New Urbanists and Environmentalists:Building on common ground
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE    MAR. 1, 2002
Discussions of the connections between New Urbanism and the environment, and the relationships between new urbanists and environmentalists, are occurring with increasing frequency. At this past summer's Congress for the New Urbanism, on various listservs, in planning commission meetings, and in the press, the environmental impacts of New Urbanism and environmental challenges to new urbanist developments have been the subject of vigorous debate. Many of these exchanges have become heated. Yet environmentalists and new urbanists have a tremendous amount of common goals and interests. The objectives of both groups can be accomplished far more effectively by working together than by pursuing separate agendas or, even worse, by attacking each other. The broadening environmental movement Environmentalists increasingly have focused on the human as well as the natural environment, and most environmentalists now recognize, if to varying degrees, that growth is inevitable for the foreseeable future. The population of our country is projected to increase some 50 percent in the next half-century. These new residents will need homes, schools, shops, and workplaces. Although certain areas must be protected, under these circumstances it is not responsible to “just say no” to all development, because saying no in one place inevitably has the effect of pushing development somewhere else. Rather than just blithely opposing every option, environmentalists must take responsibility for helping to craft practical alternatives that work for both consumers and the environment. When environmentalists see proposed development that does represent a substantial improvement over sprawl — development that is likely to save resources and the landscape while reducing pollution compared to prevalent development trends — it is important that they say so. And, in assessing the merits of development proposals, it is also important that the environmental community recognize that not every opponent to development who makes an environmental argument is worthy of support. Finding a tree or a stream nearby is not sufficient grounds to oppose a project if a bigger-picture analysis reveals the proposal to be a good one. Contrary to recent charges by some new urbanists, environmental organizations are beginning to stand up for good development. The Natural Resource Defense Council's new book, Solving Sprawl, honors 26 inspiring examples of smart development in cities and suburbs, along with nine examples of rural and natural resource conservation, that together constitute a smart-growth paradigm for a more sustainable future. A recent Sierra Club report similarly praised a number of new urbanist projects for promoting more sensible development patterns. Environmental groups have appeared before planning commissions and local governing bodies to support particular projects as well, and they are working at the federal, state and local level to change public policies (such as zoning, building code, and transportation provisions) in order to promote more traditional development patterns. New urbanists have been correct in their charge that environmentalists do not do this often enough. The greening of New Urbanism Like environmentalists, new urbanists have been vocal critics of sprawl, and one of the primary goals of New Urbanism is to reduce the environmental impact of development. As environmental advocates who work full-time on growth issues and favor smart growth development, we salute the innovative architects and developers who, in many cases, have led the way in fashioning environmentally preferable alternatives to conventional suburban development. Many of these influential pioneers have been new urbanists, and the environment has benefited from their efforts. New urban projects, however, have not always lived up to their potential to reduce the environmental impacts of development. Many have been greenfield developments isolated from existing communities and devoid of connections to public transportation. Few have incorporated measures to conserve resources and reduce the waste generated by building construction and operation. Just as finding an environmental argument to use against a project does not make someone an environmentalist, neither does calling a proposal “New Urbanism” make it worthy of support by environmentalists. Architects and developers must recognize that paving over a wetland or prime farmland far from existing built areas is not likely to earn praise from environmentalists, regardless of the merits of the internal site design. Neither is leaving part of a site undeveloped, if overall average density and automobile dependence are no different from conventional sprawl. CNU's Environment Task Force has recognized a number of these shortcomings and begun to explore strategies to promote improved environmental practices and to enhance and publicize the performance of new urban projects. In addition, as New Urban News has documented, new urban projects and discussions increasingly have emphasized infill and redevelopment, and a small but growing number of projects have incorporated at least some green building design techniques. Despite this progress, efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of new urbanist projects must be increased significantly. Moving forward New urbanists and environmentalists can take several additional significant steps to make progress toward achieving their common goals. First, we need to be careful with the labels we use and the motives ascribed to each other. For example, it is as unproductive and inaccurate to make sweeping generalizations about environmentalists based on the actions of individuals who have appropriated the label to justify more selfish concerns as it is to cite conventional sprawl developments with a few front porches slapped on as evidence of what new urbanists are trying to accomplish. Second, as much as possible, we must look at our disciplines regionally. Important issues like growth, transportation, air quality, and watershed protection cannot be addressed adequately on a case-by-case basis. The reputations of both developers and environmentalists have suffered because of our past neglect of the bigger picture. Third, we must continue research to document the environmental costs and benefits of various development patterns, so that both sides know what we are talking about. When research produces results, we all need to do a better job at communicating these results to our constituencies. Organizations like CNU and the Smart Growth Network can play valuable roles in this effort. Finally, we need to identify undertakings where environmentalists, developers and architects can work together to advance our substantial common interests, such as improving zoning and building codes to facilitate smarter development, reforming subsidies for sprawl, and certifying good projects. The good news is that there has been a dramatic increase in interest, enthusiasm, and progress toward smarter growth and New Urbanism. It's an exciting and challenging time to be working to create healthier, richer, less destructive development patterns. The bad news is that there also has never been more sprawl. While lively debate and provocative challenges have their places, it is essential that environmentalists and new urbanists not waste too much of our time and goodwill slinging rhetoric at each other. Instead, we should focus on working in concert wherever possible to address the tremendous challenges we face. Kaid Benfield is director of the Smart Growth Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council; Trip Pollard is director of the Southern Environmental Law Center's Land and Community Project.