Jargon, Etc. Interviews Dr. Mark Alan Hughes

As part of our ongoing interview series, Jargon, Etc. had the great opportunity this week to interview Dr. Mark Alan Hughes, Philadelphia's first ever Director of Sustainability. While serving as Director (a position that he has now handed over to Ms. Katherine Gajewski), Dr. Hughes was the architect of Greenworks, the ambitious and far-reaching plan to make Philadelphia America's Greenest City by 2015 and realize its Mayor Michael Nutter's campaign promise.  Dr. Hughes first served the Mayor back in 2007 as his Campaign Policy Director, following a six year stint as an op-ed columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.  A selection of his articles, a few of which are referenced in the interview, can be downloaded through his website. He is also a distinguished fellow in the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, and has a long list of career achievements, which includes youngest ever recipient of the National Planning Award in 1992 and winner of the international Ph.D. dissertation prize for Regional Science in 1986.

During the year-long development of Greenworks, Dr. Hughes immersed himself in the issue of sustainability, exhaustively exploring its meaning for Philadelphia and the city government's policy strategy. Nevertheless, as we sat down at Cafe Cret along the bustle of Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway, he seemed as eager as ever to revisit his thoughts on the issue and its promising relevance to architecture, politics, and everyday life. What follows is only an excerpt from our conversation - the entire transcript can be accessed through the link at the bottom of the post.

Your role as the first Director of Sustainability in Philadelphia is quite exciting. Where do you see the most potential for the Office of Sustainability to bring about change, and are there certain ventures or strategies in particular that you see as having a high return on investment?

Well I think that partly by design, the organizational strategy for an Office of Sustainability in a local government -really probably in any complex organization, but local governments have some special characteristics that I think make this strategy particularly apt - is what’s sometimes called matrix management. The office itself can stay relatively lean, but the director of that office in particular needs to be as close as possible to the CEO, or the mayor, and the basic mechanics of the office are such that it really works across the organization itself and becomes pervasive throughout the mission of all the different parts of a complex organization like a government.

So, what am I saying? There are a couple of ways that you can establish a new office. You could set up a relatively large Office of the Environment and try to pull in say, some air quality issues, some water management issues, maybe some kind of long term planning around climate change and adaptation or vulnerability- different kinds of things like that- and consolidate that content and that authority and budgets and everything into a single place. So, you’ve got some nice clear reporting, you’ve got some real authority to tell people to do different things, and so on. But what you trade away is the chance to affect what every department- the streets department, the police department -does on a daily basis. Our decision was to say, “OK, everything is up for negotiation, there’s always going to be a rematch, you’re not going to have a lot of authority, you’re not going to have a big budget, and we’re going to have to rely on other people to commit to these things, but the upside is that we actually get into the standard practices, the daily business, of every place in government.” So as an approach, that’s the way to get the maximum leverage. Sometimes the individual levers are small, but they add up to where you’re really turning the entire tank of government.

And I think that, both as an illustration of that and also as an answer to the second part of your question- where is the highest return, especially maybe for some sort of initial stuff- it has to do with energy management. Regardless of whether someone’s job is to run youth programs, or to close potholes, or to handle the IT needs of the city- everybody’s using power, gas or electric, regardless of the fuel source. So one of the things that we focused on very early was some of the more obvious stuff – making sure we meet our renewable portfolio standards’ commitments, and making sure that in addition to entering the brave new world of wholesale, market-direct purchasing of your electricity, we build some capacity to be able to be a strategic energy manager in the city. That means paying attention to things like the fact that right now, for perfectly good reasons that have been in place for over fifty years, nobody sees their electricity bill- it just goes to a central office. It’s always been treated as a kind of fixed cost, kind of like your pension benefits, and maybe it’s the same pension package or one of two or three pension packages, so why do you have to budget it, it’s always going to be the same?

Power runs in the same way. Now, as you know, when you’re set up that way, there’s absolutely no incentive to turn the lights off, because there’s no impact. And so people occupy buildings in which the cost of electricity or any other power is essentially free to them, and they over-consume- they waste it. One of the things that we paid a lot of attention to in this first year was changing that budget practice. So now, the occupants of buildings, whether they are in a library, or police or fire station, out in the neighborhoods- wherever they are- now face incentives to conserve, so that they actually get some of the benefits of that conservation where they save money and can spend it on things that they really care about, rather than on the electric bill.

So there’s an example of both something that you have to do first- because it’s big returns on efficiency, and because a lot of those returns accrue to the way that people use buildings, because buildings are absolutely the key as part of the initial first steps, but also the bulk of waste. In New York, buildings are seventy-nine percent -a little lower in Philadelphia- of the cost of carbon emissions as well as power and energy consumption in cities is associated with buildings, with a far lower percentage of it in New York, Philadelphia, and in the national average being associated with transportation and mass transit. So you focus on energy in buildings and efficiency first because the return is so high, and the only way you get all of that return is when you make sure that you’ve figured out a way to have an Office of Sustainability that talks to everybody’s building owners.

Now even that model is not the magic bullet, because it relies on certain things that you have to have, the most important of which is the absolute backing of the mayor, or whoever is the chief elected official. Without that, this pervasive thing doesn’t happen. You’re giving up specific set of reporting lines, which is the essence of your control, but what you’re getting instead is this subsidiary, this delegated authority where you’re saying, “I know you don’t report to me, but the mayor really wants me to do this, so I’m asking you, and you really need to do it.”

One major theme on our blog is the discussion of what sustainability means. As architects, we are aware of high-tech lingo and LEED certification, however these are really the tasks of engineers. One primary initiative in Greenworks is the renovation of city-owned buildings, and, as you already discussed, improving energy efficiency across all building types. Do you imagine that these slow, steady, efficiency-based improvements to the built environment will suffice? Do you ever think that some radicalization from the bottom up, (the people), needs to occur, or will the accumulation of the minimum involvement by the masses be enough?

No, it [the minumum] will not be enough. It’s going to take all of the above. The elephant in the room is obviously that the challenges – and again, this is still all contested, there’s still some uncertainty, we have to make some judgments in the face of uncertainty of how bad the problem is- but I think, certainly, I’m on the side of the argument that says that the challenges are so large that it’s really not a question of picking from among strategies, but more of a question of prioritizing the steps in which we might do things. We have to do everything we know about, or we aren’t going to get there. These things need to work in tandem, and the design question, if you will, is how you can sequence and program those steps so that they become mutually reinforcing and you get some kind of efficiency out of your policy as well as out of your buildings.

For example, if you look at a fully realized program of consistent, year after year retrofitting of municipal facilities, not only is that inherently useful -because it’s lowering consumption pattern and the load associated with those properties, and so on- it’s also a teaching moment. It becomes a kind of branding and teaching device that you can use in saying “OK, we’re looking at the envelope of a 1964 municipal services building, and we’re paying attention to some of the ways that the windows in our building are being coated, or treated, or sealed, or whatever, and we’re talking about that not just because it lowers the energy consumption in that building, but also because we want other similar office buildings and other building types to become aware of the new technologies that are emerging, how to pay for and finance the use of those technologies, and what some of the advantages of deploying them are.” So it also becomes a way of reinforcing some of the bottom-up, more distributed ways of not just educating but also empowering people to actually take advantage of some of this stuff themselves -which has to happen- and these things can work together. I think you have to do all of that.

But aside from teaching people to be more efficient with their energy use, for example, do you see the government having the ability to bring about some of the lifestyle changes that are going to need to happen in order for us to truly live “sustainably” and substantially save on energy use?

I think that there are a couple of things. We have to explore more of what you mean by the “lifestyle changes”, but we’re talking about the more fundamental stuff. I think that you’re right- you need to go beyond just educating people so they’ll pursue enlightened self interest, and change some of the rules of the game – for example, what New York is doing now and we’re starting to do ourselves here. New York is very far along. They’ve articulated the strategy very nicely, and it’s easy to read about this whole new green building code. They are completely relooking the code, involving all of these different parties, property managers, construction firms, the building trades unions, as well as the government regulators to go through the entire building and zoning code and replace the energy specifications that are built into those various codes, and so on – it’s terrific. So they’re changing the rules of the game, and beginning to incentivize and penalize the kinds of behaviors that are really very fundamental. This includes every building in New York, because the larger plan in New York is not just about new buildings to be built- this isn’t the time to be talking about that when nothing is getting built – but also about this whole thing of auditing all larger properties, requiring those larger properties to pursue the kinds of retrofits and the audits identify the return as the payback period – less than ten years or something.

So what the government can really do in the end is, in effect compel some of the fundamental behavior changes, as well as make the changes easier to happen. Now here, I think that it’s important to note the different roles that can and should be played by different levels of government. With some of these things- some of the more fundamental changes, like lifestyle, that you are pursuing- the higher up you need to go as far as the level of government. There’s still plenty of short-sightedness as far as initial costs, payback, and everything else, and so for some investors – and by that I mean people who are deciding where they are going to live, what house they are going to buy- if an air-tight house costs a premium over one that’s not air-tight, and you don’t have the difference, you’re dead. That can be translated to a local government that requires all houses to be tight versus another local government that doesn’t. You start to introduce distortions, as there are some competitive disadvantages between the local governments. So that can be tough, and the traditional textbook solution to that, of course, is to ratchet it up to a higher level of government where you have a more level playing field between those things.

The question that you are asking about how to change the fundamental things is going to have to come from the federal government, and it is. HUD (Housing and Urban Development) is talking about for the first time – and again now, it’s kind of experimental, with only a few thousand examples rather than the hundred million that we would need – building in location and energy specific advantages into mortgages, so that we start this idea that we’ve been kicking around for twenty years about giving a bonus – ten or fifteen thousand dollars- in mortgages that are given to people buying houses that are half a mile from a transit stop, or a property that meets a certain kind of energy specification, and so on. It’s a great idea, and yet a very revolutionary, large agenda for a relatively conservative federal agency like HUD to be playing with.
So we are in this stage now where we are learning whether or not it works and demonstrating that it does, but we have to go all the way – it would have to be as engrained and standard as the mortgage interest deduction to have the kind of impact that you’re talking about. The only way that you are going to get there though is with the mass scale stuff. Cities lead, I think on innovation and ideas. A lot of this stuff- this location sensitive mortgaging, for example, came out of Chicago, some of the newer technology- cities and their organizations, like bloggers and others who reside in the cities, can be the entrepreneurs and the innovators but for a lot of this stuff you need to get state and federal level support.

I thought it was interesting that recently Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested that people paint or install white roofs on their houses to save energy. There was a huge backlash from it, because it actually asked us all as individuals to make a simple lifestyle change. Isn’t it reasonable for governments to make these suggestions? Politicians in general seem reluctant to ask individual people to make changes in their own lives as part of a sustainability strategy where collective change comes from individuals taking more responsibility for their own environmental impacts. Ultimately, though, isn’t that what will have to happen?

If anything, I thought it was actually a surprisingly thoughtful and modest proposal in that it’s not about figuring out how to sequester coal emissions, but totally doable on a small scale with a huge return on a relatively modest investment. It was a great idea- and particularly relevant to a place like Philadelphia, where we have lots of flat roofs, and local companies were the inventors of the very best roof coating materials.

I think that again, you’re always trying to find the balance- which really, I think, precedes whichever approach works best- between asking, cajoling, bully pulpit, leading, “come on we’re all in this together”, and the other side, which says “Do what you want to do, but you’ll be eligible for tax credits if you do it, and not if you don’t”.

Or, the next step beyond that is saying, “We’re really going to create a carbon market, and carbon reduction is going to have real value, and people who organize through cooperatives, neighborhood associations, or local governments to band together to do things like make sure that all roofs are reflective and suddenly bring about an associated two or three percent load reduction – that’s going to have value in a market where carbon reduction has a price.” That’s the next step where you really create ways in which people are not just asked to behave well but actually rewarded for behaving well.
Part of the challenge is still that fifty cents or even five dollars a month less on air conditioning and lower electricity bills is just not quite enough to get through. We have a collective action problem here and we have to find a way to aggregate these small benefits into large benefits that people can then share. That’s what governments are for, and you have to find the balance between that appeal and that incentive.

This next question comes from one of my fellow Jargon, Etc. bloggers who lives in Houston: In a September 2005 article, you discussed whether the nation at large should be allowed to determine how New Orleans rebuilds and reforms, given the amount of federal funds provided to the city. It seemed a couple years ago that people were genuinely interested in not only helping the victims of Katrina but the city itself as well. The question of preservation then presented itself. Had we already lost New Orleans, and if so, what exactly had we lost? I believe our country has a serious problem with preservation--generally, we don't know what we have and we therefore don't care to keep it. Near my parents’ house in Houston, a wooden church from the 1800s burned in flames nearly in plain sight for hours before anything was done—a situation comparable to Katrina. Philadelphia is an old city. Do you notice that people care about this? Are the old landmarks proud staples of the city, or do the new developments stick out? Do you think its possible to convince people to get involved and halt developers from meddling with our history?

I think there’s a strong preservation spirit here. Again, it’s another example of balancing interests. At any given time there are two or three very high profile preservation challenges going on. There’s La Ronda out in Montgomery County, and there’s the ongoing question about whether or not the Boyd Movie Theater in Center City will be saved or not. We just went through a huge thing with the Dilworth House on Washington Square which is going to receive a facadectomy or be fully demolished for a new Venturi-designed condominium building – a beautiful textbook case of the arguments on both sides, especially given the whole other layer in that particular Dilworth House case: the Dilworth House in fact wasn’t an historic property, but was a reconstruction or replica of an historic property. That replica was built under a very famous Philadelphia mayor, the guy who led the renaissance of Society Hill, and is now itself so old – over fifty years – that it qualifies as historic, even though it’s a historic replica.

One of the reasons that makes these things a challenge is that it’s not arithmetic – it’s not always obvious what the right answer is, and there are reasonable interests on both sides around development, preservation, and so on. I think the question is couched in a sophisticated way, which is that to some extent there’s this intrinsic value to the old, but the arguments that make the most headway are those that say that there’s instrumental, and not just intrinsic value, to landmarks, and to preservation.

Part of the instrumental value that I’ve been emphasizing in the last year has actually not been about iconic properties, but instead been about the historic fabric as a whole. We don’t have walkable streets in Philadelphia because five or ten years ago some snappy urban planner realized, “Wow, amenity value walkable streets are really hip, isn’t that great, let’s have them!” No- we have walkable streets, because our streets were built at a time when everybody walked. And so it’s an inherited asset that actually for one hundred years was declining in value, and was a pain in the neck. Our walkable streets not very long ago were nothing but the bane of the existence of people who just wanted to drive as fast as they could. So our evaluation of these things is always changing.

The surest foundation for making a preservation argument is that in addition to exemplary artistic or historic merit- let’s face it, there are just a few places like Independence Hall, and Mother Bethel Church – there is ninety percent of the urban fabric, especially in an old city like this, that is left vulnerable. My row house, for example, 1867, is not of particular artistic or historic merit. But, especially in an era of rising energy prices and an era of radical transportation change where density and access suddenly have a lot more value than they did, my 1867 row house suddenly has a huge amount of instrumental value because it’s part of a fabric of places that are not necessarily made useful only through private automobiles but through all of those other pieces of the puzzle.
That’s a preservation argument, but it has real legs, because it says that all of these things accumulate, and then you can add the one percent, the five percent, the ten percent of stuff that is about the power of specific buildings or places to capture and hold our imagination. When you combine that with all that fabric, then you’re looking at inherent value, instrumental value, and you have something that is unassailable. Now the question becomes how does a new development really improve and add value to that existing fabric. That’s the way that I think you want to make a preservation argument.

Are we there yet in Philadelphia? No. Do we still probably have an instinct that new is always better and development is always good and there’s nothing better than cranes on the skyline? Sure. There’s still some of that, but I think that the trajectory is in the right direction, because I think that people start to realize now – especially as we begin to reclaim public space- that “Wow, this is really great- who needs to go to San Francisco, or Boston, or even Vancouver – this is really something!” They are slowly getting that, and that’s a preservation argument.

The full interview transcript can be read below:

Full Mark Alan Hughes Interview Transcript


Gabriel A. Cuéllar said...

Is it possible you attach a PDF or provide a direct link? The iPaper application is a bit slow. Thanks!

Jared Langevin said...

Sorry, Scribd was down momentarily. It should load fine now!

William Grey said...

This was a really interesting interview.

I find there to be a gap between talking about architecture as policy and architecture as technical-based green solutions. Both similes presume a solution while avoiding the actual nuances and process of architecture.