UN's Declaration on Sustainable Housing and Cities Is a Meaningless Mess

Is the San Marino Declaration going to mean anything to anyone?

Riechstag dome with skylight
The world's fanciest skylight by Norman Foster at the Reichstag Building in Berlin.

Ank Kumar, Wikipedia

The United Nations composed a new set of design principles and the full title is a mouthful: “San Marino Declaration on principles for sustainable and inclusive urban design and architecture in support of sustainable, safe, healthy, socially inclusive, climate-neutral and circular homes, urban infrastructure and cities." Developed by the Bureau of the Committee on Urban Development, and Housing and Land Management of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the whole document is really a mouthful.

And it isn't just for architects. "I've consciously encouraged the United Nations, who've grasped the idea that we should not just be inviting architects and engineers to sign up to this declaration," architect Norman Foster, who seems to take some credit for this document, told Dezeen. "It should extend to city managers, politicians, developers, builders, everyone, everybody who's involved, who is empowered to sign up to this declaration."

Bloomberg building in London
The Bloomberg headquarters in London.

Foster + Partners / Bloomberg

Foster is going to be at the San Marino session running from October 3 to 6, presenting his "sustainable" projects like the Bloomberg Headquarters in London and the Reichstag Building in Berlin. We could be churlish and note the Bloomberg Headquarters is not, as touted, the world's most sustainable office building. It should also be noted that Foster pulled out of Architects Declare after being criticized for designing airports.

Architects Declare has its own straightforward 12-point plan for architects to sign, so what did the UNECE and Foster come up with? Why is this one acceptable to Foster when Architects Declare wasn't? What are the U.N.'s principles for sustainable and inclusive urban design and architecture? Let's look at a few of the points related to architecture and planning:

Resource efficiency and circularity: every city, urban infrastructure and building should be designed in a way that limits the use of energy, uses only sustainable energy sources, reuses rainwater and limits the use of other natural resources and reduces resource losses. In addition, every city, urban infrastructure and building should, to the extent possible, by design: use recycled materials; reuse and requalify spaces; reduce the production of waste reuse water; and encourage food production through urban agriculture, orchards and food forests.

Limiting the use of energy and calling for "only sustainable energy sources" is maddeningly vague. Why not aim for a real standard, like Passivhaus for example? Why not say renewable energy? The fossil fuel industry claims that their natural gas can be "sustainable."

Climate neutrality: cities, urban infrastructure and buildings should be designed and requalified to minimize the associated climate footprint, by adopting creative solutions that reduce pollution and energy use; phase out unsustainable mobility systems; use modern, energy-efficient, climate-neutral systems; and integrate green energy generation systems in city designs and buildings.

What is climate neutrality? The U.N. defines it as "a state in which the GHG emissions released to the atmosphere by a stakeholder (individual, organization, company, country, etc.) have been reduced or avoided and the remaining ones are compensated with carbon credits." Surely we have moved beyond that, and there should be definitions.

Resilience, durability, functionality and foresight: city and architectural design should support solutions that make homes, buildings and urban spaces resilient to natural disasters, especially those caused by climate change, including hurricanes, droughts and wildfires, flooding and high winds; and making buildings and infrastructures durable and flexible, incorporating spatial adaptability to accommodate new conditions and usages over time.

Nobody can argue with that, other than it is weird that they didn't mention the most straightforward problem: heat.

Affordability and accessibility: cities and homes need to be affordable and accessible to all citizens. Designers need to keep this factor in mind and design high-quality environments for meeting the needs of all citizens.

That would be nice. If only architects had any control over it.

The problem with this document is that, like its title, it uses too many words to say too little. It doesn't even mention embodied carbon, as Architects Declare does with its very clear statement: "Include life cycle costing, whole life carbon modelling and post occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use."

It doesn't say anything about not building stuff that we don't need, about using low carbon materials and, of course, it doesn't mention airports.

As an architect who teaches sustainable design at the university level, I find the declaration to be a wishy-washy muddle. It's a grab bag of thoughts without a coherent focus on immediately reducing carbon emissions, both upfront and operating, and eliminating the use of fossil fuels, which are the most critical steps that any architect or engineer must aspire to.

You could build anything and pin the San Marino Declaration to the door. No wonder Foster likes it.

Below are the main points and you can download the declaration here.

San Marino Declaration Part 1


San Marino Declaration Part 2


San Marino Declaration 3