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NRDC, CNU launch potentially "historic" agreement to control sprawl, rebuild cities

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 1, 2013 in Living Sustainably

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  sprawl outside of Fredericksburg, TX (c2013 FK Benfield)

Washington, DC, April 1, 2013 – The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism announced today that the two national organizations are taking dramatic action to replace suburban sprawl with inclusive reinvestment in the country’s inner cities.

NRDC, self-styled as “the nation's most effective environmental action group,” and CNU, known internally as the “leading organization promoting sustainable communities and healthier living conditions,” have worked together for years but sometimes at odds over where and how real estate development should take place.  Under today’s agreement, CNU’s architects, planners, and developers will no longer pursue so-called “leapfrog” development isolated from cities and suburbs, known in CNU parlance as “new towns.”  NRDC's attorneys and scientists, for their part, will no longer oppose development in any form within existing downtowns, or redevelopment in suburbs, no matter how egregious environmentally.

The “most effective” and “leading” organizations, respectively, also reached agreement over wetlands and water pollution, long bones of contention between CNU, on behalf of its developer clients, and environmentalists.  NRDC agreed to relinquish its usual aggressive advocacy for wetland protection in highly urbanized areas, while CNU agreed to much tighter regulation of urban stormwater management, including mandatory “green roofs” and “bioswales” for all new or rehabbed properties, to capture and filter rainwater before it enters sewer systems and receiving waterways. 

green roof, Chicago City Hall (courtesy Chicago Dept of Tourism & Culture)The latter points of agreement are significant.  Such green measures in cities were derided last year by CNU stalwart Jiff Spock, who referred to them in some book or other as “boring” and "threaten[ing] to erase one of the key characteristics that distinguish cities from the suburbs.”  NRDC says it has been been world-renowned for its sophisticated and successful litigation urging more stringent enforcement of water and wetland protection laws.

“This has the potential to be historic,” said Kent Barfield, NRDC’s nominal director for sustainable communities.  “We know environmental laws have to be interpreted in context, not absolutely.  Frankly, we need stronger downtowns, and it’s time we stopped giving a damn how it’s done.”

“Our organization is totally behind Kent and our private-sector partners on this,” added A-Shock Hupta, NRDC’s director of programs.

America’s inner cities were significantly abandoned and disinvested in the decades following World War Two, as families and businesses who were afraid of black people fled to the suburbs in droves.  The result was decay in buildings and infrastructure, loss of tax revenue, concentrated poverty, desecration of the landscape, and greatly increased .emissions from driving.  But today, abandoned and underutilized city properties have great potential for redevelopment.  The two most effective and leading groups insisted, however, that any such rebuilding must be done inclusively, with the participation of existing residents.

Jon Norway, president of CNU said, “Building new towns on leapfrog properties made sense in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, or in America in the 17th and18th, once we learned how to deal with the natives.”  re-imagined city neighborhood in Boston (courtesy of Goodly Clancy architects)But, with so much reinvestment needed in inner cities and existing suburbs, Norway continued, “building in this century in this country on what is now farmland, forests, and home to bunny rabbits is simply unethical.”

“New towns may be how we made our reputation,” added Vince Dovent, a CNU board member, “but it's no longer the right kind of reputation.  Global warming has changed the game."

“Bullfeathers!" chimed someone from the audience at the organizations' press conference at the National Press Club in Washington.  “As far as we’re concerned, rural landscapes represent business opportunity.”  The man was later identified as Gerald Howe of the National Association of Home Builders.  Barfield, known for his sunny, hail-fellow-well-met demeanor, reportedly challenged the man to a duel.

Leapfrog development requires more driving over longer distances to reach popular destinations such as jobs and schools, and thus much higher levels of carbon emissions, than does inner-city redevelopment.  Moreover, well-planned sprawl produces only marginal improvements in driving rates compared to poorly planned sprawl.  Scientists say that the global temperature is rising at a rate of about 0.2 degrees Centigrade, or 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit, each decade.

During the press conference, a reporter called on Jeff Ackerson, president of Smart Growth America, an organization that, according to its website, is the “only national organization” dedicated to opposing sprawl and supporting smart growth practices nationwide.  When asked for comment, Ackerson said he would have to check with his funders.

Staff members for the "most effective, "leading," and "only" organizations working on the issues were last seen heading for the bar.

This story filed on April 1, 2013.

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Kaid Benfield is a longtime NRDC staffer and CNU member who writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Comments

Charles MarohnApr 1 2013 11:16 AM

My sides are splitting. Awesome ending too.

john norquistApr 1 2013 12:03 PM

Norway and Dovent found it difficult to reach agreement with Barfield until Kent admitted that he was a bit self righteous. In return Barfield demanded and received a permit to open a muffler repair shop in Seaside, Florida.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 1 2013 12:08 PM

Too funny. :)

Kirk WApr 1 2013 02:31 PM

Nothing funnier than truth laced with malarkey! Hope NRDC has the funding to counteroffer The Onion.

Comments are closed for this post.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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