Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization: CSU Inaugural Awards Gala
Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization: CSU Inaugural Awards Gala
Report on CSU 2019 Inaugural Awards Gala, Century Association, New York, March 20, 2019
Lighting up a darkened world on the International Day of Happiness
By Bill Millard
Bright lights are sometimes easiest to see when they appear amid extreme, almost impenetrable dimness. As Princeton School of Architecture dean emeritus Robert L. Geddes, FAIA, noted on receiving the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization's Lifetime Achievement Award, we are currently living in what historians have termed an “Age of Fracture,” a bleak period when many of the concepts underlying social coherence and progress in the United States have become fragmented. Yet the urgency of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth by the United Nations has not faded, and the efforts of progressive urbanists to advance the SDGs have not ceased in the face of shortsighted, divisive, and frankly fraudulent phenomena in the political sphere. The sense of purpose celebrated at the 2019 gala for the CSU, cited by president Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, DPACSA in his introductory address and reinforced up through the concluding remarks by past president founding board member James McCullar, FAIA, appears all the more powerful when seen against the contrast of what Dean Geddes described as “the darkness of our times.”
Recognizing achievements by leading architects, philanthropists, scholars, and urbanists, the CSU Gala drew attention to past and current progress toward a world that can accommodate both rapid urbanization and a habitable, resilient environment. Dr. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, who chairs both the Honorary Council of the CSU and his own eponymous organization (now taking the name TAG Global), served as both a speaker and an honoree, first introducing H.E. Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, then receiving the President's Award for his work in global professional services, education, and intellectual-property protection. Ms. Sharif, speaking remotely from Nairobi, saluted all awardees along with CSU co-founder Aliye P. Celik, PhD. Dr. Abu-Ghazaleh suggested strategies for organizations to become fully and substantively global, called attention to his daughter Jumana's project to increase accountability and reduce character assassination on the Internet, and noted, “We need accounting standards for sustainability, because what you cannot measure, you cannot manage; there is no measurement of sustainability in the world”; he is marshaling his own expertise with multiple international standards organizations to develop such metrics.
UN-Habitat's New York Office director Christopher Williams, subbing for Ms. Sharif as keynoter, emphasized the timeliness of global efforts, observing that “the vast majority of people outside of this room are suddenly realizing that urban development and sustainable development is absolutely the most important focus [for] the international community and local communities.” With the urban proportion of the world's population rising from about 30% to the 68-70% range by the year 2050, he continued, “the big issues of our day... will be won or lost in cities.” The 17 SDGs, he said, are “as relevant in New York City as they are in any other city around the world,” a set of goals that can unite American Midwesterners and members of developing nations alike in realizing mitigation strategies and energy-wise urban design. They “bring the global South and the global North together.... I think there's no greater antidote to the level of populism and xenophobia that we're seeing around the world than that shared sense of purpose.”
Introduced by Dr. Celik as “an inspiration for generations of architects” to advance both function and cultural expression, Dean Geddes stressed the collaboration at the heart of the profession, recalling his own work on a collaborative thesis at Harvard and as a teacher of Architecture 101, the foundational course based on the “Civil Architecture“ lectures originally developed by Joseph Henry in the 1820s, the first architecture course in any American college. His own “three professional lives” as architect, urbanist, and teacher have drawn on the inherent breadth and interdisciplinarity established by the diverse scholars who preceded him, including logician/art historian Allan Marquand and George Rowley, a specialist in the art and architecture of China as well as Europe. Geddes traced the evolution of the department and the course, focusing on the integration of buildings and landscape as a broad, decidedly “un-fractured” approach to the whole built environment.
The Partner Award went to Dianne Davis, founding president of the nonprofit International Council for Caring Communities (ICCC), an internationally recognized expert in aging, disability, and inclusiveness in both sustainable built-environment design and digital technology, and an advocate for the inclusion of older citizens as fully participating members in social and cultural life. Marvel Architects' founding principal Jonathan Marvel, FAIA, LEED, received the Champion Award for his extraordinary work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria; building on three decades of experience in architecture, planning, and sustainable economic development, he has brought not only solar power technology but the promise of energy independence to communities on an island whose power grid has been damaged by both a succession of destructive storms and subsequent federal neglect. Having grown up in San Juan, where his father Thomas Marvel, FAIA, was also active in shaping the public realm, Marvel brought deep cultural awareness as well as advanced expertise to this vital project; as his introducer Theodore Liebman, FAIA, observed, “clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Marvel suggested that two key ideas, shelter in place and pervasive altruism, are essential as the people of the world (particularly the 50% living at subsistence level) look to architecture and related professions for leadership in preserving humanity's capacity for survival and resilience. His Resilient Power Puerto Rico, he noted, is “a non-governmental initiative; it's personal action, and it's using shared resources for the long-term capacity to survive and thrive at that local community level.... Gracias a todos; viva Puerto Rico, viva Nueva York.”
With a heartfelt introduction by New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture's dean emeritus Urs Gauchat, Hon. AIA, stating that “no other economist has had an impact on so many issues critical to the survival of the human species,” Columbia Center for Sustainable Development director Jeffrey D. Sachs accepted the Globalist Award. Pointing out that March 20 was the International Day of Happiness at the UN, and that the downward-trending U.S. has slipped another place behind the Scandinavians and other progressive, generous nations on the statistical metrics in the World Happiness Report, Sachs observed that “it’s what holds us together that makes us happy, not the rabid individualism that is proved through the search for wealth.” Linking New York's tradition of planning – the 1811 Manhattan grid, Frederick Law Olmsted's design of Central Park – with its exemplary position as a livable and joyful place, he said, “this city proves that a good plan makes all the difference,” and suggesting that the CSU can provide leadership both practical and visionary as the city plans the steps it now needs so clearly: decarbonization of the energy system by mid-century, new transport modes (not just smart electric vehicles but pedestrianism and upgraded public transit), and retrofitting of buildings for all-electric power. “This has to be done all over the world,” he continued, noting that “Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, the countries at the top of the list of happy countries announced today, all have capital cities that are committed to full decarbonization within the next 20 years.... New York State has declared zero carbon electricity by 2040; I hope that we could have New York City as a fully green, zero-emitting city by that time as well.”
No one present would have mistaken the atmosphere of mutual admiration and gratitude pervading this event for the type of unreal optimism that discounts external challenges. Obstructionism toward the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in some realms of politics, business, and societal belief systems is all too easy to identify. The value of a celebration like CSU's Gala may be to reinforce the recognition that all is not dark in a retrogressive period: that there will always be a network of deeply informed, resiliently optimistic bringers of light.