A call for the Green New Deal to address sprawl and where people live

Want to pass a Green New Deal to benefit the United States? One commentator suggests it must reckon with the legacy and persistence of sprawl:

The Green New Deal is ostensibly a jobs program, an environmental program, and a redistributive program. If it’s a jobs program, it must wrangle with spatial mismatch. If it’s an environmental program, it must tackle the fact that an all-electric fleet of cars is functionally, at this time, a pipe dream. And if it’s a redistributive program, it must grapple with how roads paved into suburban and exurban greenfield developments deepen, expand, and exacerbate segregation.

A Green New Deal must insist on a new, and better, land-use regime, countering decades of federal sprawl subsidy. The plan already recognizes the need to retrofit and upgrade buildings. Why not address their locations while we’re at it? Suggestions of specific policies that would enable a Green New Deal to address land use have already emerged: We could, simply, measure greenhouse gases from our transportation system or build more housing closer to jobs centers. Reallocating what we spend on building new roads to paying for public transit instead would go a long way toward limiting sprawl.

Where we live is no coincidence of preference. Federal policy has enforced inequities and disparities for both the environment and vulnerable people at a national scale. It’s never too late to address the most fundamental aspect of our carbon footprint: where we live. And building housing near jobs, transit, and other housing—rather than ultra-LEED-certified parking garages—is merely a political choice. No innovation required.

This makes sense: how much can the United States truly address environmental matters if it does not reckon for the actions of roughly the last century that encouraged decentralization?

Here is what I wonder: would it be harder to address sprawl or environmental issues? On one hand, climate change is contentious and partisan. On the other hand, going after sprawl would require taking on deeply ingrained American values. When Americans value single-family homes, driving, and all that the suburban life offers, shifting priorities and funds to denser housing, mass transit, and cities may prove difficult.

The environmental movement in the United States has roots in suburbia. Rachel Carson was inspired by her suburban settings to write Silent Spring. But, truly reforming land use as opposed to making suburbs greener is a tall task. Of course, important decisions made today could address the issue of subsidized sprawl. American suburbs are neither natural or have to last forever. It would likely take decades to see the consequences on the ground.

Fighting smog not by reducing driving but by insisting on more efficient cars

Smog and air pollution due to vehicles is a familiar sight in many large cities. Yet, Crabgrass Crucible suggests the fight against smog in Los Angeles did not target driving itself but rather automakers:

The ban on fuel oil easily found favor among antismog activists. After all, like the steps with which smog control had begun, it mostly targeted the basin’s industrial zones. Harder to swallow in Los Angeles’s “citizen consumer” politics of this era, even for antismog activists, were solutions that might curtail the mobility associated with cars. Consonant with national trends noted by automobile historian Thomas McCarthy, there was a widespread reluctance to question orthodoxies of road building and suburban development. Even the “militant” activists at the 1954 Pasadena Assembly only went so far as a call to “electrify busses.” By the 1960s, as motor vehicles were estimated to cause nearly 55 percent of smog, there were suggestions for the development of an electric car. Yet Los Angeles smog battlers of all stripes raised surprisingly few questions about freeway building. For many years, Haagen-Smit himself argued that because fast and steady-running traffic burned gasoline more efficiently, freeways were smog remedies. So powerful and prevalent were the presumed rights of Angelenos to drive anywhere, to be propelled, lit, heated, and otherwise convenienced by fossil fuels, that public mass transit or other alternatives hardly seemed worth mentioning.

Once pollution controllers turned their sights to cars, they aimed not so much at Los Angeles roads or driving habits or developers as at the distant plants where automobiles were made. Probing back up the chain of production for smog’s roots, local regulators and politicians established a new way of acting on behalf of citizen consumers. Rather than pitting the residential suburbs of the basin against their industrial counterparts, in an inspired switch, they opened season on a far-flung industrial foe: the “motor city” of Detroit. The APCD’s confrontations with Detroit car makers had begun during the Larson era, but quietly, through exchanges of letters and visits that went little publicized. In 1958, after the nation’s chief auto makers had repeatedly shrugged off Angeleno officials’ insistence on cleaner-burning engines, the Los Angeles City Council went public with its frustration. It threw down the gauntlet: within three years, all automobiles sold within the city limits had to meet tough smog-reducing exhaust standards. Because its deadline had passed, a 1960 burst of antismog activism converged on Sacramento to push through the California Motor Vehicle Control Act. The battle was hard-fought and intense, but the state of California thereby wound up setting pollution-fighting terms for its vast car market. (232-233)

This helps put us where we are today: when the Trump administration signals interest in eliminating national MPG standards for automakers, California leads the way in fighting back.

Ultimately, this is an interesting accommodation in the environmentalist movement. Cars are significant generators of air pollution. Additionally, cars do not just produce air pollution; they require an entire infrastructure that uses a lot of resources in its own right (building and maintaining roads, trucking, using more land for development). Yet, this passage suggests that because cars and the lifestyle that goes with them are so sacred, particularly in a region heavily dependent on mobility by individual cars, the best solution is to look for a car that pollutes less. This leaves many communities and regions in the United States waiting for a more efficient car rather than expending energy and resources toward reducing car use overall. And the problem may just keep going if self-driving cars actually lengthen commutes.

More Prii at which location: Whole Foods on a weekend or an arboretum on Earth Day weekend?

A recent experience at the Morton Arboretum led me to this question regarding where I was more likely to see Toyota Prii:

-The parking lot for Whole Foods on a weekend

-At the arboretum on Earth Day weekend

Since certain lifestyle and consumption choices are tied to other lifestyle patterns (for example: TV shows), connecting Prius owners to these two places may not be that surprising. One study had this to say about small car owners:

Small Car: Prius, Honda Civic, Smart Car
According to a study by researchers at UC Davis, “What type of vehicle do people drive?
The role of attitude and lifestyle in influencing vehicle type choice,” small car drivers are more pro-environmental and prefer higher density neighborhoods than drivers of others types of cars. This isn’t surprising; if you live in a big city, it’s simply easier to park with a small car and if you’re concerned about the environment, you’ll want something that’s more fuel-efficient. Small car drivers, unlike other categories of drivers, don’t necessarily see their cars as a ticket to freedom. They aren’t workaholics or status seekers who try to display wealth. They want to lessen their impact on the earth and have a reliable car—and find a parking spot.

When considering the number of Prii at the arboretum, there were also a large number of vans and SUVs, vehicles less friendly toward the environment. Can a driver claim to be an environmentalist while also driving a large vehicle? Is a Prius a special badge of honor?

Fight McMansions to slow down the sixth mass extinction

A letter to the editor in the Eugene Weekly links McMansions and broad environmental concerns:

We’re living through the sixth mass extinction. We see this firsthand in Lane County. Oak savannah is the most endangered habitat in the United States…

In this context, a group of neighbors and I are fighting a multi-million dollar “McMansion” development project in our area. “The Vineyards at Gimpl Hill” describes itself as a selection of “gracious estates” for “secure, sophisticated country living … the premier development in Lane County for discerning people.”

This project will destroy or impact 80 acres of prime wildlife habitat home to deer, elk, bears, cougars, wild turkeys, bobcats and a wide variety of other species.

Destroying large areas of habitat and impacting the area with higher traffic and additional access roads is a course of action I cannot support. These ostentatious houses will cost millions, and the developer (Roy Carver) stands to make millions more.

On one hand, 80 acres of land is a drop in the bucket of land in urban areas in the United States. On the other hand, this argument involving McMansions is a common one: McMansions represent the senseless sprawl that is gobbling up land, threatening wildlife, and contributing to our destruction of the environment.

I also suspect that because these homes are larger and more expensive (as well as more profitable, as this letter notes), they tend to get more attention in the same way that McDonald’s and Walmart receive attention for their environmental impact in their own sectors (fast food restaurants and retail stores, respectively). Sprawl over the past century or so in the United States involves a broad range of homes and other buildings, not just the big homes for the wealthy.

It also helps in this case to have a pejorative term for these large homes. They are not just “luxury homes” or places where wealthier people live; they are mass-produced, inferior quality homes that do not deserve the space they are taking up.

Finally, I wonder what the more compelling environmental appeal is to other locals: is it better to refer to (1) massive-scale change like the sixth mass extinction, (2) the loss of local nature (land and animals), or (3) the unnecessary use of land and resources for these larger homes? I suspect each of these could appeal to different people.

Bringing food waste recycling to the suburbs

The next step in recycling may be coming to a suburb near you:

So far, food scrap collection programs have been voluntary. But starting in May 2017, it will be mandatory in Highwood, a first in Illinois. Several towns in Lake County and other suburbs have or will have some option to recycle food scraps this year.

“We’re going to be trend setters, I like to think,” said Adrian Marquez, assistant to the Highwood city manager. “We know this is going to be big test.”…

U.S. residents throw away up to 40 percent of their food, which amounted to more than 35 million tons in 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported…

With an overall recycling rate of 48 percent but a goal of diverting 60 percent of waste from landfills by 2020, Lake County has emerged as a regional leader in residential food scrap collection. That diversion rate is priming Lake County’s effort, but DuPage, Will, Cook, and Kane counties also are promoting food composting as municipal hauling contracts go to bid or are renegotiated, Allen said.

This article leaves me with a number of questions:

  1. When the program is mandatory as opposed to voluntary, what does that mean? Residents have to participate as opposed to not participate?
  2. I assume this is more effective in the long run in encouraging participation and disposing of more food waste but are there numbers to back this up? As noted, some people have composted for years; is that a viable alternative to promote in suburbs or are very few people willing to go to that trouble?
  3. Is being the first to this a marker of a particular quality of life in some suburbs? In other words, do communities want to participate partly because it signals something important about what their community values?

It will be interesting to see if this does become the new normal within a few years.

No one wants your old, heavy, non flat screen TVs

Thrift stores and recyclers in the Chicago area are not thrilled to get old TVs:

In 2012, an Illinois law took effect prohibiting residents from throwing televisions in the trash. But places that used to take them are either cutting back or no longer accepting them. Others are starting to charge to take old televisions…

The Salvation Army thrift stores have stopped taking them because used TVs don’t sell, said Ron McCormick, business manager for The Salvation Army’s greater Chicago area…

In Will County, e-recycling centers might stop taking televisions and other electronic waste entirely on Feb. 11 if a deal isn’t reached between the county and its recycling contractor, said Dean Olson, resource, recovery and energy director for Will County.

So, what is a consumer to do? THe solution proposed at the end of the article:

“We’re just being flooded, especially with those giant TVs,” Jarland said. “If they’re still working, keep using them.”

It would be interesting to see the overall numbers regarding how quickly Americans have replaced their old TVs. Given how much TV Americans watch and the technology (which dropped in price pretty quickly) of the last ten years that has led to a better TV viewing experience, this may not be a surprise. But, it makes recycling or being green tougher: people are simply buying a new television or two to replace the one that still works. They could still watch TV and save money with their old units but we refuse today to watch smaller, non-HD screens. (Though watching small screens isn’t necessarily on the way out – those who keep pushing TV on the smartphone, tablet, and computer are advocating for small TV but this is mostly about convenience, not preference.) Who should be responsible for disposing of these old televisions? Perhaps consumers should have to pay a fee to dispose of their old models.

For the record, I disposed of several older TVs at Best Buy in recent years. No resale shop wanted them. No relative wanted to use them. Would paying $5 each stopped me from properly disposing of the television? I’m sure there is some price point that would make sense.

Solving flooding in China with “sponge cities”

Chinese officials are providing funds for “sponge cities” to reduce the effects of flooding:

“A sponge city is one that can hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach,” says Yu, who is helping to coordinate the national project.

Traditionally, Chinese cities handled water well, Yu notes. “But in modern China, we have destroyed those natural systems of ponds, rivers, and wetlands, and replaced them with dams, levees, and tunnels, and now we are suffering from floods.”…

Reverse-engineering a city to make it more spongey requires a mental rather than physical shift, he argues. “It’s a whole new philosophy of dealing with water. It is about how we plan and design our cities in an ecological way. Not about piecemeal, manmade engineering projects. So we need to avoid this kind of trap.”

Sponge-city design could also run up against China’s centralized planning system.

It sounds like this is a major work in progress. As has been found in American cities, such as Chicago, trying to solve flooding issues after the city is a certain size is quite difficult. Are cities really willing to move residents or commercial structures to better deal with water issues? Is it only possible to make changes after a major flood convinces people? The optimal way to do this would be before the development happens as planners and others can set aside space or promote greener options.