A Conversation With Allison Arieff, Writer and Editor on Sustainability

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Arieff-Post.jpg Ever since she was a little girl, Allison Arieff knew that she wanted to work in the media industry. In 8th grade, she wrote an essay about how, when she grew up, she wanted nothing more than to be the editor of Time magazine. She was almost taken off track more than once -- pursuing Ph.D.-level work in American Studies and studying ballet for years -- before finding her way into the position of editor in chief for Dwell magazine, an architecture and design publication that she helped to found back in 2000.

Arieff has since left the magazine, but continues to write and edit for various publications, including TheAtlantic.com's sister site, The Atlantic Cities; the New York Times' Opinionator blog; and SPUR's the Urbanist. Here, Arieff discusses how sustainability issues -- climate change, peak oil, declining resources -- suffer when they're thought of as trends; why Julius Shulman deserves to be in a sustainability hall of fame for his photographs showing how architecture is about buildings and people; and why, after years at the top of Dwell's masthead, she's done writing about gorgeous Italian closets and kitchens.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I write, lecture, and consult on architecture, design, and sustainability. But that doesn't really cover it -- I'm lucky in that I am always out meeting with people and organizations to hear about the interesting things they're doing, from creating public parks to designing sophisticated sustainable building software to bolstering urban food policy. When I get excited about a particular story or idea, I often end up on advisory committees, boards, and the like, so I can do what I can to help make things happen. I'm on the board of a new non-profit, for example, FERN (Food & Environment Reporting Network), an independent, non-profit news organization that produces investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health, and am also an advisor to the Food Policy and Urban Agriculture Program at SPUR (San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association).

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

I always hate to pick one thing because I'm a big believer in systems thinking. A recognition of the interconnectedness of things is the farthest from new, but I'm always amazed, despite all the talk of collaboration, how little entities engage with one another. In terms of achieving anything close to actual sustainability, efforts and solutions need to be developing in all sectors, and in concert with one another. An impossible goal perhaps but any effort that honestly can be innovative by virtue of common sense, i.e., why not design a subdivision served by transit with education/retail/entertainment at its center, thus alleviating car-dependent living, which then helps reduce obesity, heart disease, pollution, etc. The reverse approach is far more common, so real innovation could come from turning that around. Rethinking The American Dream is essential. We've got to provide a new vision for what it might be -- that would have tremendous impact on everything from air quality to childhood obesity to building waste.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

I spent years at Dwell writing about very nice houses and very nice objects. That's design, to be sure, but the conversation has moved way beyond that. A beautifully designed modern home is very nice for the person living in it but it's not a driver for broad social change even if manifestos are written to that effect. I'm much more interested in what's going on outside the house. What's the neighborhood like? How does the community interact? Is the home energy-efficient? Is there smart thinking about infrastructure? Wastewater mitigation? I may have written about a lot of gorgeous Italian closets and kitchens but not any more. I'm interested in designers/thinkers who address consumption, patterns of use, social impact and behavior, supply chain. That's where my attentions are now.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Trend is the wrong word. Sustainability suffers when thought of as a "trend," as it equates it to a passing fad. The "trend" that will really shake things up? Necessity. Annie Leonard's Story of Stuff opened a lot of peoples' eyes about the perils of consumerism for example, but the recession opened them a whole lot further. Many people have altered their habits -- taking transit, downsizing, reducing consumption -- but certainly not because some magazine proclaimed that as a cool thing to do. As much as we might like it to be otherwise, the majority of people are not going to change the way they've been doing things unless they have to. That necessity can have positive repercussions -- just look at tactical urbanism, the idea of temporary being the new permanent. A terrific design group like REBAR, for example, has continually been able to see opportunity in crisis, and works with the city of San Francisco to really transform itself. With almost no money and all re-purposed materials, they've created some fantastic public spaces that became instant hits with the community. Compare that to POPOs (privately owned public open spaces) often designed at considerable expense and seldom actually used by the public. The whole collaborative consumption movement -- car sharing, co-op babysitting, bartering for services, etc. -- has grown in large part from peoples' recognition that we need one another and can benefit from shared resources and acting for the common good. I don't think that shift would have taken place in a boom economy.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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