Sustainable Design

At the turn of the 20th century, New York had over 200,000 horses, 1 for every 17 residents resulting in 2000 tonnes of manure being dumped on the streets each day. Heaps of manure lined the streets, leaching into basements, breeding flies and worst of all spreading disease. “The world had seemingly reached the point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive with it, either” (Levitt and Dubner, 2009, p.39). What saved us then was not a social move to cut down on the use of horses but the invention of the far cleaner, more efficient, cheaper, automobile.

Sustainable development generally refers to three areas: “environmental stewardship, social equity and justice, and economic issues” (Walker, 2006, p.16). The invention and adoption of the car at the beginning of the 20th century was a clearly a more sustainable development, however, this is not how it is seen today. Again we have reached a point where are cities are so congested and polluted, we are causing serious damage to our healths and the environment. A big question facing us now is whether we are going to have to dramatically change the way we live or whether again we can be saved by science.

Just a couple of months ago a study was published in the journal nature communication that found photovoltaic solar will pay back, sometime this year, all the energy that it consumed over the last 40 years of development (Louwen et al, 2016). This doesn’t mean much for us now but does mean essentially free energy for the future. Most designers aren’t also engineers and so aren’t at the forefront scientific discovery but they can push for social change and maybe, if enough artists and designers effectively educate people on the problems and consequences, we can tackle this crisis from both the technological and social sides.


Charlotte, K. (no date) Origins of Sustainability. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/lrohgz4 (Accessed: 2 March 2017).

Levitt, S.D. and Dubner, S.J. (2009) Superfreakonomics: Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes and why suicide bombers should buy life insurance. London: Penguin Books.

Louwen, A., van Sark, W.G.J.H.M., Faaij, A.P.C. and Schropp, R.E.I. (2016) ‘Re-assessment of net energy production and greenhouse gas emissions avoidance after 40 years of photovoltaics development’, Nature Communications, 7, p. 13728. doi: 10.1038/ncomms13728. Walker, S. (2006). Sustainable by Design: explorations in theory and practice. 1st ed. London: Earthscan, p.16.

  "date": "02/03/2017",
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    "Heaps of manure lined the streets leaching into basements breeding flies and spreading disease."