Cities, Suburbs: Both Can Be Green

I've been meaning to write about a ludicrous opinion piece that appeared in the Washington Post this past weekend. The authors claim that what will really help us address our energy and climate problems is land-development that is even more sprawling, as long as we plant some trees along the way.

The main thing that gets under my skin about articles like this is the false dichotomy they create: suburban sprawl vs. dense cities. This ignores the sheer variety of development types. In fact, the authors mention the leafy suburb of Reston, Virginia (where my parents live, coincidentally) as an ideal community. But evidently the authors have never visited Reston, which isn't exactly "sprawl" by today's standards. It is comparatively compact, and some neighborhoods are even walkable. In fact, a 2001 study by Synergy Planning found that if the D.C. region were to develop like Reston, 25 years of growth could be accommodated on vacant and underused land within a 20-mile radius of the center of D.C.

So it's simple-minded and deceptive to portray development as "city vs. suburbia."

Thankfully, my friend and colleague Kaid Benfield (who was recently profiled in an Ontario publication) submitted an excellent letter to the Post rebutting the piece. Don't know if the editors will have the good sense to publish it, but I certainly will:

The authors mislead readers about the causes of global warming.

While pavement does create "heat islands," that phenomenon is not confined to downtowns.  Some of the worst offenders on a per-acre basis are the giant parking lots that surround suburban Wal-Marts and malls. For confirmation, walk across one on a July afternoon.

Moreover, the contribution of heat islands to global warming is dwarfed by that of vehicle traffic.  Transportation contributes a third of US carbon emissions and its share is growing. We must strengthen cities and suburbs in ways that allow us to spend less time in our cars, but this won't happen if we continue to scatter the fragments of our community willy-nilly across what's left of our countryside.

Cities reduce warming emissions by using existing infrastructure, putting people, jobs, and services closer together, and facilitating walking and mass transit. In the suburbs, concentrating more growth around transit stations in walkable, green neighborhoods provides transportation choices and reduces traffic. In both, we can soften the effects of heat islands by integrating more trees, parks, and roof gardens into our downtowns, neighborhoods and, yes, even parking lots.

Both cities and suburbs will benefit - and so will the planet.