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How Building Beautiful Spaces Can Foster Environmentalism

How Building Beautiful Spaces Can Foster Environmentalism
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Can placemaking - the building or strengthening of physical community fabric to create great human habitat - be a new environmentalism? The question is posed by a provocative short essay, which I first discovered last summer. Written by Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces, the article has recently resurfaced, perhaps in honor of yesterday’s celebration of Earth Day. The essay influenced my own writing last year, and I’m returning to it today because the issues Ethan has raised continue to be important.

My answer, by the way, is a qualified yes: creating the right kinds of places for people, particularly at the neighborhood scale, has indeed become a new approach to environmentalism and one to which I am deeply committed. But I qualify my answer because placemaking is by no means the only important aspect of today’s environmentalism (not that Ethan suggested that). In addition, I think the physical building of community can become even stronger as an environmental tool by becoming somewhat more explicitly environmental in its content. I’ll get into all that in a minute.

First, though, I want to explore the phrase “new environmentalism” a bit.  A decade ago, the well-known urbanist Andres Duany was kind enough to write a cover blurb for NRDC’s then-new book about smart growth, Solving Sprawl. Andres wrote, "finally, here is a book on the environment that includes the human habitat as part of nature. This may be the first text of a 'New Environmentalism.'" I was quite honored by the flattery that our book was being considered important and new, and by the parallel language to new urbanism, bestowed by one of that movement’s pillars. Might our way of thinking – advocacy for smart, green people habitat – be earning its way to an impact on the environmental movement as significant as that brought by the new urbanists to architecture and planning?

I’ll let others judge the extent to which that has come to pass, and quite immediately proclaim that, to the extent it may have, the philosophy expressed in Solving Sprawl was neither all ours nor all new. (New urbanism wasn’t really new, either.) All that said, there was indeed something new about the environmentalism that developed in the 1990s and continues so far in this century, in that now what we are for is every bit as important as what we wish (and need) to stop. I detailed my personal version of that transition (“NIMBY to YIMBY”) in an Earth Day essay written two years ago. And people habitat – neighborhoods, cities, metropolitan regions – is every bit as important to the environment as natural habitat and wilderness. Indeed, making cities great should be seen as a key strategy for protecting wilderness

Today’s environmentalism incorporates the truth that, yes, we do need to build things. We need homes, workplaces, shops, schools, streets, factories, warehouses, ports, mobility, sources of energy. We need sustenance and we need commerce. To me, the excitement in environmentalism today is in making all that as good and as sustainable as possible.  While there are still far too many things we absolutely must say no to, I’ve lost patience with the old environmental approach of saying no without a clear sense of the preferable alternative. It’s OK to be idealistic, if you must (I’m more of a pragmatist, myself), but please do have a vision if you want my personal support. 

So that brings me back to Ethan’s essay about placemaking, which is eloquent on the subject: “having less impact is noble, but aspiring to have a big impact, to create the world we want starting in the place where we live, work and play, is a transformative agenda." And so it is, because placemaking is an affirmative act, fundamentally about creating something: quite literally, making a place. At the Project for Public Spaces, where Ethan is vice president, the focus is on our public realm – our streets, our plazas and squares, our waterfronts, our parks, our markets and so on. 

These are incredibly important aspects of our people environment and, by placing them in cities and walkable neighborhoods, they become incredibly important to our natural environment as well. To the extent we use great public spaces to anchor compact people habitat, we reduce the spread of environmental harm. I would argue that the shaping of the private realm is also an important aspect of placemaking, and that we must get that part of our community fabric right, too.

I wouldn’t stop with the physical shaping of places, though. If the affirmative making of great places may define an important part of 21st-century environmentalism, making those places greener could strengthen the role of public spaces and urbanism in the environmental movement. In other words, let's not just make a public square that works for people and call it good enough: let's make it of locally sourced, sustainably harvested materials; in environments where it rains a lot, let's incorporate green infrastructure to filter stormwater. If there’s a fountain – and I love fountains – let's make sure it recycles its water; if there is lighting, let's make it energy-efficient. Let's take advantage of opportunities to bring more nature into neighborhoods, with plantings of native species.  And so on.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that these things are not being pursued. In fact, I am confident that in many cases it is the Project for Public Spaces that is leading the way for greener urbanism. What I am suggesting is that, if our approach to environmentalism is and should be "new," so should our approach to urbanism. As in so many matters relating to the environment, the greatest power lies in synergy: the more we learn from each other, the better both our people habitat and our natural habitat will be.

Photo credit: jah_maya/Flickr

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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