David Bergman (’78) on Bringing Sustainable Design to NYC and Beyond

"Obviously, this is a time when public and individual involvement

in environmentalism is more important than ever."

David Bergman is an architect, professor, and author. He founded the NYC branch of Yale Blue Green, a group for Yale alumni interested in environmental issues. We asked David to tell us about Yale Blue Green's mission, as well as his personal mission as someone at the forefront of sustainable design.

Describe your current project/position. Is this a volunteer or full-time position?

My primary work these days is teaching and writing, though I’m also a practicing architect. And I’m an active member of the boards of several environmental and design organizations. Together they add up to well over full time!

I teach sustainable design, primarily at Parsons School of Design, but also at other schools including, a while ago, a residential college seminar at Yale. My writing is on both sustainable design (a book called, unsurprisingly, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide) and on sustainability generally including my blog, “EcoOptimism.”

What are some of the causes you’re involved with?

One of the projects I am deeply involved in is creating the first sustainability district in NYC, through an organization called 2030 Districts. The NYC 2030 District will be in downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan and is intended to provide a mechanism to promote built world sustainability on a neighborhood level. The concept is that there is a wide diversity of stakeholders and an array of programs involving sustainability and resilience – too many for any individual stakeholder to coordinate and take advantage of – and that an entity is needed to connect the dots. At the same time, neighborhoods are much more nimble than entire cities or states and therefore able to be living laboratories, incubating and testing ways to address this need.

More relevant to Yale is an organization I founded and now co-chair: the NYC branch of Yale Blue Green. It’s a group for Yale alumni interested in environmental issues. There’s a growing number of cities with branches of YBG, and NYC is one of the first. It’s a fantastic way to meet with and find out what alumni involved in sustainability are up to, and to collaborate in sustainability efforts, and have some fun along the way.

Do you have a personal connection to the mission?

I’ve always been a “greenie” and looked at sustainability as not just made of silos of interests. The fact that our members are involved in different aspects of environmentalism relates to my multidisciplinary approach in which I combine architecture and design with economics and policy and communication. At YBG, I can meet people involved in all these areas.

Also, I hadn’t been involved in many alumni activities until now and it’s been wonderful to see what local groups and individuals are doing.

How do you perceive the issues impacting your organization will change in the next 10 years? What is the plan to respond to those changes?

Obviously, this is a time when public and individual involvement in environmentalism is more important than ever given the federal government’s abdication of and downright hostility to anything to do with climate change and the environment. That leaves cities and states as the hope for any environmental progress, and a group like YGBNYC with the talent and dedication of its members can have a big local impact.

And when this political nightmare is past, these connections will remain and help enable further progress.

Tell us about Yale Blue Green's journey from concept to execution.

The larger Yale Blue Green organization is fortunate to have a smart and dedicated leader in Lauren Graham (FES ’13), so when I responded to an alumni note about forming a NYC group, she quickly nabbed me. Since then, we’ve added co-chairs so we can put together more events as well as bring in additional areas of interest and expertise.

Who has inspired you?

Between my interests in design and environmentalism, I’ve looked up to people ranging from Charles and Ray Eames for their inventiveness across a wide range of design fields to James Gustave Speth, a Yale College and Yale Law grad who co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council and was Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His writing about the potential positive outcomes of environmentalism has been an influence on my EcoOptimism blog.

A more personal influence has been Paul Goldberger (YC ’72), whom I met when I took a residential college seminar he taught and have remained in touch with since. In his architectural criticism for the New York Times and elsewhere, he has the ability to take a field often ridden with insider jargon and present it in more accessible terms. That distillation of technical topics has been one of my goals for both my teaching and writing.

What is your best advice for recent grads?

Keep in touch with your friends from Yale. They’re a continuing source of inspiration, knowledge and, of course, lasting friendship.

What experience at Yale most impacted where you are today?

My advice above about keeping in touch with Yale friends derives, in part, from feeling that, as great as the courses and faculty were, I learned much more from late nights hanging out with classmates devouring pizza and tuna melts. And that still holds true, though not with as many late nights.

What non-profit or activities were you involved with at Yale?

The one that comes to mind was when a group – many of us were architecture majors – took on preserving the Davies Mansion. It had been abandoned for years and Yale had been planning to demolish it. We put together a proposal showing its potential for reuse and presented it to the administration. I’d like to think this had a major role in its preservation, and it’s now been renovated, added to, renamed Betts House and houses the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Are there other organizations in NYC you partner up with?

We often look to partner with fellow alumni Special Interest Groups as well as other environmental organizations. This year we held an Earth Day event with the Lower East Side Ecology Center. I’d love to see us provide perhaps pro bono consulting for civic groups.

What are your upcoming events?

We have a continuing series of Alumni Talks in which we hear from alumni working in different aspects of sustainability and resilience. And then there are social gatherings, either on their own or as part of regular events, so we can meet each other and perhaps find ways to interconnect our efforts.

How can folks get involved?

The easiest way is to sign up for our newsletter. And you don’t have to actually work in sustainability. An interest in it is fine!

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