Sustainable Cities™

William McDonough – From products to cities

William McDonough – "From Products to Cities" taken from Copenhagen X on Vimeo.   Cradle to Cradle has become one of the major methods used to combat the stress that modern lifestyles put on Nature. It started out with products, moved to buildings and urban plans and now aims to become a global strategy for improving the future of our planet.

In this interview, William McDonough explains the Cradle to Cradle concept and discusses the nature of its application to everything from individual products to entire cities.

In recent years, Cradle to Cradle has received massive attention, notably for the vision it presents of a future without the massive natural destruction that our current consumption causes. Thanks to the concept, many architects, designers, urban planners and politicians have come to see new opportunities in creating products, buildings and cities that enhance rather than undermine our future.

Overall, the Cradle to Cradle concept centers around designing products that can be used as either biological or technical nutrients after fulfilling their initial purpose. The biological nutrients can be materials designed to flow optimally through the cycles of ecosystems such as biodegradable packaging designed to nourish living systems after performing its human use. The technical nutrients are valuable, high-tech synthetics and mineral resources designed to circulate in closed-loop systems of perpetual production, recovery and remanufacture. Also, Cradle to Cradle incorporates the production process of these nutrients before their human use, which entails the efficient use of renewable energy, the efficient use of water in a manner that does not damage its quality, and the institution of strategies for social responsibility.

"The cradle to cradle concept essentially calls for everything to be seen as a nutrient - whether this is a technological or biological nutrient.  And that this nutrient has reverse logistics, that it is powered by renewable energy, that the water is clean, and that people are treated fairly in the process." (William McDonough)

Products that conform to this approach can be certified as a Cradle to Cradle product. Of course, the certification is presently more about intentions and planning but it seems it will soon become more about sticking to an intended course of action and continually working towards implementing intentions fully. Needless to say, the Cradle to Cradle principles increase in complexity as one increases in scale from products to buildings to cities. This means that the degree of detail is more important in relation to products and that general tendencies or overall principles are more important in relation to buildings and cities.

Buildings and Cities

Cradle to Cradle buildings are honoured with a prize for selected qualities and characteristics of the building. An example could be that the windows are owned by the manufacturer who is responsible for the afterlife of the windows, making sure they go back into the technical nutrient cycle. At city level, it is about putting a layer of sustainable strategies on top of the existing city. Examples of this can be found in Liuzhou, China or Almere, the Netherlands. In these cities, one strategy has been a focus on viewing the waste systems as nutrients. Thus, their waste management plans are based on systems of exploitation and the utility of nutrients. Consequently, Cradle to Cradle is about using a new language and seeing opportunities and benefits instead of limitations and problems.

"The most interesting project for us was the city Liuzhou in China. We were not designing a whole city per se, what we were doing were overlays of sustainable strategies." (William McDonough)

The fact that Cradle to Cradle buildings and cities are more about general principles does not necessarily mean lower ambitions. On the contrary, the expectations are higher in relation to what buildings and cities give back to nature. Buildings and cities must be photosynthetic and are expected to produce energy or oxygen. This makes fundamental differences in relation to urban planning and architecture. It changes the way we build cities and design buildings.

Cradle to Cradle globally

Today, the ambition is to disseminate Cradle to Cradle globally. Currently, work is in progress to create a non-profit institution, hopefully in California, in charge of the Cradle to Cradle certification. The vision is to create a place where governments and public authorities from many countries are assisting in assigning Cradle to Cradle certifications, thereby creating a global certification strategy. The government of California has already taken a decisive step towards a Cradle to Cradle economy via a green chemical initiative that specifies how companies can produce without destroying the environment.

About William McDonough

William McDonough_high William McDonough is a world-renowned architect and designer and winner of three U.S. presidential awards: the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development (1996), the National Design Award (2004); and the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award (2003).

Mr. McDonough is the founding principal of William McDonough Partners, Architecture and Community Design, an internationally recognized design firm practicing ecologically, socially, and economically intelligent architecture and planning in the U.S. and abroad.  

He is also the cofounder and principal, with German chemist Michael Braungart, of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), which employs a comprehensive Cradle to Cradle design protocol to chemical benchmarking, supply-chain integration, energy and materials assessment, clean-production qualification, and sustainability issue management and optimization.

Most important publications:

  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (with Michael Braungart) North Point Press, 2002
  • Buildings Like Trees, Cities Like Forests The Catalog of the Future: Pearson Press, 2002
  • Something Lived, Something Dreamed: Urban Design and the American West: Red Butte Press, 2004


Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014