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Noted Environmentalist Designer Redefines Green Living

Heights Editor

Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

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Photo Courtesy of Smart USA

Neil Chambers, author and award-winning green designer and founder of Chambers Design, Inc. and Green Ground Zero recently visited Boston College as part of his “Urban Green” nationwide university book tour. Chambers is the author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future – the focal point of his book tour, aiming to discuss new ways to design green cities.

As a national fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, and nearly 20 years of experience within the fields of green building and infrastructure, Chambers has been called a visionary, creating an innovative stamp on sustainability and its future.

The focus of Chambers’ book tour has been to give simple tips on how students can go green. He has also weighed in on what college students around the country are saying about environmental issues we face today. Chambers jumpstarted his book tour last year, sponsored by Smart. He has been to 18 states and 21 universities in three different regions of the United States, and talked to almost 4,000 college students. His focus is on conversation rather than lecture in order to gain student perspective.

Traveling across the country in a Smart car, he has spoken and heard students speak from all walks of life about the pertinent issues of the environment, and punctured the topic of what it truly means to be “green.” The Smart car, a perfect sidekick for his mission, is designed to be 85 percent recyclable and over 95 percent reclaimable.

Urban Green: Architecture for the Future focuses on getting sustainability right, according to Chambers. The book begins with the bold statement: “Why the current green movement is getting it wrong.” Chambers wants not only to dispel false notions about the green movement, but also to precipitate change in how the environment is perceived and how creating change can be altered. The most vital notion for Chambers is that we can live interconnected with the natural world in a way that would make our lives and our cities better at a lesser cost than the current approaches do. Chambers argues that costly ideas are gratuitous and are only going to make things worse. “We need to work with the natural world instead of against it,” he said.

In his book, Chambers talks about the power of old growth forests, estuaries, and prairies to “sequester carbon, modulate temperature, manage storm water, reduce flooding, and purify water better than any technology know to humans.” He has completed projects that have re-established habitat and natural lands in order to foster a better quality of life.

His book calls for citizens everywhere to rethink sustainability from the ground up. He shows how ecologists and environmentalists around the world are joining with architects and city planners to make the natural world an integral part of cities. He argues that cities, parks, and buildings need to be built in a way that limits their domination of the natural lands they are within. Thus, he calls for a remodeling of the way capital projects are approached, designed, and implemented.

Chambers’ main problem with the current sustainability movement is that it has turned toward energy and efficiency, losing sight of the power of biodiversity and nature. His vision is to bring these two worlds together. Chambers seeks to harness the free services provided by ecologies that function in a very healthy and natural way. In a project he worked on in Myrtle Beach, Chambers proved that sustainability in the future does not need to be all about technology. In South Carolina, he and his team replaced oysters to help clean the water. Oysters, which can filter four gallons of water an hour, were extremely vital to the ecosystem and the cleanliness of water–before they became extinct in 90 percent of their old habitat in the area. He and his team installed two reefs with the help of the community and collected oyster shells. This man-assisted “oyster-tecture” is a solution that is low-cost with a high return. His solutions are simple: Replace what used to be there, what used to work. This does not require expensive technology. “We need to go back to oysters,” Chambers said.

Chambers has combined his expertise in sustainability with his extensive work on green building design to formulate a career that involves innovation, experimentation, and vocalization. The last has brought him to college campuses, where he has learned from students that, for the most part, they want to do their part, but the implementation of these desires is a whole different story. He has seen how certain schools have been really successful with sustainability, whereas others have not, and students are either somewhat ignorant, or cynical and frustrated. “You have to make this stuff real–point at it and feel it,” Chambers said. “In five to 10 years the global economy will rest in the hands of the kids I am talking to. I need to know: Is it really seeping through?”

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