Peter Nicholson staring down our generation's environmental issues
Always in search for the answers to unchartered environmental issues, Peter Nicholson shares his thoughts on the current state of the environmental movement, easy lifestyle changes to lower your carbon footprint, and places to see in Lincoln Square. Aside from running a design consulting firm, Peter is also the host of Chicago’s green drinks – a mixer that incorporates both a panel to discuss environmental issues and an opportunity to network with the movers and shakers in the green industry. If you don’t know anything about sustainability, or even if know everything about it, you should definitely stop by Green Drinks and pick Peter’s brain about the next big idea!
F: How did you get involved in the sustainability movement?
P: I came to it through design. I didn’t just wake up one day and want to become an environmentalist. When I knew that I wanted to pursue design, I asked myself what the interesting challenges and barriers were worth addressing with this approach. As I became more involved, I realized that I was more compelled by those issues that emphasized empowering people to lead more meaningful and fulfilled lives rather than those focused on creating more stuff to be consumed.
F: Has your work evolved much since you first started getting into the sustainability movement?
P: Definitely. I started getting into Sustainability and Sustainable Design in the mid to late 90s when few people were talking about it. As my understanding has developed, we’ve tried to incorporate more into our projects. For awhile, it was primarily about environmental concerns, but now we’re striving to incorporate social and economic concerns into our work as well. Step by step we are getting there.
F: What are some of your favorite design projects at Foresight Design?
P: It is always the next one – the one that we’re not doing yet! I like to do things that I don’t know the answer for. For me, the most exciting projects are those that are in the realm of the unknown and we have to figure it out. The sustainability world provides plenty of opportunities. There is no set roadmap for the problems we face, it is all new.
F: Are you ever worried about being able to find an answer for these unknown problems?
P: Oh every time! Yeah, there’s an element of terror, but it is also that fear that motivates you to push you ahead and think creatively. I take that emotion to drive the answer forward. If the answer is out there, then we won’t have any clients.
F: How has the sustainability movement changed since you first started green drinks in 2003?
P: There are a lot more people involved with it right now! When I started there were relatively few of us. Now there are all these people involved with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Also, the culture awareness has definitely risen. While we haven’t reached the tipping point yet by any means, I am now able to mention the word sustainability and not necessarily get blank looks in return.
F: Can you talk to us about how the economy has affected the green movement?
P: It has slowed things down in terms of people investing in new ideas and initiatives. But there is also great opportunity to change and do things differently. The economic downturn we are in, offers a chance to find a better way of doing things, whatever it is.
When the economy is down, a part of us wants to “recover” and go back to where we . Another side, however may question that and seek to let go, evolve and explore new ground, to recover differently. These two impulses compete with each other. There is a security in the familiar even though at a certain level we know it is broken and corrupt – we shouldn’t be afraid of changing and moving towards an unknown direction.
F: You once said “Green should be the mass market norm, not the high-end alternative”…can you share some examples of any green mass market norms we can inject into our lives?
P: In general, sustainability shouldn’t cost more money. Of course anytime you do something new, you don’t have the economies of scale yet and it is going to cost more. But how about, not driving? How about buying a bike and selling your car? Or not buying a car, and joining a car sharing program instead. That saves a ton of money. It is these types of choices that can save us money and allow us to live healthier lives rather than continuing down a pollution generating or carbon generating path.
To do this, though, we really need a city with the infrastructure to support those behavioral changes. Thankfully in Chicago, we have a pretty robust car sharing system, and we have made progress on bike issues. The public transit system is ok, but really needs to be improved. It is really these kinds of things that give you both greater quality of life at potentially lower cost.
F: What is your favorite technological invention so far?
P: I just bought a Wii and I think that is pretty cool, but when I was taking it out of the box I was like, that’s a lot of packaging! I think my bike is great, especially with the gel seat that makes riding my bike so much better. In reality, though, to me the solutions I really enjoy aren’t necessarily technological. Take something like a green building. It is not necessarily about putting solar panels all over the building, but more about designing it smarter. I’m not anti-technology, but sometimes the answer is just better thinking.
F: If you were President of the world, what are the first 3 things you would do?
Wow that’s a big question. First, I would draft a law that says until everyone has enough food to eat and clean water to drink, investments into things such as heated car seats should not occur. There is a certain injustice in how much time, energy, and intelligence we put into things that are on the verge of ridiculous when there are a lot of people with unmet basic needs.
Number 2, is that we institute Bhutan’s idea of gross national happiness. It is a concept that we consider development in terms of how it contributes to the well-being and contentment of as many people as possible, versus creating things just to make money. It is a very different paradigm than we’re used to.
Third, I would travel a lot…while offsetting the carbon footprint. Purely self-indulgent.
F: We enjoy traveling too! Where are your favorite destinations?
P: I have this habit of going back to the same places, like the Netherlands and the UK, to see some of my friends and sustainability colleagues. The Pacific Northwest is great to visit because my family is there and because of the sustainability movement is going strong in that area. New York is also a great place that I use to recharge and get inspired…it is a city that fuels my creative energy.
F: Can you describe your life out in Lincoln Square?
P: Besides taking advantage of the many modes of transportation here, there are some great restaurants, like Bistro Campagne, Spacca Napoli, and Garcias, and several independently owned coffee stores like the Perfect Cup, which we call our conference room. I also love walking around the neighborhood because of the tree lined streets and many residences have converted their lawns to gardens. There is this Dutch word, gezellig, that I like to use to describe Lincoln Square – it basically means a warm, cozy and comfortable place.
F: We like the idea of green drinks – where do you guys host it?
P: We host green drinks at Jefferson Tap and Grill (325 N Jefferson). We’ve had it there for 2-3 years. It is near the Green Line and Union Station so it is equally inconvenient for everybody.
You guys should definitely come and check out green drinks! It is a meeting and educational hub where you can learn something from the panel discussion. Also, people can join our email list to learn about what we do and how to get involved. We want people to get beyond the awareness phase into being action driven. That’s what we are here to do in a fun and meaningful way.
F: Any green buildings you recommend we check out?
P: One place to start is the Chicago Center for Green Technology. It is a city owned LEED platinum building. Also, right behind it, is Rancho Verde, the headquarters of Christy Webber Landscaping, which is housed in a LEED platinum building. With regards to high rises, definitely check out Jeanne Gang’s building called the Aqua. It is near Randolph and Columbus, right behind the Blue Cross Blue Shield building.