Final Paper for Green Communities

The following is the final paper I wrote for my Green Communities class:

I would like to make sustainable transportation the focus of my career.  Growing up I was blessed to have lived in Germany twice.  The first trip was as an exchange student the summer between my junior and senior years of high school.  A couple years later, I returned to Germany as a missionary and lived there almost two years.  I was deeply impressed by the options offered by their transportation system.  They hadn’t put “all their eggs in one basket” as the US had in the second half of the 20th century, when we placed our priority on a auto-centric transportation system.  I was impressed by the presence of a Fußgängerzone (pedestrian zone) at the heart of every city, town, and village.  Additionally, these pedestrian zones were typically anchored by a train station (or at least a bus hub) along with civic and religious buildings.  I now realize the symbology of placing walking as the priority at the heart of a community.

My experiences in Germany left me with an affection for public transit, especially trains, and also walking and biking.  I saw the benefits of having transportation options and of living in higher-density, walkable communities.  I wondered why we couldn’t enjoy the same way of life in the US.  Considering how energy intensive our auto-centric system is, I now realize how critical it is that we diversify our transportation options.

Transportation improvements alone won’t create sustainable transportation.  I have come to learn that land use is inseparable from transportation.  Attempting to make one sustainable without the other is a futile pursuit.

Recently I have come to learn of the detrimental impacts that the sprawl landscape has on the human species.  It puzzles me, because it’s not difficult to grasp the concept that the proper habitat will cause a species to flourish.  Why then do we build habitats for cars rather than people?  Within our auto-centric sprawl landscape, it is neigh impossible to get anywhere without a car.  Jeff Speck, one of the co-authors of Suburban Nation, summarized the role of the car by saying that the automobile is a prosthetic for overcoming the handicap of sprawl.  Because of the auto-sprawl combination obesity is the number one health epidemic in the US.  Teenage suicide rates are higher within the sprawl landscape, most likely due to their inability to access meaningful entertainment without a chauffeur and the powerlessness of always having to depend on that chauffeur.  Conventional Euclidean zoning has segregated people by income such that the rich have no comprehension of the plight of the poor, while the poor have no role models with which to aspire to.  Separation of households into detached McMansions has reduced the need to associate with one’s neighbors or even know one’s neighbors at all. This disconnect has turned communities into mere collections of houses and feeds the increasing fracturing of American politics, where people of differing views are unable to find consensus, let alone have polite discussions about their diverse backgrounds.

Unfortunately, we have yet to break the pattern of sprawl and still have a habit of fleeing problems rather than solving them.  Greenfield development still has priority over urban infill.  Auto-oriented infrastructure still trumps walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.  City code still tends to favor sprawl rather than New Urbanism.  As Charles Marohn, author of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, puts it, we are obsessed with the “new and shiny,” while turning our backs on the “old and blighted,” even though the “old and blighted” often outperforms the “new and shiny” in terms of both longevity and tax revenue.  Many policy changes need to take place in order to shift our development patterns.

Unfortunately, due to the typical policies in force, there is little supply to meet the huge latent demand for living a more sustainable lifestyle.  Additionally, many people may not even realize that they are craving walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, public transit, and mixed use living.  I have a case study from my own experience that highlights this.  Two summers ago, I went camping on Antelope Island with my dad and aunt and uncle.  We spent part of a week hiking, floating in the Great Salt Lake, and enjoying nature.  I also had a coupon for a UTA group pass and movie vouchers for the Megaplex Theatre at the Gateway that needed to be used, so I proposed that we take a day and ride FrontRunner into Salt Lake City.  It was my aunt and uncle’s first time riding FrontRunner.  In addition to seeing the movie, we also spent time enjoying downtown.  Following the camping trip, my aunt and uncle said that the highlight of their camping trip to Antelope Island was riding the train and enjoying downtown Salt Lake City.  It’s ironic that the high point of a retreat back to nature was experiencing mass transit and a walkable downtown.

When I examine the resources available for promoting lifestyles that are more sustainable, I see one large void in transportation, which I would like to remedy.  Along the Wasatch Front in recent years, we have made huge strides in reestablishing a rail system and then expanding it.  We now have around 90 miles of commuter rail and 45 miles of light rail.  But we lack an intercity rail system (or even a plan for one), which would connect other population centers within Utah and to neighboring states.  Intercity rail serves a wider purpose than just being more sustainable than driving or flying.  When stations are sited using best practices, intercity rail links the downtowns of metropolitan regions in a way that could never be accomplished by driving or flying.  Even more important is the connection to smaller cities and towns that lie on the routes between metropolitan.  These locations are usually unserved or underserved by airlines, and air service would be inefficient and unsustainable.

My experiences in Germany showed me the important role that the Hauptbahnhof (central rail station) plays in the structure of a city.  It serves as one of the city’s primary foci, around which to center itself.  Unfortunately, many cities in the US lack the vision of what a train station should be, and Utah is no exception.  I hope that someday Salt Lake Central Station will provide the amenities typically found in a German Hauptbahnhof.  I hope to someday see a robust rail network connecting the metropolitan regions of the Intermountain West, including Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Reno, and Boise, and also connecting the smaller cities and towns that line the routes.  The system should also include connections to recreation, especially our national parks.  At one point in time, the vast majority of travelers to Yellowstone arrived there by train.  I don’t see why we couldn’t have that again.

Changing our habits and our point of view would best be accomplished bottom-up rather than top-down and through local initiatives rather than national mandates.  People don’t take well to having policies forced upon them.  For one example, just think of the Native Americans forced into adhering to Christianity.  Change is much more palatable, if people can be individually educated and personally convinced of its necessity.

That being said, the first urban problem that I would like to help address is what could best be termed the consumer disconnect.  This disconnect is eloquently stated by Gloria Flora in chapter 14 of the Post Carbon Reader by explaining the concepts of Here, Over There, and Away.  We, the disconnected, live Here.  When we obtain something, it comes from Over There.  When we are done consuming it, it goes Away.  Sometimes the separation among the three is actually geographic, sometimes it is socioeconomic, and sometimes it is merely a difference of specializations.  While it is impossible to possess perfect empathy for all the world’s circumstances, we should at least try to have a better understanding of the reality that Here, Over There, and Away are really planet Earth, at one end of the scale, and our communities and ourselves, on the other end of the scale.  We should be asking ourselves where the products we consume come from, whether they originated from renewable resources, whether those involved in their production were fairly compensated, what was the ecological impact of their production, and how much energy was consumed their production and whether that energy came from renewable resources?  After we’ve consumed a product, we should ask ourselves what will become of it, what will the ecological impact be of its demise, can it be recycled, can it be composted, can it be reused, how much additional energy will it take, and was it worth it in the first place?  Environmental catastrophes often bring these issues to the forefront.  For example, the reality of our oil addiction is realized when we see the consequences of oil spills and struggle to breathe the pollution from our exhausts.  But, should we wait for a catastrophe to raise our awareness?

The second urban problem that needs to be addressed is the attitude that our resources are limitless.  Ecological subsidies aren’t a new idea for the human species.  For millennia we’ve been importing resources from distant locations.  Unfortunately, this behavior has gotten out of control in the past couple centuries.  In extreme situations, we’ve decimated one ecosystem in order to support an inappropriate intensity of human activity at another.  A good example is the raping of Owens Valley in order to provide water for Los Angeles.  The sad reality is that proper conservation would have greatly reduced the demand for water.  Unfortunately, we’ve become stuck in the habit of using culinary water to accomplish things like flushing our toilets, when reusing graywater or collecting rainwater would accomplish the same purpose.  The meme of the little African boy asking, “So you’re telling me, you have so much clean water that you shit it it?” has deeply influenced my way of thinking about how excessively we waste our resources and how far we much reach in order to gather them.  Our excessive use of resources is further exacerbated by creating a system, in which they seem cheaper and limitless.  Such a system provides no impetus for conservation.  Ironically, the aspect of nuclear energy that concerns me more than radiation leaking into the environment is the continued encouragement of our wasteful addiction to cheap energy perpetuated by a source that does not include its externalities in its price.  In order to attain sustainability, we need to learn conservation and rethink our ecological subsidies.  It’s unavoidable that we will need to import certain rare resources, such as gold.  However, gold plays a tiny role in the human ecosystem, when compared with energy, food, and especially water.  Extensive ecological subsidies for those three resources should only be justified in extraordinary circumstances.

Number three on my list of urban problems is the lack of respect that we often show for nature, for others, and for ourselves.  Sadly, rather than loving people and using things, we are often a society that loves things and uses people.  Nowadays employers typically view employees as liabilities rather than assets.  This is disturbing to me.  When did we choose to become so inhumane to ourselves?  I feel that this disrespect for nature and for others comes from a lack of respect for ourselves, which is rooted in not understanding one’s own role in the greater scheme of things.  Having been raised in a community and a family with deep religious roots, it is impossible for me to separate my ethical outlook from the religious teachings that shaped it.  I feel that many of the problems that plague the human race result from the lack of being anchored by virtues that are (for lack of a better adjective) eternal.  By no means, do I advocate blind obedience.  As seen in the example of using culinary water to flush toilets, blindly following traditions is foolish.  However, as I have scrutinized my heritage and have learned from my mistakes, I have discovered a lot of wisdom in the teachings that have shaped me.  When experience and knowledge is lacking, it’s good to be grounded in something.  It’s also good to feel guided by something older and greater than one’s knowledge and experience.  As religion will always be a point of contention, it is imperative that a deep respect for the diversity of views of held by others always accompany being grounded by one’s own religious roots.

The existence of the three urban problems that I just mentioned causes me to feel limited, confined, and undervalued.  In the environmental axis, I regret the fact that many options that would allow me to live a more sustainable lifestyle aren’t available to me.  Fortunately, I have good transportation options available to me, so I am able to live much of my life without having to drive my car.  However, I am somewhat limited in other aspects, like lacking the infrastructure to reuse the graywater I produce or being able to heat and cool my townhome in a more sustainable manner.  In the social axis, I resent the lack of knowledge of those around me regarding our ecological disconnection, our overuse of resources, and our inhumane treatment of each other.  Unfortunately, sometimes my own family and friends regard me as an extremist, when I try to expand their view of ecology.  But I’ll keep trying.  In the economic axis, I am saddened by the misguided ethic that underlies our economy.  We seem to be guided by the ethic of plunder rather than the ethic of work.  Having experienced extended periods of unemployment, I know what it’s like to feel more like a problem to be solved than a person to be loved.

Moving on to the health impacts of that most concern me, I would have to say that air quality is my biggest concern regarding the Wasatch Front.  I’d be lying, if I said that I worry about the long term effects of breathing in so much pollution.  During extended winter inversions, I actually start to feel the effects, despite being in excellent respiratory health.  I wonder, if there will eventually be widespread cancer and other illnesses attribute to poor air quality.  As someone who owns property in Utah and intends to continue to call it home, I worry about the economic impacts of worsening air quality.  I am especially troubled by the Utah Legislature’s reluctance to take a leadership role in improving air quality and feel that the Utah Legislature is the biggest threat to improving air quality.

Another impact that concerns me is our addiction to fossil fuels.  This concern spans many aspects.  Carbon emissions feeding global warming lie on one end of spectrum.  All the pollution spewing from tail pipes lie in the middle along with the pollution resulting from the production of fossil fuels.  Lying on the far end is having an economy that is tied to the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels and the economic instability that comes from volatile fuel prices.

The Green Communities class brought me a lot of hope though.  Most of all I am every encouraged by the enthusiasm of my fellow classmates.  Our class discussions showed me that I am not alone in realizing that we need to change our ways or face extinction.  Having a professor and classmates, who are equally passionate about the issues at hand, has been comforting.

One thing that is also encouraging is how the human race is able to rally together at times.  The fact that we were able to travel to the moon is encouraging.  It took the collective efforts of over 400,000 individuals in order to accomplish the feat.  It proves that we have the ability to come together to meet a goal.  The world wars that we fought also show that we can come together in order to tackle an enemy.  In my own lifetime, I experienced the September 11th attacks and saw how quickly differences fade away in the face of adversity.

Watching the video in class on Curitiba was encouraging.  The simplicity with which the Brazilian city went about solving its problems is a great example of the fact that solutions need not be complicated.  I have two favorite examples from Curitiba.  One is the “Trash that is not Trash” campaign, where the city focused their recycling campaign on school children and used their energy to change the city’s attitude towards recycling.  The other is the transformation of the downtown street to a pedestrian zone, which was completed over a weekend and at minimal cost.

I also enjoyed the video on the island of Samsø.  Since my grandpa is a full-blooded Dane, I tend to feel a certain kinship with the people of Denmark.  Also, the watching the people of Samsø develop rivalries over whose home was producing the most renewable energy reminded me of the hearty, stubborn people of the small town where I grew up in Idaho.  If the residents of Samsø could become so enthused and caught up in an attitude of sustainability, then people anywhere could.

Of all the transition strategy examples presented in class, adaptive reuse was probably the most striking.  I was completely unaware of the Artspace projects here in Salt Lake City.  I was blown away by how wonderfully abandoned warehouses could be turned into homes, workspaces, and retail.  Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an “Instawalk” sponsored by Salt Lake City’s planning department.  Part of the walk featured Pierpont Avenue and included a visit to the garden.

In conclusion and despite all my worries, I am very hopeful for the future of mankind.  We’ve had to adapt and evolve in the past.  It may take the threat of extinction to motivate us though!  Not long ago, I watched a documentary outlining the many natural disasters, which could end life on Earth as we know it.  Calamities like asteroids and volcanoes were described in detail.  It would be the ultimate irony, if we were to perish due to our inability to adapt and evolve!