All I Know about Sustainability I Learned from an Italian Peasant Cook

Five Timeless Values for Sustainable Communities

December 6, 2016

President, Forterra

Gene Duvernoy is President of Forterra, a Seattle-based nonprofit which helps communities secure the places — urban, rural and wild — that are keystones of our sustainable future. This essay is adapted from his commencement address to the University of Washington College of Built Environments.


In my work at Forterra, a Seattle-based sustainability organization, we began an experiment several years ago we call the Cascade Agenda. It boils down to this: to save our natural and wild lands, our natural environments, we must change our built environments. We must make cities we in fact are drawn to, where we truly want to live and raise our families — prosperous places worthy of our children and grandchildren.

The progressive real estate and development world is now abuzz with the building of these new urban communities, which serve our many needs at a handy, even walkable distance. In fact, we have become so enamored with this old-fangled way of living, that we have given it a very new-fangled name. So while our grandparents may have just called them the home neighborhood, we proudly use the sobriquet “sustainable communities.”

To know when we are succeeding at these sustainable communities, we have invented measures and protocols, LEED categories and livable buildings standards. But let’s go behind this current vocabulary, to the lasting values of sustainability. For this, I will rely on the writings of Italian peasant cook Angelo Pellegrini.

Maybe you’ve heard of him? Angelo lived his first 10 years as a young and always hungry peasant in Italy and then, in about 1910, came to our own bountiful Olympic Peninsula. He grew up in what was the remote railroad town of McCleary and became — of all things — a University of Washington Shakespeare professor. Quite a career, but he is best known for his food writing. My favorites are Unprejudiced Palate (1948) and Lean Years, Happy Years (1983). He writes in these two books about sustainable kitchens, before we had such a fancy word — before the notion went to university.

Now here are the values he expressed through his writing:

First, he practiced a peasant’s crafty sense of frugality — how to get the most on the table today, without sacrificing future harvests.

Second, he promoted an Italian’s sense of quality — live life well, as your means best and prudently allow.

Third, he argued for the fresh and local over the exotic and remote — he was a locavore before his time.

He also deeply valued a host’s intrinsic responsibility for his guests. I think of this fourth as his most defining value. As a cook he understood that his role was really to elevate his guests’ spirits.

So all this I learned from reading Angelo. Sustainability arises from a frugality, commitment to quality, clear understanding of the fundamentals and respect for those he was serving.

Sustainability has gained an uptown polish as it has come to real estate. But, I mean to convince you that the values behind it remain the same.

Now to apply these five values to our job of building tomorrow’s sustainable communities.

Frugality — For sustainable communities, this means approaching a project with a clear intent to be cost-effective. But do not confuse frugality with parsimony, which leads to projects that serve narrow interests, while defeating the broader interests of our communities — like box stores on our diminishing farmlands. I mean frugality in a full sense of the term, where all externalities in fact are captured. For instance, we must concern ourselves with the multi-modal possibilities and commuting costs to a project, or the way stormwater may be handled onsite so it does not become a costlier problem offsite. As we get better at identifying and assessing all life-cycle costs and incorporating them in our design and building decisions, our choices naturally will be more sustainable.

Fundamentals of craft — We need to design and build our communities with the fundamentals readily available: affordable homes, jobs, transit, parks, shops, safety and schools. This may be a call to go “back to the future,” but these fundamentals are at the very core of sustainable communities.

Quality — Clearly livability demands a strong commitment to quality. Think like Angelo did about his table, where frugality and quality work synergistically. Again, as we become more cognizant of all life-cycle costs, this value too naturally moves to the forefront.

Good sense of business and profitability — Firms that are no longer in business, or projects that have gone underwater, are not contributing to cutting-edge sustainable communities. Admittedly, though, this value is a tricky one: Wall Street wants profits immediately. Bank and commercial financing are leery of innovation; they always have been. But the market itself — customers — are buying and proving sustainable buildings and communities are right. This is particularly true with a younger demographic. Ultimately, we will be building for clients who get it — the younger generation.

Regard for a project’s users — This is the value that I have the most trouble putting into words; the most elusive, yet maybe also the most important. Again, think like Angelo did about the guests at his table, with a deep regard for the ultimate users of the project.

As Lewis Mumford and many others have noted, we first started to build communities many thousands of years ago, in part to protect us from what was lurking in the woods. We have come full circle. Now we must protect these same woods from us. And — lucky for us — we are starting to do this by designing and building communities where people want to and can afford to live.

Sustainability in the built environment is being rediscovered. The technology is of-the-minute, but the values behind creating truly sustainable communities are time-tested, enduring. So I call on all of us — sincerely request each of you — to embed these values in our future work and practice.

Let us be the ones building communities where we will live well, gracefully and affordably — right alongside and respectful of our natural world.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

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