Eds. Note: Seattle developer Kevin Daniels, president of Nitze-Stagen & Co. and Daniels Development, recently returned from a week in Cuba on a sustainability research mission sponsored by International Sustainable Solutions through the Global Exchange program. He shares his thoughts with SeattleScape:
By KEVIN DANIELS
I accompanied more than 20 other architects, engineers and developers from Seattle and Portland to Cuba to see what lessons might be adaptable to our communities.
I was struck by the massive contradiction posed by a country whose people continue to overwhelmingly support a specific political agenda and leader while living within a failed economy for most of the last 50 years.
But since I am not a political or social scientist, I’ll leave that contradiction to others and focus on lessons to be learned from the decisions made by the Cuban people after the collapse of the Soviet Union — the “Special Period,” during which the country’s gross national product was reduced to 34 percent of its former self within a few weeks.
Numerous interesting sustainable approaches were adopted. One of the most interesting is how the country adapted to its loss of ability to trade major commodities (sugar, hardwoods, construction materials, etc.) for food products. Following a Soviet agricultural model, Cuba had ruined its farmlands with pesticides, applying more than 10 times the amount on average that our farmers do in the U.S. At the beginning of the Special Period, soils were infertile and incapable of feeding the population, and trading options were limited by the U.S. embargo. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds in the first year alone.
To combat the soil infertility, organic farming methods were adopted that are slowly repairing the land and increasing its productivity. Today, the crop yields within certain cooperatives exceed our national averages. It’s a great model for further study.
This policy has increased the standard of living for farmers, so many college-educated residents are now farming and the social status of the farmer has been raised to where it used to be in this country. Maybe we should challenge government to look at increasing urban open space for not only recreation, but also for future food production?
At the start of the Special Period, Cuba faced limited access to fuel almost overnight, and the country was forced to re-think its transportation system, generating a number of creative and successful approaches. There is now a countrywide custom to “pick up your neighbor,” spreading the cost of transportation over an increased ridership. All you are required to do for a ride is walk to the curb.
We have all heard the stories about the vintage 1940s and 50s American autos roaming the street. That remains true, but how they are used is a better lesson. These cars are maintained in good condition because their gas-powered engines were replaced with diesel engines long ago. A technology invented in 1892 that is even more sustainable than the newest electric car!
The vintage car owners are self-employed, running up and down streets that radiate like the spokes of a bicycle outward from the city center. A shared trip costs a single peso (about 3 cents). In addition, there is a law that says any government vehicle driving down the street must pick up any rider for free, making all government trips more fuel efficient.
Another sustainable practice to consider is Cuba’s health care system. Even without access to the technology and pharmaceutical products available in our country, their primary and secondary care results are significantly better than ours. Why is that? Their focus is on preventive care and immediate access to health care for anyone who needs it.
From a sustainability standpoint, they focus on how to use fewer resources for more benefits. No one suggests trading our system for theirs, but we do need to make ours more sustainable in the long term, and a better market approach to preventive care is a start.
While the built environment is crumbling around them because they have no resources to repair it, Cubans have focused on improving neighborhoods with increased housing and a better sense of community. We need to realize that a sustainable lifestyle revolves around our immediate neighbors, and not a trip to the local mall.
The government has also focused on using current building stock to increase housing density rather than destroy the built environment to get increased density.
We need to take a broader look at our building codes and realize that being “sustainable” doesn’t mean having the strictest energy codes in the country, but rather the smartest. If it takes 50 years of energy savings from a new building to equal the energy lost when the former building was demolished, why do we think tearing it down is a smart and sustainable approach?
The biggest contradiction of all may be why a country that has suffered greatly over the last five decades is leading the way with what the United Nations says is probably the most sustainable economy in the world. Is there a lesson in its experiences that can be adapted to our communities so we can truly be sustainable? What do you think?