Having been a Bostonian for the past six years, and a native Massachusetts resident for life, I cannot help but notice the increase of people wearing green in the past few weeks. One group of teenagers went careening through an intersection waving their hats and shouting, “Go Celtics!” to the people waiting to cross the street and beeping their horn. People standing nearby cheered and pumped their fists in the air. Beyond the Celtics winning the NBA Championship, there is another green wave hitting the streets. We are all aware that the way we live effects how green we are. What Americans are only now beginning to seriously contemplate is that where we live effects how green we are.
In Los Angeles, where I’m sure green shirts and hats are banned for at least another few months, a green monsoon is ready to break through the skies. Maybe I should say, ‘Especially in LA’, where people are no stranger to the frequent brown-outs or occasional black-outs as an effect of over-consumption of energy. The dependency upon cars is also astounding in this city. The freeways stretch from the suburbs into the center of the city, meeting in a messy knot of overlapping off-ramps. The reason for the need for automobiles is simple: LA was built with the idea that you could drive in and out of the city and park at each building. Each building is surrounded by parking lots. The density of the city is greatly affected by the fact that each single building has a huge buffer for parking around it. Because buildings are so far apart, it is not feasible to walk or bike around. Walking across fields of asphalt in 90 + degree weather is like trying to exercise in a sauna. The population of LA has occupied an area many times larger than it should, and as a result, is working overtime to cure symptoms like 3 hour commutes to work… each way.
One way we can choose to greatly reduce our carbon footprint is to assess our daily commuting patterns and amount of land we consume. Studies have shown that people living in the city drive less than people who live in the suburbs. What’s even more interesting is that the more near the center of the city one lives, the less they drive. When I am visiting my parents, we drive to grocery store, the video rental store, restaurants, to get coffee, etc. It is not feasible to walk to any of those locations because it would take over an hour (and over 2 in some cases) to walk there and back. When I am at home, I walk to all of those locations with an occasional car trip to a superstore. The truth is that people who live far from the center of a city take an average of four times more car trips than those that live in the city. Their carbon footprint is also up to five times greater.
If you live in the… you produce use an average of this many BTUs/yr…
Suburbs with green living standards 150
Urban area 100
Urban area with green living standards 50
BTUs are British Thermal Units is a unit of energy used in the power, steam generation, and heating and air conditioning industries.
These differences are mostly due to the typical dwelling type of suburban and urban dwellers: the single-family detached home of the suburbs vs. the apartment. While single-families have to fend for themselves when it comes to heating and cooling, some of that effort is shared in a large apartment building, where hot air from the first floor can rise to help heat the above stories. The square footage of homes in the city are smaller per person, too, allowing the amount of energy used to heat and cool the space a person occupies to be substantially less than in the suburbs.
Not all hope is lost. In the past decade, land consumption has gone down 50%. Even still, the amount of land per person in the suburbs is far greater than in the city. One city person’s lifestyle effects only a small fraction of the land a suburban person effects.
All the while, American’s health and diet issues become of greater importance. The urban community sees far more activities like biking and walking to get to and from their daily destinations. As our recreational and mandatory activities become far more sedentary (watching television, working at a computer) we should reassess the situations we put ourselves in. If it is easier to walk to the grocery than drive and fight for parking on the street, we are more likely to choose to walk. If it is impossible to walk or just as easy to drive, we are more likely to choose to drive, based on our processes of finding the path of least resistance. But city living is not only about being forced to walk places. It is becoming more and more each day about enjoying the stroll through a nicely lit, café lined street in the evening, meeting people, community events and gatherings. Once cities were a great place to live… then they weren’t (industrial revolution)… but they are once again returning to the ways of the past: a strong sense of community with street-life culture that promotes a sustainable way of life.
The type of model LA followed when undergoing rapid development did not consider the walkability of the city. Heck, LA had only 3530 people in 1850 and in 158 years grew to a population of 1 million! I'm not sure growth like that could have been anticipated. Today, only 11% of LA commuters use public transit, in comparison to 53% in NYC. When buildings become strictly for one use (such as office, commercial, residential) they put a stress on the surrounding area to travel to get to it. By incorporating multi-use buildings, people can live, work and play in the same area. Our world that has become one that embraces traveling for work, vacations, weekend trips, family visits or even a night out on the town is becoming one that actually discourages the need to go the distance for such things. Cities need to review their structure and plan for better transportation options and revitalization/densification of certain areas in need of a cultural, social, and economic boost. The same methods can and should be applied to towns, even small ones. Are you involved in your town committies that review these options? If you can think of one part of town that has the potential to do more, maybe bringing street life back with multi-use facilities and safely lit sidewalks could do more than you hoped: revitalizing burnt-out economies and cutting neighborhood carbon footprints.
STAY GREEN OR GO GREEN!