joe McNulty
Members of a Philadelphia design supergroup presented their project entitled Patch/Work at last week's installment of the Urban Sustainability Forum. A team consisting of planning firm Interface Studios, landscape architecture firm OLIN and architecture firm DIGSAU won the Cities That Learn Award in last year’s Living City Design Competition held by the International Living Building Institute (ILBI) as an attempt to expand their rigorous standards of building development to an entire neighborhood or city.

Panelists Richard Roark of OLIN, Jeff Goldstein of DIGSAU and Scott Page of Interface Studio presented the conceptual plan for the Brewerytown/Sharswood and Central North neighborhoods and participated in a conversation moderated by Diana Lind of Next American City, an organization that has recently set up shop (literally) in Brewerytown.

The commonly accepted definition of sustainable development as established in the UN's Brundtland Report is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This seemingly simple statement has unfortunately left more questions than answers as it doesn't provide a roadmap for meeting this goal, and commonly accepted green building standards like LEED often encourage a point-scoring mindset wherein developers can sometimes call their projects “green” just by adding some solar panels or a rain garden to an otherwise conventional building.

Recognizing that sustainability is more a process than point system, the ILBI sets out rigorous standards in seven performance areas: Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty. The team members often referred to the performance standards as “draconian,” given that all water and energy for the over 5,000 households had to be provided or produced on-site, a feat that would require a full third of the project area to be dedicated to solar power production while simultaneously collecting nearly as much stormwater as the area did during its days as a prehistoric forest.

The results of their project were nonetheless impressive. The main features include infrastructure that doubles as parkspace, “living machines” that process wastewater on site, buildings that produce more energy than they require, and community gathering spaces where neighbors can grown their own hyperlocal food and conduct commerce under solar-collecting canopies. The project also builds off of Brewerytown’s existing assets like architectural gems along the 29th Street corridor, the inherent efficiency of rowhomes, pervasive transit access, proximity to cultural and civic amenities, neighborhood walkability, and the connectivity provided by Ridge Avenue, a thoroughfare that runs from farmland to the urban core. Though far-reaching and expensive, the team explained that much of the work to attain their vision could be done piecemeal like sewing a quilt, thus “Patch/Work.”

Highlighting perhaps the biggest challenge in a resource-constrained future, the team explained that the social aspect of sustainability requires a tremendous concentration of political and social capital to ensure that we avoid the “financial day of reckoning” in dealing with antiquated infrastructure like 19th-century combined sewer overflows and a reliance on diminishing fossil fuels. While governmental response to the urgent need for immediate and drastic ecological change is often incremental and glacially slow, educational efforts that boost community infrastructure are often more effective.

Similar to an Amish barnraising, the team imagined neighbors coming together to tend to community gardens or enact energy efficiency projects, block by block. Most importantly, they described a recognition that “Philadelphia 2.0” will not arise from an urban renewal-style tabula rasa. Rather, Philadelphia’s future relies on building a sustainable community from within, block by block, parcel by parcel, patch by patch.