Our Common Home: Interview with Alice Quinn

“Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

Together with the patrimony of nature, there is also an historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which is likewise under threat. This patrimony is a part of the shared identity of each place and a foundation upon which to build a habitable city. It is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity.” - Pope Francis

On March 24, our community of building professionals will join poets, musicians, scientists, and more in reflecting on Pope Francis’ climate encyclical, Laudato Si’, at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall. We spoke with Alice Quinn (The Poetry Society of America), one of the principal organizers of the interdisciplinary gathering.

Urban Green: What inspired you to organize this event?

Alice Quinn: My partner, Laurie Kerr, is the Director of Policy at Urban Green and before that was in Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Sustainability, so I’ve lived with the issue of climate change through her passionate concern and dedication for years. We both read the Pope’s encyclical last year and were moved by his wisdom, passion, and commitment.

Poets throughout the ages have focused on the splendor of the natural world and the topic of eternity, so it seemed natural to begin with poets responding to the spirit and particulars of the letter through their own work and poetry by others which they cherish.  

The Poetry Society of America has presented major programs in the Great Hall at Cooper Union for many years. It was David Greenstein, the maestro of programming there, who connected us to the movers and shakers in the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design. Once they got involved, the compass of the event swiftly widened to include figures they admire, and then we kept brainstorming with each organization bringing ideas to the table, including Urban Green.

Alice Quinn

What are your hopes for the impact of the event?

The Poetry Society of America was founded in 1910 and is the oldest organization in the U.S. dedicated to the art. We hope to bring together the audience for poetry—which we’ve developed with our various events and programming over the years, including Poetry in Motion, the program placing poems on buses and subways—with the people in your audience who are dedicated to the issues of climate change and social justice.

How do you feel the urban environment fits into the story of environmental protection and the Pope’s encyclical?

In his letter, Pope Francis expressed the importance of acknowledging “the appeal, immensity, and urgency of the challenge we face.” Cities really are on the frontlines of climate change. Because so many of the largest are on the coasts, they’re vulnerable to sea level rise and stronger storms. And since they tend to be hotter than the surrounding countryside, urban residents will be even more threatened by the heat waves that climate change will bring. On the positive side, cities have been very innovative and are now seen as the creative caldrons for policies that will reduce carbon emissions and protect citizens from the worst impacts of climate change.

There is a need to bring disparate conversations together. Different groups tend to talk to themselves, but we need to come together—poets, artists, philosophers, scientists, policy makers—in order to solve this immense and complex issue. And that’s one of the wonderful things about the Pope’s encyclical: the way that it spans and unites so many ways of thinking—from Ecclesiastical argument to moral philosophy, economics, and urban design.

Celebrate Laudato Si’ with us at Cooper Union next Thursday, March 24th.

About the authors

Urban Green Council
Dedicated to transforming buildings for a sustainable future.