DURING THE 2006 World Planners Congress in Vancouver, delegates raised an important question during a round-table talk on sustainable urbanization. They asked, if we have policies to recycle items as small as pop bottles and tin cans, why don’t we have strategies to reuse or recycle items as large as buildings and even whole parts of cities?
It is a vital question. It’s also a good starting point for this issue of Alternatives because discussion on sustainability has largely neglected the environmental implications of decisions to demolish old buildings. After all, up to a third of all landfill waste in Canada originates from construction and demolition.
We need to consider embodied energy. Every brick in a building required the burning of fossil fuel in its manufacture, and every piece of lumber was cut and transported using energy. As long as the building stands, that energy is there, serving a useful purpose. Trash a building and you trash its embodied energy too. Furthermore, we burn new fuel to replace the structure. It has been estimated that the embodied energy that is lost with the demolition of a typical small urban house is equivalent to the energy saved by recycling 1.34 million aluminium cans. Simply put, the total energy that is lost with the destruction of a building is immense.
As important as the environment is, built heritage has a value all its own. Since heritage structures are important links to the past, the loss of buildings affects the identity of place and people’s ability to understand their position in the unfolding of time. While the often irreplaceable quality of the built environment should necessitate its conservation, heritage structures frequently fall victim to conventional economic ways of thinking and short-sighted government policy. Unfortunately, heritage value is often quantified through purely economic terms with little consideration given to its aesthetic, social or environmental significance. Yet, when we try to justify heritage by quantifying its economic impact, we are starting down a slippery slope. (See this issue’s section on Measuring Progress to learn about this slippery slope.) Instead, we should turn the equation around. We should discuss economic considerations in terms of heritage and environmental values.
The articles in this issue assume that our heritage has its own value and that conservation and adaptive reuse is sound public policy. Exploring topics ranging from the economic and environmental benefits of good heritage conservation policy to our suburbs as future heritage districts, the lineup in this issue is sure to stimulate discussion on an under-acknowledged component of the environmental sustainability debate.
Creating this issue was a joint effort between Alternatives and the Heritage Resources Centre at the University of Waterloo. We would like to acknowledge the support and encouragement we received for this venture from the Historic Places Program, a branch of Parks Canada.
Robert Shipley is a professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo and the director of the Heritage Resources Centre. Jason Kovacs is a doctoral candidate in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo and is currently research director of the Heritage Resources Centre.
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