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Civic Impact

Small Is Good: Lloyd Alter talks sustainability at ProfTalks

Lloyd Alter says small is the new big at his 2015 ProfTalk lecture.

When it comes to sustainability, Lloyd Alter doesn’t mince his words. “We use too much of everything, and the key to sustainability is to use less, and the key to using less happily is to design better.”

He’s talking to a crowd of about fifty people during ProfTalks, the annual one-day learning event at the Toronto Reference Library. His one-hour talk is called “Designing Our Homes and Cities Better: Small is the New Big.” It’s an exploration of the complicated systems we’ve designed to help boost sustainability, and how—and if—they really work.
Alter, an architect by training, makes several key points throughout his talk. The first is that Canadian culture faces over-reliance on the automobile, which contributes to climate change. “Two-thirds of our carbon problem comes either from our buildings, or driving to them,” he says. Switching from cars to bicycles is his first recommendation. The second is to build houses that are dense and urban—but not too dense. He’s aiming for what he calls the “Goldilocks density,” which supports transit and local commerce, but still allows for parks and green spaces, which substitute for private suburban yards. Finally, houses should be built to be tightly sealed and very well insulated, which allows heating and cooling costs to level out, even in the face of climate change-driven extreme weather.
Throughout the talk, Alter gives his audience a mini history lesson. One of his slides is a vintage shot of a then-new Don Valley Parkway. “Can you imaging trying to put a superhighway through the Don Valley now? It’s Toronto’s greatest green asset! But back then, they put that highway on postcards,” he says to laughter. He also mentions the tiny house movement, which he describes as interesting but ultimately unsustainable, since current zoning regulations don’t allow them to be permanently installed in very many urban places.
Alter saves his heaviest criticism for the complicated sustainability systems that are currently on the market. Instead of computer-run eco-houses and smart phone-enabled thermostats, Alter would like to see houses built to be better insulated and make use of the passive sunlight, both old technologies that will outlive obsolete computer-driven products.
While Alter doesn’t discuss the perspective of those who may not be in the position to design their homes this way—because they’re renters, or simply because they can’t afford large-scale renovations—his talk is friendly and informative. In the Q&A portion, a lively debate breaks out over the merits of smart meters and the Gardiner Expressway. Both Alter and the ProfTalks audience seem to be invested in creating a better world, but the road forward isn’t always smooth.

Source: Lloyd Alter
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