Ditch Smart Growth; Try Oxygen-Based Development

At the Farm Pond Circle Reforestation Community in South Lansing, N.Y., a small community outside of the small city of Ithaca, N.Y., we believe that Mother Nature is pretty upset. As the saying goes, “When Mama ain’t happy, nobody happy.”

We think that the planners of downtown Ithaca have come to the wrong conclusions. They dream of a one-city county with a historic core nestled amidst fields and forests, a clean lake, and an economy run on ideas. Super-Green Shangri-La. But they’ve put us on the wrong path to get there.

My progressive credentials are in order. I teach green building and design, run a local housing nonprofit, belong to the Ithaca Green Building Alliance, and believe that Ithaca is the bestest little city in America. Plus I have a fading Obama sticker on my truck, and a ponytail. I’m sure I will be tarred and free-range feathered by the Green Mafia for what I’m about to say. But here goes anyway.

How long can you live without oxygen? A couple of minutes, maybe. Yet the doctrine of Smart Growth ignores this. It calls for all humans to be packed into congested urban areas, because this will supposedly preserve green space. The downtown Ithaca GroupThinkers of Smart Growth say that only farmers should be allowed to live in rural areas. Suburbanites and all others, to them, are eco-terrorists.

We have three problems with this doctrine.

First, urban environments are inherently and undeniably unhealthy, physically and psychologically. Concentrated toxins dominate city life, and too many mice in a small cage quickly start eating each other. We’ve built for folks with immune-deficiency diseases. Their doctors make them live in the country. Lobbying for downtown living amounts to advocating for a less healthy environment.

Second, we’re not alone in our view. There are 102,000 people living Tompkins County. Only about 30,000 live in the city, and the city’s population is barely growing.

Third, building downtown does not preserve green space. Owning and maintaining green space does. Every time a downtown project is announced, the developers and officials announce loudly and proudly that they’ve preserved open space. Hooey. The owners of green space are still free to do with it as they please. Unless downtown developers are required to buy and hold enough open space to absorb the carbon dioxide from, and provide the oxygen for, the occupants of their urban unit, they have preserved nothing.

The U.S. Forest Service has calculated that an acre of mature trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people to breathe in a year (Source: Arboriculture & Urban Forestry 2007. 33(3): 220–226). So what do we make of a recent downtown Ithaca micro-development that was roundly lauded as “sustainable,” even though it cut down trees, bulldozed a playground, lawn, and garden, and shoe-horned three additional average houses into the back and side yards of an existing home? At Farm Pond, we don’t understand how that’s green or sustainable. We see the rural residents of Tompkins County absorbing the urbanites’ carbon dioxide, producing their water and oxygen, and being labeled eco-terrorists for our trouble. The 30,000 City of Ithaca residents need more than 1,666 acres of mature forest to produce enough oxygen just so they can inhale.

The primary goal of Farm Pond is to permanently preserve green space. A typical one-acre lot is divided into a permanent half-acre Reforestation Zone, a quarter-acre Building Zone, and a Green Zone that can be garden, orchard, or even lawn, as long as it’s left green. We call that Oxygen-Based Development. Our deed restrictions require each household to permanently support three quarters of an acre of oxygen-producing land.

So here’s a proposal. Let’s agree on the amount of acreage required to provide enough fresh water and oxygen to cover the occupants and their behaviors, and dispose of all their carbon, sewage, and garbage—perhaps five acres per unit. Then let’s require that developers either include this acreage in their plans, or buy and preserve an equivalent amount of green space per unit somewhere else in the county. Rural developers will need to create forested recharge areas instead of lawns. Downtown developers will buy and set aside green space in remote locations—if you want to build a 20-unit project, you must also buy and maintain 100 acres of taxable forest, in perpetuity. The value of open space will soar, decreasing pressure on it to be ruined by other uses, and the ecological scales might just begin to swing back into balance. Keep Mama happy.

We aren’t ignoring the carbon emissions rural residents produce when they drive. But we think that should be put that on the oil companies, and not on rural people who struggle to get by. We have to change what our vehicles run on, not tweak the distance people drive them, if we’re ever going to reverse the damage we’ve done to our environment.

At Farm Pond Circle, we’re planting more than 200 trees in each half-acre reforestation zone; in all over 10,000 new trees on nearly 25 acres of dedicated wildlife refuge. Our 21 families will produce enough new oxygen to support themselves, plus about 400 city dwellers. Hmmm. How much shall we bill those urbanites? What does Cayuga Medical Center charge for a bottle of oxygen?

(Photo by Flickr user caribb, CC BY.)


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