It’s thrilling to see the Philadelphia Water Department taking aggressive, progressive action to solve the city’s stormwater woes. Faced with a system in crisis, they came up with “Green City, Clean Waters,” a solution that favors rain barrels, grassy sidewalks and tree pits over the construction of yet another massive tunnel. “The hardest thing to do is to reverse the trend of creating a concrete barrier to nature,” says Joanne Dahme, the Water Department’s general manager of public affairs. This is a triumph of good design.
There are many in the green movement who believe good design will conquer all. The most eloquent advocate of this notion is William McDonough, author of the landmark book Cradle to Cradle. Solutions can be found, he contends, by examining production more holistically and fully accounting for a product’s “lifecycle.” What if the disposable pen I use to write were compostable when it runs out of ink? Or better yet, if it were able to take ink refills? Our society wouldn’t be burdened with the cost of hauling it to the landfill, and taxpayers would save money. More importantly, we would avoid the environmental repercussions—including the release of poisonous gases called dioxins—of incinerating the plastic.
Approaching every aspect of how we live with this philosophy in mind is a fantastic way to unlock imagination and creativity. Campaigning against plastic bags in the grocery store is one thing; imagining a substitute for every piece of plastic lined up on their shelves is another.
The missing link—the avenue to unleashing our creativity—is public policy. After all, it was an Environmental Protection Agency mandate that spurred the Philadelphia Water Department to develop this comprehensive, sustainable strategy. That’s how it works.
Creating public policy that transforms our cities is a tall task. You’d have to be quite the idealist to count on virtue and restraint—in business or as individuals—to save the day. It is policy that leads to change, which leads to imagination and, in this case, good design.