Monday, May 9, 2011

A Step Toward Utopia: Green Building in Australia and New Zealand

Roger Platt
Senior Vice President, Global Policy and Law
U.S. Green Building Council

I am doubly blessed and privileged to have both a green job and a globally focused role at USGBC. The increasingly world-wide green building community is making the planet feel a lot smaller and more hospitable these days to those committed to the mission of USGBC and like-minded groups. A trip I took to New Zealand and Australia last month highlighted that reality in a very vivid way.

In the “small world” department, please allow me to relay a short personal story. In late February my college-aged daughter was beginning her junior year abroad enrolled at Canterbury University in the city of Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. That would be the Christchurch that experienced the heart-rending earthquake on Feb. 22. Long story short, my daughter is just fine and was moved to University of Otago in Dunedin, a few hundred miles south of Christchurch. Because of my previously scheduled travel I was able to show up just days after the disaster and offer my daughter the emotional comfort food of a familiar face during an unfamiliar kind of trauma. The extreme distance between Washington, DC and the south Island of New Zealand was bridged by the miracle of air travel. But in my case, it was also bridged by my work connecting with and supporting green building leaders across the globe….including in New Zealand.

With that story as a backdrop, let me offer some reflections on the broader trip, reflections spurred in part by my chance reading (during my return flight) of the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction to Utopianism. The pamphlet-sized book points out that Australia has more examples per capita of “garden communities” and other experiments in implementing visions of a utopian future than any other country except Israel. By that measure, it seems New Zealand was third in line. It struck me that the feeling of being at home away from home in New Zealand, that I tried to communicate to my daughter, was one I was beginning to feel myself in a quite profound way. But what I was feeling was not just the special comforts of a shared language but also a common instinct that we need to make our brief time on this planet everything that it can and should be, and we need to start by living our ideals at home in our own communities.

At the U.S. Green Building Council that means being ambitious (and yes a tad utopian) about how we build, operate, live in and work in the buildings and communities that are such a large part of our lives. That is a commitment fully shared by both the New Zealand and Australian Green Building Councils. But it is also the reason behind the growing success of the World Green Building Council. Is it a coincidence that organization is today chaired by a very forward-looking Australian, Tony Arnel, and run day-to-day by a wonderful chief executive officer from New Zealand, Jane Henley? I think not.

While in Australia, I attended the board meeting of the World Green Building Council. There were representatives from Japan and South Africa among other countries. And it turns out the WGBC now has affiliated councils in 70 countries. As I read over Tony Arnel’s bio on the website in preparation for the meeting, I was particularly impressed by the paragraph noting that, “Tony has led national and international sustainability debate, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, advocating sustainable building as a means of reducing greenhouse emissions without impacting economic growth.” The bio goes on to note that, ”In Asia, he has played a leading role in developing and nurturing key regional green building councils such as Singapore and China.” Of all the exports of Australia, the one that may have the most lasting impact in Asia is its proven commitment to greener buildings and communities.

Hosting me for the majority of my trip was Romilly Madew, the charismatic CEO of the Australian Green Building Council. She has helped build the organization membership and its ubiquitous Green Star rating tool to the point where virtually all new commercial construction in Australia’s major cities is now built green. She also chairs the World Green Building Council’s rating tool committee.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a taste of some of the exciting sustainable development projects underway in Australia. Most interesting to me was a huge new project for Sydney named “Baranagaroo” after an Aboriginal woman who lived in Sydney during early white settlement. Sometimes referred to as Sydney’s answer to New York’s Central Park, the $6 Billion (Australian dollars) project being developed by Lendlease is planned to take over 20 Hectares of under-utilized land and turn it into sprawling parkland surrounded by offices, apartments, hotels and shopping. All built, of course, to a robust green standard.

Exciting stuff in a part of the world I felt very privileged to see.


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