Thursday, May 31, 2007

Small Steps, Large Ideals

In a 1940 essay, The Relevance of an Impossible Ideal, G.H.C. MacGregor argued that Christian pacifism was relevant to our lives, even if in practice we could never achieve its goals. It set a standard of conduct that allowed us to assess our own actions and decisions. Perfect peace, MacGregor suggested, might not come in this world. But we could do our best to move the world toward it and to live in harmony with it. The effort to realize the ideal in practice can in and of itself lead to positive change.

One doesn't have to agree with MacGregor's pacifism to see the importance of his argument, or to see that it applies not just to the ideal of peace, but to other ideals as well.

Consider the ideal of a sustainable world. Many of the measures that could bring about such a world are politically and culturally difficult to achieve in practice. But even small steps toward sustainability are helpful and make it easier to move forward to the larger steps we need. Ten million compact fluorescent light bulbs will not cut greenhouse emissions to safe levels—but they will make a start, and those who use them will discover that caring for the earth is not the impossible and frightening task that it might have appeared. It may even have benefits (in this case, lower electric bills). Steps that appear small may, in fact, be very large indeed if they lead to other steps in the direction of the goal.

Ideals, that is to say, do not become worthless because they are hard to achieve. They become worthless if we give up on them—or if we do not value the small changes that can lead to larger changes.

There are two ways of giving up on an ideal. One is to abandon it entirely by saying that we cannot achieve it. The other is to make the best the enemy of the good—to reject the small steps because they do not achieve the goal all at once.

In building for the future, we must avoid both of these hazards. We will not achieve a perfect world. But we can move the world closer to the ideal if we value small steps and have faith that they matter.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gas Prices—Again

The news yesterday and today was full of rising gas prices. Local news had interviews with drivers who were trying to save a few pennies per gallon. National news had average prices (just over $3.00/gallon) and projections of a rise to around $4.00 by the summer., of all places, had a letter urging supporters to pressure their congress members to do something.

"Something," whether for Moveon or for congress members, appears to be investigating the oil companies for price gouging in the hope that with enough pressure prices will come down without the need for people to use less gas. In the last round of price rises, some in Congress proposed rebates to motorists. All this, as if the problem is the price of gas, not our dependence on cheap fuel supplies.

One sympathizes with the drivers who were interviewed on television. They depend on their cars because many of them live in places where a car is the only way to get anywhere. It's true that they chose their location, but the lack of alternatives to the private car isn't really their fault. To a great extent they are stuck because our society is designed for cheap and abundant fuel and can't adapt quickly to tight supplies and high prices.

This time around there is some good news, at least in the Philadelphia area. The rising price of fuel appears to have led to a rise in the use of public transit. The change is small as yet, but it is encouraging. Some of those suburbanites—whose dependence on the car has been nearly total—have begun to find their way to the train and bus stations. This is heartening. It would be more so if our local transit agency wasn't facing an enormous deficit and proposing big cuts after the summer. And it would be even more so if the government didn't view spending on public transit as an expensive subsidy, while spending on roads is seen as an investment in the future (which it is not).

Still, at least some more people are learning that there are alternatives to driving. That is all to the good, even if the government hasn't yet figured it out.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Dead Space—Third of Three Parts

In the 1950s, at the start of the large-scale migration to the suburbs, few thought of problems like the environment and water runoff. Now they have become crucial, both for the present and for the future. How should we plan and build for the future? And how can we reclaim the acres of dead space that surround us?

Planning for the future is easier to envision. We have to change, and in at least these specific ways:
  • We need to end the practice of building single stores or malls in the center of large surface parking lots. The era of the standalone shopping mall or big box store is coming to an end, whether we like it or not. In a world with limited space and resources, acres of surface parking—one of the characteristics of standalone shopping—will no longer be possible. Nor will they be desirable.
  • We need to connect shopping, work, and living space. Stores and work within walking distance or an easy transit ride of where people live were once the norm. Suburban-style shopping is a historical aberration, brought on by zoning codes that separate living from shopping and working, and by our reliance on cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are no longer cheap, either for consumers or for the environment. And the drive from home to school to store to work to mall and back and around has become increasingly burdensome as traffic has increased. The old-style zoning codes have failed. They need to change so that we can once again walk to work and to the shops.
  • We need to revise building codes to require new homes, stores, and offices to be as sustainable as possible. In the long run, green buildings are cheaper to operate than traditional ones, and they are often more pleasant places to live and work.
  • Planners and the community—not developers alone—must take responsibility for what happens to a neighborhood in the long term. If a mall or housing tract project fails now, responsibility for converting the land to new uses rests with those who own the land. Failure to reuse the land, however, has consequences for the whole community. Ownership of land may be private, but the fate of the land is a legitimate public concern that planners and the community (which should be part of the planning process) must consider when approving development projects.
  • We need to start building in ways that deliberately allow for the needs of wildlife, and that allow more wild species to continue on the land. Preserving wild (or nearly wild) space is vital both for the environment and for the spirit. (Thanks to Marshall Massey for his suggestion in a comment.)
Following these four principles will not end problems with land use, but taken together they provide a more creative approach than the kind of development we now see in our suburbs.

As to the future of our current dead spaces, green rehabilitations like the Forensic Science Center in Philadelphia give some guidance. Sadly, many shopping malls and big box stores are not very good buildings and may not be salvageable. Nearly all of them, however, are located on tracts of land that would provide good mixed-use development. The shopping mall and the big box store provide an abundance of products; mixed-use development can provide an abundance of life. In the long run, we must move away from the mall and the big box and back toward communities and real neighborhoods.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dead Space—Second of Three Parts

For years, the forensics laboratory in Philadelphia was a cramped space in the basement of police headquarters. Now it is located in an award-winning green building that may point toward a future for the abandoned shopping mall and its acres of parking.

The Forensics Science Center began as an abandoned public school building—a solid 1929 structure surrounded by a large parking lot. The building had "good bones," in the words of the lead architect on the project. (A complete list of project participants is available on the American Institute of Architects web site.) The completed building provides a cheerful working environment, uses natural light and climate control in very creative ways, and manages the problem of chemical waste—which is both severe and inevitable in a forensics laboratory—with minimum damage to the environment.

It also reclaims much of the parking lot for natural water runoff.

Traditional parking lots, which are impermeable, interfere with normal water runoff. The old school building parking lot posed a particular challenge because it is close to the Delaware River and had been a major source of water pollution in the neighborhood. Despite the need for parking for police vehicles, the architects managed to cut runoff substantially:
The previously impervious site now includes large areas of vegetated swales and buffer vegetation, improving water catchment by roughly 33%, while still meeting the Center’s demanding parking and servicing requirements. Linear vegetated swales paralleling the parking rows filter stormwater and allow it to evaporate or infiltrate the ground before it enters storm drains. Site plantings are drought-resistant, requiring less watering and maintenance than conventional landscaping. (From the AIA web site.)
Most parking lots are soul-destroying wastelands. The Forensic Science Building's parking lot, with its swaths of green and well-designed plantings, is not.

We can draw a number of lessons from the Forensic Science Building and its parking lot.
  • Many buildings, even long-abandoned ones, can be rehabilitated with smaller carbon footprints. The initial cost is high, but as green rehabilitation becomes standard, it will drop. And by using less fuel, projects like the Forensic Science Building eventually pay for themselves.
  • Parking lots can be less destructive if carefully planned. More important, they can be smaller, and the building less dependent on the private car, if we also learn another lesson of the Forensic Science project:
  • Any green rehabilitation must include good connections to mass transit. Most of the employees at the Forensic Science Building take public transit to work because existing connections to the neighborhood were good. At any time, the majority of the vehicles in the parking lot are police cars and vans transporting evidence, not private cars used by the employees.
  • Well-designed green buildings are pleasant places to work. The combination of large windows (for natural light) and airy rooms makes forensic work, which is often very distressing, easier to bear. Sickness and absenteeism dropped sharply after the laboratory moved to its new quarters.
The Forensic Science project and other green rehabilitation projects provide hope for the future of the dead space that is everywhere in our suburbs and increasingly in our cities. Much of it can be rescued. The question is whether it will be.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dead Space—First of Three Parts

Few places in this world are more sad than a derelict shopping mall. Built to face inward, its outer walls are dead space, often with no windows. Acres of empty parking lot surround it. On a windy day, old paper—flyers advertising sales in the stores, chewing gum wrappers, torn up shopping bags—whirl and flutter like the ghosts of some nightmare past. The doors are locked, usually chained, and any windows that were in the outer walls are boarded up and blank. One or two signs, sometimes with letters missing, mark the now-departed stores that were there. And all is silence.

More and more, in many places in the United States, we are seeing these dead hulks, as developers buy up green land, pave it, build a new mall, and then move on when business disappears or when the next mall down the road attracts all of the old mall's customers. The results are ugly and disheartening, and their larger implications hardly bear thinking about.

Each mall includes the inevitable parking lot, so enormous that finding one's car after shopping is often a major undertaking that wastes half an hour or more. Each parking lot, in its turn, replaced acres of grass, trees, or farmland. Even when it was successful, the mall contributed to problems with water runoff and pollution. Once it has become derelict, it still does—and it is often unclear who, if anyone, is responsible for cleaning up the mess and repairing the damage. Worse, the odds are that the mall has become derelict because another and almost certainly larger mall has superseded it. Thus to the problems created by the mall that is now derelict, we have added the problems created by the new mall that is (for the moment) successful. Both are, in ecological terms, dead space that is helping to destroy our planet.

The results of this kind of development can be dramatic. Forty years ago, Bucks County, just outside of Philadelphia, was the central character in a bucolic diary, Area Code 215: A Private Line in Bucks County, by Walter Teller. The book is a kind of modern Walden, with reflections on nature, farming, gardening, canals, and the neighbors. It is a comforting book to read. People go about their business; each day brings rain, sun, snow, clouds, and all shades of weather. There is no flooding or natural disaster in this book because in those days Bucks County was a kind and gentle environment.

The Bucks County that Teller describes has been gone for at least twenty years, victim of tract house development and mall-style retailing. Much of the farmland is gone and paved over. There are few derelict shopping malls, because Bucks County is prosperous. But there is plenty of dead space—and with it, flooding and natural disasters where before there were none. Some riverside communities now flood annually, although each year the residents hope that this flood will be the last.

It will not. There is too much paving and too little soil to absorb the rain. And in the long run, the busy malls that are the source of most of the problem may become less busy and be succeeded by bigger, gaudier ones. It is a cycle which, if we do not find a way to stop it, means nothing but trouble in the future.