The flavour of environmental zeal in the Nanaimo region takes many forms. Natural building, water access and transportation are recognized to a greater or lesser degree. Moving from Vancouver to our new home in Nanaimo has shown us a different face of sustainability. There is a decided shift away from the technical aspects of architectural design to a sustainability based in social values.

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A trip to Germany in 2010 provided a unique opportunity to explore sustainable communities and building practice outside of urban centers. Traveling from Berlin to the Ruhrgebiet to a remote village in the Swabian Alps showed a glimpse into the aspects of sustainable building that don’t appear in architecture journals.

Germany is one-third the size of British Columbia, but with roughly 20-times the population, the flat landscape is significantly more amenable to interconnected public transportation.

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The metropolitan region of the Ruhrgebiet is an amalgamation of approximately 30 towns and cities. It is a German analog for metropolitan districts like the Nanaimo Regional District and Metro Vancouver. Scale as well as density is important to understanding the viability of integrated transit within these areas.

The towns, cities and villages of the Ruhr retain some autonomy of character in contrast to the pervasive uniformity of  Canadian metropolitan cities. Despite years of heavy industrial development and almost total obliteration of the Ruhr in WWII, each urban area retains its “centeredness”.

The Ruhr district was the heart of German industrial production. Over the past decade, the local and federal government has reinvented the district entirely as a center of cultural production.

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The transition from “coal to culture” provides a key to understanding the widespread adoption of clean energy alternatives:  “After spending more than $200 billion in subsidies since the 1960s, the federal government decided that the practice had become unaffordable. With just 32,000 miners left, that’s the equivalent of more than $100,000 in annual subsidies per worker.”

Throwing the same investment into cultural capital, re-training and technology makes considerably more sense than continuing to subsidize coal. This realization set the foundation for a practical approach to subsidizing clean energy.

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With the primary cost of clean energy only slightly higher than the price of conventional energy, an aggressive subsidy may be a smart investment. As the cost of clean energy drops (and the cost of conventional energy increases) the price gap diminishes toward a break-even point in the near future. The picture is quite different when energy only costs 7-cents per kilowatt-hour.

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Rurbanism: a case study

Exploration in the rolling landscape of the Swabian Alps allowed us to explore the balance between agriculture and development.

The German outlook on property is quite different from our own.  Owning land is a responsibility, not a right. Agricultural land is too precious to be fallow so farm land is required to be cultivated. This is managed with a system of penalties and tax incentives.

A comparison of rural areas in BC and Germany illustrate strikingly distinct patterns of settlement and the consequences of land commodification. The following illustrations examine contemporary Lantzville, BC and Starzach, Germany.

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The cartesian survey pattern of Lantzville is a striking contrast to Starzach.  The alluvial pattern of the German village belies its original dependance on the soil and access to water for irrigation as well as the constraints of topography imposed by the land. Despite centuries of settlement, broad strips of undeveloped land remains between cultivated strips.

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The area of productive farmland in Starzach is virtually unchanged by the passage of the 20th century. In Lantzville a fragments of pasture are all that remain of the farms that existed here a few decades ago. The demising of rural acreage lends itself to subdivision and development through an efficient administrative and economic process.  Arterial roads identify another important difference. In Starzach, the roads connect each village, passing through its center and becoming a populated street at each node. The Island Highway bisects Lantzville but is separated from its constituency by a landscaped buffer.

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The density of residences is considerably higher in Lantzville but one’s experience of the place is decidedly less urban.  Houses are set-back from the streets creating a uniformity to the experience of place. In contrast, the villages around Starzach are comparatively dense, with concentrations of houses and embedded commercial services.

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