Sunday, January 2, 2011

Green or Brown?

The Great Lakes Echo had an interesting article last Thursday: "Detroit businessman proposes large scale commercial farming to struggling city". It's about John Hantz's plan to take Detroit's urban agriculture to new heights - or at least, to a far more ambitious stage. Hantz is a Detroit-area financier and entrepreneur with experience in real estate and banking, together with apparently deep pockets. His idea is to use Detroit's hundreds of acres of abandoned property to grow food, not simply on a family-by-family or soup-kitchen basis, but for profit, using the best techniques MSU's agricultural scientists can provide.

Now, why would that be of interest to transit-advocacy people or to Wake Up Washtenaw? Well, because what's really behind Wake Up Washtenaw is more than transit, it's sustainability.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you may recall the "White Paper" that appeared in sections here a couple of years ago. In January 2009, I put up the section outlining my concept of a new-built sustainable community based on a totally fresh start - a "town" with connections to the earth as well as other communities around it. This community would be able to sustain itself in food and energy, and take care of its own waste, while connecting its residents to the outside world - all without requiring them to own an automobile.

I have long believed that the only practical way to achieve these goals is to start with a large, empty tract of land and build from the ground up. In other words, to use "greenfield" development techniques. Many of my fellow environmental advocates have disagreed with me on principle, believing that we have enough "brownfield" areas to make greenfield development unnecessary. Current environmental thinking holds that the unused and underused parts of our cities and towns provide ample space for sustainable development, without sacrificing precious open space for human habitation. And this argument is especially telling in Michigan, the only state in the US to lose population over the last ten years.

Mr.. Hantz's large-scale urban agriculture plans seem to underscore the availability of thousands of acres within our Michigan cities and towns for profitably growing food. It's a wonderful revelation in one way, but is it the last nail in the coffin for greenfield development in Michigan?

I firmly believe there are good reasons to keep thinking about "green greenfield" development. I'd like to know what you think. Seriously. But here are my reasons for not abandoning the idea of sustainable greenfield development: With it, we can...

  • Use sustainable building practices from the ground up, rather than retrofitting old buildings and infrastructure to sustainable levels, which can be prohibitively expensive. We can start with LEED principles from the get-go, and build structures that can house many people comfortably with a low energy budget and the possibility of, for example, enclosed roof-top gardens the enable the air to be refreshed naturally during the winter.
  • Shape the community for sustainability. Rather than living with existing street and traffic patterns, we plan "outside the box" street layouts, transportation, and shopping for sustainability, while respecting and celebrating the natural features of the land.
  • Build energy production into agriculture and waste-management. Bio-waste from both agriculture and the residential waste stream can be used to produce energy, but it is difficult to do economically if energy, agriculture, and waste management are not planned as mutually interactive systems from the beginning.

Beyond these practical details lies the specter of Michigan's population loss. But study after study has concluded that the way to reverse this trend is to make Michigan the kind of place creative young people want to live in. They are the most likely to be able to revive Michigan's 20th-century economy by injections of 21st century creativity. And that's precisely where a totally new kind of sustainable community can really help. It frees the imagination from the mistakes of the past, the shape-restrictions of old buildings, and the constraints auto-oriented urban design. It allows creativity to work from the tabula raza, the natural state.

A sustainable greenfield development can incorporate existing natural features into the design, features which were long ago erased from the grid of city streets. It holds the promise of taking a section of cornfield and woodlots and actually increasing its agricultural productivity through intensive organic growing techniques, while at the same time greatly increasing its population and reducing the amount of carbon, waste heat, trash, and bio-waste. It allows science, engineering, architecture, and urban design to interact creatively and imaginatively.

So...what do you think?

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