Bullitt Wants Leaps Not Steps Toward Urban Sustainability

The Bullitt Foundation has increasingly focused on city sustainability, using its headquarters as a template for something more advanced than typical green design. Bullitt’s recently refined approach focuses exclusively on similarly transforming a string of Northwest cities. 

The language Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation uses when referring to making cities more sustainable isn’t quite as rosy as we hear from some funders, with their grandiose visions of a sparkling urban paradise.

For Bullitt, it sounds more like a make-or-break kind of thing:

Over the next few decades, three billion people around the world will move from small towns, villages, and the countryside into cities—mostly very large cities. The result could be an unparalleled disaster. There are no examples, anywhere, of large, “sustainable” cities. In general, the larger a city is, the higher the probability that it is an ecological and social mess.

To reflect this urgency, the foundation, led by Earth Day cofounder Denis Hayes, is applying the same sort of approach that underpinned the construction of its own super-green office building to the region surrounding it. 

Related: Deep Green: An Environmental Funder Makes Itself a Guinea Pig for Sustainable Building

We talked with Hayes last year, and have written before about Bullitt’s work to extend the lessons of the Bullitt Center elsewhere, but the funder recently announced a program transition that will double down on the approach. Bullitt's new guidelines give exclusively toward the Emerald Corridor—around 300 miles stretching from Portland up to Vancouver, B.C.—with the goal of creating a model for a more transformative level of urban sustainability.

And the leadership's announcement makes it clear that they don’t want you to imagine some tomato gardens and yawn.

“This initiative is not about adorning conventional cities with a few ‘bolt-on’ bike lanes, community gardens, and solar panels. Rather, we seek to help create integrated urban ecosystems designed to nurture humans to achieve their full potential.”

Related: Can Bullitt Help Other Buildings go as Green as its HQ?

As Hayes explains it, the status quo of economics, construction methods, culture, and regulation make it extremely difficult for an average developer to do what his team did with the Bullitt Center, with its emphasis on biomimicry, all-compost toilets, reliance on rain for water supply, and ultra energy efficiency. 

The foundation conceived of the Bullitt Center not as an incremental step, but a jump forward, and the kind of building that needs to be much more commonplace if we have a hope of making cities anything but ecological disasters. 

This program sets itself apart from a lot of urban sustainability efforts in its frank acknowledgement that applying current measures on a widespread basis is just not good enough. It calls to mind a recent study at the University of Washington that found urban agriculture in Seattle could only feed between 1 and 4 percent of the city's population, even if all available land were used. In short, to make urban living sustainable, we have dramatically more work to do than city dwellers might assume.

Rather than retrofits here and there, Bullitt would like to see the Pacific Northwest transform, and then catalyze change around the world. 

Related: For Green Giving, 2015 Was the Year of the City