Sunday, June 22, 2008

It can't be done

I've had several people tell me it can't be done. Trying to build sustainable, transit-oriented developments in Washtenaw County won't work.

There are many reasons given for this. Older people - very intelligent, aware, conservative people - are convinced Michiganders are too attached to their cars. That they would be willing to pay an arm, a leg, or both, rather than give up driving everywhere.

Middle-aged people, including a prominent, liberal Ann Arbor environmentalist, are convinced the political leaders and the development companies are too happy making money with sprawl developments. They are perfectly willing to talk the talk, but not walk the walk to sustainability. The county is led by "greenwashers", people who know the advantages of sounding environmentally concerned, but aren't really willing to forego the short-term gains in "business as usual".

So what's a concerned citizen to do? Give up?

Here's my perspective. Right now, my grandson is 3 years old. I know that if I don't work for sustainable development, he will probably leave Michigan and go someplace where people have been willing to invest in future generations. My son has already left - for Seattle. Or my grandson will stay here and live a life of hardship, scraping by in an environment that isn't prepared for gas that tops $20 a gallon.

I've been told I'm wasting my time, beating my head against a brick wall. You can't fight city hall. Well, OK, so this is a "hard-hat zone". That doesn't mean the brick wall should be there, or is going to be there forever. Unless a few people are willing to don hard-hats and start beating against brick walls, our kids and grandkids will be buried under the rubble when the wall crumbles. The wall will fall, because the changes their generation are going to see will be like Katrina and the Szechuan earthquake put together.

So to those who say "It can't be done," I've got to respond, "It must be done". I'm not willing to put my feet up and let my grandkids face problems that I didn't have the guts to face.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."
  • Margaret Mead

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The American Dream

I came across an interesting organization on the Web today: the American Dream Coalition. Linked to their star-spangled, red-and-white striped home page is their latest report: "The Greatest Invention: How Automobiles Made America Great." The report cover features automobiles of the 1940s through 1970s.

What initially drew my attention to their site was their response to Christopher Leinberger's much-quoted article on the "death of the suburbs". Here's their central point:
Death of Suburbs?
Professor Leinberger anticipates a future where “large-lot suburban McMansions fall into disrepair and affluent buyers flock to walkable downtowns.” By 2025, suburbia will become “a residential wasteland.”
Where have we heard this before?
Sorry, Professor, but we will get over the high prices of energy, or we will adapt to them. But suburbs will not die, for this is where middle income families go to pursue the American Dream - a home with a backyard and nearby ball fields, places of worship, and other amenities. There’s less crime in the suburbs, less congestion, less polution, less . . . er, disease. And suburbs are more affordable than central cities. Much more affordable.
I'm not sure where they heard this before, though they seem to be implying a source of information already discredited by their readers. Unfortunately, Leinberger is not totally "anticipating" a residential wasteland. He bases his discussion on extensive observation of home pricing in different types of neighborhoods, on reported vandalism, and on comparative increases in crime in different areas. Apparently, this future is here.

What an interesting statement: "we will get over the high prices of energy, or we will adapt to them". This is very insightful. At least it gives me insight into why there is so much push-back against energy efficient solutions to our situation. But there are two possible reasons for the optimism expressed in that statement:
  1. Trust in the certainty that technology will overcome the eventual depletion of fossil fuels; or
  2. Trust that the high prices of energy will go away, and we can continue as before with no change of lifestyle.
To some extent, I share their hope that technology will overcome our energy crunch - but not their apparent faith in our ability to continue as before. I can't keep the picture of an ostrich from popping into my mind's eye. All the solutions I've heard of so far have started with a reduction in our energy budget, at least to the level of European consumption.

Our friends at the American Dream Coalition continue, "But suburbs will not die, for this is where middle income families go to pursue the American Dream - a home with a backyard..."

I have to admit it, though. Yesterday I was sitting on the deck having lunch, thinking of how I enjoy my back yard: its privacy, its leafy green shade, the squirrels, the birds, the bunnies. It would be hard to give up the traditional suburban back yard.
But at the same time, I think of Little Shop of Horrors, that quintessential high school musical, where the heroine Audrey poignantly expresses, in the song "Somewhere that's Green," her wish to fulfill the American suburban dream. She ends up consumed by the man-eating plant "Audrey II". Is this an allegory? Does it foreshadow how the American Dream has turned into the American Nightmare? Giant, twisting freeways, choking with endless lines, bumper-to-bumper, of "the greatest invention"?

Continuing that thought, our friends write, "a home with a backyard and nearby ball fields, places of worship, and other amenities." The backyard may be nearby, but almost invariably the ball fields, places of worship, and other amenities are not nearby enough to walk. Every place worth going to is only accessible by car.

I have nothing against cars. I don't hate them - one blogger once accused me of hating cars. But I do hate having no realistic choice other than cars. They consume an unreasonable proportion of people's time and money. People who can't afford a car are locked out of the American dream.

"There’s less crime in the suburbs, less congestion, less pollution, less . . . er, disease. And suburbs are more affordable than central cities. Much more affordable." Query: If suburbs are so much more affordable, why are central cities inhabited by the poor people (disease-ridden criminals!)? That sentence in itself is worth a couple of blog entries dealing with the outdated perceptions and the covert racism. Suburbs are only more affordable if you ignore transportation costs. Clearly, whoever wrote that statement doesn't want us to think clearly.

Also, suburbs are afflicted with one of the greatest epidemics of our time: obesity. Obesity is linked with blood pressure problems, heart disease, diabetes, and who knows how many other conditions. It is brought on by unhealthy aspects of the suburban life: over-dependence on cars, riding-mowers, leaf blowers, snow blowers, over-indulgence in fatty foods, beer, and video games.

If we are not to end up consumed by the American dream, we had better start thinking seriously about what this dream means. And no more ostrich thinking, please.