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From Living Future With Love

2012 May 7
by dan bertolet

< Tacoma Narrows from the Amtrak train; photo by Dan Bertolet >

The 2012 Living Future Conference was held in the bike mecca of Portland, so how could I not bring along the Cannondale beater, which Amtrak stashed onto the baggage car for an extra five dollars. The train from Seattle to Portland is a magical ride, slicing through hidden back alleys, skirting the spectacular edge of Commencement Bay, and finally crossing the Columbia before rolling into cozy Northwest Portland. Luggage on my back, I pedaled out into the drizzly shiny night, careful to keep my tires out of the street car slots, while the quick, mellow ride to my hotel near Powell’s Books reminded me once again how amazingly comfortable and convenient downtown Portland is without a car.

Not your father’s green architecture conference, Living Future prides itself on drawing people outside of their boxes and making them uncomfortable—in a good way. Case in point, in his plenary talk, Living Future Institute CEO Jason McLennan described how twice in past years the conference organically adopted a four letter word as the conference theme, and proceeded to provoke audience members to shout them out—picture a huge conference ballroom packed with 800 people erupting with shouts of “shit!” and then “fuck!”

Not to be outdone, McLennan proposed a new four letter theme word for this year’s conference:  love.

The essence of Living Future is regenerative design, the idea that design should develop the potential of whole systems and empower them to regenerate and evolve indefinitely. A lofty and challenging aspiration, no doubt, one that calls for nurturing intricate webs of relationships, recognizing the interdependence of all life, and eliminating our tendency to see ourselves as something separate from nature. And love is an apt choice of words to capture the core sentiment of that philosophy. It’s analogous to what wise parents know about their children: You can’t make them do what you want them to do, but you can give them everything they need to grow and realize their full, natural potential.

< Stark and 11th in downtown Portland; photo by Dan Bertolet >

Places can be thought of in the same way. In Portland the exceptional energy and care that has been put into improving the public realm and promoting walking, biking and transit should help unleash the City’s potential to become a regenerative place with the capacity to evolve in powerful, unforeseen ways. It will probably be a decade or more before we know the extent to which Portland’s investments help create a more resilient, culturally and economically thriving city. But when I’m in Portland these days I love what I see so far.

< Street food on SW 5th Ave in downtown Portland; photo by Dan Bertolet >

Reductionist analysis has enabled spectacular human progress over the past few centuries, but has also put us on a collision course with the carrying capacity of our planet. Restoring balance calls for shifting our emphasis to relationships, patterns, and systems, a shift that would be all the more likely if we reframed our outlook through the lens of love. Not that this would be an easy task for a society with the habit of  ignoring whatever doesn’t show up in the economists’ balance sheets.

Indeed, the most elevating things in life—social bonds, fulfillment, memories, dreams, dignity, devotion—cannot be accounted for in the analytical bottom line. And we’ve been so obsessed with the quantifiable for so long it’s almost impossible for most of us to imagine how these intangibles could play an influential role in the major decisions that shape our world. But we ought to start imagining it if we hope to steer our course away from the brink and toward a regenerative future.


Dan Bertolet is an urban planner at VIA Architecture and the creator of Citytank.