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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Visions for transforming America: NRDC launches exciting new web feature!

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 15, 2009

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President-elect Obama takes office this month vowing to fight climate change, tackle oil dependency and revive the U.S. economy.  NRDC believes that smart growth and transit are a big part of the solution.  As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently, we can't rebuild America without thinking about how we build our streets, cities and neighborhoods.  

We believe strongly that this can be done in a way that not only is environmentally sustainable but also can bring "America the Beautiful" to the communities where we live, work, and shop.  And now, we have an exciting new web feature that shows how it can be done. 

Picturing Smart GrowthWith generous assistance from our friends at Urban Advantage, NRDC has created a map of the United States featuring 70 locations across the country that are ripe for transformative change.  Open the map, zoom in on a location (one of two Tempe, AZ, sites shown below) and, without leaving our web site, you will be shown a Google Maps satellite view of the existing site, given some context about the metro area, and be treated to a brief slide show demonstrating how each can be converted, step-by-step, from sprawl, vacant property or disinvestment into a lively, beautiful neighborhood:

(courtesy of Urban Advantage)

Existing conditions 

(courtesy of Urban Advantage)

Proposed light rail line and neighborhood park

(courtesy of Urban Advantage)

New walkable street

(courtesy of Urban Advantage)

Residential development

(courtesy of Urban Advantage)

Additional multi-family residential development convenient to light rail

(One tip: some metro areas, like Tempe, have multiple sites.  Sometimes you have to zoom way in to see them all, but the map is fully interactive.)

The locations were chosen to represent a cross-section of American geography as well as a diversity of existing site types and envisioned smart growth characteristics.  You can search by site type and characteristics as well as, of course, geographically through the map.  A small group of scenarios are highlighted with extra detail, and we also have a page showing how it was done, describing the wonderful work of Urban Advantage.  There's more information about how to get the most out of the site in my next post.

NRDC's communications and smart growth staffs worked over a year with UA to bring Picturing Smart Growth to the public, and we're pretty jazzed about it.  Please take a look and spread the word!

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


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Ben WelleJan 15 2009 11:10 AM

Fabulous tool. One of the best I've seen around. I just want to watch the scenarios over and over again. What a great tool for showing people how pleasant these places could be.

genesgaloreJan 15 2009 12:55 PM

kindly tell me what environmentally sustainable means. as far as i can tell, it's a cute buzzword denied by evolution and common sense.

Susan Piedmont-PalladinoJan 15 2009 01:20 PM

Beautiful, effective, and persuasive! I wish we had this as one of our interactives in the Green Community exhibition. It demonstrates the power of visualization. Seeing more than just believing; seeing is the necessary prelude to changing.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 15 2009 01:28 PM

Thanks, Ben. I went by your own blog today, and it's looking great as well.

Susan, that means a lot coming from a lead curator at the Building Museum - thanks!

Michael WooJan 15 2009 03:40 PM


I'm really glad to see this new application of Urban Advantage's imaging capabilities which could bolster the smart growth movement's arguments in connection with the economic stimulus and infrastructure debates. The inability of decision-makers, stakeholders, and the general public to visualize change (in a positive way) is always a key impediment to making change happen, so this imaging exercise could be very helpful.

I'd like to suggest an additional layer of analysis which could build upon the visual images. For the last six months, I've been very involved here in California helping ClimatePlan and its allies make the case for land use changes as an integral part of the policy response to climate change. In December we made some progress (not as much as we would have liked) with the California Air Resources Board, and now we're about to enter a 2 - 3 year process in which the land use/climate change issue will be fought over at the regional council of government level as the landmark legislation SB 375 goes through the implementation process.

In my conversations with state air quality officials and local officials who have a stake in the debate, I find a running thread of skepticism about whether changes in land use will really make a difference in greenhouse gas production. The theory of it is accepted, at a certain level, but advocates sometimes find that the theory is thrown back in our faces when we're asking to "prove it."

What I'm suggesting is that, in addition to the visual images produced by Urban Advantage, the next step of analysis which could be helpful would be numbers showing how the shift from Land Use A to Land Use B or Land Use C would result in a certain amount of reduction in car use, resulting in a reduction in gasoline consumption, resulting in a certain reduction in greenhouse gases (measured in thousands of metric tons of GHGs) being produced. Or other measures of the tangible effect of changes in land use upon climate change.

I don't know exactly how this could be done. But as a soldier in the trenches, I can tell you that this would be one more useful tool as we try to win over wary stakeholders, in addition to the marvelous contribution offered by Urban Advantage's imaging.

John LiffeeJan 15 2009 04:53 PM

From a storytelling p.o.v., this is one of the coolest web features I've seen in a long time. Bravo!

Kaid @ NRDCJan 15 2009 05:29 PM

Michael, you just outlined a significant need. As you know, we do have some data on likely GHG reductions from smart growth (e.g., Growing Cooler, various individual studies). I know a number of us are working on trying to quantify the superiority of an average LEED-ND project compared to an ordinary project. Going farther and doing what you suggest on a mass of individual sites would be an extremely helpful undertaking for either an academic institution like your own or an environmental group with technical capabilities. Either of us would need a lot of new funding to pull it off.

John, thank you so much. That's just the kind of comment we love!

Susan KraemerJan 18 2009 03:12 PM

I love it! Really charming. You can feel your blood pressure going down as you go through it.

Will definitely write about it to do my little bit to get it out. Thanks, Kaid: this is a terrific tool.

Merry RabbJan 18 2009 11:36 PM

This web site is so well put together and a pleasure to look at. As for the content, I've already used it to start a few conversations with collegues & friends. Very nice!

Kaid @ NRDCJan 19 2009 12:42 PM

Susan & Merry, thanks so much! All credit to Rachel and the web team, who have done such a fabulous job.

Comments are closed for this post.


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