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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Seeing cities as the environmental solution, not the problem

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 9, 2011

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  Seattle (by: Katie Jones, creative commons license)

For a long time, America’s environmental community celebrated wilderness and the rural landscape while disdaining cities and towns.  Thoreau’s Walden Pond and John Muir’s Yosemite Valley were seen as the ideal, while cities were seen as sources of dirt and pollution, something to get away from.  If environmentalists were involved with cities at all, it was likely to be in efforts to oppose development, with the effect of making our built environment more spread out, and less urban.

We’ve come a long way since then, if still not far enough.  We were and remain right to uphold nature, wildlife and the rural landscape as places critical to celebrate and preserve.  But what we realize now, many of us anyway, is that cities and towns – the communities where for millennia people have aggregated in search of more efficient commerce and sharing of resources and social networks – are really the environmental solution, not the problem:  the best way to save wilderness is through strong, compact, beautiful communities that are more, not less, Arles, Provence, France (c2011 FK Benfield)urban and do not encroach on places of significant natural value.  As my friend who works long and hard for a wildlife advocacy organization puts it, to save wildlife habitat we need people to stay in “people habitat.”

For our cities and towns to function as successful people habitat, they must be communities where people want to live, work and play.  We must make them great, but always within a decidedly urban, nonsprawling form.  As it turns out, compact living – in communities of streets, homes, shops, workplaces, schools and the like assembled at a walkable scale – not only helps to save the landscape; it also reduces pollution and consumption of resources.  We don’t drive as far or as often; we share infrastructure.  While recent authors such as Edward Glaeser and David Owen are sometimes excessive in extolling the virtues of urban density without giving attention to the other things that make cities attractive and successful, they are absolutely right that city living reduces energy consumption, carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.  

A lot of my professional friends are committed urbanists as well as committed environmentalists.  We understand the environmental advantages of urban living so thoroughly that we take it for granted that other people do, too.  But we make that mistake at our – and the planet’s – peril.  The increased development and maintenance of strong, sustainable cities and towns will not happen without a concerted effort. 

A lot is riding on the outcome:  83 percent of America’s population – some 259 million people – live in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas.  Somewhat astoundingly (and as I have written previously), Alexandria, VA (by: Chad Connell, creative commons license)37 of the world’s 100 largest economies are US metros.  New York, for example, ranks 13th, with a $1.8 trillion economy equivalent to that of Switzerland and the Netherlands combined; Los Angeles (18th) has an economy that is bigger than Turkey’s; Chicago’s (21st) is larger than Switzerland’s, Poland’s or Belgium’s.

With so much population and economic activity, it can be no wonder that our working and living patterns in cities and suburbs have enormous environmental consequences, both for community residents and for the planet.  And the implications are going to intensify:  over the next 25 years, America’s population will increase by 70 million people and 50 million households, the equivalent of adding France or Germany to the US.  With a combination of building new homes, workplaces, shops and schools and replacing those that will reach the end of their functional lives, fully half the built environment that we will have on the ground in 25 years does not now exist.

These circumstances provide not just a formidable challenge but also a tremendous opportunity to get things right.  Unfortunately, past practices have done a lot of damage, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, when America severely disinvested our inner cities and traditional towns while population, investment and tax base fled for (quite literally) greener pastures.  The result, as we now know all too well, has been desecration of the natural and rural landscape while leaving behind decaying infrastructure, polluted air and waterways, and distressed populations. 

  Virginia, US 29 (c2011 FK Benfield)  Indianapolis (courtesy American Institute of Architects)

Older cities and towns with shrinking revenues did what they could, but critical issues such as waste, public transportation, street and sidewalk maintenance, parks, libraries, and neighborhood schools – issues where attention and investment could have made a difference – were back-burnered or neglected altogether.  Meanwhile, sprawl caused driving rates to grow three times faster than population, sending carbon and other emissions through the roof while requiring still more costly new infrastructure that was built while we neglected the old.

We cannot allow the future to mimic the recent past.  We need our inner cities and traditional communities to absorb as much of our anticipated growth as possible, to keep the impacts per increment of growth as low as possible.  And, to do that, we need cities to be brought back to life, with great neighborhoods and complete streets, with walkability and well-functioning public transit, with clean parks and rivers, with air that is safe to breathe and water that is safe to drink.

  Melrose area of South Bronx, NYC, before revitalization (via MAP-iiSBE)  rendering of Melrose Commons revitalization, South Bronx (via MAP-iiSBE)

This, I believe, leads to some imperatives:  where cities have been disinvested, we must rebuild them; where populations have been neglected, we must provide them with opportunity; where suburbs have been allowed to sprawl nonsensically, we must retrofit them and make them better.  These are not just economic and social matters:  these are environmental issues, every bit as deserving of the environmental community’s attention as the preservation of nature.

This is the first in a series of posts that will introduce NRDC’s agenda for sustainable communities.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page

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BriceAug 9 2011 02:31 PM

The last few weeks watching the machinations in DC has actually given me a greater appreciation for Glaeser and Owens position as uber-cheerleaders of vertical urbanism. The right spot is undoubtedly somewhere between them and suburbia, but without that strong pole holding down one end of the debate, the compromise becomes slightly less suburban sprawl.

Mark ElliotAug 9 2011 03:25 PM

Nice piece! From my planning reading, I remember that the US once had a real urban agenda. It was presented as a means to address the 'urban problem' - the economic and social stagnation at its peak in the early-mid 1970s. But the 'urban problem' rhetoric conveniently divorced that malaise from the broader economic forces to which you refer.

Of course, that urban policy never really got off the ground; it was torpedoed by conservative politics that are reminiscent of the right-wing tsunami that threatens to sweep clean most every non-military program.

Maybe it's not the right time, but we need an urban policy that not only targets investment to support vibrant cities, but also backs up to look supra-regionally. When we try and fit Detroit or St. Louis, for example, into today's urban prescriptions, they don't easily fit. Such an approach would also complement a needed national economic policy, IMO.

Rick BonaschAug 9 2011 05:50 PM

I live in St. Louis proper and am curious as to what Mark means when he says "Detroit and St. Louis, for example, don't easily fit into today's urban prescriptions". Am I missing something?

In my mind, St. Louis is a perfect fit for the points made in this article.

And, as the article states, we have lots of room for growth. I'm sure Detroit does, too.

Jim NoonanAug 10 2011 03:59 PM

As usual a thoughtful and positive essay. I agree that the solution to many of our environmental and even fiscal problems is a conscientious and comprehensive approach to refocus our energies back into existing cities, and also existing smaller towns and communities. One thing I would urge many pundits to do, which is to tone down the rhetoric. We need to work with local officials of all political stripes. I have seen as many very conservative politicians as others concerned about their main street communities. They phrase things differently, perhaps, but are no less focused on making things work. It does planning no good to engage in divisive name calling, as one of your respondents seems to have a desire to do. We need to lessen the degree to which our policies are seen as political. We need to tone down the rhetoric, rather than raise its level.
There is actually a strong degree of ‘push back’ against some planning concepts. I have spent a lot of time arguing that encouraging strong communities brings benefits of many different kinds. I don’t need to argue that sprawl patterns are bad or need to be controlled. I believe that economics and the market place will make that happen soon enough anyway. In the meantime, many planners (and nearly all environmental activists) seem to have the belief that they 'know better' than do local elected officials or that it is their role to 'educate' local officials in some way. That is especially true of planners who do NOT
work at the local government level. A point I think that readers of your essay should take with them is not that we need to revise the terms we use, but that we need to reign in our, sometimes inflated self-image as planners when we work with local elected officials.
Those of us who work at the State or regional level, do not have any inherent knowledge or gift that gives us a greater insight into the issues being faced in local communities. We need to break out of our little insular groups and listen to what people out there are saying. The push back about planning terms and concepts that is occurring out there, is a direct reflection of our failure to do that. We are not victims, so much as we are the proverbial person that reaps what we sowed...

Kaid @ NRDCAug 10 2011 04:03 PM

Jim: humility is unfortunately in short supply in many walks of life, including this one. Your (welcome) comment is almost a blog post in itself.

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