The Built Environment is the Foundation for Sustainability

built environment

THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT, THE PHYSICAL UNDERPINNING OF OUR CIVILIZATION, IS NO LESS THAN THE FOUNDATION OF OUR SUSTAINABLE FUTURE. 

All of the buildings—the homes, the schools, the skyscrapers, the factories, the hospitals, the ports, the stadia—and all of the rails and roads form the skeleton of our society, around which everything else develops. Those buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of carbon emissions, with 28% attributed to building operations and 12% to construction and materials. Transportation is 29% of carbon emissions. Put together, it’s a substantial responsibility.

We have built a sickly body.

We have built a sickly body.

Unsustainability as far as the eye can see.

Our urban planners, architects, engineers, lawmakers, and real estate professionals have long failed the American people in this regard. Smitten with the visions (and lobbying dollars) of automakers at the beginning of the twentieth century, they have given us not quality mass transportation, not density, but the very opposite. They have built, and continue to build, places that are anti-urban and anti-rural and, I believe, sprawling, isolative, and inefficient. Many paradises have been paved into parking lots in this scheme. All of this is fundamentally unsustainable.


WHAT ARE THE AILMENTS OF THE WORLD WE HAVE BUILT?
  • Giant McMansions and over-watered lawns accessible only by cars. Big box stores and strip malls off of many-laned highways. Places that are not walkable, behind gates visible and unseen that are inaccessible for those without the means to a car, where tax revenues are low and services, too are low. 

  • Infrastructure that won’t be able to support itself: vast networks of suburban roads, and the rapidly deteriorating water and sewer lines below them, that are barely funded by the sparsely populated buildings’ tax revenue

These places, by the way, are spaces built on consumerism and not community — for with the measly tax revenues and tall gates of the “communities” comes less and less truly public space. Space where people can freely mingle with others, exchange ideas, create, debate... and protest.

Not to mention, as these spatial products expand across the landscape, they take up space meant for wildflowers and meadows and swamps and woods.

Pretty Poison.

Pretty Poison

Our sustainable future must be built on a different planning paradigm, one that emphasizes urbanism and ruralism but reduces the scale and impact of suburbia and all of its trappings and values. It’s not enough to put solar panels on the roofs of our giant houses, to swap our gas guzzling cars for electric ones. The house will still need filling; the eCommerce packages will keep coming. Cities, by default, are more sustainable. In cities, people take up less space, and they have less stuff by default. They take mass transportation so they don’t need two or three cars per household. They interact with strangers on the street, they walk down streets and boulevards...

HOW TO GET TO THIS URBAN FUTURE?

One option, espoused by think tanks and advocacy groups like Congress for The New Urbanism and Smart Growth America, is to densify the suburbs, particularly along transit lines. By bringing the benefits of density and mass transportation to the suburbs, these places can begin their transformation to more sustainable, higher quality-of-life places.

These efforts are to be applauded but we need to aim higher. 

THERE MUST BE A NATIONAL EFFORT TO PICK THROUGH OUR BUILT ENVIRONMENT: TO SEE WHERE TO RETREAT, WHERE TO RETROFIT, AND WHERE TO DOUBLE DOWN.

National investment should follow—beyond dramatically increasing the mass transit budget and cutting the road budget (except for lane demolition), our direly strained capital budgets should go to target areas. That money set aside for the mortgage tax deduction that subsidizes (largely suburban) homeownership could be put to good use…

We must acknowledge, however, that there is tremendous embedded energy and pollution in the demolition and construction process. We should balance all of our impulses to go rip everything out and replace it with more energy efficient buildings with the reality that (aside from the highly successful political NIMBYism found in suburbs across the country) often the most sustainable thing to do is... nothing at all.

So let’s save our historic buildings that can be repurposed into some exciting other use. Let’s narrow our highways and arterials. Let’s build more train tracks and run more buses on the roads we say are worth keeping. Let’s think carefully about how to craft legislation that fosters a marketplace for land—let’s disincentivize businesses from jumping district lines to seize an incentive or save on taxes— so that we might have cities without noxious exurbs threatening urban investment.


WE CAN TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO DESIGN SPACES THAT ARE MORE SUSTAINABLE NOT ONLY IN DOLLARS AND CENTS, BUT ALSO IN SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND POLITICAL TERMS.

To be specific: tilting the balance of our consumption-oriented environments back toward production (something easy to start with is gardening/farming), increased mobility and faster mobility (shorter commutes), stronger communal connections (saying hi to our neighbors and checking in on the elderly and the alone), and overall greater social cohesion (more diverse and less unequal places).

We must compose a national sustainability plan for our built environment that spans regulation, design, and culture. Cultural buy-in for a more sustainable way of life will be critical, especially once Americans, and others around the world, wake up to just how unsustainable the status quo truly is.



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