Adding a “highway cap” to make highway expansion more palatable

Several recent urban highway expansion projects include a new twist: putting some green space around and over the new highway.

Wheeler didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that adding lanes never helps congestion, thanks to the principle of induced demand. Instead, what he emphasized about the project is its progressive window-dressing: its cap. A few blocks of the highway would be lowered below grade and planted with a bit of Chia fuzz, with a new bike-ped crossing on one of the sides. This is the grid “restoration” of which the mayor speaks—essentially, a minor diminishment of a roaring, stinking concrete channel that will roar and stink all the more with this added capacity.

Highway caps are an ever-more common feature of 21st century urban highway projects, and this project sounds a lot like some others we’ve heard of recently—namely, the Colorado DOT project that promises to triple I-70’s footprint through two of Denver’s last working-class neighborhoods and cover a small section with a park. The project has been mired in controversy for years, with lawsuits and pleas to the governor to halt it on environmental and social justice grounds.

Ironically, the 800 square-foot “cap park” proposed for the Denver boondoggle stemmed from early community advocates who pushed back against CDOT’s original plans to simply widen the existing elevated structure. The introduction of the cap a few years ago was heralded as a victory by some residents of the neighborhoods, which have been passed over for local investments for years. But the I-70 project, with its attractive grassy mask, has since been corralled into a suite of plans to redevelop huge swaths of the affected neighborhoods.

Now, the fear of displacement, underscored by the property-value increases that highway cap parks can bring, has driven many longtime Denverites to bitterly oppose the construction. “I just hope my kids will get to play there,” said one local mom who regretted ever advocating for the project, which a Denver public policy expert compared to “old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance.”

Parks can only do so much to cover up that highways take up a lot of space, bring noise and traffic, and can either help contribute to disinvestment or gentrification.

This sounds like greenwashing. It can take many forms in trying to beautify or distract from uglier elements of the built environment. Does a few bushes in planters in the parking lot really transform the setting and allow a visitor to escape into nature? This is the subject of part of James Kunstler’s TED talk “The Tragedy of the Suburbs” – with roughly 8:00 minutes remaining – where he dissects such parking lot plantings. Even expanding the size of the nature area, such as park in these examples, may not be enough if the surrounding land use is even more sizable.

Six elements in a green home

In order to avoid a greenwashed home, here are some things to look for to identify a truly green home:

?Site planning for the house that is sensitive to the immediate environment, minimizes tree destruction and is strong on managing water runoff.

?Energy efficiency throughout, including high-performance HVAC, lighting, insulation and appliances.

?Exceptional interior air quality through the use of advanced air filtration and exchange systems.

?Extensive use of nontoxic building materials.

?Water conservation efficiencies, such as water-saving toilets and shower fixtures and possibly some reuse of waste water.

?Ease of long-term operation and management.

I would guess most buyers would first think of #2 on the list: efficient lightbulbs, a newer furnace, AC unit, and appliances, good insulation and no obvious drafts or leaks. But, some of these other things are much harder to find, particularly it is an older home. Nontoxic building materials? How many homes – even new ones – have this? And air quality – isn’t this something that is used in the rare passive home? And #6 is interesting: the green features should be relatively to utilize and maintain.

This leads me to several questions:

  1. How many green homes would meet all six of these?
  2. What is the added cost of meeting all 6?
  3. Presumably, some of these six are more important than others. Which ones make for a greener home if you could only have/afford a few?

Expect to see more listings in coming years that emphasize green features.

Greenwashing Cadillacs and McMansions

A review of the 2012 Cadillac Escalade compares the greenwashing of the Escalade and McMansions:

And of course, the Escalade is not a paragon of fuel efficiency, but you knew that. Still, 13 mpg city and 20 mpg highway is pretty grim. Much better mileage is available, however, in the form of the Escalade Hybrid. It’s easy to view that car as a cynical bit of greenwashing (sort of like putting bamboo floors in your McMansion), but the Hybrid’s EPA ratings of 20/23 mpg put it on a par with much smaller vehicles — the city rating particularly.

Two thoughts:

1. I’ve asked repeatedly whether McMansions could be considered green. SUVs have similar issues: how many MPG would they need to no longer be considered with derision by critics?

2. The comparison between McMansions and SUVs is not unusual. Here is a finding from my recently published paper on the meaning of the term McMansion: out of the 637 articles that mentioned McMansions in the New York Times between 1/1/00 and 12/31/09, at least 33 compared McMansions and SUVs. Both are often cited as exemplars of excessive consumption (using resources, debt, sprawl, etc.) and many critics would love to leave the two objects to a foregone past.

Can’t we build greener McMansions?

This is a story that comes up from time to time: people who live in larger homes, sometimes called “McMansions,” should pay some sort of penalty as they consume more. Here is this very suggestion from an Australian academic:

People who want to build energy-guzzling McMansion-style homes should pay more taxes, an academic says.

And taxes should also be used to make owning multiple plasma TVs prohibitive, says Melbourne University construction expert Dr Robert Crawford.

Rapidly increasing suburban house sizes, more reliance on cars and a rise in demand for consumer goods had wiped out many of the benefits of building energy-efficient homes, he said yesterday…

“Indirectly through the price of materials and things like that, if you make it more expensive in some way to build larger houses then that might encourage people not to do it,” he told the Herald Sun.

Such a move would be similar to other incentives that governments offer regarding certain activities.

But I have wondered in recent years why there aren’t more builders who are trying to make these large homes greener. They could benefit from this as one of the big knocks on McMansions is that they are symbols of excessive consumption. So why not earn some points back by making them more environmentally-friendly? I assume there are things that could be done that might cost some money but could also fight back against this image. In the long run, it may just be “greenwashing” but building homes that most people consider “McMansions” because they contribute to environmental problems is a losing cause. Additionally, this might expand their markets to people who are looking for greener homes. What reasonable American homebuyer with money today wouldn’t want a larger AND greener home? And for critics of McMansions, what if they were quite green – is the larger issue the presumed unnecessarily large size or the home or suburban sprawl or something else?

Of course, we could also have a larger national conversation about greener standards for buildings. But we would know how this conversation might play out…

Defining “green” products

When a consumer goes shopping, there are many products that claim to be “green.” Unfortunately, what exactly this means is unclear and may be just plain wrong. This process, which has come to be known as “greenwashing,” might be limited once the Federal Trade Commission develops new guidelines:

The guides originally were developed in 1992 and last updated in 1998. For the past two years the FTC has worked to revise them to account for consumers’ increased interest in environmentally conscious products and product-makers’ increasingly noisy marketing claims, a practice that’s come to be known as “greenwashing.”…

Some companies have complained in the past that the government did not strictly enforce the existing Green Guides, leading to more consumer confusion. So the more specific rules are welcome.

If these new guidelines are enacted soon, consumers may discover fewer “green” products on the shelves.

While it may not be the most ethical activity, is it a surprise that numerous companies have claimed to have “green” products when these sorts of items draw extra attention from some consumers?