What do you say when people ask you, 'What do you do?'
I'm a real estate developer. I want to make better cities by example, by shifting frameworks and by sharing ideas. I work at Touchstone, which is a small private Seattle-area developer that does some biggish projects -- mostly office, retail, and hotels. I'm a bit of a policy junkie: When our rules are not leading to the best in urban form, I'm pretty dogged about changing them. I have a book coming out in April from University of Washington Press, The Carbon Efficient City, that looks at how government can make better use of infrastructure resources and support cleaner cities. I also teach a course at the University of Washington: Sustainable Development and Regional Economics.
I love exploring ideas and then testing them against the rigors of the business world. Lots of people think an idea is bad if developers make a bunch of money at it. I say that there aren't too many good ideas that can scale without someone making money at it.
What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?
For several years, people thought that the key to sustainable cities was to plunk down a lot of sustainable buildings. That is an important goal, but only part of the picture. Sustainable neighborhoods that have a mix of uses and that allow multiple forms of access beyond cars can have an even bigger impact on our energy use and emissions.
Changing land use patterns in cities is hard, because you start from something that is immoveable. It takes time for cities to adapt. It's partly about zoning, but also about market forces and making things that delight people. To make things even more challenging, there is a tendency to try to set something in place at one moment in time, when what you are really trying to influence is a slow-motion process. Cities and neighborhoods are always changing.
We're trying to do projects that work now from a financial and community perspective, and that still have value 100 years from now.
What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?
People tend to think in absolute rather than relative terms. It's easy to get excited about a new whiz-bang building with some great technological innovation. Those kinds of projects get profiled in industry magazines and at conferences. But that's only part of the picture. Where is it built? New urban buildings have a smaller carbon and watershed footprint than new rural buildings. What was torn down? A re-used urban building (or part of one) almost always has a smaller carbon footprint than a high-efficiency new building. When you take into account embodied energy, it can take 40-70 years for the new efficient building to catch up with a moderately retrofitted old one.
What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?
Quantifying the value of ecosystem services.
Many regions are realizing that rural and working lands are important to their watershed management. For instance, absorption of peak rainfall in upstream areas is critical to the health of farms and habitat downstream, to the adequacy of existing flood infrastructure, and to our water supply and quality. If we lose too much of the ecosystem upstream we have to pay higher costs to mitigate the downstream effects. If we can quantify the value that these upstream working lands provide and pay owners to keep the land in "high absorption uses," that land is less likely to turn over to development and the ecosystem services are preserved.
Development isn't bad. The market just needs more financial transparency about our impacts and ecosystem services markets can provide that feedback loop.
What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?
Sustainability experts that fly all over the country every week. One flight from Boston to Los Angeles results in the same carbon emissions as the average car puts out in nearly three months.
What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?
We were working on a master plan for an 11-acre infill project in a Seattle suburb, and I tried really hard to figure out if there was a way to leave some things undefined: the sidewalk pavers, for example. I wanted to just write a spec and hire artisans and source new materials for each phase of the project, so it wouldn't look so monolithic and designed-all-at-once.
It turns out the city design review really makes you design everything out before you get your master use permit. You just can't make that stuff up later. They want to see what everything looks like upfront.
I can understand that, but it does impact the "organic-ness" that you can inject into larger projects.
Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?
Jane Jacobs, God bless her. She's a little rambly in places, but you just can't put away your highlighter. So many good nuggets. Jane knows cities. Christopher Alexander. I found out recently that a lot of architects think he's too pedestrian, or populist or something like that. Trouble is, he's right about a lot of things. If that makes me pedestrian, so be it. And Forterra. They started out as a land conservancy, but now they work on great cities as well as conservation of rural lands. They were an early-understander of the connection between the two. They also work on a lot of state and local policy that tries to create more cost and benefit transparency so the value of cities is and the value of undeveloped land isn't muddied by subsidies. That's critical work, and they are a national leader at it.
What other field or occupation did you consider going into?
I did go into other fields. In college I worked in radio and print journalism, after college I traded interest rate derivatives for the largest Canadian Bank, RBC, and then I worked in software development and corporate strategy before coming to development. It all worked out OK though. Being a developer is the ultimate generalist job: Every day and every situation is different and the more patterns you can draw from, the more you can find empathy for the people involved in these transactions, the more you can find a path forward.
What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?
Google. Google Maps. Google Earth. But beyond that there is this site called iMAP that helps you find all the information on any parcel of land: who owns it, what it last sold for, what's on it. It's nerdy, but amazing.
What song's been stuck in your head lately?
"The Wild Rover." I first heard it when I went to Ireland in 2003 and recently downloaded a couple of versions so that I could learn the words and sing it to my daughter. Now I can't get it out of my head.