Sun, Sand, Sustainability…And Sprawl Too!

Posted on: November 10th, 2007 by Barbara Campagna

Fort San Geronimo, Caribe Hilton, San JuanI just returned from 10 days of conferences – a week in San Juan for the APT Conference followed by 3 days at the Greenbuild Conference in Chicago. Both conferences energized me and made me so proud to be playing a professional role in the climate change discussion.

APT (the Association for Preservation Technology) is one of the National Trust’s primary partners in the Sustainable Preservation Coalition – a coalition of national organizations responsible for developing policies and best practices who have joined together to create national policy on the intersection of historic preservation and sustainable practices. This APT Conference was also my final conference as President of the organization, and I was thrilled to be the president at the most successful and highly attended conference ever in the organization’s 39 years. This was also our first off-shore conference which proved that “curb appeal” of conferences is as important if not more important than intellectual content!! We had 729 attendees, far more than the 200 we had originally planned as the breakeven number.

San Juan and New Construction

San Juan, the capitol of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is a glorious port city whose 500 years of heritage is layered with contemporary life styles, viewpoints and architecture – making it a truly modern and forward looking place. The photo above, taken from my hotel balcony at the Caribe Hilton, represents these layers and clashes. The ancient fort of San Geronimo is overshadowed by a newly-built condominium building whose construction has reportedly rattled and undermined its foundations and threatened its authenticity. The mid-century modern buildings in the background form Condado, the “Miami Beach” of San Juan, which is filled with dance clubs, hip hotels and newly-built housing. San Juan is no different from any other world-class city – its heritage crumbles on one street, while brilliant restorations are completed on an adjacent street; demand for new housing overshadows forgotten monuments; tourists lounge on the beach demanding pina coladas and mojitos with the Bacardi factory looming over the port, and the residents drive more cars per capita than nearly any other city in the Northern Hemisphere. This tropical paradise that tells the story of European arrival in America also tells the current and repeating story of sprawl, teardowns and climate change.

How is Climate Change impacting Puerto Rico?

Just about the size of the state of Connecticut, the archipelago of Puerto Rico has 4 million residents and statistically each resident has more than one car. We took a bus tour to Ponce on the southern part of the island. It took an hour to get there in the morning after rush hour, but over two on the way back in the middle of rush hour. It felt like being back on the Beltway. Recent research suggests that climate change (ie rising temperatures) and the impact of carbon overloading from transportation chaos A typical street in historic Ponceare destroying the jungle habitats of the famous tree frogs known as coquis: In Puerto Rico and nearby islands, experts believe three of 17 known Eleutherodactylus species are extinct and seven or eight are declining. Loss of the frogs, scientists warn, could have disastrous consequences, depriving birds and other predators of a food source, eliminating a consumer of insects and disrupting the ecosystem in ways impossible to guess. (See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/1949034)

The Conference

The APT Conference brought together experts from around the world, with a special target attendance of Latin American inhabitants, thanks to a substantial grant from the Getty Foundation. With one of its three tracks focused on “Climate”, attendees listened to and discussed the impact of sprawl and climate change on our historic sites. Growing recognition of the relationship between sustainability and preservation includes reconsideration of traditional building design elements that already contribute to making historic buildings sustainable. Many traditional building technologies and planning concepts are inherently “green” and are based on the climate opportunities of a specific region. Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, “El Morro”San Juan is the perfect place to have that discussion, as the use of durable and renewable building materials like limestone, stucco, and wood; the use of low-technology, energy saving measures like the massive wall construction seen in its ring of forts; the strategic use of vegetation and locally adapted built elements like canopies, porches, and shutters, and the density of urban development, show modern green building designers how to use passive measures to live an eco-conscious life. (See the APT San Juan 2007 conference program, http://www.apti.org/conferences/2007/brochure.pdf.)

These indigenous climate-responsive designs also clash with our current lifestyles, where we’ve forgotten how to live without absolute comfort and control at all times. The Caribe Hilton is a mid-century modern delight perched on a private beach nestled between Old San Juan and Condado with little distinction between the outside and the inside originally. This was the first Hilton hotel built outside of the continental US so it was appropriate that APT’s first off-shore conference would be held here. But the hotel has seen changes to its design which compromise its authenticity but make us high-maintenance conference-goers happy. And I’ll count myself in that category. Yes, I am sorry the once totally open spaces throughout the hotel have been partitioned off to provide climate control (read very cold air conditioning), but I was also frustrated that my curly hair frizzed uncontrollably when I had to run from a/c filled meeting rooms through the open lobby to my over- air conditioned hotel room. I travel around the country proclaiming the need to reduce our carbon imprint but I want total comfort when I’m sleeping and can’t give up my plastic water bottles. The irony of modern living is not lost on me, but I guess I hope that my monthly purchases of carbon offsets are buying me at least some emotional comfort if not being any actual help to the planet…and that’s a topic for another posting.

Next year APT’s 40th Anniversary conference will be celebrated in Montreal, a city closest to the location that a group of American and Canadian founders met to create APT in 1968. Sustainability will be the major theme of the conference and will be punctuated by a 2 day symposium on that topic. http://www.apti.org/conferences/conference-future.cfm

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at bcampagna@bcampagna.com.

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