Sunday, November 18, 2012

Seeing cities as the environmental solution, not the problem

by Kaid Benfield 

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.

 Implementing sustainable practices on key urban issues

Chicago River (by: John Picken, creative commons license)
NRDC’s work for sustainable communities at the neighborhood scale and on regional planning is designed to address multiple environmental issues simultaneously.  But, at the same time, moving toward sustainability requires work on selected individual issues in a focused way, bringing significant resources to bear on a limited number of key challenges faced by American cities.  At NRDC, we approach the task by taking advantage of the opportunities and experience our staff enjoys in America’s largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where we have offices, and Philadelphia.
In particular, for four decades, NRDC has used our strengths in policy development and advocacy to advance environmental initiatives in the greater New York City region and to create models of sustainability that can be replicated in other urban areas.  We have done the same for over two decades in Los Angeles, and more recently we have begun to do the same in Chicago.  These initiatives have involved a range of major regional issues – such as protecting New York City’s drinking water supply and working to improve air quality around Southern California ports – that have helped bring important progress in governmental or business practices.
This work continues to involve a range of environmental issues.  But, as a result of a strategic planning process for our sustainable communities initiative, we have chosen three for special emphasis.  In each case, our work will seek to influence environmental quality not just in the particular places in which we are operating but, by example, also in cities all over the country.

Sustainable regional food systems

First, our communities team in New York City has begun to address large-scale legal and policy changes that can help increase the amount of local, sustainable food produced and distributed in the greater New York City region – inside the Hunts Point Food Market (by: Bryan Pace via City Spoonful)with a special focus on creating food-related jobs in and outside the City and addressing the pernicious problem of food equity.  This effort is aided by our long history of collaboration with government agencies in the City as well as our decades-long work to protect rural land in the nearby Catskills Mountains, where farming provides a critical food resource in the region.
In particular, our New York-based food work focuses on three key related efforts:
  • Modernization of Hunts Point Food Distribution Center.   Virtually every local food stakeholder in the New York region agrees that a major obstacle to increasing supply of local food is the lack of a “wholesale farmers market” where small- and medium-sized growers can sell directly to supermarkets and other food outlets.  The best New York City location at which to create such a facility is the massive Hunts Point Food Market in the South Bronx, which is slated for modernization.  This facility is the largest produce market in the world and supplies food to 22 million people within a 50-mile radius.  Unfortunately, only two percent of the produce sold at the market comes from local farmers, despite strong retail interest in buying locally grown food.  To make matters especially complicated and sensitive, the Market sits adjacent to one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the nation, where residents are exposed to serious air pollution from more than 70,000 vehicles, including diesel trucks, entering the area every day.
Hunts Point Market (via Google Earth)
Hunts Point Market (via  trucks docked at Hunts Point Produce Market (by: Bryan Pace via City Spoonful)
NRDC will work with City and neighborhood partners to help ensure a range of environmental and community benefits from the modernization of this 50-year-old facility, including the inclusion of a wholesale farmers market at Hunts Point; greater community access to fresh, local food flowing through the facility; new jobs for local South Bronx residents at the Market; and reduced transportation and air quality impacts in the community.
  • Catskills-New York City food initiative.   At the regional scale, we will work with conservation and community partners in the Catskill Mountains to help strengthen the economic base and market for local, sustainably-grown Catskills food.  While improving the sustainability of the regional food supply, we hope also to improve economic opportunities for farmers as an alternative to less sustainable development options, such as natural gas drilling or large-scale development projects, in this sensitive area.
Catskills farm (by: Neill Cleneghan, creative commons license)  Union Square Farmers Market, NYC (by: Mat McDermott, creative commons license)
  • New York City food purchasing.  The third prong of this effort seeks to leverage the enormous purchasing power of New York City and State government to boost demand for local, healthy food from the Catskills, Long Island, New Jersey, and other nearby areas.  The New York City school system alone serves daily meals at 1200 locations, and various policy options that begin to address the sustainability of local government food procurement are already being considered by the City Council.  NRDC believes it critical that emerging law and policy emphasize local, healthy food sources, especially because the models adopted in New York are likely to be influential as other regions consider the issue.
For a good overview of issues related to the sustainability of New York City’s food supply, see this 2010 report from Columbia University.

Sustainable urban water systems

Another of the most pressing environmental challenges facing cities and suburbs in the United States is the impact of stormwater runoff from developed land – highways, parking lots, rooftops and other impermeable surfaces – as a significant source of coastal, freshwater and Great Lakes pollution.  The federal EPA estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated urban and suburban stormwater runoff makes its way into our surface waters each year.  In many communities, polluted urban and suburban runoff is the major source of water quality impairment - degrading recreation, destroying fish habitat, and altering stream ecology and hydrology.  

Smart growth – developing in more compact patterns – helps, because it reduces the spread of new pavement into previously undeveloped areas.  But it is not enough, because we need waterways near our existing developed areas to become cleaner and safer.  Many cities and suburbs are now undergoing more intensive development, in part to address other environmental concerns such as transportation efficiency and land conservation.  If the development does not proceed in a manner that accounts for the potential of runoff, some waterways could become even more polluted.

  illustration of green infrastructure (courtesy of American Institute of Architects, Indianapolis SDAT)
The good news is that these problems can be addressed with green infrastructure, which prevents rainwater from running off in the first place. Green infrastructure (also known as low impact development) is a set of urban design techniques that replicate the way nature deals with rainwater – using vegetation and soils as natural sponges for runoff – rather than relying exclusively on the concrete pipes and holding tanks of the past.

Green infrastructure techniques such as green roofs, roadside plantings, rain gardens, and rainwater harvesting not only improve water quality; they also transform rainwater from a source of pollution into a valuable community resource.  Done well, low impact development helps to literally green the urban landscape, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, cut heating and cooling energy costs, create urban oases of open space, and generate green landscaping and construction jobs.  NRDC is working in Philadelphia and Chicago to make these practices the norm rather than the exception.
  • Philadelphia.  In Philadelphia, we have been helping the city develop and implement a first-of-its-kind, 20-year plan for more than $1 billion of green infrastructure investments. Through a combination of incentives to private property owners, requirements for new buildings, and public investments to retrofit city streets, parks, and other public property, Philadelphia aims to deploy the most comprehensive network of stormwater green infrastructure found in any U.S. city. 
Philadelphia neighborhood (by: Philadelphia Water Dept)  the neighborhood re-imagined with green infrastructure (by: Philadelphia Water Dept)
In particular, we have been providing assistance to the Philadelphia Water Department, as well as state and federal environmental agencies that oversee the city’s clean water programs, on how these methods can be used to meet the city’s federal Clean Water Act obligations.  Under a formal plan approved in June of this year, Philadelphia has now agreed to transform at least one-third of the impervious areas served by its sewer system into “greened acres” -- spaces that use green infrastructure to infiltrate, or otherwise collect, the first inch of runoff from any storm.  That amounts to keeping 80-90% of annual rainfall from these areas out of the city’s over-burdened sewer system. 
Still, many challenges lie ahead, especially for the city’s Water Department, which bears primary responsibility for implementing this visionary program.  The plan’s long-term success will hinge on active participation by community organizations, businesses, private property owners, and, especially, a wide range of other city agencies.  (For a great summary of what’s going on in Philadelphia, and NRDC’s involvement, see this post from my colleague Larry Levine.)
  • Chicago.  Beyond Philadelphia, NRDC’s Chicago-based Midwest Office is advocating a comprehensive redesign of Chicago’s waterway system in order to address multiple community issues related to outmoded infrastructure, including urgent threats to the Great Lakes from invasive species.  In particular, we are pursuing major investments – including green infrastructure on a large scale – in the city’s transportation, water and sewer infrastructure in order to move toward more sustainable movement of goods, water quality improvements from green infrastructure, and increased recreational opportunities for underserved neighborhoods.

Sustainable urban and regional transportation systems

NRDC’s communities team in Southern California is focused on transportation.  Southern Californians are notorious for addiction to their cars, and for decades Los Angeles’ substandard public transportation system has failed to cure that addiction.  Although the region is notorious for its clogged highways, building and widening roads is not a sustainable solution:  history and a growing body of research teach that building more highway lanes only promotes more vehicle use, resulting in still more congestion, carbon emissions and air pollution.

  traffic in LA (by: Jeff Turner, creative commons license)
But today, at last, the city of Los Angeles has a new commitment to substantial expansion of both rail and bus transit.  We believe there is renewed opportunity to make the region’s patterns of getting around more sustainable, while also revitalizing key neighborhoods around transit.

In collaboration with NRDC staff working on California’s state planning law, SB 375 (discussed in my previous post on regional planning), our staff in Los Angeles is targeting local, site-specific projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase investment in public transportation, infrastructure for walking and bicycling, and smart growth planning. We are placing a special focus on advocating for equitable transportation services, and on developing models of transit-oriented revitalization of distressed neighborhoods in the city’s underrepresented areas.  For the latter, we are working with community groups to ensure that new development brings the benefits of neighborhood renewal without gentrification.

light rail in LA (by: ExpoLightRail, creative commons license)We are also working to apply a recent court decision under the federal Clean Air Act (NRDC served as counsel in the case) that will require the region to reduce smog-forming pollution in an amount equivalent to taking a quarter of the Los Angeles region’s passenger vehicles off the road.  We are identifying measures to meet this mandate, including promotion of non-auto infrastructure, public transit investments (including bus-only lanes), bicycling infrastructure, and efficient land use development.  We are also working on criteria for transit-oriented development that will protect the health of residents moving into new communities built near highways.

At the same time that we are working to establish model practices for sustainable transportation at the local level, NRDC has been seeking to help reform federal transportation policy through a campaign built on a sophisticated program of concerted partnership, analysis, advocacy, and education.

Unfortunately, a flagging economy and general partisan gridlock has dampened the immediate prospects for passing a reformed federal transportation bill.  Looking ahead, it is likely that these circumstances will yield a future legislative and political landscape that will continue to be challenging.

It will remain essential that we and our partners work to protect our air, water and communities in any federal transportation that does move in Congress.  We will also work with partners to strengthen the base for future reform at the federal level while seizing opportunities to make progress at the state and local levels.
We know that these are not the only issues facing our communities.  NRDC is just one organization with limited resources, and these are not even the only issues NRDC is addressing:  we have staff active in pursuing sustainable solutions to urban waste, developing better city parks, and retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, for example.

But we choose, for now, to emphasize these three because we see opportunity to work with partners to establish replicable models, while taking advantage of specific expertise that we have in-house in key locations.  Combined with our work to develop models for neighborhood revitalization and sustainability, and sustainable regional planning, we hope that we and other fellow travelers can work together to make a difference for the places where Americans live, work, go to school, and play.