Book Report: Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, by D.J. Waldie (Published in 1996, with a new introduction and afterward in 2005)

The author, who grew up and still resides in a tract home in Lakewood, CA, makes the ordinary fascinating, looking at the past and present of his city, one of the largest tract home developments of the post-war housing boom.

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The unique memoir consists of 316 entries, including personal thoughts, facts and figures about the development and how it was built (No sheathing! In California earthquake country!), and a fascinating look at L.A.’s water situation. It shows that even a seemingly painfully ordinary and banal place can have such a fascinating history.

The author says, “Who we are today is entangled with what we were. The past is always slipping away, nowhere more quickly than in Los Angeles, but the past isn’t always distant. Holy Land documents the material basis of a place-from its geology to the technology built into its houses-because these elements persist, despite the erasure of so much.”

Plaster and Roofing, Lakewood, California

Plaster and Roofing, Lakewood, California, 1950, William A. Garnett. Gelatin silver print. 7 11/16 x 9 9/16 in. © Estate of William A. Garnett – See more of these fascinating images here.
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“The suburb described in Holy Land  depended then-and depends now-on jobs that let men and women with ordinary skills make a living,” says the author. Elites (I am guilty of this too) decry the soul-sucking repetitive conformity of the suburbs. When we were in Europe this summer, people talked about the American suburbs with disdain and asked why they would build such cheap houses out of sticks. But, cheap houses made out of sticks allow people to have houses. Otherwise, it would be the United States of before the baby boom: the average worker could not afford a house within a reasonable distance of a metropolitan area.

This book touches on social, economic, geological and environmental factors. It’s not meant to be sentimental, but it made me long for a time I never knew and maybe never really existed, of dads home from work by 5, a rich and engaged civic life, a life of a few very appreciated material things, kids roaming free. This sentiment is almost a cliche at this point, but the cohesion of a neighborhood that existed before we were so “connected” is, I feel, one of the greatest loses of 21st century life.

Book Review: The End of the Suburbs

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

As someone who reads everything they can get their hands on about urban planning and the shape of our cities, “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving” by Leigh Gallagher seems to be one of the most widely talked about outside of the industry circles. I appreciate her perspective as journalist, coming from the viewpoint of business and the economy. I appreciate that the idea for the book did not originate from an elitist, morally superior opinion of city over suburbs, but from financial and census data that points to a trend worth discussion by everyone, not just those in the industry.

There’s really no way I would not recommend this book: It’s a great overview of the subject of how the suburbs were created and how we got to where we are today, but it’s also very readable and entertaining for those who know the pattern as well as any other important cultural event in American history. Gallagher states that the suburbs have “overshot their mandate.” The book goes through a basic history of the suburbs, and presents snip-its from interviews with leading authors, thought leaders, developers, builders, and suburban residents. Gallagher talks a lot about alternative development patterns, like New Urbanism and infill projects, changing demographics and household size, and the future of the suburbs as we know them.

The anecdotes from people in different situations are the most telling for me, like the story of Diane Roseman, who defied convention by moving from the suburbs to the city (Cambridge) while her kids were growing up, and found more freedom for her kids, a shorter commute, less yard to maintain, a more vibrant and connected social life, and most importantly, she is unshackled from her car.

Even those who love and appreciate the suburbs (most of us, since the majority of Americans live or grew up there) cannot deny the fatal flaw with how we have distributed ourselves over the land: total dependence on the car. What was once an emblem of freedom has allowed us to spread out to where now so many families never leave their home unless it is in the car.

From here, setting aside impassioned debates, the problems with the suburban pattern of building are just simple math: more time in the car=more stress=less exercise=less time on things we love=poorer health=less time for civil engagement=decreased quality of life. More roads and infrastructure spread over more miles with less people=unsustainable tax base. Rising oil prices=a canceling out of whatever savings were achieved by moving further out. More lawn to treat+more house to heat and cool+more vehicles to drive and maintain+more impervious surface leading to flooding and pollutant run-off+more stuff+more infrastructure=environmental disaster. More cars+wider streets+faster car speeds+inhospitable infrastructure+isolation that comes from being totally dependent on rides from parents=more danger for children, physically and psychologically.

The conclusion of many thought leaders, including Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institute, is “People really just want more alternatives.” Alternatives for housing types, living space, yard size, land use, use mixes, transportation options. Our job as design professionals is to provide liveable, vibrant, healthy communities that are “car-optional,” and somewhere between the car-dependent exurb and the city apartment tower. Public will must be there to affect change in zoning laws and lending policies, and accessible books like this are a great tool.

Book Review: Walkable City

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck.  Speck takes his experience as an urban planner and creates a sort of manual for those who have any sort of influence over the built environment. His premise is that no matter how many fancy trolley lines, miles of light rail, or fancy benches and light posts, streets/neighborhoods/cities will not thrive without walkability. What is a walkable place? According to Speck, it is a place where a walk is useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. If one of these factors is missing, the likelihood that people will chose to walk or that business will congregate in walkable area decreases.

I had a chance to meet and talk with Speck on his book tour, and Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, which he co-wrote with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, is one of my favorite books on the built environment, so it was no wonder that I loved this book. But I was surprised at how entertaining it was: Speck is a great writer, and he doesn’t dumb things down for a non-urban-planning audience, which would have affected the pace.

He points out many nuances that affect walkability that you might have felt intuitively, but now have some facts to back up. For instance, why are suburban roads where kids play engineered for highway speeds? Is it any wonder that more of a pain in the a** driving is, the safer it is? And why do the cities with the best transit also have the worst traffic? Because transit does not decrease congestion, nor does building more roads. Tearing down half of an historic downtown to build parking creates a place that is easy to get to, but not worth going to. Despite merchants objections, adding meters or increasing parking costs usually increases business and raises property values, since turnover increases. These are just a few of the fun facts you will learn or have confirmed while reading Walkable City.

I have written a great bit on walkability, and my intention is not to come across as an Agenda-21 pushing, apocalyptic smart growther who is going to force all of your children to live in concrete towers. First of all, densities needed to achieve walkability are just townhouses and small single family lots, not scary Hong Kong scale towers. Second, providing walkable options preserves land for those who truly want to live a rural lifestyle, and according to Chris Leinberger (whose book The Option of Urbanism: Investing in the New American Dream I will review in the future), there is pent up demand for walkable urbanism as people long for choices beyond the car-required suburb. Third, walkability is not just for big cities, as charming small downtowns everywhere attract many visitors.

Churchill Corner Mixed Use
Churchill Corner project in downtown Friday Harbor, a small, walkable, rural town (with D+A Studio)

My projects tend to be either in the rural San Juan Islands, which has a few little walkable downtown areas without a traffic light in sight, or in an urban village like Columbia City in Seattle. I believe that whether you live in a big city, college town or tiny township, the option of walkability or “car-optional” living, is truly the most fulfilling, healthy way to live. Far from being forced to live in smart growth fashion as some may warn, people really want to live in these places, and prices reflect that. According to Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo of the Brookings Institution, [For every step up the walkability ladder], “The value of your home is likely to go up by $81.54 per square foot.” (Why We Pay More for Walkable Neighborhoods, Emily Badger, The Atlantic) After all, why shouldn’t the place you live be somewhere you would want to visit? What do all of the most popular tourist destinations have in common, from Disney World to Paris? Exactly: walkability.

A sentiment from the most recent neighborhoods issue of Seattle Magazine put it best. A resident of South Lake Union loves the ability to wander, and not have to be invited. My thesis from my study abroad program in Rome was summed up with this: You don’t always have to go, you can just be.

http://www.walkscore.com/

Related books I recommend:

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck
Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay

 

Book Review: Too Much Magic

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler

If you’ve never read Kunstler, you have to prepare to feel powerless, discouraged, offended (and you have to go back and read The Geography of Nowhere). But, you can also expect to be entertained, enlightened, and downright dazzled at his writing talent. He looks at how we are unprepared for a future that could include less or no access to fossil fuels, meaning a crumbling of our house of cards built on cheap energy and dependent, endless electricity.

Seriously, if you read only one chapter this year, it should be “Farewell to the Drive-in Utopia”, where Kunstler rips the suburban lifestyle to shreds. I admit, I don’t want to be or try to be, but I’m kind of an urban/charming college town snob (if you couldn’t tell already). I had a perfectly happy childhood growing up in the suburbs, I love getting “suburb food,” as I lovingly refer to Chili’s, every once in a while, and I completely understand and agree with reasons people live in the suburbs (this being really the only realistic choice for the vast majority of people). It’s not a judgement. But I’ve seen first hand the real damage that a life of commuting and being car-dependent can do, and these effects have of course become painfully obvious as major problems (traffic congestion, obesity, social isolation, etc).

This sort of thinking may seem doomsday or overly negative until you really look at inhumane infrastructure-highways, lack of sidewalks, huge parking lots-especially side by side with walkable urban spaces. I feel anxious when I’m in a neighborhood where you literally have to get in your car to do anything, sort of a reverse claustrophobia. Meant for freedom, as Jeff Speck says in Walkable City, the slave has become the master. We have taken away all other transportation choices in the vast majority of the country and isolated ourselves in places where you have to get in the car to pick up a gallon of milk.

Although not as enthralling to me (as a total Luddite who held on my to taped-together Discman well into the iPod age), Kuntsler also goes into the dangers of relying on technology, especially when he has doubts about how long access to the internet will be around.

As a cautious pragmatist, I tend to look on the bright side of things, and see the potential in retrofitting our suburbs and finding alternate energy sources. I see everything from a designer’s perspective, where the world is just a design problem to be solved. Maybe I’m just in blissful ignorance and would like to stay there, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my trip down Doomsday Lane reading this book.

Book Review: The Conundrum

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. by David Owen. He eloquently calls out our lip service and feeble attempts at “saving” our environment. This is a great read, short but sweet and to the point, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in sustainability issues but does not take themselves too seriously. The basic premise is that efficiency doesn’t improve our environmental situation, as we have always improved efficiency.

“One of the least meaningful and most overused words in the English language is ‘sustainability’.”

So what is the solution? Because so many effects are not directly linked to the cause, we will not take action until the Cuyahoga River is on fire, literally–this is not a judgement, just an observation. (See my post on how Cuba had to go oil-free practically overnight, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Movie Review: The Power of Community:How Cuba Survived Peak Oil)

“…attempting a truly large project is the only way to honestly access the actual obstacles to supplanting fossil fuels. Hype, huckersterism, and faulty arithmetic are easy to conceal when the focus is suburban rooftops.”

Owen discusses the problem with more efficient cars. A bigger issue than tailpipe emissions is arguably the infrastructure that focuses on moving cars, not people, and is completely dictated by the needs of the car and the large firetruck.

This is an awkward link (to the Google book), but a great illustration: A Tampa, FL, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit campaign in 2001, showing how much space cars take up, compared to how much space those same people would take up on a bus.

He closes with this:

“Those of us who are ‘enlightened’ on environmental issues earnestly wish for the world to consume and emit less-a radical transformation that we expect our own standard of living to survive.”

Most people who talk a good game about environmentalism (myself included) are the largest offenders. Authors wrack up frequent flier miles going on book tours to preach their cause, in the meantime most of the world does not travel, and less wealthy Americans save up to take a vacation or two a year.

Fun fact: Americans spend more on garbage bags than almost half the world’s countries spend on everything.

Reading this book may make you feel discouraged about any feeble environmental efforts that are actually controllable. Without a massive cultural action (like Wal-Mart customers demanding hormone-free milk), the illusion of control is a phenomenon that only begins to explain much of the neuroses of our time. Owen refers to the feeling of satisfaction we get when taking out the recycling, but only 10% of waste is post-consumer. This does not mean that we should not recycle, just that we have to check our smugness and hypocrisy if we really want to face our environmental issues.

Book Review Archive: Wrestling With Moses

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, tells the stories of Robert Moses, who served for many decades in various appointed infrastructure-related posts in New York City, and Jane Jacobs, the activist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book reads like a novel, if a very detailed one (I was hooked and stayed up late to finish it like a novel, curled up with book and my maps of Manhattan).

Flint parallels the early life and careers of both Moses and Jacobs, then describes a few of her most famous battles over proposed public works projects headed by Moses: a proposed road through Washington Square Park, an area of the West Village designated as a “slum” through the Title 1 Urban Renewal program and slated for demolition to make way for housing projects built by private developers (federally funded by the Title 1 program), and the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have run through the Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side to connect the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges.

These neighborhoods, found to be “slums” by the government, where, according to Jacobs, in fact organically planned, active, caring, living neighborhoods. Jumbled uses, some vacancies and many imperfections, but far from “slums.” Being designated as a “slum” by Title 1 could be self-fulfilling prophecy: government officials would find a neighborhood that had some physical imperfections, perhaps a few buildings that weren’t up to current building or fire code, some vacancies, or boarding houses without a bathroom for each room, and the area would be designated a slum. This designation could stick for many decades even if nothing happened, and as a result banks would stop investing and businesses would not move in, so the neighbor would in fact go downhill.

Flint describes Jacobs’ legacy of citizen activism and bottom-up action. Today it’s hard to imagine such sweeping urban projects being planned without any citizen input (as anyone who has experienced the back-and-forth of the viaduct plans in Seattle can attest). I can’t believe I have never heard Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s play on NIMBY (not in my backyard) when speaking about citizen veto power: BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).

Although the book is obviously pro-Jacobs, Flint does touch on a common criticism of Jacobs: that she does not take gentrification into account when discussing what makes great neighborhoods. One of the projects that she fought which is highlighted in the book would provide affordable housing, under Title 1 Urban Renewal.

“Jacobs was convinced the city was the best possible place for people to live, and in many ways gentrification proved her right. She argued that the problem was a matter of supply and demand-that there weren’t enough urban neighborhoods, and if they were as ubiquitous as suburban sprawl, they wouldn’t be such a precious commodity, and prices would come down.”

We see this happening now. Not everyone can afford to live in Greenwich Village, or have a house in Capitol Hill in Seattle, but suburbs such as Kirkland are “urbanizing,” realizing the appeal and practicality of a more urban zoning code with a mix of uses and less parking. Most suburban zoning codes are based on the outdated idea of the separation of uses from the 1920’s, where tenement houses were next to leather tanneries. The most desirable urban neighborhoods have a mix of uses, all within proximity of the other and ideally combining all daily needs within walking distance.

It’s hard to imagine the present day AIA (American Institute of Architects) supporting a plan to replace a street like this with an elevated highway (the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which the AIA then supported). Broome Street in SoHo, with its wealth of cast-iron front buildings, is what some would consider an ideal urban street.

Flint also points out the many good things that Moses made a reality: many state and city parks, beaches, playgrounds, parkways and bridges throughout New York City and Long Island. He includes a great point from Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times:

“‘Today [2006, when she died], the pendulum of opinion has swung so far in favor of Ms. Jacobs that it has distorted the public’s understanding of urban planning. As we mourn her death, may we mourn a bit for Mr. Moses as well.’ Moses vision, he said, however flawed, represented ‘an America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure-roads, parks, bridges-that bind us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive, must have both.'”

 

Book Review Archive: Superbia!: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

Overall, this is a fun book, easy to read and pleasing to the eye. The authors bring up many great ideas-many I have heard, many new-about how to move the suburbs into the future.  Suburbs have been built based on a world with an endless supply of cheap, abundant oil where no ill effects are caused by car exhaust. I picture Frank Lloyd Wright cruising in an old car around Broadacre City (his vision of spread out houses on large yards). He thought it was perfect, and it might have been if cars had no exhaust, there were no negative externalities related to fuel, and the suburbs were not directly or indirectly linked to modern social ills such as isolation, obesity, sprawl, and personal financial over extension.

They say that the suburbs will probably be rebuilt by “constructive demolition” to make them more dense and efficient, like small towns, since they are not currently built to last. A great quote from Peter Calthorpe, a leader in the New Urbanist movement, sums up our current situation:

“The old suburban dream is increasingly out of sync with today’s culture. Our suburbs are designed around a stereotypical household that is no longer predominant. But we continue to build suburbs as if families were large and had only one breadwinner, as if jobs were all downtown, as if land and energy were endless, and as if another lane on the freeway could end congestion.” (The Next American Metropolis) 

Ideas to create “Superbia” include:

  • Converting one existing garage in the neighborhood for the “recycling coordinator.” One person opens up their garage to store give away items, distributes a list to neighbors (items available/needed), makes trips to the dumpster or has regular garage sales.
  • A community office (could be a converted garage or formal living area), could be next to a community daycare center
  • Use an elderly neighbor’s yard for a community garden or pea-patch: they have their yard taken care of, people living in apartments or who don’t have room can have access to a garden.

These are just a few of the 31 ideas, but I found that this book is much more than just the sum of its parts. Their experience and knowledge in the field of green building and community living shine through, making for an overall engaging read beyond just a list of ideas.

In closing, a goal of their book is that we need to “Start where we are, and do what we can.”


The authors are on the board of directors for the Sustainable Futures Society: Fostering Transitions to a Global, Sustainable Society.

Book Review Archive: “The Great Reset” by Richard Florida

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

OK, so it’s not an architecture or urban planning book, but “The Great Reset” does touch on some ways that the built environment can respond to the “new way of living.”

Florida looks at two key previous “resets:” the Long Depression of the late 1800’s (1873-1879) and the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and how these have spurred innovation and changed our ways of living and working. This is a great read, especially for us demographics junkies, with talk about cities mixed in with sociology and economics.

One of the changes that Florida anticipates is the move away from the emphasis on home ownership as the end-all be-all of the American Dream. He observes that home ownership has been a hindrance to many, especially since it has not turned out to be the ultimate investment that can be easily liquidated for a profit, as a home was thought of a few years ago. According to Florida, “Mobility and flexibility are key principles of the modern economy. Home ownership limits both.”

Florida notes that areas of the highest home ownership also have the highest rates of unemployment, which he thinks is due to the fact that people who own homes cannot readily move to another area for a job opportunity. In that situation, if the economy is bad enough that there are no jobs to be found, chances are the real estate market is not great either. This is especially true of areas where the construction industry became a boom unto itself–places like Phoenix, Las Vegas and areas in Florida where the main industry was real estate and construction-growth spurred construction and construction spurred growth.

Florida envisions a future of “plug and play housing” where a large rental company owns property in many cities. You choose your paint colors and fixtures to customize your rental, and then when you need to move for a job you transfer your lease to another city and your preferences will be plugged in to your new place.

An example he cites is Korman Communities,which offers flexible rental communities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. According to their website, “Korman’s original furnished apartment concept, conceived forty years ago short-term, furnished apartments in a traditional multi-family residential setting has evolved to an innovative residence hybrid embraced by both the corporate and private worlds of travelers and discerning investors.” The AVE: furnished apartments and suites, offer hotel services and resort-like amenities, with month to month leases.

I don’t exactly agree with Florida on all of these points–to me, a society of the transient creative class renting and city hopping to the next job opportunity is somewhat depressing.  There will always be people who stay in one place their whole lives and those who are restless, or want to explore, or try on cities like they are clothes. My husband and I could definitely be considered a part of the latter group-I moved away from my home state of Texas to attend graduate school in Chicago, where we met, and we moved to Seattle for his graduate school. But part of my sanity is returning to the home my grandparents have lived in since I was born and the home my parents have lived in for over 20 years.

The buzz word right now is definitely “community,” and I think that there is something in all of us that needs to be connected: to our town, to our neighbors, to the land. There is something to be said for staying in one place. This won’t be as easy for us Gen X-er’s as it was for our parents, who could reasonably expect to hold one or two different jobs in their adult life. Staying put could mean making a sacrifice of the ultimate career or a larger salary. But it could mean lasting, dare I say, “community,” and to some that may be ultimate lesson of this “reset.”

Book Review Archive: Living Green: Communities that Sustain

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

“Living Green: Communities that Sustain,” by Jennifer Fosket and Laura Mamo

 

The “Living Green” authors visited many intentional communities around the country, interviewed residents, and spent time getting to know what makes each place tick. These communities ranged from a commune that has been around for decades that in order to be a part of you must give up all outside assets so that all are equal, to cohousing communities and eco-villages. The book focused much more on the social aspect of these communities than the built environment, but there was enough discussion of the physical makeup to merit a discussion here.

In the commune mentioned above, the focus of the community was a social sustainability: everyone is made equal by the fact that there is no outside income and everyone contributes somehow for the common good. In an eco-village, incomes are separate and the emphasis is on environmentally sustainably living.

The authors visited the Los Angeles Eco-Village (LAEV), located in the Koreatown neighborhood west of downtown LA. Their mottoes are “Demonstrating higher quality living patterns at a lower environmental impact” and “Reinventing how we live in cities.” It is sponsored by the Cooperative Resources and Services Project, which is a nonprofit community development organization for “small ecological cooperative communities.”

This community is what the Cohousing Association of the United States would call a form of “retro-fit” cohousing, that is, people live together in community, but they live in a building and spaces purchased by the LAEV, as opposed to the traditional definition of cohousing, where residents collectively design a community from scratch. Retro-fit cohousing like the LAEV is a much more accessible and attainable way to live in community. However, it is not without sacrifice. Their rules and regulations dictate the minimum and maximum amount of residents in each unit, for instance. But living here comes with many advantages of community, including “traffic calming” potlucks in the street, gardens, and a supportive bike culture. About half of the residents do not own cars, and those that do not receive a $20 discount on their rent each month. The eco-village is located close to transit and bus stops. The 48 units, owned by the Cooperative Resources and Services Project, are currently rented to residence, but in the future LAEV hopes to create permanently affordable co-ops.

Click here for more information on EcoVillages.

Fosket and Mamo list the 10 C’s of Sustainability that they found in the communities they visited: Culture, Context, Citizenship, Commitment, Collaboration, Connectedness, Care, Contact (with nature), Commons, Continuity.

I particularly like “Citizenship” as key to sustainability. So often the people have a will for living sustainably but what needs to be done is literally against the law (this subject could be dozens of other blog posts, but just for example, zoning laws that separate commercial and residential uses that discourage walking, limits on ADU’s and granny flats which discourage density and affordable housing, and municipal covenants that limit the number of unrelated people living in a single family dwelling). The authors encourage people to take power over their circumstances and strive to change local ordinances that are outdated that limit sustainability .

Book Review Archive: Green Metropolis by David Owen

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues. Jeff Speck, author of Suburban Nation, has been referring to David Owen’s Green Metropolis on his tour for his current bookWalkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

Based on the subject matter and publicity this book has received, it was practically mandatory that I read it, but I was not expecting much. I was very pleasantly surprised. Owen takes on pop conventional wisdom at every turn and takes the wind out of many environmental sails. The main argument of the book is that many of our attempts at being green (i.e. reducing our carbon emissions) are futile without striving for density, with Manhattan as the best American example. Slapping solar panels on a McMansion in a new greenfield development does not make a green building, says Owen, because the real environmental damage is the infrastructure that supports the sprawl, and the amount of driving it takes to live in a typical suburban town. The most important number in your car isn’t the gas mileage, he says, it’s the odometer.

“Oil is liquid civilization: we  are what we burn.”

Owen has some harsh words for the LEED system, mostly for contributing to what he calls “LEED brain,” which I summarize as forsaking common sense for racking up points for green building projects in order to gain recognition. He offers common sense tips for making a new home green, including build a small home on a small infill lot, thoroughly caulk and insulate it, and use efficient appliances. He says that many of these points, especially the importance of caulking and insulating, aren’t particularly glamorous or  photogenic like small residential wind turbines, which he thinks are “wasteful investments in inappropriate technology.” He quotes Thomas L Friedman’s latest book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” his chapter title “If it isn’t Boring, it isn’t Green” which Owen says is a reminder of the “dangers and temptations of LEED brain.” I can’t totally agree with this, as I believe there are exciting technologies that can reduce carbon emissions and great recycled products, but I have been accused of being a regressionist, and tend to think that green building is mostly common sense, and has been for all of human history until the industrial revolution, when we started to use brute force against nature instead of working with it.

Owen discusses the new Sprint Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, which has been recognized as a “green” building and has the typical green building rap sheet. Owen says:

“There is nothing truly ecologically enlightened about Sprint’s Overland Park campus, no matter how many so-called green features the individual buildings include, or how much recaptured runoff water the ground staff uses when irrigating the complex’s dozens of acres of lawn,  or many bicycles are (theoretically) made available  for trips between buildings, or how many trees the company has planted, or how many PETA-certified border collies are used to keep migratory birds from defecating around the edges of the man-made “wetland area”…The campus is a sprawl bomb, and the “open space” preserved on the property merely makes the impact worse.”

An office like this would be much more environmentally friendly if it were placed all in one office town in downtown Kansas City (where there is surely high vacancy), creating more critical mass in downtown which would allow for more efficient transit from the suburbs. He also has harsh words for the Rocky Mountain Institute’s headquarters in Snowmass, Colorado, which is also packed with sustainable features, but in a “thinly populated area,” meaning that employees have no other choice but to drive to work.

Oh, and I love the term “sprawl bomb.” I’m going to see if I can use it in a sentence soon.

The most interesting point that Owen makes is that the most critical environmental issues facing a city are not planting green roofs and trees, or allowing rain barrels and solar panels. He argued that the most critical environmental issues facing a city are law enforcement,street noise, resources for the elderly, crime, parks, and schools-the quality (or lack thereof) these things are what causes people to abandon the city for the suburbs, especially when they have kids. The more people stay in the city (and in turn the more children raised in the city) the higher the density and the tax base, and therefore the quality of life. Owen mentions cities such as Minneapolis where schools are being closed in the cities while taxes are being levied to build more schools in the sprawling suburbs. If services were better in the city, more families could stay and their kids could attend established schools–which not only saves money because the schools are already built, but these schools are more likely to be serviced by roads with sidewalks and public transit, obviously rare in the suburbs.

The question that lingered in my mind for most of the book, as I’m sure it does for most readers since Owen answered it at the end, is if he thinks Manhattan is so great, why doesn’t he live there anymore? He and his wife lived there for seven years before relocating to rural Connecticut.

The answer is, of course, not everyone can live in Manhattan. From my previous blog post, “Green Building Myths”: Per ca pita, rural areas have higher carbon footprints than dense cities like NYC, which is arguably the most important metric when considering what’s “green”. But a rural area may seem “cleaner” because of the lack of air pollution (which can be concentrated in cities), green spaces, clean water, and the general aesthetic and aromatic pleasantness that comes with a lower population density, like lawns, gardens, and contained trash. We need to understand these differences and strive to improve the undesirable aspects of city living while building on its virtues.

References: Sierra Club Challenge to Sprawl
Urban Land Institute Booklet (PDF): Higher Density Development: Myth & Fact

Related books I recommend:

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck
Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay