Environmental Sustainability: Your Community Plays a Role

Environmental sustainability discussions are becoming much more prevalent in local communities. Citizen committees and paid coordinators are now commonplace in cities and towns.  Many of you are keenly interested in climate change, an issue that pretty recently would have been considered something that national governments must solve. Now cities are taking the lead on this important issue.

It's feasible at the community level to carry out a recycling program, build a network of community gardens, and revisit how your land use pattern and street grid (or lack of one) affects miles driven. Our pages on stormwater or landfills, for example, show a decided neighborhood slant.

For some people in the world, sustainability means meeting basic human needs, such as clean water or sanitation.

However, those of us living in consumer-oriented societies find ourselves thinking about environmental sustainability because we realize that improving our city planning and real estate development practices can reduce energy consumption, pollution, and material use.

In this section of the website, we explore the topics below.  This introduction continues after the grid. If you prefer, you can use the site search feature at the top of the page.

We've even begun to realize that our old ways of looking at costs should be replaced by thinking about costs over the entire life cycle of a building or project. Over the past few decades we've built too many commercial buildings designed to collapse in about 20 years.

Older community members will remember the earlier environmental movement. Sometimes they are cynical about whether the current green movement will last. At least one of us involved in this website is in that camp. But we can still do plenty about environmental sustainability at the community level.

7 Ways Sustainability Is Relevant to Neighborhoods

If you want to work in this space, you should be prepared to explain seven ways that environmental sustainability is relevant at the community or neighborhood level:

1. Air and water pollution diminish human health. Air pollution can damage beautiful old buildings and monuments that bring character to your neighborhood.  Your community should care about both.

2. Energy demand, together with supply, determines energy cost. In turn, energy costs impact where people can live and work--important community development considerations.

3. Solid waste generation leads to noisy, street-destroying garbage trucks at the least. Litter is an ongoing and increasing problem. The visual prominence of dumpsters or roll-out containers can be an annoying issue.

If you're a typical community, what you throw away ends up in sanitary landfills. Worse yet, you may have to clean up a garbage dump if you live where such informal handling of stuff you throw away is allowed.

4. Construction or demolition debris is a larger part of the solid waste stream than you might imagine (15-20% in many locales). Many commercial buildings erected in the last 20 years were built with a short life expectancy, leading us to think that the percentage of building materials in the waste stream will climb.

Careless building demolition can have a substantial impact on air both pollution and energy demand too. And we just decided it's worthwhile to curb both.

5. The new industries that clean energy and sustainable development could bring to your community could be just what you need for economic development.

6. Reducing your carbon footprint as a government, neighborhood, or community could help slow global warming. And if you're in a coastal zone or a climate that you like, climate change mitigation could become very important, don't you think? (Mitigation means reducing the severity of an impact.)

7. Communities with particular assets and potential problems, such as those in the path of hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and so forth may develop special expertise and emphasis that even a state government lacks.  We are starting to write about the relevant sub-topics, beginning with beach nourishment as a policy option.

That's why we're talking about environmental sustainability on a community development website.

If your town already understands and wants to do something more sophisticated, you might want to see what else green communities are doing.

Now that we've set the stage, we'll give mostly brief sketches of the information you can find in this section of the website.

Using Resources Wisely: What Communities Can Do

If you can "reduce, re-use, and recycle," as the saying goes, your neighborhood promotes environmental sustainability. We look at these one by one below.

1. Conserving Resources

It may be easiest to think about simply using fewer resources. Examples are water conservationenergy conservation, and reduced use of paper. Your neighborhood or community organization probably will want to incorporate some of these reduction measures into the way it conducts its meetings, events, parades, open houses, and celebrations.

Just try to make sure that you're thinking clearly about environmental sustainability and not simply adopting clichés. Connect the dots for folks, and dramatize that in your everyday life together as a community.

For example, if you stop using foam cups at board meetings, that's a little less garbage lying undigested in sanitary landfills somewhere.

But actually we think waste reduction has become a feasible environmental sustainability goal for individual neighborhoods, and for a coalition of neighborhoods within a metropolitan area. Zero waste or closed-loop cities seemed so pie-in-the-sky until we started investigating. Check it out.

Less obviously, we need to reduce the polluted runoff that drains rapidly into our storm inlets, tributaries, and streams. After all, the stormwater runoff carries with it all the pollutants that were on solid surfaces such as streets and parking lots on the way to a larger body of water.

So while your kids think that the water runs down the gutter, down the driveway, down to the end of the block, and then it disappears underground, we adults know that it reappears somewhere in a creek or river. Sometimes we just forget.

Some newer best management practices (BMPs) such as the use of floating islands (also called floating treatment wetlands), show promise of cleaning stormwater or wastewater ponds, so watch for various commercial and experimental applications for situations when water is already dirty. 

The other part of the stormwater runoff equation is that by reducing the speed at which the water runs off, we allow some of it to percolate (yes, that's the actual term) into the soil to replenish the groundwater.  Many places rely on groundwater for their drinking water.

And lastly, if we discourage stormwater from gushing away rapidly from hard surfaces that do not allow water to soak through (impervious surfaces), we practice flood prevention, especially when it comes to flash flooding.

Preventing flooding totally may be beyond your local capability, but a surprising amount can be done locally to decrease future damage, even if the people upstream of you refuse to cooperate.

Or even better, get to know those upstream folks and form a coalition with them.

2. Just Use It Again

Maybe a building is in such bad condition that it doesn't scream re-use. Occasionally a building will be so obsolete or so dilapidated that it just needs to be demolished. If so, face that fact, and convince your government or the owner to take down the building.

Developers and potential investors in other parts of the neighborhood are more receptive to a blank slate than to an old building that you've determined can't be saved.

When you have vacant land, or demolish a building, you now have a redevelopment opportunity. If you are able to replace that building with sustainable development or open space, you have a net increase in your neighborhood's desirability.

Sometimes it's considerably more expensive to consider adaptive reuse of a building than to construct something new, if you consider only the financial bottom line.

That's why the notion of the triple bottom line has come into being. Basically the idea is that social and environmental costs need to be combined with the financial cost to figure out what is profitable.

Let's say that a building is perfectly sound structurally, but it is unlikely to be occupied for its previous use. So what should you do?

A service station can become an oil change place, using some of the same infrastructure. Or after you’ve removed the gasoline tanks (the most expensive part of gas station re-use), you can try for a deli, small restaurant, repair shop, office, or small store of any description.

When you have an empty building previously used for something not in demand, look at what is solidly in demand in your neighborhood.

If there are environmental clean-up issues, address those first. Any place where petroleum products have been used, including gas stations, mechanic shops, dry cleaners, and most manufacturing, automatically has an environmental regulatory issue.

It will be called a brownfield. Your organization and local government can apply to your state for clean-up money. If your local government seems to be clueless about how to approach an environmental problem or a compliance issue, tell them to get connected to the International City County Management Association's LGEAN (Local Government Environmental Assistance Network).  

Although a brownfield is something that may only be suspected of being contaminated, it's possible that you might have a genuine toxic waste site.

Toxic waste has its own clean up protocols and certainly its own vocabulary, which is introduced on our page well enough that if you have to, you can find an environmental consultant to help you.

Just to be clear, toxic waste isn't a clean-up your group can do on the weekend. This is the moon suit kind of clean-up. So you need assistance from some level of government probably.

If there are ordinary clean-up issues, address those too. Clean up the lot. Clean up the grime. If this building has some cheap aluminum siding on it, peel it off. Like any real estate, if it's painted the world's ugliest pink, try a soft beige or subtle green.

3. Recycling

Many of us have been recycling for years. The recycling center is almost dead, now that most states have a mandatory waste reduction program that can be met only through curbside recycling.

But waste reduction is where neighborhoods can step up by making sure that their events produce as little waste as possible and provide on-the-spot recycling bins.

One pocket of recycling that would provide significant environmental, energy, and economic benefit is construction material recycling. We think it deserves more attention.

Along the same lines, why not think about recycling buildings? This particular environmental sustainability strategy means that a building is used again for the same general land use that formerly occupied it.  This distinguishes what we call building recycling from adaptive re-use, in which the land use actually changes.

Electronics recycling not only reduces the volume of the local waste stream, but also removes heavy metals from it.

Become a Leader in Restoring the Planet

For a while now we have been noticing that many communities feel they are answering all the challenges that sustainability leaders have been posing, but that somehow they want to do more.

Our answer is that communities can take a leadership role in what is being called regenerative design--the notion that as important as sustainability is, we can actually move beyond that standard by starting to heal the planet. Read about this important concept in our interview with landscape architect Jay Womack.

Environmental Sustainability in Construction and Development Practices

The definition of sustainable development includes using less of the materials that Mother Nature took a geologic era to produce.

Choose materials that will last a long time, and that won't produce toxic effects during their use or pollute when they are disposed of. We discuss this further in our page on green home construction.

Ideally, the next use is designed right into the building, or to say that another way, think about incorporating some versatility in case your intended use becomes obsolete in 30 years.

Realizing that our definition implied a very North American view of the world, we also wrote a sustainable development page to acknowledge how much the term differs in alternative cultural contexts. In developing nations, sustainable development has become a synonym for what we discuss as community development on this website.

Sometimes it's the choice of location that creates environmental sustainability. Transit oriented development is a very important example. If this interests you, check out our whole section on sprawl.

Transportation Alternatives, Especially Around the Neighborhood

Another part of environmental sustainability that is quite important is retrofitting or developing a community so that it's a walkable community. Did you think that walking somewhere for transportation was a sign you lost your driver's license? That's not true.  Walking is good exercise, and it's virtually free, especially if you forego expensive walking shoes.

A bikeable community also can minimize the environmental damage from cars, not to mention the damage from that little geopolitical thing with oil.

Maybe you still think bikes are for kids or competitive young people in tight pants. But adults are increasingly enjoying this childhood taste of freedom. Safe places to ride increase bicycling. And bike facilities increase your cool factor for attracting young people. Check into bicycle sharing if you want a program that promotes reduced automobile use.

Speaking of sharing, we once had a page on car sharing. At that time it seemed feasible for densely populated neighborhoods, college campuses, or maybe smaller cities and towns to create their own programs.  Then the large corporate car sharing programs came into being, and now we suggest that most of you who are interested in car sharing try to work with Enterprise, Hertz, U-Haul, or other corporations that may have a presence in your community.  If this situation changes, certainly we will update our old page and put it on the web again.

Lastly, an effective public transit system is another key piece in environmental sustainability. So anything you can do to increase ridership, cleanliness, reliability, and convenience of buses, trains, on-demand service, or car services is very helpful.

Neighborhood Solar, Energy Generation, and Conservation

Great neighborhood-scale energy projects now are becoming feasible. That could be a neighborhood windmill or two for a few of you, or negotiating group rates on neighborhood solar installations, especially where your state laws are favorable.

We all need to ask for a smart grid so we can generate electricity and sell it back to the utility, but while we're doing that, a few communities might want to go for the big project.

Adding an energy generation component of environmental sustainability in a few densely populated neighborhoods could provide welcome relief to the power grid.

But for most of you, the most feasible action lies in energy conservation. There's a wealth of information available, but our page gives tips to start your neighborhood-level energy discussion. We emphasize things you can do something about, such as transportation options.

Community Gardening and Urban Agriculture

Because of the negative impact of transportation on environmental sustainability, many people are getting on the bandwagon about locally grown food right now. We finally figured out that if we live in the U.S., for example,  grapes from Chile might not be any better than grapes from the next county. We are learning that tomatoes grown 20 miles away actually could be sold ripe.

The local food movement is a small but worthy contribution to using less energy and environmental sustainability. From both the environmental and security standpoints, it's important for communities to start considering how they could produce more food locally.

The implications of deciding to start a community garden are decorative, entertaining, community building, and also practical. We know the source of the food grown there and what chemicals are used. If you suffer from community poverty, this is a great environmental sustainability activity. If your neighborhood is high-income, your community garden could be a terrific social activity that lasts  you a  growing season--just what it takes to build a friendship.

Beyond vegetable gardening, commercial scale urban agriculture operations can form another element of environmental sustainability. Urban farms especially should be considered in shrinking cities, where declining population and housing demand have left a large quantity of vacant land that could be reclaimed for growing crops.

Environmental Justice

One final sub-topic to explore is related to environmental justice.

If you haven't heard that term, it's used to describe the fact that disproportionately, poor and minority neighborhoods have to endure most of the undesirable land uses, such as landfills. Their neighborhoods tolerate the worst of the air and water pollution. That isn't at all fair, since the low-income folk use less stuff. 

Compounding the problem, often the lowest income areas also don't have as many environmental assets such as parks either.

Let's be a better, more fair society.

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