We stand at a crossroads. Cities must change radically to achieve long-term sustainability. Energy, food and water sources, transportation systems and basic infrastructure, must all adapt to emerging pressures from climate change, dwindling resources and growing urban populations.
How will we meet this immense challenge? In a program that is part celebration of human ingenuity and part stark reminder of the problems we face, urban planner Peter Head, architects Blaine Brownell and Mitchell Joachim, environmentalist Majora Carter, and microbiologist Dickson Despommier laid out radical blueprints and innovative solutions as they imagine housing, feeding, transporting and sustaining city dwellers of the not too distant future. The event was moderated by President of the Aspen Institute and noted journalist, Walter Isaacson.
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Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine. Isaacson’s most recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014) is a biographical tale of the people who invented the computer, Internet and the other great innovations of the digital age. He is the author of Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986). Isaacson is a graduate of Harvard College and of Pembroke College of Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is chair emeritus of Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved communities. From 2005-2007 he was the vice-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which oversaw the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. Isaacson was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate to serve as the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a position he held from 2009 to 2012. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the board of United Airlines, Tulane University, the Overseers of Harvard University, the New Orleans Tricentennial Commission, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Society of American Historians, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
Blaine Brownell is an architect, sustainable building advisor, and a researcher of innovative materials for design and construction. From self-cleaning paint to transparent ceramics and biological plastics, he has described these and hundreds of other revolutionary products in his two-volume book Transmaterial: A Catalogue of Materials that Redefine our Physical Environment. New developments and discoveries are reported on a website of the same name. As the founder and director of the design/research firm Transstudio, he aims to promote awareness, provide resources and stimulate creative thinking about ecologically-sensitive building and design. He also is the Visiting Professor in Sustainability at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.
Brownell holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Princeton University, and a master’s from Rice University. He was selected for a 2006 “40 Under 40” award by Building Design & Construction magazine and was the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship to Japan for 2006-2007, during which time he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science.
In the emerging field of medical ecology, Dickson Despommier is a trailblazer, devising solutions to problems in agriculture and public health that likely will be magnified by climate change. A microbiologist, he is a Professor of Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School, where he developed the idea of growing food in urban farm skyscrapers.
He is currently featured by the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry in a major exhibition as one of ten great modern innovators. At Columbia, Despommier teaches microbiology, environmental science and medical ecology, which focuses on direct environmental influences on human health. For nearly 30 years, Despommier has been involved in lab-based research on parasites and the health risk they pose to large segments of the poor population in the tropics. He has authored three books on the topic of parasites, including West Nile Story.
More recently, Despommier has turned his attention to new approaches to sustainable urban life. As founder and director of The Vertical Farm Project, he is looking into how agriculture can be adapted and integrated into city living. He envisions multi-story indoor farming facilities that allow for year-round supplies of fresh, organic, and locally grown food. Such an endeavor could benefit the environment by returning existing farmland to nature and restoring the natural functions and services of the ecosystem.
Despommier has received awards both as an innovator and as a highly successful teacher; notably, in 2003, he was named “Teacher of the Year” by the American Medical Students Association, and he has earned the same distinction six times at Columbia.
Majora Carter is a green economic consultant who combines social, economic development, and region wide infrastructure needs into positive feedback systems. She has been a driving force behind some of NYC’s most progressive environmental legislation, as well as cultural acceptance of sustainable practices.
She founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) in 2001, to change that area’s environmental and economic outlook for the better. By 2003, SSBx had launched one of the country’s first and most successful green-collar job training and placement systems. She also wrote a $1.25M Federal Transportation Dept grant to plan and design the South Bronx Greenway – an 11 mile network of storm water management, economic development, congestion alleviation, and healthy living infrastructure.
In 2008, she left the non-profit founded to consult worldwide. She hosts her own nationally broadcast public radio special series, The Promised Land; and also hosts Eco-Heroes on Sundance Channel’s, The Green. Majora currently serves on the National Academies of Science Climate Choices working group, and is on the board of Ceres, SJF, and The Wilderness Society.
She is graduate of Bronx High School of Science, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellow, the first distinguished alumna of her class at Wesleyan University, and holds several honorary PhD’s.
Peter Head is a civil and structural engineer who has become a major proponent and practitioner of sustainable urban design. He applies “biomimetics” — an engineering approach that looks to systems in nature to design efficient structures and systems in the manmade world that produce little if any waste.
Since 2004, Head has been a director of Arup, a global engineering and design firm. As head of the company’s Planning and Integrated Urbanism team, he is directing the design and development of Dongtan – China’s first total “eco-city” near Shanghai, in addition to other new cities in Asia. In 2002, he was appointed by the mayor of London to the city’s Sustainable Development Commission, charged with making the London 2012 Olympics a carbon-neutral event. He leads the commission’s planning and development subgroup. Earlier in his career, Head established himself as a world-renowned authority on steel bridge and advanced composite materials technology.
Head has received numerous awards, including a 1995 Royal Academy Silver Medal for outstanding contribution to British industry and the Prince Philip Award for Polymers in the Service of Mankind. In January 2008 he was named by London’s The Guardian newspaper one of “50 Global Green Heros who could Save the Planet.”
Mitchell Joachim is on the faculty at Columbia University and Parsons School of Design. He is a partner in Terrefuge, a New York-based organization for philanthropic architecture and ecological design. His design of a compact, stackable “city car,” developed with the MIT Smart Cities Group, won the 2007 Time Magazine “Best Invention of the Year.” He was formerly an architect at Gehry Partners, Michael Sorkin Studio, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
Joachim’s awards include the Moshe Safdie and Associates Research Fellowship and the Martin Family Society Fellow for Sustainability at MIT. He won the History Channel and Infiniti Design Excellence Award for the City of the Future, New York and Time Magazine Best Invention of the Year 2007, Compacted Car with MIT Smart Cities Group. He was selected by Wired magazine for “The 2008 Smart List: 15 People the Next President Should Listen To”.