Standard Sustainability Venn Diagram

“Green”, “Eco”, and “Sustainable” often appear as selling points of products, services, and even professions. The terms are used so frequently that it’s become difficult to get a true sense of the words’ meanings. So what exactly do I mean when I say “sustainable design”?

The diagram above visualizes the “triple bottom line” where environment, people, and economy when valued equally results in sustainability. If you’ve ever talked to a designer you know they seek harmony between form (the aesthetics and beauty) and function in their designs. At least the good ones do. Sustainability adds an element of complexity that many designers have challenged themselves to take on. It means they create systems that are more than efficient and long-lasting. Sustainable design is not simply a professional approach, it embodies a philosophy and set of guiding principles. See Jason McLennan for more details.


Prioritized, nested diagram

The nested diagram represents the progressive sustainable design perspective as a re-imagined relationship between economy, society, and environment. As the visual shows, society is prioritized over economy, and environment over society. This semi-hierarchical prioritization implies the interconnection between the three while highlighting humanity’s ability to thrive on the condition of the biosphere.

But it’s still unclear what exactly is meant by sustainable. Following the conclusions of Max Zahsiner, sustainability implies a design, system, behavior, etc. characterized by indefinite replication. In short, if it can be done infinitely without causing damage or degradation. Depending on the professional is he or she may aim for a design that is low or zero impact. The really ambitious, progressive designers will look for solutions that are layered and regenerative–in addition to addressing multiple concerns, the product also produces environmental commodities (ie energy, potable water, clean air, etc.).

So what does urban sustainable design look like? How is the conceptual imagining made reality? Below are images of various designers using their expertise and vision to address issues specific to the urban setting.

Landscape + Urbanism

Ken Yeang

Tower of Tomorrow

Bill McDonough


Eco-lab concept

Sim Van der Ryn

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