Urban Designer - Vernacular Architect - Maritime Planner - Owner-Builder - Servant of Piglet - Educator - Author - Revolutionary - Peacenik - Tour Guide 

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

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ImageSustainability is a health issue
When we first began using the term sustainability, around thirty years ago, the meaning was very clear. We were talking about sustaining the life of the planet. It was becoming clear that the planet was sick, and some of the symptoms, such as the loss of species, indicated that the illness could be terminal. Sustainability was a health issue. It was concerned with the health of the planet.






Since that time there have been both successes and failures. One success has been that term sustainability has become the catch-cry of our time. Helen Clark used the term thirty three times in her address at the opening of parliament in 2007. Almost all new legislation from the Local Government Act to the Building Act makes a commitment to sustainability.
One failure has been that the term sustainability has been "captured" rather than opposed, probably because it was seen as a powerful idea which would not easily die. People began talking, for example, about "sustainable growth" or a "sustainable economy". Lay people became confused, but so did the experts. We have finally reached a point where no one knows what sustainability means.
We are witnessing the same phenomenon at the moment in relation to "climate change". Now that the concept has gained irreversible credibility everyone, from business leaders to politicians, is wondering how they can make money or mileage out of it. Eco-guilt has become a powerful force in our community and is driving the consumer society in a completely new way. Architects can now sell insulation or double glazing because these "products" make it seem that the underlying issues are being dealt with. Through adopting a narrow definition of health it becomes possible to avoid looking more deeply at the health of the planet.
Driving a hybrid car keeps the economy booming because it postpones the need to question the logic of planners designing urban environments which are totally dependent on both the car and dwindling oil reserves. If New Zealand planners did their job properly no one would need to own a car. The car would become a luxury item, just like houses which are so large that to talk of designing them to save energy is a nonsense.
One of the key, but subtle, historical changes has been the move from "sustainability" to "sustainable development". From a health perspective sustainable development is only another definition of cancer. Cells which continue replicating until they consume the host body. Cancer is the biggest killer in our time, not as this might be defined by a medical doctor, but rather seen from a global perspective.
Knowing when to stop has become the greatest challenge of our time.
Roads are useful, but they generate traffic which in turn creates a demand for more roads. If no one says "stop" the city would eventually consist entirely of roads and nothing else. This is urban cancer. Recent rate increases reflect an inability of local government to understand the meaning of "enough".
Stormwater, for example, is caused by bad design. Piping the stormwater into our harbours means that no one needs to correct the urban design faults and so the cancer goes on compounding until not only the urban environment is destroyed but also the natural environment. The funding needed to support this madness in turn destroys the community. The rates inquiry felt that dealing with these fundamental issues was too difficult, by which we mean too challenging for hedonistic, materialistic voters.
Having faith in people would lead to a different approach. Profligate spending leads to a loss of focus which leads in turn to neglect of critical concerns. Too much materialistic baggage creates barriers to the inward journey towards self-understanding. Travelling light is a good principle for any journey, whether physical or spiritual.
The problems with "sustainable development" are partly linguistic. "Development" in an urban context has come to mean "destruction". Building begins with a bulldozer. Architecture almost always destroys geology, landforms, history, stories, culture, memories, and much more. We kill the patient so that we can create a new one. If any doctor did this they would be in court by lunch-time. Doctors take an oath to protect life. The time has come when everyone in the building industry needs to do the same.
It is of course possible to have sustainable development. When we take our whakapapa, enrich it through reinterpreting it in our own time, and pass it on to another generation, we are protecting the health of our geology, landforms, history, stories, culture, memories and much more. This is our role as human beings. To sustain and enrich our inheritance so that it remains healthy and gives life to others.
The myth that the idea of sustainability was born in the Bruntland Report, which continues to be perpetuated by foolish academics who were not around at the time, needs to be dismissed. The RMA was already law before the Rio Earth Summit even began. Maurice Strong, Secretary General for UNCED, flew to New Zealand to discuss all these issues with us, while we sailed around the Waitemata in the Queen Charlotte, before the Earth Summit. I have discussed the "capture" of sustainability with Gro Harland Bruntland, and she shared my concerns.
The concept of "development" however needs to be seen in the context of United Nations global politics and the art of compromise. "Development" promises more than it delivers, and the promise lives on, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.
I do not mean to be critical of those who never stop to ask if sustainability is always a good thing. My point is that New Zealanders have been leaders rather than followers in the environmental debate over the last forty years. We are now at a crucial point where the need for leadership has never been greater. It makes me sad to see bureaucrats crippling initiative with draconian regulations which support those driven by greed, while punishing those who might redefine "built environment democracy". You cannot make people healthy. They must do that for themselves. Leadership has never been achieved by regulation.
Ideas are more powerful than most people realise.
Two ideas which have driven much United Nations thinking in the last twenty years have had a negative impact on the health of both the urban environment and the planet. Neither have been debated in any meaningful way. One is the acceptance that development necessarily means destruction and exploitation. Even academics seem to accept that cancer is the way to go.
The other is the idea of "shelter". The global psyche has been convinced that the natural world is a threat from which we need to be protected, rather than the sustainer of our life. Until we seek for architecture which embraces the natural world our buildings and our urban environments will ensure that we are constantly sick.
Life becomes much simpler if we return to the roots of the contemporary environmental movement and recognise that sustainability means sustaining the health of the planet. Healthy human beings perfectly integrated into a healthy natural environment. Healthy ecosystems. Healthy cities.
It would be a useful beginning if everyone making urban decisions resolved "to do no harm", but health is much more than just not being sick. To be healthy is to be fully alive.
Good health is a positive idea.
A shrewd doctor deals with back problems. The patient never dies and they never get better either. A safe career path is assured. Academics in a PBRF environment take the same approach. Performance is measured by paper output rather than changing the world. Our universities have become largely irrelevant in dealing with the big issues. A career path is assured only to those who deal with problems, because every problem which is solved creates five new problems.
In turn government has become focused on negative modes of thinking. New legislation constantly addresses perceived problems. We have become a nation of environmental hypochondriacs, which makes us vulnerable to every quack solution. We take pills when we would do better to park the car and go for a run.
The Ministry for the Environment is obsessed with negative carbon footprints. Huddling over a 12V solar bulb will not save the world. We need to ask completely different questions. What does it mean to be fully alive, rather than can we survive although we are half dead?
Cap and trade carbon trading will come to be seen as the greatest con-trick of all time, and the interesting question is why this is not obvious to everyone. Why has there not been any protest from the universities, or even some intellectual analysis? Giving everyone permission to pollute, and then allowing people to sell their permission to pollute is an insane idea. Giving everyone permission to be sick is never going to lead to a healthy society.
If we eat to excess, in the same way that we build to excess, then we will die of lethargy, if not obesity or diabetes. Counter-productivity is a basic principle of life. The art of life is to live at the peak of the curve of counter-productivity. The consumer society takes a different view and is sustained by excess.
Too much of everything has become our life-style ideal. To sustain that life-style through purchasing carbon credits is a nonsense. Attempting to change attitudes through yet another advertising campaign would serve only to put more money in the pockets of the spin doctors.
A return to first principles is useful.
What is the meaning and purpose of life?
In one sense this is a spiritual question, but most environmentalists would agree that most environmental questions really are spiritual.
At Stockholm in 1972 the focus was on the "technical fix". Take some antibiotics and you will be just fine. Many architects have not moved beyond that position, to the delight of the manufacturers of "technical fixes". The drug companies have become very rich, but those whose market is sustained by eco-guilt are well on the way to following in their footsteps. You cannot sell more product to someone if you make them healthy rather than sick.
As the inadequacies of the "environmental antibiotic panacea" were recognised Gaia introduced the idea of interconnectedness. This was not a new idea. Maori have always believed that an individual cannot be healthy if the whanau is sick. Going to the gym needs to be seen as providing the fitness and intellectual focus to tackle the real issues of climate change in a positive way. The planet needs a healthy life-style too.
At this time environmentalists began recognising that our political structures were not what was needed to answer the questions which were being asked. Urban form reflects the power structures in our society. Our cities are clearly not democratic. At a time when the USA is so deeply committed to forcing democracy on people who do not seem to be particularly interested, after they have been well served by tribal structures for thousands of years, it seems appropriate to recognise that a democratic built environment is also a health issue.
A democratic built environment is committed to the distribution of power.
It empowers citizens, giving them the means to participate fully in their own future, and to take responsibility for their own decisions.
We all reach the end of the day without having achieved all that we hoped to do. We sit back, pour a glass of good wine, and decide that some things will need to wait until tomorrow. We celebrate what we have achieved. All this changes when our expectations focus on others rather than ourselves. We then become frustrated, angry , and stressed. Road rage is only a symptom of deeper urban problems.
An owner-builder is empowered to take control of their own lives, while also respecting the complete interconnectedness of their house and their life. People are empowered when they do their own building. They give form to their culture. They tell their stories. They live out their memories. Their built environment is totally integrated into who they are. Their satisfaction and sense of achievement knows no bounds. The act of building is a tonic which leads to good health.
In the built environment dictatorship enshrined in the new Building Act there is no interconnectedness. Developers do the building with little thought for the end user. Profit becomes the only motive driving society. Individuals switch off and become half alive, hoping that they will somehow be protected by endless regulations which really have nothing to do with them. Alienation becomes rife. Our cities have become places of resentment and hatred. Our children are abused by the built environment long before anyone lays a hand on them.
The built form violence which results from people being disempowered inevitably leads to violence in every other aspect of our society. None of this is necessary. Cities could be places of peace. This concept of the Peaceful City was presented to the world in our ambassador's plenary speech at Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996, but of course no developers were present or listening.
No individual is going to build a house for their family which is unhealthy or unsafe. They only need to be given the support, expertise and skill they need to do the job they want to do. Built environment democracy is possible but we will need a different Building Act and a different approach to planning.
In a low-rise high-density city like Tokyo every cell of the urban form can be constantly renewing itself, just as the cells do in our own bodies when we are healthy. We do not grow bigger, we grow better. We are constantly healing.
If we get the big issues right we will not need to worry about all the fine print. People are very ingenious at improving themselves if they are given a chance.
Built environment democracy is a necessary first move in preventative health care in our community.
Building is a cultural act.
Throughout history well-intentioned but culturally inappropriate housing and urban design has frequently been a cause of sickness and even death.
Maori cannot be expected to be fully alive when they are forced to live in houses which have, for example, a bathroom in the middle of the bedrooms. Noa and tapu do not mix. On a marae no one would ever mix up wharenui, wharekai, and the ablutions. If the architecture is unhealthy how can the people be healthy?
Pakeha housing which is designed around assumptions about security and exclusion makes the exercise of Manakitanga impossible. Without manakitanga how can any person have mana? The house is sick and so the people become sick too.
A materialistic and consumer ethic sees buildings and cities as objects sitting in and occupying the landscape. For Maori it is on the land that you stand tall. This is your turangawaewae. The buildings never occupy the marae. They are set back. Maori belong to the land. The land does not belong to them. If you are dispossessed by architecture how can you exercise kaitiakitanga?
When developers and architects who understand none of these things are the form givers for the built environment good health becomes impossible.
At first it may seem that this is all bad news. Certainly many Maori health issues are a direct result of a built environment which makes it impossible for Maori to be whole. The good news is that if we return to the concept of sustainability as meaning to sustain the life of the planet and to do no harm then recognising the sacredness of place brings us full circle to solutions rather than problems.
There is a reason why you do not put your hat on a table. There is a reason for not mixing up noa and tapu. There is a reason for not putting stormwater into pipes. Our need is not to design housing or cities which are appropriate for Maori. Our need is to recognise the strength of our whakapapa.
We all need to see the city first and foremost as a sacred place.
We need to ask why we have cities. Surplus is generated by community. If interconnectedness is critical to health we need to see that the disconnectedness we take for granted is a health issue. You never meet a stranger on a motorway. How can you be fully alive if you are alone?
Diversity and complexity are the foundations on which sustainability is built, and they are also the foundations on which healthy cities are built. Seeking for more controls, more codes of compliance, and more bureaucracy leads only to dull boring uniformity.
UNDP at Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996 identified placelessness as the greatest problem facing urban environments in our time. That placelessness begins when someone else takes control of our lives and we find we are living in someone else's culture in someone else's city. Placelessness is a central problem for Maori, but they are really only acknowledging what is no different for the rest of us.
Building is a verb not a noun. Healthy cities will only be possible when we regain control over our own lives. Built environment democracy may at first seem to be all too difficult because it means people taking responsibility for themselves.
If we take a positive view of climate change we could see it as a great blessing. To do nothing is not an alternative. We cannot go on living unhealthy lives on an unhealthy planet. It is probably only when we get sick that we look a little more closely at our diet or our life-style. When we begin to make changes and start to feel the sheer joy of being fully alive we are only left to wonder why we did not take good health more seriously a long time ago.
Being needlessly sick is a tragic waste of a life. Building cities which are needlessly sick is a tragic waste of an opportunity. Inheriting a healthy planet and passing on a sick planet to another generation goes against the whole notion of sustainable development.
Why would anyone choose to be half alive when the opportunity is there for them to be fully alive? Academic psychologists do not seem to even be interested in exploring these issues, let alone providing adequate answers. Fortunately urban designers, architects, and all the participants in the urban game do not need to wait for them.
To every urban question there is only one answer. "Choose life."
Tony Watkins


ImageAn "action" appendix to "Choose life"

A brief response to the questions “Where to next?” and “How might change be fertilised?”
My think-piece has already suggested wide and diverse possibilities for action. It may however be useful to briefly clarify of some of these. I am more than happy to explain even further as many of my suggestions are complex and far reaching.





1)    Placing health at the centre of our national and personal agendas would already be a significant action, and from this everything else follows. When you are healthy and leading a healthy lifestyle you do not need to think too much about health. When the planet is sick, and materialistic consumerism is an unhealthy lifestyle, health needs to move to the top of all our agendas.

2)    Within Government the Department of Conservation or the Ministry for the Environment, for example, might focus on health. This would move them away from negative problem-driven thinking to creative resource-saving thinking.

3)    The Local Government Act 2002 states that the very purpose of local government is to “promote well-being” but in practice Councils take power away from people and are driven by complaints, a lust for control, and negative thinking. A new bureaucratic culture focusing on health is needed. The statutory basis already exists but it has not been implemented.

4)    A judicial process which is based on conflict and confrontation creates not only winners and losers but also resentment, ill-will and finally an unhealthy society. The Environment Court, for example, is locked into a process which, if implemented in our hospitals, would bring about the death of most patients. We need healing, not winners. If doctors argued like lawyers diagnosis would become irrelevant. The high numbers in our prisons is a direct result of a society based on threats, fear, and punishment. A healthy society would ensure that all citizens were fully alive and able to realise their potential. Some moves towards mediation, for example, have been made, but sustainability suggests we should go much further and recognise that we have no enemies other than ourselves. Even a simple move such as National Radio relinquishing its obsession with court cases would contribute to a healing judicial system.

5)    The new Building Act 2004 in theory is concerned with consumer protection. In fact it is concerned with the protection of the building industry, and the industry is only concerned with the ability of the consumer to pay. The Act is a direct response to the power of the industry. Negative controls have unfortunately never produced healthy buildings or healthy cities. The Act disempowers those who have good reason to be concerned with health, namely the owner-builders. Attempting to change or repeal the Act would unfortunately only result in the same process producing the same result.

6)    A positive Healthy Building Act could however sit alongside the existing negative Act. Empowering people with skills and knowledge would set them free from the tyranny of developers and development-oriented planning. The first move in achieving a built-environment democracy would be to have a populace steeped in wisdom. We assume that education is important in life. If this is so then we need built-environment education too. There was a time when everyone in New Zealand knew how to build a healthy home. Diminished understanding results in diminished expectations.

7)    Building is a language and what buildings have to say is too important to be left to real estate agents and others driven only by profit and rewarded by instability.

8)    Legislation takes time and is not a panacea. In contrast getting all architects and builders to take an oath to protect and sustain life, and to do no harm to the natural environment, place, culture, traditions, or the built environment, could happen quite quickly. Placing the health of individuals and the health of the planet at the top of the built-environment agenda would bring about dramatic change. Resolving the ethical details would take many years but if every move was towards life, rather than towards destruction, time would be of no consequence.

9)    Embracing nature rather than sheltering from it would seem to be so self-evident as to require no action, but unfortunately the risk-averse bureaucratic culture developing all around us seems to have lost the plot. We need to see the water-cycle, for example, before we can begin to understand it. Putting stormwater into pipes is a nonsense. We should save the money and also the pollution. Every building should embrace the natural world.

10) Planners typically lead dull and mediocre lives. They are not people who might provide leadership in our society or save the planet. The planning dictatorship could usefully be replaced by built-environment democracy. Humane city form makes constant cell metamorphosis possible.

11) The materialistic consumer society is not good for our health. While this is clear it needs to be remembered that politics is the art of the possible. It is not wise to engage in a battle you cannot win because a politician needs votes before they can focus on ideals. However some moves could be made. Research needs to be done on why people do not buy. Architects might be weaned away from their glorification of the materialistic object to consider the spirituality of building and above all else to ask whether a building is really necessary.

A mix of both long term and short term action, along with a mix of both pragmatic and idealistic action, is probably ideal. It is not possible to set priorities. It is better to adopt a lesser action which can gain political traction than to aim for a greater good and achieve nothing. It is also important to have the courage to recognise counter-productive ideas, such as carbon trading, for what they are.
Tony Watkins


This "think piece" and the accompanying "Action Appendix" were published by the Public Health Advisory Committee in 2008.


Copies of the complete book are available by telephoning 04 496 2277. Please quote HP4602.


It is also available in PDF format on line at www.phac.health.govt.nz

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