Keeping our Cities Unique and our Local Business Thriving

“Think of the pedestrian bridges of Venice, or the steep, tiled streets of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Or the winding back alleys of Hong Kong, and the intricate apartment buildings of Paris.
And then, think about a modern downtown.”
They all look the same.
That, says architect and Practice for Architecture and Urbanism founder Vishaan Chakrabarti at TED 2018 in Vancouver, is a major problem. “There’s a creeping sameness besieging our planet,” he says.
By 2050, around 70% of the world’s residents will live in cities.
According to Chakrabarti, “dense dwellings well-served by mass transit are the most sustainable ways to live, and must be done well to continue to convince people away from sprawling suburban developments. But our homogenous cities are beginning to fail their residents.” Over the last century, we have entered a society of mass-production, from the foods we eat to the buildings we construct. Steel, concrete, asphalt, drywall are being manufactured in mass quantities and used by developers to build larger and larger housing complexes, in efforts to maximize profit. It is “the dull thud of the same apartment building being built in every city across the world,”explains Charkabarti. How do we distinguish between Austin or Houston or Dallas? 
By choosing to support locally owned businesses, you help maintain Austin’s diverse character and distinctive flavor. Big Box and chain stores are the same everywhere.
Chakrabarti suggests that designers and architects build cities “that respond to local communities, climates, cultures, and construction methods.” In so many ways, supporting our local businesses will contribute to the strong and diverse

Independently owned businesses more often source local products, such as farm produce, and local services like legal, accounting, and advertising.
Take a look at Treehouse, a locally owned home improvements store in Austin. Everything in the store is human-scaled and decluttered; the lighting is pleasant. Products are organized according to “design” and “performance” categories, and then organized by themes: air, water, daylighting, energy. The staff are extremely well-trained. In a recent article, the scene is described as “ less do-it-yourself and more let’s-do-it-together.”
Owner, Jason Ballard studied conservation biology at Texas A&M and worked in sustainable construction in Colorado. “I had a very Huckleberry Finn kind of childhood,” Ballard explains. “A lot of time in canoes, in the woods, on the water. But I saw this other thing, too–the desecration of the landscape, and the unhealthiness it created in communities.”
He realized that the construction sector was vastly overlooked for its water consumption, landfill waste, and toxic exposure. While the commercial development world as grown in leaps and bounds toward more environmental and energy efficient building strategies, home residential practices have evolved slowly. Ballard’s aim has been to help,”as fast as possible, to transition us into a way of sheltering ourselves that doesn’t ruin the world around us.”
And his mission is catching on. In 2015, sales at the revamped Austin store were up 200% from their first year (2011). “The point is to provoke the industry–we are going to prove it’s possible to run a commercially successful business while caring about aesthetics, caring about ecology, and caring about human health and well-being. We don’t think green, sustainable building will be niche. Our whole mission is to normalize it.”
Jason Ballard continues to innovate, in his new project, as one of the founders of ICON, a 3-D home printing company that aims to print homes in developing countries, as well as in the US. ICON has developed a method for printing a single-story 650-square-foot house out of cement in only 12 to 24 hours, a fraction of the time it takes for new construction. If all goes according to plan, a community made up of about 100 homes will be constructed for residents in El Salvador next year. The company has partnered with New Story, a nonprofit that is vested in international housing solutions. Check out this video

Let’s keep Austin ‘Austin’ for those who live here and those still on their way to America’s weirdest city.
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