Pursuing Sustainability in a Style-Driven World

Delta-Shelter-TB-056.jpgIn discussions about sustainability, where does "style" fit in? How can we reconcile a human desire for beauty – whether it applies to our homes, our surroundings, the clothes we wear, or the art we're drawn to – with the very practical concerns of housing a growing human population, protecting natural spaces, and reducing climate-changing emissions?

Yesterday, a panel discussion at the Olympic Sculpture Park attempted to answer these questions. The dialogue was the second in a free, public series on the intersection of art and the environment, presented by the Seattle Art Museum and the Cascade Land Conservancy. It was clear by the large size of the audience that word had gotten out about the first panel. There's a reason this topic piques our interest, as it seems to sum up all of our aspirations both material and moral: how can we live both beautifully and sustainably?

Lucia Athens of CollinsWoerman, who has long been a leading voice in the Northwest green building scene, moderated the discussion. The prominent panel members represented very distinct perspectives: international award-winning architect Tom Kundig; stylist and producer Rebecca Luke (co-founder of the Sustainable Style Foundation); and nationally recognized artist Roy McMakin.

The three panelists have all integrated sustainability successfully into their work. Kundig designs beautiful homes both in the city and in nature, which emphasize smart and effective design over square footage, and work in harmony with the natural landscape in ways that are both functional and delightful. Luke has built her reputation on bringing practicality to the fashion and entertainment industries in a way that doesn't require sacrifice of style, by encouraging resourceful decisions like investing in lasting wardrobe pieces made locally using sustainable materials, or using existing buildings for film sets rather than building temporary structures. McMakin, as an artist, reflects the relationship of humans to the natural world by using materials like locally sourced trees to build beautiful, lasting works of functional art.

382733164_37b7fa3fb9.jpgNavigating the relationship between sustainability and this kind of art is an enormously difficult task. The choices of where and how we live and dress, and what we hold as "style" reflect huge industries whose environmental and cultural impacts permeate global society. But it's a challenge we must take on. A sustainable future requires a marriage of form and function, and a future lifestyle worth living must be both effective and inspiring, in order for people to embrace it willingly.

But there are many questions left unanswered. How will we, for example, make cities so attractive that people with the resources to live anywhere they choose will desire density over the solitude of expansive private property? Kundig pointed out that we must build more spaces that allow residents of the urban core daily access to nature and art, like the Sculpture Park. He's right, of course – integrating more public green space into the urban environment will improve our health and attract more residents. Same with investment in walkability, safety, shared services and built public spaces: these developments turn density into a resource for public benefit.

There is also an enormous question of accessibility, as many choices in the world of sustainable design are still available exclusively to the wealthy. As Luke pointed out, we're already seeing encouraging shifts such as the use of organic cotton by mass fashion manufacturers. But, she added, retrofitting the fashion industry for mass-scale sustainability will require cooperation on many, many levels, from manufacturing to shipping to how and where products are sold. (For a Worldchanging view on sustainability in retail, read Alex Steffen's essay, Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World with What You Buy).

Another good question: whose role is it to drive innovation in sustainable design? In a market-driven system, is it the responsibility of designers and manufacturers to create sustainable products, or is it the responsibility of consumers to demand a higher standard? McMakin responded that this question has no one answer, and I tend to agree. Designers will always play an invaluable role in stretching our collective imagination, pushing the boundaries from the present to the possible, and continually showing us that better ways of living are within our reach. But the onus is also with the public, and it is important for those of us with the resources to be early adopters to take those risks and blaze new trails, bringing us closer to the day when destructive, resource-wasting business practices are no longer financially sound.

One of the real, big-picture accomplishments here, however, is the collaboration between SAM and the Cascade Land Conservancy, two storied local institutions with seemingly different agendas. By partnering to produce and host this dialogue about art and the pursuit of sustainability, these organizations are demonstrating a willingness to break down a siloed way of thinking and recognize that achieving a common goal – in this case, a dense and sustainable urban core that is also vibrant, attractive and inspiring – will mean reaching out to the various interests involved. Seattle Art Museum is an icon of our urban culture; Cascade Land Conservancy exists to protect and preserve what we have left of our wild lands, forests and farms. But their aims are symbiotic. Humans look to nature for health, respite and inspiration, but it is the prospect of improving our built environments that holds the most promise for allowing us to live prosperously while preserving green space. It seems that Nature cannot exist without culture, and vice versa.

By opening up this dialogue, we move much closer to achieving lasting change here in Seattle, and in urban centers around the world.

Top photo: "Delta Shelter," designed by Tom Kundig. Source: Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects.

Left photo: "New York Fashion Week" by flickr/Peter Duhon, CC license.

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