The Built Environment and Memorial Day

Sustainable brick patio

Sustainable brick patio in a suburban backyard.

The other day I was helping the teenage son of a friend pick weeds out of the backyard brick patio. I took that moment to tell Owen about stormwater management and how, even though we live in a built environment, we are not separate from the world around us. We are responsible for managing and engineering ways that are compatible at the very least – and assistive at the very best – in creating a sustainable way to exist and thrive in tandem with one another.

After talking about this briefly, and hearing pauses and seeing head tilts, I put it in language I knew he would understand. “It is about urban engineering,” I said, as I knew he created worlds in his computer games and understood causality well. “Instead of having a slab of concrete that moves the water to places around the base of the house that could impact the structure, the cracks between the bricks help the water soak into the ground where it lands, instead of moving it en masse to places where it could do damage.”

He nodded and we returned to our weed picking.

Suburban patio

A Chiminea fireplace with potted flowers.

For many days I have been thinking about sustainability and memory, historical preservation and remembrance. The built environment provides us with a different type of memory. It is a perpetual ‘memorial’ to what went before us. As memorials too often reference something or someone that no longer exists, I was struggling to figure out ways to re-imagine how individual and collective memories are made solid around us and how to talk about this. In doing so, I was immediately reminded of the Main Streets Conference in Des Moines last week, put on by the National Trust for Historical Preservation in Washington D.C.

An untold number of volunteers have gotten together through the Main Streets program to create dynamic and sustainable forms of community living that repurpose buildings so they may be used in current, economically viable ways that provide a solid footing for not just a few years down the line, but 20 years, 50 years and beyond.

These volunteers and managers understand that their present will be the past of those who are yet in pre-school or junior high. Once these young ones reach adulthood and have families and work in their home communities, it will be a present that they, too, seek to enrich by shared community histories and experiences.

Buildings are part of the language of memory. The structures of our main-street, urban and rural communities are tangible narratives of the best ideas and worst ideas of who we are. The Green & Main Pilot Project seeks to take the best of a particular piece of history in the Sherman Hill neighborhood and re-envision it. We are doing this through extensive dialog with preservationists and just as extensive dialog with sustainability experts at the intersection of building science and green technology.

As my mother said to me the last time she hugged me before we parted, “I am creating memories.” This is what the Green & Main team is doing as well – though we are still in the throes of creation.



– Jean Danielson is director of operations for Indigo Dawn. She believes that lemonade is best served with sunshine.


  1. Great article! :)

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