Monday, October 5, 2015

Getting Urbanism Wrong: From the Environmentally Inadequate to the Environmentally Oblivious

In my last post, I argued that urbanism is a form of environmentalism.  I further argued that it may be one of the most potent and universally accessible types of environmentalism.  I believe that many people already understood this, but I also believe that the understanding sometimes gets lost at the application to real life.  So I’ll follow up today with examples of how we sometimes fail urbanism, from the environmentally inadequate to the environmentally oblivious.

A few years back, I attended a North Bay meeting about an upcoming downtown mixed-use project.  The speaker, who represented the city, was excited about reduced environmental impacts of urbanist development, but had a philosophical point to share before getting into project details.

He told of a recent labor contract meeting that he had attended as a member of city management.  During the negotiations, the labor negotiator had argued for higher staff wages because the increased earnings would allow the employees to move closer to city hall, reducing their commutes and thereby making the salary concessions green-friendly.

As the speaker told the story, he immediately called the suggestion nonsense and retorted that, given bigger paychecks and the subsidies that our tax system gives to private transportation, the employees with more money would be more likely to move into bigger homes further from town and to buy bigger cars in which to make their longer commutes.

He then concluded with a comment that continues to come back to me on regular occasion.  As I recall his words, he said that “The best predictor of a green life is poverty.”

He was right.  If I’m ever tempted to pat myself on the back for driving an aging hybrid, taking a shorter shower, or lowering our wintertime house temperature by a couple of degrees, I remind myself that it’s the homeless person sleeping under a blanket in a downtown doorway who is truly living a green life.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we all trade our house keys for blankets and begin looking for empty doorways.  Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t try to end homelessness.  But I am noting that there are lives out there being lived in a far less environmentally impactful manner than for those of us with roofs over our heads and that we should therefore never be satisfied with whatever environmental changes we’ve already made, but should instead be constantly seeking ways to go further.  We’re all living environmentally inadequate lives and can do better.

Of course, moving downtown into homes smaller than our suburban homes and making sidewalk cafes and corner pubs our dining rooms and living rooms, i.e., urbanism, is a fine way of doing better.

This thread of thinking ties back to something that author Thomas Friedman writes in his book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”.  He argues that we need a green revolution and that all we’re having is a green party, that we’re not digging deeply into change to make the differences that need to be made.

I suggest that he’s right.  We’re embracing recycling, hybrid cars, and rooftop solar, but we’re hesitant to buy stuff made of recycled materials, won’t use transit, and still insist on air-conditioning.  Once again, we’re all living environmentally inadequate lives and can do better.

And that brings me to my favorite environmentally oblivious story.  In a magazine supplement to the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle some years back, a Silicon Valley homeowner was interviewed about her new and supposedly environmentally-friendly home.  She proudly confirmed that she and her husband were committed environmentalists and had therefore bought up three adjoining homes, tore them down, and replaced them with a single home with numerous environmentally-friendly features, including bamboo floors.

Let’s do the environmental tally on those transactions.  Three families who could have been living and working in the Silicon Valley are instead commuting from the East Bay because the homes they would have bought no longer exist.  Three livable homes are now in a landfill.  And a major environmental benefit is bamboo floors?

The situation was so ludicrous that I set the magazine aside to write a scathing response.  But life intervened and I didn’t begin my response for several days.  It didn’t make any difference.  The next addition of the magazine included three letters, selected from scores of similar letters, making the same points I would have made.  The homeowner had touched a nerve, but the environmentally oblivious damage had already been done.

For today, I’ll close with a story that isn’t connected to urbanism, but is one of my favorite stories about environmental obliviousness.

“Wings” was a television sitcom that aired for several seasons during the 1990s.  The setting was a commuter airline between Boston and Nantucket, with the cast being the airline and airport staff.

In one episode, a pilot notices that the cups for the free coffee service in the passenger lounge had been changed from styrofoam to paper.  He asked the ticket agent responsible for coffee about the change.

The agent responded with a long and reasonable explanation of the environmental benefits of paper over styrofoam.  The pilot acknowledged her logic, congratulated her on her environmental awareness, and then asked about the large supply of styrofoam cups which he’d noted in the supply room.

To which she replied, “Oh, I tossed those.” 

Environmental obliviousness at its clueless best.

Transit oriented development is another area in which environmental obliviousness is possible.  What should be the key goals of generating transit riders and eliminating cars is sometimes at risk of being overwhelmed by issues of municipal finance and developer comfort.  I’ll explain more in my next post.

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

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