Friday, October 2, 2015

Even If I’m Unsure What to Call Myself, Urbanism is Environmentalism

After years of aversion therapy, I don’t readily accept the word “environmentalist” being applied to me.  Instead, my immediate reaction is disavowal, followed only slowly by grudging and partial acknowledgment.  But I nonetheless bristle when, as happens too often, someone tries to exclude urbanism from environmentalism.  I know my two positions are inconsistent, but after 62 years of living, I think I’ve earned the right to an occasional inconsistency.  Let me explain more fully.

When the first Earth Day parade passed by, I was standing on the first tee of the local golf course, waiting until the marchers finished crossing the fairway before hitting the opening shot of my match.  I felt no compulsion to join the marchers.  My attention was given solely to tinkering with my swing to keep my opening drive out of the rough.

During the latter stages of my college career, I arranged for professional engineers to speak to Tuesday evening gatherings of engineering students about the practice of engineering.  My fellow students and I heard an extended litany of complaints about trying to meet budgets and schedules while complying with the environmental regulations then newly blossoming.

About the same time, my engineer father complained over the dinner table about a judge assessing damages against Caltrans for not upgrading a state highway to meet current safety standards while another judge was, at the same time, delaying the start of the safety work due to inadequate environmental compliance.

With those experiences from my formative years, I don’t care if I’m ever called an environmentalist.  And I doubt I’d be alone within my generation in having that engrained feeling.  For long years, environmentalist had too many negative connotations within my educational settings and workplaces for my cohorts or me to casually accept being called environmentalists.

But I’m nonetheless eager to call myself an urbanist and to simultaneously argue with those, and there are many, who would distinguish between urbanism and environmentalism.  Indeed, I would argue that urbanism is a form of environmentalism that is superior to what many who eagerly call themselves environmentalists have adopted.

Let me paint the big picture and then describe a couple of situations where a false and unhelpful dichotomy is presumed between urbanism and environmentalism.

Environmentalism can include a great many aspects.  Not all of those aspects are addressed by urbanism, but a surprising number are.  Concerned about protection of forests?  Urbanism with its smaller homes and frequent shared walls addresses that concern through reduced need for building materials.  Perhaps water conservation, especially during the drought, is worrisome to you?  Urban dwellers, in part due to the absence of lawns, use less water.

Perhaps preservation of green space or agriculture land matters to you?  Urbanism, with its walkable paradigm, reduces urban sprawl.  Or maybe you think that hazmat cleanup needs more attention?  Urbanism, with its frequent use of brownfield sites meets that need.  Or perhaps your focus is on the biggest environmental challenge of all, climate change?  Urbanism, with its reduced energy demands for both buildings and transportation, is among the best strategies.

The connection between urbanism and environmentalism is unassailable.  But it often gets overlooked anyway.  Let me describe a couple of recent examples.

A recent article in Politico Magazine lauds passive homes and their ability to change the world.  The first homes described by the author are in an apartment building overlooking a commuter train station in Portland.

I love passive homes and their exceedingly low energy usage.  I’d support a carbon tax such that passive homes attain the marketplace position they deserve.  But most summaries of energy demand assign perhaps 30 percent of total national energy usage to buildings and 45 percent to transportation.  It’s possible that the location of the apartments within a transit-oriented development is just as important for energy conservation as the passive design of the apartments.  But that element of the apartments isn’t lauded.  Indeed, it’s never mentioned again.

Even worse, the article goes on to describe a string of passive homes built on a cul-de-sac.  I don’t know the cul-de-sac location, but unless the homes are without garages or street parking and there is a bus stop at the outlet from the cul-de-sac, it’s possible that a non-passive apartment in a well-designed transit-oriented development will have as much energy saving potential as one of the passive homes on the cul-de-sac.

Once again, I’m not demeaning the passive home concept.  I agree with the article that passive apartment in transit accessible locations can change the world.  But that world-changing potential is equal parts passive architectural design and good urbanism.  And that latter part of the story is being neglected, which undermines urbanists everywhere.

Closer to home, I attend a monthly gathering of self-described environmentalists.  To their credit, they allow me to participate so they, at least to some extent, accept urbanism as environmentalism.

But I was disheartened by a conversation at the most recent meeting.  A financial planner, who focuses on environmentally-friendly portfolios, mentioned that he recommends CVS, the large drugstore chain.  His reasoning, which he gained from industry publications on eco-friendly investing, was based on CVS ending the sale of tobacco products and carefully managing their waste stream.

Both policies are appropriate and I’m pleased that both have been implemented.  But I’m also certain that the environment was better served when we had neighborhood drug stores that could be easily accessed by pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.  Calling a chain that forced those little drugstores out of business by specializing in enormous stores behind over-sized parking lots as environmentally-friendly verges on absurd.

I’m not saying that CVS management is filled with bad guys.  They saw the dominance of the drivable suburban paradigm, structured a business plan around serving people in cars, and made money, lots of money.  Which makes them good business people.  But if they don’t deserve black hats, neither do they deserve white hats.  And the only way we fail to grasp that point is if we fail to account for the environmental benefits of a more urban world.

Urbanism is environmentalism, a point that we disregard at our environmental peril.

Call me an environmentalist and I’ll growl softly in uneasy acquiescence.  Try to tell me that the urbanism I espouse isn’t environmentalism and I’ll chew your leg off.  Long live inconsistency.

Having broken the seal on the subject of urbanism vis-à-vis environmentalism, with my next post I’ll continue with another couple of stories in this vein.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Interesting article. I live with a certain amount of ongoing cognitive dissonance around urbanism, environmentalism and child-rearing. As a kid I grew up at the end of a dirt road and spent every weekend running around in the woods. It made my life (in a chaotic, alcoholic household) not just bearable, but good. More and more studies are showing that kids' mental health requires direct contact with clean (not littered or polluted) unpaved outdoor habitat. In other words, young primates need to spend time in nature in order to develop properly.

    As an adult I love living in a small city (Santa Cruz, CA) where I can ride my bike or walk to most of my daily errands and leisure activities. But when I had kids I realized they were not being served by living in town. The neighborhood park didn't cut it. There has been a withdrawal of children from urban outdoor spaces in favor of organized after-school activities and indoor video-gaming time. Despite my best efforts, my kids fit right into this pattern. They had no interest in going outside to play. Even when we went for weekend hikes they were totally checked out and spent the whole time talking about video games. For a variety of reasons I ended up homeschooling them, which allowed me to send them to an (expensive) once-per-week outdoor school that I drove them to. A long, gas-guzzling drive. But it worked...they developed awareness of and interest in the natural world, hand-eye skills...all things that I consider essential for any functioning adult. Things that I developed on my own, just by living in the country and spending time outside.

    The reality is, life is imperfect. We all do the best we can. But it's very hard to know what is the best way to live your life when children need to grow up in the country to be mentally healthy, and adults need to live in the city to be environmentally healthy. Ironically the most popular option, the suburban ranch-style house, serves nobody well.

    1. Raoena, thanks for the comments. I love Santa Cruz. (Parents-in-law in a Watsonville senior living home and sister-in-law in Aptos.)

      You pose a good question for which there isn't a good answer. I have two models I suggest, but neither is perfect. (1) A town with a well-defined urban limit and a bus system that easily delivers youths to urban fringe amenities, whether a complex of ballfields or a natural park with room to roam. (2) A beloved family cabin in the woods that can be reached on regular weekends by train and foot.

      Of course, we rarely provide either option.