Doug Farr, Sustainable Urbanism Superstar

Doug Farr has built an impressive, green-tinged resume.
For starters, he wrote the book on building green neighborhoods, literally. He is the author of the recent manual, Sustainable Urbanism: A Pattern Language for LEED Neighborhood Development, which is designed as a resource guide for anyone interested in learning about building sustainable cities, from practicing architects to members of city council to your neighbor next door.

He has also served as co-chair of the Environmental Task Force of the Congress for the New Urbanism, is chair of the AIA Chicago Committee on the Environment, and chair of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) Core Committee.

Farr (no relation to Mel!) is an architect and urban designer with his own practice, Farr Associates in Chicago. The sustainability guru, will be speaking at the upcoming Creative Cities Summit 2.0, a national conference set in  Detroit in October.
What's more, when Mr. Farr visits Detroit next month, he'll be coming home. You see, Doug grew up on Justine Street on Detroit's East Side in the 1960s and '70s. His dad still lives in the same house.

He talked with Model D last week about Detroit and what sustainable urbanism can do for the city.

Q: Talk about some of your Detroit memories:

A: Oh boy, I've got a boatload of great memories. I have a vivid recollection of taking the Number 75 (Russell Street) bus downtown to Campus Martius to transfer to a bus that would take me to Cass Tech, where I went to high school. The bus went through Hamtramck, winding in and out of factory blocks before heading downtown via Eastern Market. After school, we'd go hang out at Hudson's and sometimes I went to a fantastic model shop on Elizabeth Street.
I remember seeing the factory shift changes on the bus and recall a great scene going through Eastern Market where we were following an open-bed truck full of animal parts. Well the truck hit a bump and an intestine flew onto the windshield of the bus. I can't remember if the windshield wiper did the job or not, but it was certainly something you don't see everyday!

In terms of some of my formative experiences, two distinct memories from high school still resonate for me. One was of City of Detroit urban planner, Alex Pollock, who was responsible for designing Eastern Market's super graphics and the Washington Boulevard trolley. I did a paper about him for a political science class and I recall how much it impressed me that in a city that was so wanting for vision and ideas, Alex had a lot.

I also remember attending a "teach in" at Ford Auditorium. Julian Bond, John Conyers and Buckminster Fuller spoke about Detroit. What Bucky Fuller said about Detroit was both sobering and prescient. He said, "Detroit I've looked at the numbers. You're shrinking and your fate is to continue to shrink. There is no city in history that has done it well. Detroit, your challenge is to figure out how to shrink well."  It was amazing to hear those apocryphal words … they influenced my outlook on Detroit and cities.

In so many ways, my patterns of urban life were set in Detroit. I took public transit there. I still do today in Chicago. At Cass, I walked up eight flights of stairs to my first class in the morning, mechanical drafting. Today, I walk up six flights to my office in the historic Monadnock Building in Chicago's Loop.
For me, Detroit was a wonderful, diverse place to grow up.
Q: What is a strategy for sustainable urbanism in a place with the challenges of Detroit?
A: In a city designed for 2 million people with less than half that many today, Detroit still has a number of interesting opportunities.
One way is to look to parts of the city where you can build on the city's existing urban bones.

I'm a believer in traditional urban structure … the spine and musculature of a city. These are tenants of New Urbanism and are highlighted in three key areas to focus Detroit's future development energy: the neighborhood, the district and the corridor. Detroit needs to identify the best examples of each and make sure they work at a high level.

Another way that sustainable urbanism can be implemented in Detroit is by growing the city's urban agriculture movement. I know there are large pockets of the city that are vacant and in some ways this idea is counter-intuitive to city building, but in Detroit it can really work. Designate key areas where you can go in and clean up just enough to start growing food. You can lease out or administer efforts on a block-by-block basis. The urban farmer could manage the plot from a "sentinel house" which would have a secure vantage point.
You put people back to work and you provide a mechanism for feeding them at the same time. I address this in my book and have lots of examples from places around the country that show how it can be done.
This is an example of "Asset Based Planning," an approach Detroit could do more with. Instead of listing all of things you want or don't have, list all of the things you do have. Detroit has hardworking people. Detroit has land. People need to eat. What's missing is a little bit of seed capital. There are numerous federal and state programs that could help make it happen. When was the last time the Department of Agriculture had a program in Detroit?
If I were (Mayor) Ken Cockrel, growing Detroit's urban agriculture program would be a very high priority in my 100-day plan for Detroit.
Q: What do you think about the prospect of larger scale development projects, like Quicken Loan's plan to move downtown? Should building green be a priority for Dan Gilbert?
A: I'm delighted to hear that Quicken is considering a move downtown. It would be so cool to have that block of Woodward filled in again, so if I had to choose between the Hudson's site and the Statler site, I go for the Hudson's site. I also like the idea that Quicken could have a strategy for multiple buildings over time, combining new and old construction on multiple sites. We need to tap into that wisdom of the ages which gets people out on the street interacting again. It's so vital for cities.
I'd also like to include the Dave Bing and Jerome Bettis waterfront projects here. Going forward, Detroit has to aspire to greatness. In terms of sustainable design, as important as a project like Compuware project was, it leaves a lot to be desired. Any project conceived during the last economic cycle has to go well beyond basic LEED certification; otherwise it will seem "so very 2004" when it actually gets built.
Sustainability is becoming so mainstream that, at a minimum, these projects should pursue LEED at a platinum level. With these kinds of projects in Detroit, there is an opportunity to incorporate new infrastructure at they same time. In my mind, these projects should be conspicuously and aggressively green. They should comply with the  2030 Architecture Challenge and the Living Building Challenge, which dictate that buildings should be self-sustaining and carbon neutral by 2030.
In Detroit, sustainability has a magnified benefit and the city should swing for the fences. Again, I think the new mayor has the opportunity to change the dialogue and set the bar at the highest level. If Chicago is green, Detroit's got to be greener. I feel the urgency for a call to action.
Q: What are your thoughts about preservation and sustainability?
A. It's huge. My opinion is that existing buildings should be used for their useful lives, which is often longer than people think. Buildings should be nurtured, maintained and reinvented. Yes, some buildings wear out, but we should make maintenance and investment a priority, and only as a last resort should a building be demolished.
The energy involved in trucking a new building in and trucking an old building out is an incredible burden on the environment. We're talking about decades before any cost savings in new construction offset the embodied energy represented in old buildings. It's generally not a fair trade and usually a bad deal for the environment.
Q: What would it take for you to move back to Detroit?
A: Well, I have enough work here and my family is here, but I've often fantasized about having a little pied-à-terre in downtown Detroit. I know there are lots of former Detroiters who maintain active ties with family and friends and have a high level of civic interest in the city. If the circumstance were right, we'd be there in a second.

Doug Farr will be speaking in Detroit on Oct. 14 as part of the Creative Cities Summit 2.0, a national conference on cities that runs Oct. 13-15. For more information on the summit, click here.

Francis Grunow is a law student, frequent contributor to Model D, a reformed city planner, and the former executive director of Preservation Wayne. He is currently on a mission to save Detroit. Send feedback here.

Signup for Email Alerts