For over 40 years, VMDO has hosted an annual open house in our 200 East Market Street office. What originally started as an informal potluck has turned into a more elaborate affair, but the original spirit is still there: deliberately taking time outside of normal business hours, project deadlines, and day to day operations to celebrate who we get to work with and where we live. Considering the events of August 12 happened literally steps from our front door, we felt strongly that the theme this year should highlight our commitment to community.
The power and importance of community was a golden thread that ran through two recent conferences VMDO attended: the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference in San Antonio, Texas, and Greenbuild in Boston, Massachusetts. Presenters demonstrated how sustainability program successes, and the degree to which people feel empowered to do something about global challenges, are directly tied to how engaged users feel—not just with the initiatives themselves, but also with each other and with the neighborhoods in which they live, learn, and work. Emerging research shows that a sense of belonging to a group (at various scales) measurably reduces stress levels, supports health, and increases happiness. The benefits of belonging isn’t limited to human communities; other presentations demonstrated that these same positive health outcomes occur when people are connected to nature and the outdoors through views and exposure to materials, patterns, and variability in experience that remind them of being in nature. What became clear from all of these presentations was a common theme: we heal nature by healing ourselves; we heal ourselves by healing nature.
A second theme that ran through many presentations was resiliency—the ability to survive and rebound from extreme events, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Strategies for increasing resiliency included incorporating weather models (e.g., changes in temperature and flood plain elevations) into building siting and the selection and design of systems; introducing redundancy into water, energy, and even circulation networks; and looking for ways to help sites provide their current ecosystem services in a future condition where they will likely experience increased stress. In light of today’s political climate, we were reminded that resiliency also applies to people; that our strength lies in our ability to collaborate, to work together toward a common goal, and to connect with people that aren’t like us.
Mary Ann Lazarus reminded us that “strong communities are inherently resilient.” We often think that communities just happen—build it and they will come. But that isn’t enough. Strong communities require us to make the time to stop, listen deeply, and connect meaningfully. During a recent UVA School of Medicine Design and Health workshop hosted at VMDO, Associate Professor Dr. Matt Trowbridge encouraged his students to “move beyond feeling sympathetic and instead become empathetic” with their patients’ experiences. Empathy requires you to do something. For VMDO it means engaging stakeholders and neighbors to come up with designs that solve problems and provide benefits at multiple scales. It means embracing opportunities to connect people to their neighborhoods, to their ecosystems, and to each other. And it means that every year, we come together as an office to strengthen and broaden our diverse community of colleagues and collaborators to build a resilient setting for dialogue and design to flourish year in and year out.