Imagine the ultimate architecture: Do you believe in a future of large cities with high-density skyscrapers or, along the lines of the beaver analogy, a string of more widely distributed villages?
Right now, the conversation seems to focus on urban densification and metropolises like NYC, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and the like versus smaller first and second-ring suburban areas. I really do not think that the future is an either/or answer.


What would be your personal prediction?
Places like NYC, Chicago, and Hong Kong are extremely limited in terms of accommodating more people. First, there are the realities of how much more heavy infrastructure like sewer systems, energy grids, and transit systems the city could handle. Many older cities are already pushed to the limits of their capacity. To house more people, they would need large infusions of funds to upgrade their infrastructure. Some of that would have to be raised in form of taxes. At the same time, affordability of big cities is already an issue. Big dense cities are only as accessible as their property values – people need to be able to afford a comfortable existence. NYC is a great example of this phenomenon: It is extremely expensive to live there; your dollar goes a lot further outside the city. Then there is the taxation imbalance between core cities and their suburban belts. These economic factors play a part in the decline of cities like Detroit while the surrounding suburbs thrive. People are not going to spend more per square foot and carry the burden of paying higher taxes for the luxury of living in a specific city. This is especially true if it means living without access to adequate green space, plazas, and transportation options.

Have you noticed a change in how people want to live?
The “quality of life” debate often comes up. Naturally, people invariably want to live where they can expect a higher quality of life. How each person defines this, however, depends on their personal preferences: Some prefer an urban environment, others suburban living. Generally speaking, the old, hellish suburbs with their endless sprawl, punishing commutes, and McMansions are no longer what people want. Car culture is quickly being challenged by bikes and walking and more and more people feel comfortable telecommuting and interacting with each other via new technologies, so physical commutes will become less important.

Would you say this favors suburbia? Is this lifestyle becoming more attractive again?
Some of the older suburban and mid-sized towns have developed vibrant downtowns, designed for bikes and pedestrians, boasting mixed-use areas that are alive during the night and day.
I think next-century trends will be about where we live. Densely populated cities will grow at a slower rate than the areas just outside – and I believe that the quality of life in these first and second-ring suburbs will increase tremendously over the next few decades. Many are already keen subscribers to sustainability and attractive to companies. And while these suburban areas will remain connected to the larger core cities, many will become less economically and politically dependent on them. I believe that we will see both huge skyscrapers and more advanced small to mid-sized towns and cities.

Can architects drive or direct this change?
I am less interested in trying to shape where people live than how we live in terms of sustainability and ecosystems. I am interested in designing communities and cities that use 80 to 90 % less energy; I want to develop fuel sources that have extremely low or zero carbon emissions AND are deeply embedded within ecosystems. I want all core cities, mega cities, towns, villages, and the like to have access to forests, estuaries, and wildlands as amenities. With resilience and climate change putting new pressures on coastal cities, an entirely new set of design criteria is emerging. All of this makes me very hopeful and excited to be part of an evolutionary leap as a society.

Your project Green Ground Zero (GGZ) refers, as the name suggests, to the events of 9/11. Could you tell us a little bit more about it?
GGZ has been an incredible experience. I got involved with cofounding the organization back in 2002 after reading an article in The Nation about rebuilding the World Trade Center site with green technology. We started the organization to advocate the green redevelopment of Lower Manhattan.
To this end, we worked with other organizations and groups to put green design on the table for the Freedom Tower, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the promised infrastructure improvements. It was a huge effort and we had some big successes. We hosted an international design competition and got thousands of people involved. The resulting designs were shown throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. We got the chance to work with other nations pursuing similar sustainable goals with housing projects and disaster relief. When the tsunami hit Indonesia, I traveled to Medan and Aceh to discuss sustainable rebuilding methods with leaders from the affected areas.
Now, GGZ serves as a vehicle for research on conservation biology and still supports disaster relief. For example, we helped to raise money for the post-Sandy rebuilding efforts in Red Hook, NY.

What are you currently working on?
My current professional work covers healthcare design, ecological restoration/urban design, and net zero design.

Well, let’s start with healthcare design …
Over the past five or six years, I have had the great fortune to work on several healthcare projects – mainly hospitals, but also smaller health-related projects. Hospitals are incredibly complex buildings that use huge amounts of energy, so we really focused on making them more energy-efficient. I hope that, in the near future, we can translate our net zero work to healthcare projects and design net zero hospitals. Within the industry, the relationship between health, wellness, and healing is a huge topic. Biophilic research shows that people recover faster from illnesses and surgery when they enjoy views of natural settings. The idea is to increase patient and staff well-being while also reducing run-off from the site, increasing biodiversity, and minimizing site maintenance.

Daylight design for a hospital
Daylight design for a hospital

What does your work in ecological restoration involve?
The work I am doing on oyster habitats within urban settings is truly groundbreaking. The northern coastline of South Carolina has only experienced intense human development over the last 100 years, so the ecosystems and landscape are quite unique. Here, we have pristine estuaries right next to extremely impacted and polluted estuaries. The area is a living lab for testing and discovering what really works in terms of green and ecological infrastructure. Since Hurricane Sandy, a huge amount of time and effort has been spent on figuring out how to manage storm surges and extreme weather conditions. We want to better understand the relationship between oyster structures, habitat recruitment, and urban development practices to outline a way to build cities that can embrace inundation, manage extreme weather events, and foster ecosystems as amenities within the urban fabric.

You are well-known for your net zero projects. What exactly does this entail?
We are challenging the notion that net zero buildings cannot be big, e. g. over a million square feet (93,000 square meters) in size, or situated in dense urban areas. We just finished a research project with the New York University to see if we could fit a net zero building into their new Greenwich Village master plan. The building we were asked to evaluate, the Zipper Building, is just over the one million sq. ft. mark with multiple towers and different space types, from classrooms and dorms to retail space. As part of the project, we worked with NYU students and it was a really incredible experience to see their passion and intelligence. And while we weren’t able to achieve 100 % net zero, we did get to just over 97 %.

Anything else you would like to tell us about?
I am launching a podcast with a friend where we talk to designers, thinkers, scientists, and other people doing interesting things. It is called OCD:Designcast – and the first podcasts will be coming out in December, just in time for the holidays. I have always loved talking to people about their passions and there is so much going on in the world. I really feed off learning about what others are doing. Everything I do is an effort to be of service to the world; to be a positive voice saying that everyone can do something with the talents they have.

Header image: javimerinocreativo/
All other images: Chambers Design, Inc
Interview: Lia Pack