Green architect and urbanist Sim Van der Ryn celebrated with Athena Award

"Father of sustainable design" calls for "resilient" communities

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Sim Van der Ryn began earning an international reputation as the “father of the green building” during his tenure as California State Architect during then Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, but CNU made sure his pioneering role advancing sustainable urbanism received overdue recognition when it made him the 10th recipient of the Athena Award in a ceremony in San Francisco on September 26th. After receiving the award, Van der Ryn delivered the keynote lecture at CNU’s Sustainable Communities 2008 conference, which explored the past and future of a field Van der Ryn did so much to establish.

CNU co-founder Peter Calthorpe spoke at length about his longtime colleague and said Van der Ryn's legacy makes him an ideal recipient of an award intended for those who have laid the essential groundwork for today’s re-emergence of urbanism and sustainable community design. “The more I started thinking about it, the clearer it became in my mind. The roots of so much of what we all work towards were created by Sim out of a messy soup. It wasn’t at all obvious that the kinds of whole systems thinking that he engaged in could put together the vision that in the end we all ride upon. Sim was the first one to say how all the professions integrate. Recognizing him is very important and long overdue.”

Although Van der Ryn is best known for inventing green building systems now taken for granted — from solar roof panels to rainwater catchment systems — he explained to the group that an inquisitive mind that left him pestering early bosses with questions about all aspects of building design (even those others considered mundane) soon had him thinking deeply about design beyond the building. Van der Ryn’s work on sustainable neighborhoods and communities led to the creation of Marin Solar Village on an old military base in Marin County, California. “It was like the first new urbanist suburban community,” praised Calthorpe, the co-author with Van der Ryn of the seminal book Sustainable Communities in 1986. “The features were a laundry list of what LEED-ND calls for – actually a lot of stuff that LEED-ND doesn’t get into. It featured on-site food production, on-site energy production, mixed-uses. It was a reuse of buildings. Going from the towers in the park to the walkable street was something that he laid out at that time [35 years ago]as an urban model, as how we should proceed. And for me, this has been the touchstone of urbanism ever since.”

Sim Van der Ryn accepts Athena Award

In addition to Calthorpe, Van der Ryn colleagues such as Stewart Brand, Peter Schwartz and Judy Corbett with expertise in fields as varied as scenario planning, social sciences and social networking, and urban planning advocacy contributed to the rich portrait that emerged of Van der Ryn. One of the most important things that happened during Sim’s term of service as state architect was the adoption of energy conservation building standards which have resulted in California using less energy per capita than every state in the country, said Corbett, executive director of the California-based Local Government Commission. “It helped us create an economy that’s vital and that’s not so dependent on foreign oil.” Explore presentations and audio from the event.

In afternoon appearances and a panel led by CNU board member Jacky Grimshaw and joined by earlier speakers, T4 America campaign co-chair Shelley Poticha and Amanda Eaken of the Natural Resources Defense Council helped explore cutting edge policy and legislative efforts incorporating the concepts of sustainable communities. Julie Lave Johnston of the California Governor’s Office of Planning appeared on the panel just four days before Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger broke the suspense and signed SB 375, a landmark bill that requires regions and communities to use their land-use and transportation plans to reduce carbon or risk losing transportation dollars.

Before joining that discussion, Van der Ryn charmed and challenged the audience with a wise speech in which he critiqued the very concept — sustainability — that he is credited with establishing. “There are no two words that seem to be used more today, yet with very little agreement as to what they mean, than “sustainable” and “green.” These words are trendy and they make for great marketing, but I think they also can be very smug and really lead us from what we are trying to do,” he said. “What we need to create are resilient communities, resiliency at every scale. To me it is more than just cities. Resiliency has to include the basic elements —it’s soil, it’s water, it’s energy, it’s land, buildings, communities, and a social structure…. Sustainability is a static concept. Resiliency is dynamic.”

Photo: Top right) Sim Van der Ryn (center, white shirt) joins the panel discussion at Sustainable Communities 2008, Center) Van der Ryn accepts the Athena Award from CNU President John Norquist, CNU co-founder Peter Calthorpe and green developer Jonathan Rose.