Environmentalism has always been about paying attention to specific plots of land—so why not view communities the same way?
I find that I am almost always thinking about the quality of places. Hanging out with the likes of David Dixon, Victor Dover, and Steve Mouzon
will do that to you. And I am especially thinking about places - as a
concept - this week, because on Friday I was told that a presentation
on NRDC's sustainable communities agenda is actually due on July 18,
not July 26 as I had been thinking and planning. Yikes.
So I need to get my act together, because this is an important
audience: my NRDC colleagues. A friendly but seriously demanding
bunch, to a person.
To me advocacy for sustainable communities is fundamentally about
place: advocacy for environmental solutions in the human environments
where we live, work, and play. Now there's a certain ambiguity in that
concept, which is helpful when one is describing a diverse if strong
agenda being carried out by staff in five U.S. cities and working at all
scales of government and with the private sector.
That said, I think of our work as bringing sound environmental practice to three scales of place: (1) the metropolitan region,
where so much of our economic activity and our living and
transportation patterns are anchored; (2) the municipality - be it
city, county, or suburb - which, although not particularly defining
when it comes to the environment or economy, is critical politically
for getting things done; and (3) the neighborhood,
where increments of growth and placemaking actually occur and where
most of us interact with our communities and our environment on a daily
I think the neighborhood scale is where the environmental movement
has tended to be somewhat weak over the years. There is a feeling, not
entirely unjustified, that especially for national groups like NRDC we
can squander our acutely limited resources by focusing on small,
individual places. Yet the argument breaks down when one considers
that, historically, environmental groups have always been involved
in place-based test cases, such as particular wilderness areas
threatened by resource exploitation or ecological habitat threatened by
highways or oil spills. The truth is that we have never hesitated to
focus on places to protect them from harm; why not also focus on places
- particularly urban places - as models for what we can do right?
It is in fact these immediate environments that humans most
directly interact with and experience, and it is this place level or
community scale that Environmentalism has largely ignored. We can
perhaps best ramp people onto a broader environmental agenda through
engaging them in and challenging them to take responsibility for and
shape these public realms beyond their homes. This is a process we
call Placemaking, which is dedicated to encouraging and empowering
people to take ownership over and contribute to the world beyond their
private property and work together to improve them. Placemaking is the
common sense process through which the human places we most value are
created and sustained.
Only by helping people connect to, care for and shape the world
beyond their front doors will we be able to instill people with a
capacity to redress the larger environmental crises. Incorporating
Placemaking as an essential element of Environmentalism will lead to a
reinvention of citizenship and the discovery of new tools and
strategies to change the world.
Kent argues that it is not enough to ask whether an action or
proposal is doing or likely to do harm: We must also ask whether it is
contributing positively to the enhancement of our "environmental,
community, social, cultural, historical, and economic" surroundings.
We feel it is important to give people a proactive approach to
sustainability in their hometowns. Creating lively town centers and
neighborhoods that enhance pride of place and promote local economic
development is critical to improving local quality of life as well as
quality of the environment. In fact, we can reinvent entire regions starting from the heart of local communities and building outwards.
As I have written before,
a big part of my professional growth was finding answers to a question
that had been eating me alive after I tired of being an adversarial
advocate: What is it that we can say yes to? While we
should all be glad that many of my colleagues in NRDC and other parts
of the environmental community are fighting environmental harm and
stupidity with great skill and dedication, that was no longer enough
for me personally after some 20 years as a litigation lawyer.
The power of saying yes to sustainable community places was why I
dedicated so much of the last decade to working with organizational
partners and immensely gifted individuals to craft LEED for Neighborhood Development,
an imperfect but terrific first step to define what is smart and green
about smart, green development. It is why I worked with Enterprise
Community Partners to help them develop the Green Communities program for sustainable affordable housing, and why I am now working with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation
to undertake model green, inclusive revitalization of distressed
neighborhoods and to develop templates to help others do the same.
Because, when you come down to it, there is no sustainability
without sustainable places that help limit environmental impacts while
also nourishing the human spirit. There is nothing I would rather do
than help create them.
This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard. Images (top to bottom): Loren Javier/flickr, University of Maryland National Center for Smart Growth for Reality Check, Kaid Benfield, Ethan Kent/PPS