With her sights set on sustainable development, Hurd’s operating style might just be the swift kick in the pants the notoriously slow-moving world of policy needs. In our conversation, Hurd unpacks the secret history of urban migration (hint: it has something to do with innovation cycles) and why her daughter attends a school within walking distance of her home.
gb&d: You’re known for your view that sustainable buildings aren’t the be-all and end-all of sustainability—smarter cities and neighborhoods are critical too.
A-P Hurd: When I first started working on the book, it was pretty bifurcated between people who when you said “green building” were thinking about a system that was bounded by the building envelope, and then other people [who] were thinking about things like land use and transit but not really thinking about that in the same bucket as green buildings.
Since I started this project in 2009, there has been, certainly in the Northwest, a really increased awareness that green buildings aren’t just about what you build but also where you build it. In the Northwest, a really significant part of our emissions come from people going to and from buildings. The rest come from operating buildings, industrial processes, embodied carbon, and things like that. When you look at a pie where such a significant piece of it is people going to and from buildings, it’s hard to put a building in a place where everybody’s going to drive a long way to get there and give yourself a pat on the back for having done something really sustainable.
Then I would say that a third leg of this is some really good research by the National Trust for Historic Preservation Green Lab, [which shows] a lot of embodied carbon in buildings. If you’re looking at an existing building and you’re proposing to replace it with a building that’s the same size, it will take 40 to 70 years for a brand-new LEED Platinum building to catch up to the carbon footprint of the existing building with moderate retrofits. That is really significant.
gb&d: Our culture sort of prizes instant gratification. How do you get people to buy into behavioral change that takes generations?
Hurd: If you can invent something that really delights people, you can change what people do… just because the new thing is so much better than the old thing. When dishwashers came around, they were a lot better for most people than washing dishes by hand. Most people have dishwashers today not because they use less water than washing by hand—which they do—and not because they use less energy than washing by hand—but they do—it’s because they love that the dishwasher does it for them and saves them a bunch of time.
The challenge is, how do you create enough of that kind of innovation? I think [we need to] revisit our energy regulation framework in this country, which dates back to the 1950s and ’60s, because it doesn’t really represent the goals that we have in terms of energy use today. Without revisiting that regulatory framework, it’s very hard to get as much capital flowing to the kind of delightful innovation that could also save energy and water.
In order to change behavior and voting patterns, we probably need to get to a point where there is a social stigma around wasting energy in the same way that there’s a social stigma around smoking or around throwing litter out of the window of your car. Forty years ago, there was not much social stigma around these behaviors. Nowadays, people are quite vociferous in their disapproval about both of those things. As somebody who thinks a lot about energy, if I’m going into a store and I see somebody idling outside, and I come back and they’re still idling, I’m at the point where I will go up and ask them to please turn off their car.
gb&d: What do they say?
Hurd: Sometimes they turn their car off, and sometimes they just roll their window back up.
gb&d: It’s a bold move.
Hurd: My husband hates that I do this, but it just makes me so furious. It’s like somebody throwing cigarette butts out the window; it’s just terrible.
gb&d: Seattle recently put in a light rail. Would you say there’s more momentum behind making a city walkable or bikeable instead of driving everywhere?
Hurd: Yeah. A lot of younger people think that it’s a good thing not to drive too much because they realize it pollutes. That’s not something that people who are older than 50 grew up thinking.
I’ve never owned a car. I kind of think if you can get to 30 or 35 years old and never own a car, you’re pretty likely never to own a car. I chose where my daughter goes to school so that I could then walk her home. I just thought, I’m not driving her around just so that she can go to a particular school. I’m going to go to the one that’s near my house, and it’s really a pretty good school.
gb&d: Are you seeing companies shift from their previously suburban campuses to city centers?
Hurd: In Seattle and other cities—Toronto and New York come to mind—major corporations are choosing to locate their campuses back in urban areas. One of the hypotheses about why this is happening is that this generation likes to ride transit to work because it’s really convenient and there are more amenities downtown. I think all of that is absolutely true. But I think another factor influencing companies about where they want to locate is that the speed of innovation keeps increasing in this country. Before, when there were long, slow innovation cycles, then the most important thing once you had innovated something was to protect your intellectual property and make it a corporate secret and protect anybody else from letting it out. Flash forward to today, there are very rapid cycles of innovation, so it’s less important to put walls around intellectual property and more important to quickly generate new ideas that have transformational potential.
gb&d: And more and more people are making that choice to move from rural to urban environments.
Hurd: In 2008, 74 percent of the people in developed countries and 44 percent of people in industrializing countries lived in cities. By 2050, 70 percent of the entire world population will live in cities. There will be a 20 to 25 percentage point shift in the number of people in industrializing countries that live in cities. So, it’s just a staggering shift. If five billion of the world’s seven billion people live in industrializing countries, we’re talking about a billion more people moving into cities in the next four years.
gb&d: That’s an immense load on the infrastructure.
Hurd: Yeah. It’s a huge number of people to put in cities, and it creates both a challenge and an opportunity to get it right.
gb&d: Why do you think there’s such a rural-versus-urban debate?
Hurd: Well, in the 19th century and even well into the 20th century, there was a prevalent pastoral ideal that living in the country is more in harmony with nature. In an automobile-oriented society, that just isn’t true. One of the things that we’re realizing, because of climate change, is that probably the two biggest places where our population load is out of sync with the carrying capacity of the planet is carbon emissions and water supply. Land-use is the really critical challenge. As these people are moving to cities, it’s imperative to get land-use right if we want to avoid baking the planet. So to me, this number of people moving to cities doesn’t feel like a bad thing. Concentrated land-use, however, does beg the question: can we preserve some kind of ecosystem that is functioning and in balance?
gb&d: What do you think the answer is?
Hurd: I don’t know. We’re really good at inventing stuff, but we’re not really good at inventing ecosystems and getting them into balance. It’s something that has to evolve into place. We’re facing that question in Puget Sound because a lot of people want to build a very sustainable, productive, innovation-driven kind of mega-city region and economy. But at the same time, we have an ecosystem around us related to Puget Sound and all of our watersheds and our farmlands and our forestlands. If you can be successful in concentrating more and more people into these sort of compact, urban regions, you still need to make sure that you’re not completely exceeding the carrying capacity of that place.