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The 5 Most Important Sustainability Stories of 2013

The 5 Most Important Sustainability Stories of 2013
Twigboy/Wikimedia Commons

In my final article of 2012, I looked back at the year in review, to honor important recent work worth celebrating. For my first one of 2013, let’s look ahead. Here are some stories I’ll be paying attention to in the coming year:

Will communities finally get serious about climate resilience? Katrina wasn’t enough. The Mid-Atlantic flood of 2006 that killed 16 wasn’t enough. Neither was the 1000-year flood that killed 37 people in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky in 2010. Beach erosion at the rate of one and a half feet per year and, in 2012, the most severe drought in half a century have had little to no effect.  Certainly the typhoons and tsunamis that have occurred outside our country have had little to no effect in moving policy in the U.S.

It’s a sad reflection of our society that it may have taken Superstorm Sandy to be the event that wakes America up, finally, to the reality of climate change. (If the same impacts had occurred in, say, Memphis rather than New York City and northern New Jersey, would the same amount of attention be paid?) I’m not so crazy as to think that even Sandy is going to drive a serious national approach to emissions controls along the lines of what other civilized countries are doing; but I do sense enough momentum building that some things may be doable on the local level, particularly in coastal areas, as Lee Epstein and I suggested here and here. (There are definitely some creative models being presented, such as those fashioned by Susannah Drake and her dlandstudio (see image) for the Rising Currents Exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

As the economy recovers, will the trend against further suburban sprawl be sustained? Most analyses of the future housing market project strong and rising demand for close-in, walkable urban neighborhoods along with little to no growth in the market for larger-lot suburbia. Just last month I reported on data from Smart Growth America showing that a majority of central cities in the nation’s medium-sized and large metro areas are not only growing again but growing at a faster rate than their suburbs. But only days after that study was released, there was sobering news from the federal Environmental Protection Agency: a new study shows that inner-city development did indeed increase from 2005 to 2009 compared to the preceding time period; but the same research shows that 79 percent of all new development in those years took place on expanding suburban greenfields.

Will the American Congress continue to be a ship of cantankerous fools? All you had to do was follow even a little bit of news about the comical-if-it-weren’t-real "fiscal cliff" saga to see how obstreperous and dysfunctional the American federal legislative system has become. Biased gerrymandering of Congressional districts has produced members with no incentive to compromise; the practice of refusing to bring bills to the House floor unless an overwhelming number of majority members support them precludes the formation of coalitions along anything other than political party lines; the Senate minority party’s insistence on using filibusters to block passage of bills unless they are supported by a super majority of 60 percent of members makes a mockery of majority rule. This is democracy?

With every new day, I feel better and better about my decision a decade or so ago to move the emphasis of my personal work away from the federal policy arena and toward the private sector. But federal policy matters nonetheless. While there is still some fabulous work being done within the federal government, these days it is most likely being done despite the federal legislature rather than because of it. The upshot is that any new legislation – or new funding – for sustainability is highly unlikely. The best that those of us who care about the environment may be able to hope for from Congress is to mount enough opposition to stop anti-environmental bills.  Will my cynicism about the federal legislative process prove to be justified? I would talk to my own Congressperson or Senators about this but, wait - because I live in the nation’s capital, I don’t have one.

Can we make progress in addressing issues of gentrification? As I suggested in a story last year, gentrification – the movement of more affluent residents into previously poor neighborhoods – doesn’t have to be all bad. Some neighborhoods benefit from it, as do municipal tax rolls. But the issue gets much more dicey if a community loses all its affordable housing and displaces longtime residents who had achieved a degree of stability. At the risk of being glib, the challenge is to have some gentrification without having too much. I don’t pretend to have all the answers but getting the right balance, with inclusive planning and implementation, is critical. I’m hoping we’ll get better at this.

Will the smart growth and green agendas move closer together? I’ve made no secret of my complaint that, as it has evolved, smart growth and urbanist advocacy has become almost totally about promotion of dense redevelopment and infill, and public transit, with insufficient regard for other important elements of community sustainability. Search the budgets or writings of smart growth and urbanist organizations for significant resources devoted to, say, water quality or green buildings.

You won’t find much, if anything; indeed, you’ll find very little even about parks, land conservation, historic preservation, or affordable housing. The agenda has actually shrunk since the 1990s. I still have a sliver of hope that we will come to care as much about the environmental quality of development in this decade as we did about its density and location in the last the two, but I'm having trouble being optimistic.

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Tassaforanga Village, Oakland. Image courtesy of David Baker and Partners

Moreover, the reverse is also true: search the budgets and writings of mainstream environmental organizations (other than NRDC) to find resources devoted to rebuilding cities and suburbs with connected, walkable neighborhoods. Despite mountains of data proving that strong, compact cities reduce land consumption and pollution, many environmental advocates remain stuck in a 20th-century green agenda that views cities as sources of problems rather than solutions. I think this is tragic: urbanism is a powerful tool for solving environmental problems, and green advocates who fail to use it are serving their cause poorly.  

But, at the same time, smart growth advocates and urbanists should not confuse the tools of urbanism and transit with the real goal of creating beautiful, functional, sustainable people habitat. Unless urbanism is practiced with sensitivity and a green overlay, cities will prove not much better than sprawl. Can we please see the whole picture?

Top image courtesy of TwigBoy/Wikimedia Commons.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

Kaid Benfield is special counsel for urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Law, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and author of several books on cities, smart growth and sprawl. All posts »

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