A Conversation With Allison Arieff, Writer and Editor on Sustainability

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.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Again "trend" is the operative word here. Making sustainability a trend has minimized its relevance and stymied its progress. Climate change, declining resources, peak oil -- these aren't passing fads. "Green is the new black," "eco-chic," "eco-fabulous," -- I even got a pitch from Eco-Stiletto! All that marketing-speak has done little for sustainability except validate old behaviors. It's a notion that you can go green by buying more stuff. We'll always need things, but we need a real focus on making those things less expendable, less, well, "trendy," and more efficient, healthier, durable, built to last.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I don't think ideas really take you off track, but rather lead to new areas of exploration. No linear path took me to where I am today. I think Steve Jobs explained it well, something to the effect of not being able to have hindsight looking forward. You have to trust in the fact that the stuff that seem like detours and diversions along the way are going to amount to something later on. If I've learned anything it's that, eventually, all the "off-track" pursuits make sense. I never would have thought I'd edit a book on the Airstream trailer but so much of what I learned on that project made me well-equipped to take on prefab architecture, for example -- a topic that pretty much defined my career for years. And prefab, with its emphasis on efficient systems, morphed naturally into a focus on more sustainable ways of building.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Jane Jacobs, because her ideas were/are brilliantly pragmatic. I love that my urban existence is very much akin to the one she espouses and a lot of what I do/work toward/think about has to do with making that the case for more people. Bill McKibben, for pretty much every idea and observation put forth in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. And Julius Shulman, who took photographs that showed architecture has to be about the people and not just about the buildings. I feel so fortunate to have spent some time with him before he passed away. He used to fax me quick missives with some regularity.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Ballet, which I studied rigorously for eight years. Then academia, which I did more than consider. I taught art history for several years while working toward my Ph.D. in American Studies. But, deep down, I knew this is where I was going to end up -- in 8th grade, I wrote an essay about how I wanted to be the editor of Time magazine when I grew up.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Totally unoriginal to say this but ... Google.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

My five year old is on a Johnny Cash kick so that's what we're listening to all the time, especially "I've Been Everywhere." It's a big upgrade from her prior obsession, which was some crazy Hootenanny folk song collection I picked up for 99-cents at Amoeba Records.