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AOC’s Green New Deal is a wake-up call for the building industry

The newly unveiled plan would see every existing building in the U.S. retrofitted for energy efficiency. But it doesn’t stop there.

AOC’s Green New Deal is a wake-up call for the building industry
[Source Image: urfinguss/iStock]

Today, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a policy framework for the Green New Deal, a project that has evolved from a grassroots movement of young people who staged protests in Washington this summer to a cause that has been taken up by emerging Democratic leaders.

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The goals are extremely broad and bold–by design. In some ways, as Ocasio-Cortez herself told NPR today, it’s a plan that matches and exceeds the huge ambitions of Donald Trump’s border wall. Except, instead of investing billions in the lucrative border security industry, it would invest in building a strong workforce, green building and energy technologies, transit, and education.

The similarity between the two plans has to do with their scope and purpose. “I think that really what I hope we’re able to do as a party and as a nation is rediscover the power of public imagination,” Ocasio-Cortez told NPR. “I think that this is a very special moment and frankly that is something that that I think the president did do. In that he was able to take his profile and say here’s this hugely impossible thing that seems ridiculous, but I’m going to seriously push for it. And for him that’s his wall. . . He has no other picture of America except an America with a huge wall on the southern border. And I think that what we have a responsibility to do is show what is another America looks like.”

[Source Image: urfinguss/iStock]

The Green New Deal begins by laying out the stakes: from mass migrations caused by climate crisis to the death of coral reefs and massive wildfires. It also puts numbers on those stakes, like the estimated $1 trillion risk to infrastructure in the U.S. and an estimated $500 billion in economic losses by 2100. In addition to setting goals for ending the massive accumulation of wealth by the top 1% since the Great Recession, its goals include closing the racial wealth gap and pushing gender parity forward–and for empowering workers to organize and bargain, to reverse wage stagnation and end anti-labor policies. In short, it’s a road map for policy goals that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her peers want to accomplish over the next decade. Accomplishing those goals will include a range of policy-driven projects, from meeting 100% of the country’s power needs through net-zero methods to completely revamping public transit to ensuring healthcare and fair wages for everyone.

Also of note are the ways in which the plan would touch the building industries, from architecture to urban planning. It’s hard to overstate how important this is to mitigating climate change: 39% of CO2 emissions in the United States come from buildings. What’s more, building growth is exploding; global building stock will double by 2060, according to Architecture 2030, a group that seeks to curb the industry’s emissions, led by architect Ed Mazria. “This is the equivalent of adding an entire New York City every month for 40 years,” the group writes. “This new building stock must be designed to meet zero-net-carbon standards.”

[Source Image: urfinguss/iStock]

One of the Green New Deal’s concrete goals is to upgrade every existing building in the United States. Another focuses on new buildings built in the U.S., which should “achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.”

Both initiatives still lack specifics; the policy framework announced today is, again, an extremely broad set of goals. But on a basic level, they are far from being unachievable. Many cities have moved to individually implement green building goals over the past few years. For instance, last year 19 mayors pledged that every new building constructed in their cities will meet net-zero standards by 2030–and by 2050, all buildings will be retrofitted to meet those same standards. In 2017 New York City announced a plan to require about 23,000 buildings in the city to cut emissions by about a quarter by 2030. Just a few months ago, Washington, D.C. passed a bill that would see nearly half of its buildings retrofitted to reduce energy emissions by 2032. The Green New Deal sets a similar goal, but on a national level.

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The plan establishes “affordable, safe, and adequate housing” for everyone in America as a central goal, as well. It also calls for two other crucial things: First, access to education and training, including college, for everyone in the United States, with a “a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities,” which it defines as “indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth,” which have been disproportionately affected by climate change.

Second, it calls for access to capital, expertise, and policies that empower those same communities to confront climate crisis as active participants.

[Source Image: urfinguss/iStock]

In other words, the plan mandates that the people who are the most impacted by climate change should be empowered, through education and investment, in developing projects that help their communities thrive. Some architects, like Jeanne Gang and Kate Orff, have developed similarly community-led approaches to building and infrastructure by shifting their practices from top-down recommendations to a collective research project in partnership with the communities in which they work. The proposal recommends not only community ownership over Green New Deal projects, but also capital investment, educational funding, and high-quality union jobs in those communities.

It’s easy to imagine how such an idea could change the way future architects and designers move through the educational system. Funding for schools and universities to build curricula around real-world problems–and provide training and experience on emerging green technologies and systems–could transform not only who goes to school but also what they are taught, and critically, how they choose to spend their careers in engineering, transit, or the building industry.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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