Regions Can’t Live By Oxygen Alone

Jack Jensen, an affordable housing and green builder in Ithaca, N.Y., is grumpy about Smart Growth. Specifically, he's pissed off at the assumption that urban infill preserves green space. As […]

Jack Jensen, an affordable housing and green builder in Ithaca, N.Y., is grumpy about Smart Growth.

Specifically, he's pissed off at the assumption that urban infill preserves green space. As  he wrote in his post on “oxygen-based development“ on Friday:

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.

That's a fairly good point. Dense development only actually preserves green space if we assume the total amount of development is fixed, which it is not, or if it explicitly preserves the greenfields it's not sprawling into.

I can be pretty down with the idea that if we're serious about open space preservation and climate change and such, then pairing development with required open space preservation should be worth considering, something like Jensen's suggestion.

I also sympathize with his idea that rural areas are bound up with their cities and offer them benefits beyond agriculture for which we should be grateful. (His closing comment about how much the rural areas should bill city dwellers for the oxygen their land is producing reminds me of the flip version of my Metroland column The Unapologetic City, which discusses the various unpaid-for benefits suburban residents get from their core cities.)

Unfortunately, these cogent points get a bit lost in Jenson's desire to defend rural living against the urban scourge—an American impulse if there ever was one, but misplaced for several reasons.
First, he wants to make various ills of urban living out to be inherent and immutable:

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.

I guess that's why Manhattan is in the top 20 counties in the country for women's life expectancy. And I'll breathe Ithaca city air over the San Joaquin Valley air any day.

Now, not to be too flip, there are certainly health issues associated with today's cities, including air quality, and I'm sure it's worse for cities that have lost their surrounding green space. But toxicity is not inherent to urban life, any more than obesity is inherent to rural and suburban lifestyles, though they are correlated. Many of these health issues could be changed by designing greener and healthier cities—removing pollution sources, green roofs, street trees, reducing poverty, etc.

Reversing population drain, so that cities aren't too cash-strapped to make these kinds of far-sighted choices would help a lot.

Ironically, some portion of the toxins Jensen refers to are contributed by non-urban residents and their lengthy commutes to jobs, shopping, healthcare, entertainment, much of which they need to travel into the “dirty” city for—contributing to its pollution much more than they would if they lived there. 

Oxygen production is only meaningful as a measure if it is combined with carbon footprint, and the carbon footprint of a home includes the infrastructure required to support its location.

That doesn't seem to Jensen like an inherent problem with sprawling living, but rather one of the fuel in the cars:

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.

His two different approaches to what should be considered changeable and what is inherent when it comes to city air versus driving patterns are startlingly inconsistent.

I am not, actually, arguing that rural living equals “eco terrorism” as Jensen fears. The idea he seems to be putting forth—requiring rural development to include green space preservation with in itself—has some promise. Perhaps it would be more functional than attempts at no-development greenbelts. It's intriguing.

But in any case, there are trade-offs in living choices from an environmental standpoint and I think they should all be considered using the same standards, not have some be dismissed as irredeemable and others unquestioned as untouchable.

Second, I do have to wonder if Jensen really thinks that Tompkins County would somehow end up better off in terms of oxygen and green space (not to mention pleasant rural communities for those who prefer them) if all its residents were spread out evenly throughout the county as opposed to having a dense city for its core?

There are 7.6 acres of land in the county per household—but that includes a whole lot of area already under conservation management in national forests, state parks, etc. It also includes campuses (Cornell = 745 acres), roads, and all of the commercial and institutional development that is required to serve people, which would increase if people were more spread out and more of them needed to drive to things and park at them. It's hard to imagine there being much room left for forest and farms without some level of density. 

By my calculations, dispersing the city residents throughout the county would increase population density elsewhere by 30 percent if you didn't take into account all the off-limits land and increased infrastructure footprint. Taking that into account would result in an even greater increase in density. Not enough for the benefits of a city, but perhaps enough to lose the benefits of living in the country.

While it may be true that building housing downtown does not automatically preserve green space, just building it farther out doesn't either.

Rather than bashing either urban or non-urban living choices, or urban or non-urban development projects per se, it seems like it would be best to focus on answering some underlying questions:

  • How can we actually preserve green space, and can we link that to development in a meaningful way?
  • How can all types of development be done in a lower impact way?
  • What does a sustainable region as a whole look like—from oxygen generation to percent pavement coverage, air quality, transportation, equitable access to services and jobs, and more—and how do we get there?
  • How can we make all the variety of places people live in and they ways they get around more sustainable, healthier, and more equitable? 
  • How can we recognize ourselves part of interdependent complex regions and acknowledge and appreciate each other's contributions to the whole, rather than seeing ourselves at odds with each other?


(Photo by Flickr user caribb, CC BY.)

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