Overview of 2015 Activities
By Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director

Michael Mehaffy presenting at COP21This is a crucial time in the history of global urban development.  The world is urbanizing, at a pace that is unrivaled in human history -- and the models being used are still, for the most part, the same ones that have failed us in the last half-century: sprawling, resource-intensive, functionally and socially segregated, and treating cities as a kind of sculpture gallery of fragmented, poorly adapted object-buildings.  This model is, in a word, unsustainable.  If we are going to meet the great challenges of the next century and beyond, it is urgent that we take forward effective reforms immediately.

The evidence shows that cities do have an enormous capacity to support positive human development and flourishing, with great efficiency -- IF their structure provides for that  open, dynamic capacity.  New research is pointing the way to a better understanding of the needed structure.  In the process, we are re-learning age-old lessons about the role of public space, as a kind of "spine" of the city, and the scale and character of the most successful urban spaces.  This "science of cities" is emerging and coalescing to provide tangible best-practice lessons, in place of the failing models we have been using.

We need to build on these hopeful models, use them to replace the failing, ultimately catastrophic models that are still being used today.  But much work remains toward this essential goal. This is, in essence, at the core of the mission of the Sustasis Foundation.


We recently completed research at Delft University of Technology on sustainable urban form, and specifically, urban form that aids in reducing greenhouse gas emissions per person (as evidence clearly demonstrates is possible).  We presented this research at the climate change summit in Paris, COP21, in an event in partnership with UN-Habitat, ICLEI, and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation.  

This continues our work with UN-Habitat on what they are calling the "New Urban Agenda," and the new models that are necessary to avert planetary threats to human well-being, including resource depletion, toxic emissions, ecological destruction, and the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. 

Michael Mehaffy meets with Joan ClosMichael Mehaffy, our executive director, led a “consultation” for Habitat III at the UN in New York in September 2014, followed by his participation in PrepCom2, a meeting of the preparatory planning committee, in Nairobi, Kenya.  In June he chaired the academic research session at the Future of Places forum, which also fed into Habitat III planning.   In September he attended a meeting in New York hosted by the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, on the United Nations Summit to Adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda.  This is described as and event that “will set the course for tackling the world’s social, environmental, and economic challenges in the years to come.” 

These are examples of the fruits of partnerships between Sustasis and its Executive Director, and other, much larger and more influential partners including the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, UN-Habitat, ICLEI, INTBAU, CEU (see below) and others. Working with key partners who are sympathetic, and to whom we can provide some "value added" from oour own work, we can be far more effective in addressing the challenges of our time than might be expected from our very modest size.


We believe it is important to provide not only new insights and models, but new concrete tools to allow practitioners to change the outcomes of their work.  In essence, we must change the rules and procedures that shape the "operating system for growth" -- and that currently reinforce, and "lock in", unsustainable practices. 

Michael Mehaffy meets with HRH the Prince of WalesTo that end, we also continued development of our other key initiatives on pattern languages and wiki, including the new Federated Wiki structure.  (Board member Ward Cunningham, the inventor of wiki, is developing the new Wiki with collaboration by us and others.)  Executive Director Michael Mehaffy has completed a book, the text of his Ph.D. dissertation, which includes a new community planning tool based on the new Federated Wiki.  This  tool is now ready for "beta-testing" within a community planning process.

More broadly, this work is part of a promising initiative to revive the use of "pattern languages" -- Christopher Alexander's celebrated innovation that has found wide acceptance in software and other fields -- in the realm of the built environment, where pattern languages have been somewhat limited to the very famous book by that name.  Our aim is to take them "open source," a strategy that has proven brilliant in Wiki and other major innovations.  (Wiki, in fact, was developed directly out of work with pattern languages by our board member Ward Cunningham.)

We also continued to develop our collaborative relationship with the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (a London-based NGO for sustainable development and regeneration, whose patron is HRH the Prince of Wales).  This year Michael Mehaffy, our Executive Director, addressed the INTBAU World Congress, followed by a meeting with HRH the Prince of Wales to discuss additional ongoing initiatives.  Sustasis hosts the US chapter of INTBAU as a registered non-profit US and Oregon corporation.

We also continued our collaborations with colleagues in Europe, South America, the USA and elsewhere, including our hosting of the research coordination network, the Environmental Structure Research Group (ESRG), which was formed in 2006 and has member colleagues in Europe, Asia, North and South America.  We are exploring ways of making better use of this promising resource, perhaps through a new research center which will likely be formed in the first months of the new year by our close partners.  We hope to have an announcement soon!


The last project on our schedule for this year is one of the most important: a 50th anniversary edition of Christopher Alexander's seminal 1965 paper, "A City is Not a Tree."  This paper set the stage for all of Alexander's work afterwards, and it inspired a generation of urban and architectural theorists, as our authors attest.  The new volume features the original essay, together with contemporary commentaries by leading researchers and practitioners, as well as a more recent dialogue with Alexander on the topics covered.

The volume will be invaluable as a study resource for students, and a needed provocation to current practitioners.

This project is now going into production and we greatly appreciate donations to support this very important work.  More information is available on this information page.

New Resources

• Book, Design for a Living Planet, Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros (published January 2015).

• Book, Urban Form and Greenhouse Gas Emissions:  Findings, Strategies, Design Decision Support Technologies.  Delft University of Technology Press.  (Ph.D. dissertation, published simultaneously as a book.)

• Book, A City is Not a Tree, 50th Anniversary Edition.  New (and very timely) publication Christopher Alexander's landmark publication, together with interpretive essays by contemporary authors.  An indispensable resource for students and professionals. (Forthcoming.)

• White Paper, “The Impacts of Tall Buildings: A Research Summary,” on Sustasis website.

• White Paper, “Valuing the Benefits of Public Space Systems,” on Sustasis website.

• Essay, “What we didn't learn from Katrina,” on Planetizen.com

Speaking and Other Collaborations for Conferences, Symposia and Meetings
(By Executive Director Michael Mehaffy, unless otherwise noted)

• “INTBAU: A global network to build on humane, people-centered architecture and urbanism.”  Presentation, moderation and panel discussion at INTBAU World Conference, London (February).

• Testimony before the Portland City Council, discussing research on tall buildings.  (February.)

• TradArch Conference, Charleston, SC., co-planned, paticipated, and developed INTBAU networks.  Met with Colby Broadwater of the American College of Building Arts, and laid the framework for a partnership with INTBAU.  (March.)

• “The importance of pubic space in rapidly urbanizing cities.” Presentation at PrepCom2, preparatory meeting for Habitat III.  (April)

• “The UrbanLex Database and the need to reform laws around public space.”  Presentation at PrepCom2, preparatory meeting for Habitat III.  (April)

• “Design for a Rapidly Urbanizing Planet,” presentation and session moderation at Congress for the New Urbanism (May).

• “The 'Place' of Art”.  Lecture and panel discussion at “New Urbanism and the Human Habitat: Beauty in the Natural and Built Environment.” National Civic Art Society, Washington D.C. (May)

• “Toward a New 'Culture of Building'”.  Presentation and discussion at International Trades Education Symposium,  Savannah, GA. Concluded a partnership agreement with the Savannah Technical College's program in building arts. (May)
Michael Mehaffy interviewed by archi.ru
• “The Structure of Healthy Streets and Public Spaces,” Presentation to Strelka Institute, Moscow RU. (June)

• “The Structure of Public Space Networks, and Why it is Critical,” report and discussion of research for the Future of Places Forum, Stockholm SE (June).

• “Place Network Theory: Towards Healthy, Sustainable Streets and Public Spaces.” International Making Cities Livable, Bristol, UK (July).

• “Philanthropy Engaged,” discussions at side meeting of UN Sustainable Development Summit, on implementation networks to take forward the sustainable developmen goals (September).

• “The Architecture of Livable Neighborhoods, “presentation at Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture, conference on “Designing a Better Future,”  Denver, CO (October).

• “Infill Construction in Historic Settings: Character, Identity and Materials,” presentation and moderation, Traditional Building Expositon and Conference, Denver, CO (October).

• “Lessons from Portland: Orenco Station and Beyond,” keynote presentation at annual conference of Association du Transport Urbain du Quebec, Quebec City, QU (October) 

• Meeting and presentation, roundtable of regional planners, Communauté Métropolitaine de Montreal, Montreal, QU (October) 

• “INTBAU and the 'New Urban Agenda,'” presentation to annual conference of International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism, Havana, Cuba (November)

• “Defining the 'New Urban Agenda' for COP21 Annd Beyond,” Keynote presentation at annual conference of Council for European Urbanism, Berlin DE (November)

• “Urban form and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” public presentation of research at Delft University of Technology, NL (November)

• “The New Urban Agenda in the Fight Against Climate Change: Combating the Growth of Sprawl and the Decline of Healthy Public Space Systems,” keynote presentation at COP21 session, co-hosted by UN-Habitat, ICLEI, and Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Paris, FR (December)

Planning Consultations

• Habitat III, preparatory event planning conference committee meeting, PrepCom2 (April)

• Street development policy and new code, for Strelka Institute and City of Moscow, Russian Republic (June-July)

• Strategic planning of transit-oriented developments, with roundtable of regional planners, Communauté Métropolitaine de Montreal, Montreal, QU (October) 

• Development of Vista Field, a project for the Port of Kennewick, Washington using a project pattern language (collaboration with DPZ Partners).

We welcome your questions, comments, or proposals for collaboration – and as always, we are grateful for support in all forms!

Dr. Michael Mehaffy
Executive Director