More than Green Building we need Green … Planning

December 15, 2010

My little jaunt to the east coast two months ago really underlined the transport related inefficiencies of my life for me.  My friends’ wedding was held in a beautiful old brownstone in Brooklyn.  Their quiet tree lined street was just half a block from 7th Ave, a bustling thoroughfare which offered just about everything the shopping heart could desire (and I know because I ran up and down it at least a dozen times over two days on wedding related errands).

Its not all bad; today for instance, I am working from my favorite down town coffee shop.  I plan to stop at the grocery store on my way home and then maybe drop by the library to see if any holds have come in.  None of that will require a car (yay) so I can leave it parked on the street from yesterday evening to to tomorrow morning.

But yesterday and tomorrow, as most days, require a 25 minute commute out to the farm where our office is located.  I can’t carpool because none of my (few) coworkers have the same schedule or come from remotely the same area.  There’s no bus (ha!).  Biking is possible but far from easy.  So every day I drive … alone.  And then there’s the weekend to consider.  More than two weekends a month I drive to either Madison or Minneapolis to visit family and friends … and when I stay in La Crosse, its often because someone from there is driving to visit me.  Its not a sustainable lifestyle.  I don’t enjoy it.  All of this is by way of saying … that I’m thinking about it – we all should be – and when I get the chance I’m going to need to make a change.

I am not saying that I think East Coast Metropolis is the only or even the best way to live green.  Its certainly much easier to curb one’s personal transportation needs there but I question their supply lines – where is the food coming from?  the other consumer goods?  where is the wast going to?  My own preference is a small midwestern city (*cough* Madison) but I don’t think there is actually an ideal location for green living in the US right now.  Which means that we all have some work to do.

So … I was already thinking about this subject when I happened on this (by no means recent) post on the NY Times’ blog Freakonomics.  In his post “Green Building: LEEDing us where?”, James McWilliams notes that all the green buildings in the country are doing very little to address the structural un-greeness of our built environment.

Concerned consumers are flush with noble intentions, but too often these intentions succumb to external realities.  A closer look at LEED—and green building in general—illustrates the nature of this conflict. Progressive cities across the U.S. offer tax incentives for builders to incorporate energy-efficient designs into their structures.  A quick review of my own environmentally conscientious enclave in Austin reveals rainwater collection tanks, native landscaping (“xeriscaping”), gravel driveways, solar panels, compost heaps, massive recycling bins, cork floors, self-composting toilets, compact fluorescent bulbs, and bamboo cabinets. These features are all vivid testimonies to an enduring environmental ethic.  Truth be told, my own home has a “five star” green rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program.  I’m rather proud of it.

But a book as insightful as Owen’s forces me to wonder: do such efforts matter all that much?  After all, step beyond the privileged confines of our ever-greening abodes, and you’ll discover that most American cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks.  Don’t get me wrong, Austin is a wonderful place to live. But the fact remains: its overall blueprint runs counter to a truly sustainable lifestyle. Homes are large, if not steroidal, by the standards of densely packed urban centers like New York or San Francisco.  Cars are a necessity. Sidewalks are maddeningly intermittent. Bicycle lanes and bus routes are haphazard. Sprawling “house farms” and strip malls ring the city.  Air conditioners run full blast for seven months. Traffic snarls. We have no light rail or subway.

Of course, these are structural inefficiencies.  Generally they’re beyond individual control (although Austin voted down light rail twice!). Nevertheless, they place our personal environmental decisions—such as the choice to build a LEED-certified home—in a troubling context. Take the long view. From the moment of European settlement onward, American faith in Manifest Destiny has inspired aggressive development driven by land acquisition and individual choice. Sprawl started to become ingrained in the American character over two centuries ago and, as a result, middle America has inherited cities that value expansion over intensification.  To an extent, this vexed inheritance turns our cork floors and compost bins into empty expressions akin to the sun-starved solar panels adorning the Merritt Center.

“We have built our country as we have built it,” writes Owen, “and we’re obviously not going to tear it down and start over.” True enough.  What we can do, though, is expand the notion of what it means to be an environmentalist.  Tree huggers, organic farmers, and green builders will always play necessary roles in raising environmental awareness. But if Owen is right—if our only real hope is to live smaller, live closer, and drive less—future environmentalists will include inner city pioneers who make the urban core a more desirable place to live.  Police officers, school teachers, pastry shop owners, landscape architects, urban planners, coffee freaks and policy geeks—these people will be the real heroes of twenty-first century environmentalism.

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