URBANISM+2030: Interview with Erin Christensen

CNU’s LeRoy Taylor recently interviewed Erin Christensen, Associate Principal at Mithun to discuss the new joint initiative between CNU and Architecture 2030. Erin will host an Open Source session on URBANISM+2030 this week at CNU 21 (Thursday, May 30 after the morning plenary).

In March 2012, CNU Cascadia partnered with the Seattle 2030 District in a half-day workshop, which included about 30 participants from across the region to identify opportunities and best practices for achieving low-carbon, resilient communities in existing neighborhoods. The workshop discussed perspectives on development, policy, and design in 2030 Districts, which are neighborhoods that commit to meet sustainability goals. 2030 Districts are a public-private collaborative where a group of private owners believed that sustainable communities were not only environmentally necessary, but would also make them competitive leaders. As a result of CNU Cascadia’s successful workshop, Erin forged a collaboration between CNU and Architecture 2030 as the next natural step to expand the effort nationally.

LeRoy Taylor (LT): What is URBANISM+2030?

Erin Christensen (EC): The name URBANISM + 2030 represents a collaboration between CNU and Architecture 2030. Initially, Architecture 2030 began as a nonprofit focused on reducing greenhouse gas emission from buildings, but has since broadened its focus to neighborhood issues like transportation and water that also have significant impact on the environment. The goal is now for an entire neighborhood to become carbon neutral, which is the focus of the 2030 Challenge. This is strongly aligned with CNU’s Charter to restore existing urban centers and towns, reconfigure sprawling suburbs into communities, and preserve natural environments.

LT: What did you learn from your work with “eco-districts”?

EC: When I worked with the Portland Sustainability Institute - now called “EcoDistricts” – to develop the EcoDistrict Assessment Method, I learned that every district is different and having a range of solutions is very important – for communities of all sizes across the transect. We provided a toolkit for existing communities to assess themselves, set sustainability goals, and identify projects to get there. This makes working with local officials easier because it is a proactive way to establish goals and potential investments. Additionally, having all stakeholders involved is critical, and CNU has important expertise to lend here.

LT: What are some of the important takeaways from the workshop you completed with the Cascadia Chapter?

EC: Seattle’s 2030 District had performance targets, but they were looking for ideas on how to get there. The workshop served as an opportunity to bring together practitioners from BC, WA, and OR, and we had overwhelming interest. We discussed focusing on practical, incremental steps to achieve the vision of a resilient community. This raised important questions. I remember one participant asking: “How would a person know it’s a 2030 district? How is it different?” This is where we can help.

LT: What do you hope participants gain from the educational series?

EC: CNU specializes in urban design and placemaking strategy and implementation. The purpose of this in-depth, multi-part professional education series is to provide practical strategies that will accelerate progress for 2030 targets in energy, water, and transportation at a neighborhood scale and support sustainable communities. The series is intended to transform the way we approach neighborhood revitalization and make dramatic progress toward carbon neutrality. Again, 2030 Districts all look different and have different needs, so part of the focus for this initiative is to help define context sensitive solutions for both in-place, existing communities and new communities.

LT: What are some of the most important short/long-term goals for URBANISM+2030?

EC: The recent report on CO2 levels potentially surpassing 400 parts per million signaled that we need to work faster. Additionally, reports show building energy use is trending downwards, which tells us buildings are making progress but overall neighborhood emissions aren’t. Short-term: we’d like to focus on building an advisory group and generate interest. We want to get in the habit of asking ourselves: How can we change what we’re doing in our daily process as professionals to reach these goals? Long-term: we are looking at working with a group of experts to pilot a professional education series, which would ideally be located in a city with both a committed 2030 District and a CNU chapter.

LT: What opportunity do you see for URBANISM+2030?

EC: I was recently at conference on community resilience and personally feel like there’s more urgency around these initiatives. Factors like the economy have also played a large role and have shifted the thinking of the community. Professionally, practitioners, developers, and municipalities have bought into the idea. People want a better quality of life and the work that’s already been developed by CNU and our members can be leveraged and put into the hands of communities. The question remains: How do we make the change we want to see?


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