Why Urbanism Matters- South Main & Sustainability Part 2

by on February 25, 2011 » Add more comments.

This is the second part in a series about what makes South Main sustainable. Check out the Introduction and Part 1 about our green building certification, Energy Star 3.0.

I struggled a bit with this section because we have written about this subject many times before. Check out these links for other writings on the subject: Urbanism and Sustainability for more on the statistics and our founding principles of Sustainability and New Urbanism.

Good urbanism has a hard time competing with solar panels and wind turbines as a symbol of sustainability. So it often takes one of those light bulb moments to realize the truth about Urbanism: it’s probably the most comprehensive way we can address climate change in this country.

I will never forget my light-bulb moment; it was a major turning point in my life. We were in Longmont, Colorado’s Prospect New Town, and the woman behind the desk of the miniature sales office had just looked Jed and I up and down with our typical kayaker clothes and curtly told us that the developer, Kiki Wallace, would not have time for us. We asked for his number anyways, and once we told him what we were up to, he told us not to go anywhere- he’d be right there.

Suburban Nation, The Rise of Sprawl and the Fall of the American DreamAs we sat waiting, I spotted on the coffee table Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. That was familiar. I had checked it out not 24 hours earlier on our big research day at the Boulder Library. It was that research that was going to tell me whether I was willing to do what is today South Main. As cool as the plan Jed had for the river park, I wasn’t going to be a part of it unless we could come up with a plan that was a truly sustainable form of development.

If you’ve never looked at the book, even just the introduction is beyond a worthy read. I could see things that for me were not intuitive, but once I read them, I was amazed I never knew.

Our Most-Loved Places Are Illegal to Build

The most vivid of these realizations was that although historic downtowns and urban places are usually what people love the most about a place (check out the post cards), they are, for the most part, completely illegal to build. We had to veer from the code in more places than you can count to build South Main, despite the fact that the urban design, including street widths, lot sizes, setbacks, etc. mimic historic downtown Buena Vista. So what’s the big deal?

Our country is being paved over by auto-centric sprawl which is only digging us a deeper hole in confronting climate change. But instead of a groundswell of support for authentic urban places, we just hear about how the electric car will save the day and we can continue motoring along.

Slaves to the Car

Engineers continue to implement “safe” streets by widening and straightening them, cutting down all the trees cause they are “hazards”, and then posting 25-mile-per-hour speed limit sign on their new 4 lane highway. We have quite literally become slaves to the automobile, or as Jeff Speck refers to it, our “one-ton, poison-belching prosthetic device.”

And yet…..as wonderful as the displays on climate change were at the Birch Aquarium in San Diego on my recent trip there, nobody mentions how much we drive as a culture. Nowhere does it mention sprawl and auto-centric development as a cause of global warming. Changing light bulbs, unplugging appliances and electronics, solar ferries, electric cars, solar panels, futuristic “green architecture”—this was there solution. But it’s as if the way we live and the amount we drive is a given, a no-go subject that cannot be questioned. And yet transportation accounts for a third of U.S. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions in the U.S., the world’s leading emitter of GHG.

Efficient Land Use

Then there are the issues of land consumption and infrastructure efficiency. Let me put it this way– if South Main designed in accordance with zoning laws in other parts of the town and county, the 320 or so dwelling units we have would cover between 160 and 640 acres, instead of the ~40 acres South Main uses. Now think about all the paved roads that would be covering those acres, the underground water, sewer, gas, electric, cable and phone lines. What about the public resources used to plow those roads, the maintenance costs. I remember a Trustee meeting where it came up that our roads were “high maintenance” and harder to plow with their narrow widths and real curbs. But when I pointed out that South Main homeowners pay as much property tax as any other home and many of them only have 25 feet of plowing, the energy in the room shifted.

When I moved here to look into starting South Main, I gave up a dream of living off the land in Alaska. I always wanted to live far away, to buck the system. Now I know that it’s possible to buck the system right here, in what is now my home. I feel it is important to show this is possible- building places which are a complex living system of homes of all sizes, rentals, businesses, parks and very narrow streets where cars naturally move slowly, regardless of the laws, code issues and people who said it wasn’t possible. As anyone who lives in great urbanism—new and old— knows, our own Historic Downtown Buena Vista included, we do drive, but much, much less. And we love our neighbors and the community of people who work so hard every day to make this dream a reality.

I’ll never forget the first thing I did at Prospect- before we started our mentorship with Kiki. Without thinking, Jed and I turned to each other as we drove around the neighborhood and said “why are we driving? Let’s walk.” That simple anecdote has stuck with me since that moment- the moment which would have us take the first step on this journey we call South Main.

Related posts:

  1. Urbanism and Sustainability
  2. How is South Main Sustainable? Intro to a Series
  3. Great Article on South Main in the Summit County Voice

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Jeff Hoffman
February 26, 2011
6:35 pm

Fabulous … and inspirational …

Katie Urban
February 27, 2011
9:10 pm

Thanks Jeff!!

chad
March 2, 2011
6:02 pm

or we could stop producing so many humans and realize we’ve overstepped our bounds as a species…overpopulation is the problem, not where we live…

Eliza
March 8, 2011
12:33 pm

@chad

When we water our lawns with water of higher quality than much of the world drinks, clearly overpopulation is not the problem. When large numbers of people have so much food they throw half of it away while others are starving, clearly overpopulation is not the problem. When we feed our cars more calories than we feed our citizens, overpopulation is clearly not the problem. When we wipe out species habitat for parking asphalt and low density residential, clearly overpopulation is not the problem. Need I go on? Most of the problems that could be attributed to overpopulation are the result of waste and conflict.

Jennifer Krouse
March 8, 2011
12:47 pm

It’s not our numbers – it’s our impact. Consider ants: They far outnumber humans, and their collective biomass exceeds ours, but they pose no threat to the planet, because their impact is benign. Even beneficial. By readopting low-impact settlement patterns and by systematically evolving our production and consumption to work with nature instead of exploiting it, we, too, can become benign. Congratulations to South Main for innovating in that direction.

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