By Fred Kent
We are approaching the next millennium in the midst of an environmental crisis. We hear everywhere about the disappearance and destruction of open space, the lack of clean air and water, unhealthy noise levels, proliferating garbage, waste or resources. We’ve adopted laws to deal with our environmental troubles, but compliance has been difficult to achieve. Sometimes the burden seems insurmountable, as news of global despoilment intensifies our perception of the environmental predicament. Is it insurmountable? I don’t think so. I do think we should re-evaluate our approach to it.
We now focus on the vastness of the environmental problem. We need to reorient to a closer realm, where patterns of living can be adjusted more readily to the task. I believe the environmental agenda must begin at home. By home I mean not only the place where we live, but a place where we can both live and work. This kind of home, or hometown, if you will, has a close-knit, interdependent community, which surrounds and is connected by a central core.
It is the direct antithesis of the spread-out fragments we have come to call communities, sprawled across our landscape, isolated and detached from each other as well as from where they shop, work or play. These scattered settlements rely on the automobile to transport them to their places of business or recreation or to their stores, often traveling long distances, poisoning the air as they go. Their markets are strip malls, monotonously stretched alongside roads, devoid of character, eating up and defacing the natural environment.
The home, or really, community, I speak of has sidewalks on all its streets. Its center has a lively and diverse array of shops and businesses with housing interspersed or nearby, joined closely in a natural progression to and from the center. There is a central square or small park where community-oriented activities take place. This is where neighbors can meet and talk and observe. There might be a market here for fresh fruits and vegetables in season. Entertainers would perform, and special events could be held.
Many restaurants in this community serve local specialties. Bakeries and other food merchants sell much of their own or local wares. In general, the emphasis in business is on use of a local work force, promotion of local products and skills and nurturance of local entrepreneurs. Tradition is respected here. The attributes that give this place a special identity are valued and preserved. Sites, shops and dwellings are parts of a vital and continuous structure.
This community is not a fantasy. It has features that resemble those of American cities and towns we used to know. Some, like Boston, San Francisco and Portland, OR, although they’ve grown, still retain much of their centralized character. Others, like Corning, NY, Springfield, MA, and Seattle have been given new lives through thoughtful revitalization programs that encourage town centers.
Why can the type of community I describe have the potential to meet environmental imperatives? The key is a capacity to develop greater self-sufficiency. Consider accessibility. A place where living and working areas are near each other doesn’t require extensive use of the automobile, one of the major sources of air and noise pollution. A contained settlement also can have a system of bike paths and public transportation. Sidewalks provide the opportunity to walk anywhere at any time, and a convenient center of town with a variety of activities further reduces the impetus to drive.
Consumption of home-produced foods, crafts and other wares helps eliminate the need for elaborate packaging and its subsequent debris. Within such a microeconomy, there is a greater opportunity to set up systems for recycling-product receptacles and other reusable items. Support of local business ventures keeps dollars and jobs at home and eliminates another kind of environmental devastation–social displacement.
A town with respect for tradition opposes the reckless disposal of solid, usable building fabric that retains an important heritage from the past and a sense of place. This kind of environmental preservation retains a human-scale physical structure that avoids the fallout of over-scaled mega-development: noise, depletion of precious raw materials, excess waste, overuse of infrastructure, blockage of light and air, and loss of communal interaction. Compact communities with a central core also avoid suburban sprawl’s voracious destruction of farmlands and forests and of our remaining natural environment.
Most important, perhaps, is the sense of community engendered by an atmosphere that encourages socializing and intermingling. Using the same streets, sharing the same shops, services and facilities, and enjoying many of the same activities builds a powerful sense of mutual dependence and identity. This sets the stage for cooperative efforts toward community preservation and makes environmental initiatives like recycling programs and energy conservation work.
The impetus for cooperation already exists. Polls show the public is concerned about environmental decay and willing to help improve the situation. When a new York Times/CBS News poll surveyed a random sample of Americans recently, 74 percent felt that standards for protecting the environment cannot be too high and environmental improvements should be made regardless of cost. Seventy-one percent were willing to pay higher taxes to achieve environmental cleanup goals.
Local citizens are prepared to make sacrifices. They are the ones who must take on the leadership for restoring the environment in the coming decade. Again, this is possible in the cohesive community where people live and work in close proximity. It starts with modest gains on a local level which build and amass as many local levels add up their accomplishments. Ultimately, the result can be amore stable, manageable whole.
Clearly, our environmental future is inextricably tied to land use. Decisions about the location of our residences and businesses, the allocation of open space, the placement of essential services, and the means for access from place to place all have a major impact of how we can use, protect or abuse our environment. The environmental agenda for today must be a community-building one. Policy that stresses building or rebuilding town centers will make a giant step toward this goal.