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Re-envisioning and transforming the built environment

Drawing by John Anderson. Colored pencil, pen, and Xerox print.

Eight years ago, Robert Costanza, ecological economist, and John Todd, ecological designer, were inspired to redesign the Burlington municipal water tower at the University of Vermont to be an ecofriendly office tower. As Costanza looked at the tower one day on his daily walk to campus, he thought, “Why can’t this be more? What an opportunity to use core real estate for more than a utilitarian tower. Why not use the water stored in the tank as thermal mass?”1

The leap from seeing the water tower as a background object, a simple industrial structure, to imagining its possibilities gets at the question of transformation, of seeing with new eyes. We have the resources, the technologies, the skills, and the vision to create a greener world, so why haven’t we succeeded? What is missing in our applied knowledge? How can we shift our thinking so that moments like this will occur as a matter of course?

Architect John Anderson redesigned this simple, utilitarian structure into a multifunctional, multidimensional building generating electricity, co-locating office space on a tight urban site, and using the 500,000 gallons of water as a thermal mass that moderates the building’s heating and cooling demands. The plan features an “eco-machine” of wetland plants for treating wastewater on the ground floor; a skin of photovoltaic glass of varying transparency, which tracks the sun’s trajectory and actively produces electrical energy; and a double-walled glass exterior that allows the chimney effect of warm and cool air circulation in and around the building.

Anderson’s illustrations of the water tower reflect a new way of looking at the ordinary. The force of the imagination is elicited through the medium of drawing, which puts ideas into a dynamic and graspable form. Drawing is the transformative act that enables ideas to become visible, allowing us to explore the changes we need to put in place. Designing those changes is the way we transcend the confines of our current thinking, expectations, and network of alliances and institutions. We know that we cannot solve our problems by using the old ways of thinking. Learning to see is the first step in transforming a place. (Other examples of applying science and art to the reclamation of place are the Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington, and Germany’s Emscher Park in the post-industrial Ruhr Valley.2)

Another of Anderson’s projects, Mirror Cube Landscape, a “laboratory for reimagining our future landscape” (developed for the 2009 Burlington Vermont Firehouse Gallery exhibit entitled Human = Nature), comprises a set of photo collages, architectural models, and maps documenting the imaginary placement of a 10-foot-square mirrored cube in the geographic center of each Vermont town. The mirrored box is meant to reflect our individual and collective decision-making about our natural and built environments. The cubes reflect their immediate environment and serve as a reminder of the potential effects of energy policy on the natural and built topography.3

Most of us experience the world at high speed, whether through contemporary media or driving through urban landscapes. Buildings and signage are designed to be viewed at 60 miles per hour. The onslaught of information is so intense that we feel as if we need blinders to close out the surrounding environment. Under these circumstances, how do we reclaim awareness of our surroundings? How do we apply science and art to the ecology of place? And what does it take to become conscious of our relationship to Earth again?


Watercolor by Malcolm Wells

We live in a world controlled by left-brain thinking—a world that we have formed and defined4 through linear thought that excludes paradox and complexity. In contrast, right-brain functions specialize in the visual, spatial, and perceptual.5 Accessing our right-brain thinking enables us to see complex, relational, and holistic patterns and processes. This is the transformative power of drawing.

One of the most creative and influential thinkers in ecological design was Cape Cod architect Malcolm Wells. His watercolors help us see our world as a different place—one reconstructed through revegetation. His skill at transforming industrial space, transportation infrastructure, or desolate urban spaces through drawing awakens our imagination. Wells’s watercolors of revegetated urban landscapes shift our expectations about ecological practices, and everything from highways and industrial sites to storm-water parks become reclaimable.

Another example of a once-abandoned utilitarian structure that we now see with new eyes—eyes that recognize an opportunity to bring nature back into our urban spaces—is the High Line. This 1934 rail line connecting New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood and the Meatpacking District has been transformed from an abandoned eyesore and magnet for illicit activity into an elevated park. A 2009 article in Architectural Record said, “The haunting beauty of wild grasses growing on a rail line in the middle of the city captured the public’s imagination and helped galvanize support.”6

According to John Anderson, “It is okay to create ideas and put them out there, to see what happens. Launching ideas is sometimes enough; not everything needs to get built.”1 We need the power of drawing to shift our thinking. But while a drawing can illustrate an idea, an experiment, or a solution, its real gift is the metamorphosis of our ability to see, the transformation in our understanding of place that allows us to envision holistic, ecological solutions.


  1. Costanza, R & Anderson, J. Personal communication (March 2010).
  2. Sustainable Cities [online]. sustainablecities.dk/en/city-projects/cases/emscher-park-from-dereliction-to-scenic-landscapes
  3. The Energy Project Vermont [online]. www.energyprojectvt.com/art.htm
  4. Capra, F. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems 286, 291 (Anchor, New York, 1996).
  5. Edwards, B. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain 31–34 (Penguin Putnam, New York, 1979).
  6. Pearson, C. James Corner Field Operations and Diller-Scofidio + Renfro change our perspective on parks with the High Line. Architectural Record (October 2009).

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