Green the nation’s way of life? Say goodbye to the suburbs.

Building are responsible for nearly 40% of US energy consumption.   Indeed there’s new awareness of all the bells and whistles that get a building LEED gold or Platinum.  European approaches, such as Passivhaus, certify buildings using other critera.
But it’s one thing to green a building and another to green a whole city, or a nation’s way of life.   In the end a great building doesn’t count for that much if the people who do business in that building drive to get there.
University of Pennsylbvannia Urbanism Professor Witold Rybczynski makes The Green Case for Cities in the October Atlantic.
The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it’s hardly green.
Density is the answer and it doesn’t have to be high rise, although elevators are fairly energy efficient.  Low rise family houses, duplexes and triplexes compactly grouped into urban neighborhoods like those built the first half of the 20th century are sufficiently dense.  For inspiration, we only have to look back to more gentle times before the automobile isolated us in the suburbs.

It’s always good to be reminded that buildings are responsible for nearly 40% of US energy consumption.  Indeed, architects and planners have a new awareness of this and load on all the bells and whistles that get a building LEED Gold or Platinum.

But it’s one thing to green a building and another to green a whole city, or a nation’s way of life.  European rating systems, such as Passivhaus, use a wealth of other criteria to certify the environmental impact of new and recycled buildings.  In the end a great building doesn’t count for that much if the people who do business in that building drive to get there.

University of Pennsylvannia Urbanism Professor Witold Rybczynski makes The Green Case for Cities in the October Atlantic.

The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it’s hardly green.

Density is the answer.  It doesn’t have to be high rise, although elevators are fairly energy efficient.  Low rise family houses, duplexes and triplexes compactly grouped into urban neighborhoods like those built the first half of the 20th century are sufficiently dense.

For inspiration on becoming green, we only have to look back to more gentle times before the automobile took over and expelled us to the suburbs.

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3 responses to “Green the nation’s way of life? Say goodbye to the suburbs.

  1. I agree completely with your main point. But not with your last two statements.

    Density, done right, is part of the answer. But density, by it’s very nature, will always bring problems. Throughout history, density has far more often been a failure, both environmentally and socially, than it has been a success.

    Final thought. We can’t go back. We can only go forward. We need to figure out new ways to live with each other and the land. The “more gentle times” really weren’t, at least not on a human scale.. And on an environmental scale, it’s a matter of degree. The world had 5 billion fewer people in more gentle times, a fact we have yet to come to grips with.

  2. Thanks, Richard, Would be interested in hearing more from you on density. Rybczynski was helpful in answering the question I had about elevators, but essentially he wants low density. If we’re thinking low-income housing, Cabrini Green was DOA but New Columbia’s pretty cool. And a little retro. And by US standards, dense.

  3. Pingback: Reining in the energy costs of sprawl « Steel Bridge Rag

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