10/02/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Urban Green and the Cost of Progress: A Counterintuitive Book on Sustainability

Neil Chambers' book, Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, opens with the author gleefully test-riding a new e-bike on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Believing it would change the world, he rushed home to write a review on Ultra Motor's A2B electrical bicycle. As he finished the piece, doubt began to creep into his mind, until it prodded him to ask more profound questions about sustainability.

His vision that e-bikes would flood the streets of New York and San Francisco, akin to the swarms of bicycles zipping around cities in Vietnam, has not come to fruition since that day in 2009.

What happened? In a word, "green."

Like many of today's misused buzzwords, such as "cloud" and "collaboration," what Mr. Chambers would soon discover there is no a silver bullet to solve our energy, waste, and environmental problems. We simply can't accelerate into the future.

Change, like all manmade processes, takes time. It requires iterations, trials and errors, tinkering, and refinement before moving to the next phase of development. Even then, unintended consequences of successful end products have come back to challenge, if not haunt us.

Take the city of Youngstown, Ohio. It has seen its population collapse since the 1970s. As Chambers notes, with more than half its residents gone, today's city sewer system can't handle the lack of flow from the underutilized toilets, sinks, and showers. The city is now forced to pump clean water through the pipes to keep them from clogging.

Such nuggets not only populate the pages of this unflinching look at the human debris trail from our modern existence, but it does so convincingly that it will give the reader pause to contemplate our full impact on the earth, its myriad ecosystems, and the larger environment as a whole.

Had Mr. Chambers simply railed against all that is bad with modernity, he might have come off as an alarmist. But the second half of his book is brilliant. He pops bubbles in the euphoria of green building practices and sustainable design. Then he goes one step further by offering a grand version of what sustainable can be. But he feels that bright future, where we live in harmony with species and promote biodiversity, won't occur for another century.

The Challenge of a Sustainable Future

Progress is slow; change can't come fast enough. Not when the world, mired in the global economic slump, still produces more than 500,000 buildings a year. And all of them will consume massive amounts of energy and material, leave scars with their carbon footprint sprawl, while further encroach on habitats, wetlands, and grasslands.

Can earth's species and the environment sustain rapid growth when another 5 billion people come online in the global population of 2060? It's hard to say. But water wars are already taking place between states in drought-stricken southeast and southwest.

"Sustainable development is not a new concept. Rather, it is the latest expression of a long-standing ethic involving people's' relationships with the environment and the current generation's responsibilities to future generations," wrote Mir M. Ali, PhD, and Paul J. Armstrong for the University of Illinois in a white paper "Green Design of Residential High-Rise Buildings in Livable Cities."

That ethic involves three components: Environmental, economics, and socio-cultural.

But Mr. Chambers would only partly agree with that thesis, since he sees how green building design hasn't gone far enough. Tall buildings and megacities will push many animal species to extinction.

In chapter "The Cities of Tomorrow," he writes:

"If the goal is to have all buildings around the world save energy in accordance with LEED (Leadership Energy & Environmental Design) guidelines--say, the 14% it mandates--the overall savings is even less. A mere 3% reduction would be realized on the global scale."

That sobering fact, and we are nowhere near that optimum state, hits hard as hundreds of fossil fuel power plants come online this decade in India and China alone to provide more energy that will be consumed by the growing economic engine.

History and Habitat Fragmentation

What works in Urban Green is Neil Chambers' extensive research. It's deep, used just enough, and interwoven into his lively prose, which flows between nuanced detail (coal power plants waste 70 percent of energy due to inefficiencies in burning) and a broader macro view.

The book also does a good job of using life-defining moments through human history, from the collapsed civilizations of Hopi and Anasazi tribes of America's southwest, due to deforestation and to the 1973 oil embargo, which kicked off the green era in the energy-savings movement.

For every new roadway paved or community built in rural areas, another slice cuts into some habitat or wetland, impacting too many species, putting more stress on wildlife, while shrinking livable space and breeding grounds. Dams and trying to unnaturally quicken the flow of rivers by straightening out their natural bends and turns does more damage than we realize.

Glass in windows kills birds more often than big wind turbines unwittingly installed in migratory paths. In Mr. Chambers' view architecture needs to be blown up and radically reinvented.

In reaching the author via email, he wrote:

"One of the driving forces for me was to express my vision for the future and show that it is practical and achievable. I would like to see humanity move closer to being a keystone species in the next century. This would mean that we'd have to completely revamp the way we design and build our society from infrastructure to buildings. Redesign, well, everything."

Keystone Species Is Key to the Future

"Urban Green inspired me to push harder toward the goal of having us be keystone species. Two ways I'm trying to practice this is with my work with oyster restoration and building design. My company has been a major partner with an oyster project in Myrtle Beach, SC," he explained. "Over the last four years, the team of designers, biologists, policymakers, business owners, and residents has restored oysters to the large Withers Estuary. Since the book was published, we have been awarded funding to expand our work to two new estuaries in the region. We are now starting an oyster shell-recycling program."

On the future:

"I see buildings change along with how we occupy them. The building industry is seeing the enormous benefits from green building, while also seeing that radical changes are needed to curb energy consumption and reduce our carbon footprint. Cities will become very green places -- both in terms of what green means today, and, literally, being the place trees and wilderness grows.

I think the goal for us moving forward isn't to create a sustainable society, but to become keystone species on this planet. The difference is fundamental. Sustainability hopes to teach people how to have a smaller impact on earth. Being a keystone species means that the byproduct of our lives is a more rich and interconnected natural world. I believe this would lead to a more advanced society."

In reading Urban Green, growth can now be equated to a ticking time bomb. Something in society and nature has to give. But what? Other species? Us? Or can people as the keystone species lead the way to a better, truly sustainable world?

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The author will speak in New York City

On October 11th, Neil Chambers will be the keynote speaker at the Launch Party held at the Greenwich House, where Ampleen founder Shoko Sekiguchi is an Advisory Council member. Ampleen (ample + green), a digital media nexus, is a rich depository of information about green initiatives in the city and a platform for sharing ideas.

Mr. Chambers will also sit on a panel with this author, as we discuss and debate the pros, cons, and future of green building design. His company's website: