Peter Rosen never set out to be a “green” guy. He never consciously decided that he was going to wake up in a solar‑powered house, go from that into his electric car and, in general, let things like the power grid or gasoline into his life very little. As president and CEO of South Florida solar company ProSolar Systems, green power is also his business. But even that didn’t originally come from some big push on his part to go green.
“I moved my business into the solar business just because I liked the business,” the former homebuilder says. “You just have happy clients. I love seeing them, I love running into them, I love them thanking me.”
But without really meaning to, Rosen found both his professional and personal life moving more towards a lifestyle that’s typically discussed using words such as “green” or “sustainable.”
Not long ago, he says, “I reflected on the fact that I was living a solar-powered life. I hadn’t set out to do it; it wasn’t a mission of mine.”
And yet little he does leaves much of a carbon footprint. “The majority of my lifestyle is powered by the sun.” He drives a BMW I3, one of the German automaker’s electric compact sedans. With the exception of one Vespa, his other vehicles are all electric bikes or scooters.
“I actually found myself building a solar-powered boat,” he says. “Unfortunately, it sunk.”
His home, it perhaps goes without saying, is solar powered. His utility bills hover around zero. And yet, he notes, to achieve this green lifestyle, he and his husband do not necessarily cut back on the finer things.
“I live in a 5,000-square-foot home and I drive a BMW,” he says. Of his decisions to go green, he says that “most of them are financially based. It’s just a good economic decision.”
They live downtown, near his husband’s work. Downtown living means no huge yard, and maybe that’s a compromise, but they love location and proximity. A 45-minute drive to the office or any urban amenities they want would be a larger downside than a smaller outdoor space. “It’s a combination of where you decide to live, and how you decide to get your energy,” he says. But no commute and being right in the city is not a compromise; it’s great. “We don’t have to compromise on anything to live a green life.”
If anything, green decisions add to his quality of life.
“I drive every day,” he says. “The thought of going back to using gasoline is anathema to my existence. I hate going to gas stations.
“It’s kind of a game for me at this point – what else can I change about my lifestyle? I’m not willing to compromise on the fun things I do in life just because it’s greener, but I will do it if qualitatively it’s better, and it’s greener.”
In recent years, words and phrases such as “going green” and “climate resiliency” have slipped into our lexicon, particularly in South Florida. Fort Lauderdale and its larger region sit on the edge of global warming/sea level rise-related change and adaption. According to SeaLevelRise.org, South Florida has experienced eight inches of sea level rise since 1950, and the Atlantic is now rising much more rapidly, by one inch every three years. Climate change is everybody’s problem, but it’ll be our problem more quickly than most.
The push to combat those changes in some places and learn to live with them in others is on, and that’s where words like “green” and “resilient” start to get thrown around. It’s something that affects everything from sweeping, macro decisions like where and how we develop cities to what kinds of laws and taxation policies govern our various energy sectors, to personal, micro decisions such as where to live, how to design our homes and yards, and what kind of cars to drive (or perhaps, to not drive).
For many of the people studying resiliency or working in industries that promote resilient development or green technologies, education is crucial. And often, part of that education involves showing people how, rather than giving up things and living a lessened lifestyle, embracing resiliency and going green can actually mean positive quality of life choices and even some luxury.
Sonia Chao is the director of the Center for Urban and Community Design at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, where she is also a professor.
“There is really very little middle ground when we talk about the changes that are before us,” she says. “You’re either on the side of making things better, or you’re on the side of making things worse.”
However, being on the side of making things better might also put people on the side of making their own lives better. Living in more walkable cities, thinking differently about green spaces, making daily life choices that prioritize these things – these are ways to live differently and live well.
When Rebecca Bradley and Gage Couch founded Fort Lauderdale-based landscape architecture practice Cadence, it was with principles of resiliency and sustainability in mind.
“Everything we do, resiliency is infused into it,” Bradley says. “It is the ethos of why we started this business. We could see that in this urban setting in South Florida, there were so many missed opportunities.”
Part of that work involves educating people about how there are better ways to utilize how we occupy space as humans. Some of that involves getting the ear of elected leaders and affecting sweeping change. But not all of it.
“It can happen at any level,” Bradley says.
One current project, Couch says, involves a great deal of rainwater harvesting, which is stormwater management. A rainwater cistern sits below ground, and is used for irrigation; the plan is for the space to eventually need no city water. Its plant palate is 100 percent Florida native. (Florida native plants, which attract birds, butterflies and pollinators, are a big part of what Cadence does.) The project also includes an outdoor conference room with solar panels and tables for guests and community members. It’s a nice amenity at any time, and in a post-hurricane power outage time it would become a place that still has power, where people could come and do things like charge their phones.
“They become these little neighborhood hubs,” Couch says of such spaces.
As more spaces like that are created, more people get practical knowledge about what they can do. Bradley finds that individuals are learning more and seeking out more choices like this.
“We’ve seen a significant uptick in people’s knowledge, particularly at the residential level, of the power people have with their own home landscape to improve our ecosystem by what they choose to plant there or how they take care of their own plot of land,” she says.
Sometimes it takes time. Something like native Florida plants isn’t always everybody’s cup of tea. But the more “cultivated wild” native Florida spaces they create, the more examples they can give.
“Often people will see a native landscape and they think they look messy or like weeds,” Bradley says. ”It gets easier to defend why this makes sense or the value. We’ve got great photographs, or we can tell them to drive by. With each year comes more evidence that this is worth it. People like to copy people.”
If you can give one person a landscape that adds value by bringing in and providing cover for pollinators and wildlife while also reducing water usage, the need for professional landscapers and the need for poisonous weed killers – well, that starts to look like a practical improvement, not just a green life choice.
Cadence will soon get the opportunity to put its beliefs about community and sustainability into practice in a high-profile way in downtown Fort Lauderdale thanks to a proposed redesign of Huizenga Park that they have worked on alongside Kathy Blaha Consulting, Architectural Alliance Landscape and The Corradino Group. According to the Cadence team, the new Huizenga Park design “offers a multi-generational appeal and takes advantage of the prime open-space location to connect the public to the New River, both physically and socially. The improved park space will be a place where visitors are introduced to a vibrant outdoor lifestyle to boost health and well-being while connecting with their neighbors. The waterfront park will offer residents a reminder of the rich cultural, historical and natural capital they have as their public asset in downtown Fort Lauderdale.”
None of this is to say, of course, that big from-the-top systemic change isn’t also necessary. Chao, the architect and professor, says that for starters, communities and regions such as South Florida must look at their history to see what nature wants them to do.
“We should all remember that nature has a memory,” Chao says. “If we’re willing to understand that and work with that, we can actually create a better version of who we are moving into the future.” Ignore it, she says, and you deal with the consequences. “If we look at some of our historical maps of this region, we will quickly find not only what our borders were and what they were like, but where masses of water have been,” she says.
This is the sort of concept, dealing with development and how urban areas are organized, that must happen on a larger level. But within that come many individual choices about how to live with the landscape.
“As we move forward, we find that we’re going to have to start making places for water in particular to be in our cities,” she says. “And this means that we have to think of this as a kind of cohabitation with water.”
When Chao and others bring this to people to talk about how it’s going to look, practically speaking, in their communities, talk often turns to public spaces. Those spaces promote, Chao says, a sense of community, cultural identity and public health. And they’re becoming more and more needed.
“We’re going to have to find ways to allow for more natural spaces to coexist in our more public spaces,” she says.
It looks like a neighborhood taking over a low-lying parcel and making it a small park. It looks like water features in swales and gardens in ways people might not have been thinking of until now.
And yes, there are also more aggressive, government-driven changes such as evolving building codes or tax incentives for resiliency. Needed change won’t happen, Chao says, if these issues aren’t tackled on multiple levels.
But the small and personal is absolutely one of those levels.
Cadence is currently working on a project near the Florida/Georgia border that’s a bit different for them in that it’s more farming-oriented. The Johnny Appleseed Organic Village is intended to be part of a sweeping conversation about how we farm for food. But it’s also meant as a blueprint for the sorts of food growing that individuals and neighborhoods can think about. It’s the kind of shift in mindset that can happen at every level.
“I know it’s very kumbaya-ish but (the founder) is onto something there with creating a community that’s self-sustaining,” Couch says. “This particular project, they’re trying to accomplish lots of different things.”
And they’re trying to accomplish those things partially by getting the knowledge of what can be done into everybody’s hands. Organic food, for example, used to be a niche product. Now it’s on the shelves of every grocery store.
A similar phenomenon has happened in building and design. Peter Rosen has in recent years seen a broadening of his ProSolar customer profile. “My business has evolved,” he says.
When he first started in home solar panel installation, his clientele was pretty much one demographic. “It was the greenies,” he says. “The tree-huggers, the greenies, the hippies from the ’60s.”
If somebody was putting solar panels on their house, you could bet they also had something like a composting toilet.
Now though, there’s no one profile. Age, political beliefs, you name it, Rosen sees everybody.
“Once people see what the options are, the lack of limitations,” he says, “the decision is pretty simple.”