Yours truly spoke recently with Bill Lindeke on the streets.mn podcast about Minneapolis sustainability initiatives (my day job). We had an interesting discussion about measuring sustainability, greenwashing, and my solar tinkering.
The Breakthrough Institute has an interesting essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus describing the case for “modernization” in our ecological approach versus what they call the traditional view, “ecotheology” which views our modernization as an affront to nature. Here’s a long quote. Be sure to also read the responses by Leslie Paul Thiele and Jon Christensen.
The rise of the knowledge economy — encompassing medicine, law, finance, media, real estate, marketing, and the nonprofit sector — has further accelerated the West’s growing disenchantment with modern life, especially among the educated elite. Knowledge workers are more alienated from the products of their labor than any other class in history, unable to claim some role in producing food, shelter, or even basic consumer products. And yet they can afford to spend time in beautiful places — in their gardens, in the countryside, on beaches, and near old-growth forests. As they survey these landscapes, they tell themselves that the best things in life are free, even though they have consumed mightily to travel to places where they feel peaceful, calm, and far from the worries of the modern world.
These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate ecotheology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world. Alongside those dark incantations shine nostalgic visions of a transcendent future in which humans might, once again, live in harmony with nature through a return to small-scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.
The contradictions between the world as it is — filled with the unintended consequences of our actions — and the world as so many of us would like it to be result in a pseudorejection of modernity, a kind of postmaterialist nihilism. Empty gestures are the defining sacraments of this ecotheology. The belief that we must radically curtail our consumption in order to survive as a civilization is no impediment to elites paying for private university educations, frequent jet travel, and iPads…
Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology consistent with the reality of human creation and life on Earth, not with some imagined dystopia or utopia. It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred, rather than inhumane and profane. It will require replacing the antiquated notion that human development is antithetical to the preservation of nature with the view that modernization is the key to saving it. Let’s call this “modernization theology.”
Where ecotheology imagines that our ecological problems are the consequence of human violations of a separate “nature,” modernization theology views environmental problems as an inevitable part of life on Earth. Where the last generation of ecologists saw a natural harmony in Creation, the new ecologists see constant change. Where ecotheologians suggest that the unintended consequences of human development might be avoidable, proponents of modernization view them as inevitable, and positive as often as negative. And where the ecological elites see the powers of humankind as the enemy of Creation, the modernists acknowledge them as central to its salvation.
Modernization theology should thus be grounded in a sense of profound gratitude to Creation — human and nonhuman. It should celebrate, not desecrate, the technologies that led our prehuman ancestors to evolve. Our experience of transcendence in the outdoors should translate into the desire for all humans to benefit from the fruits of modernization and be able to experience similar transcendence. Our valorization of creativity should lead us to care for our cocreation of the planet.
I have a family obligation to promote the Twin Cities Urban Sustainability Forum on November 2nd and 3rd. The forum is bringing together academics and practitioners to explore the connection between urban sustainability, what planners and practitioners often work on, and urban ecosystems, which I think is a way for the St. Paul campus folks to get involved in cities.
Twin Cities Urban Sustainability Forum, Nov. 2-3, 2011
REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN!
Cost: $25 general $10 students
Continuing education: AICP and PDH credits available
Location: U of M Continuing Education Center, St. Paul campus.
ABOUT THE FORUM The Forum will highlight emerging outcomes of sustainability research and cutting edge trends in sustainability practice and policy. Presentations by leading national and international speakers will address:
· Connecting urban ecosystem science with social and economic sustainability
· Federal and state-level sustainability policy
· Overcoming disconnects between sustainability research and practice
Insightful panels and networking opportunities will inform a translational research agenda – to ensure a closer connection between re-search priorities and urban sustainability practice.
Speakers from the federal Sustainable Communities Partnership and state agencies will highlight emerging policy directions in sustainability. Researchers from the University of Oregon, University of Colorado, Virginia Tech, and the University of Minnesota will highlight cutting edge research addressing urban infrastructure, energy, air quality, health, and natural resource issues. U of MN research center directors, including CURA and CTS, will explore new approaches to connecting research and practice around sustainability.
WHO SHOULD ATTEND? Planners, water and natural resource managers, engineers, urban ecologists, and others interested in urban sustainability practice or research.
For more information: Contact co-organizers Lawrence A. Baker, Dept. of Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Carissa Schively Slotterback, Urban & Regional Planning Program, Humphrey School of Public Affairs (email@example.com).
The event is funded by the McKnight Foundation, National Science Foundation, U of M Center for Transportation Studies, and U of M Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
Since the EPA, DOT and HUD joined forces to create the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and laid out six livability principles, there has been a lot of discussion: How might federal funding guidelines change? How will we measure livability? Does this mean we can only have one kind of lettuce?
It appears answers may be arriving. EPA has released a Guide to Sustainable Transportation Performance Measures. According to EPA,
Many transportation agencies are now being called upon by their stakeholders to plan, build, and operate transportation systems that – in addition to achieving the important goals of mobility and safety – support a variety of environmental, economic, and social objectives. These include protecting natural resources, improving public health, strengthening energy security, expanding the economy, and providing mobility to disadvantaged people.
This shift has been decades in the making and is driven by a variety of factors. One factor is the desire for a more integrated and holistic approach to transportation decision-making. Researchers have been shedding light on the complex interrelationships between our built and natural environments and drawing attention to the need to better consider the multifaceted implications of transportation system changes. At the same time, advanced computer tools are making it easier to quantify and visualize these relationships.
The guide contains 12 examples measures for incorporating sustainable community objectives into transportation decision-making. The key here is that these measures are going beyond mobility – looking at other factors like carbon intensity and mixed land uses, which should be important inputs into our transportation planning processes, but have not been uniformly adopted.
If you look closely, you’ll also notice many of these measures match well with another tool that HUD, one of the Sustainable Communities partners, has said they will use to evaluate projects: LEED ND. Transit accessibility, bike and pedestrian level of service, mixed land uses, land consumption and carbon intensity are all measures which play an important role in the rating system.
The document includes a description of the stage in a planning process in which each measure might be useful, the specific metrics one would use, guidance on calculations and data sources and examples of planning process where that measure has been used.
This document doesn’t say how or if funding guidelines will change. This also isn’t a comprehensive guide on how to include sustainability or livability into a specific planning process (environmental review, for example). However, this could be a useful tool for any city, county or other entity involved in transportation decision-making to build a better process. It starts to place metrics around the aspirational language we’ve heard from politicians.
I’ve written a lot about LEED ND, the rating system built to define sustainable neighborhoods, including how to use it as a framework for sustainable regional planning. Typically, the rating system is applied to new development or redevelopment: when new streets, buildings and infrastructure systems are being built. Rarely has it been applied to an existing neighborhood, where development or redevelopment is occurring at a slow pace and changes to major infrastructure systems are unlikely or occurring incrementally. That application was simply not the original purpose of LEED ND. I’ve always viewed LEED ND as providing an alternative to a model of traditional suburban development that has low connectivity, low density and poor location efficiency. In its current form, it is best suited as a guide to help us plan and build new development more sustainably.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t many valuable lessons for existing neighborhoods within the LEED ND system. While we know that the greenest development is almost always the one that is already built, existing neighborhoods can often lack connectivity, walkability, density or other design features, which if retrofitted over time, could make them more livable and sustainable.
Neighborhoods and cities concerned about maintaining and improving livability, sustainability and financial viability are using LEED ND in just this way. The Loring Park neighborhood in Minneapolis is in the process of creating a neighborhood master plan to shape their community for the next twenty years. The neighborhood partnered with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to assess the neighborhood’s sustainability using the LEED ND system. Loring Park would also like to become officially certified as a LEED ND “project”, either under the current system or under
a pilot existing neighborhoods program an alternative path for neighborhood and small areas plans that USGBC is developing. A volunteer group, including yours truly, is working to help the neighborhood meet this goal.
The purpose of pursuing certification is to make this already green neighborhood even greener. If Loring Park falls short in certain parts of the rating system, these shortcomings can be turned directly into goals for the master plan. The Loring Park Draft Concept Plan includes a goal related to sustainable buildings and infrastructure and includes these goals for the use of LEED ND:
Further utilize the LEED-ND rating framework to:
- periodically gauge neighborhood wide performance and progress toward sustainability goals
- set in place (or augment) design guidelines or to set parameters for private project review and approval, or to gauge the merits of specific capital improvement projects
- structure performance criteria for various incentives
- preparation for government grants or other support from agencies that are familiar with LEED-ND rating system or that directly utilize LEED- ND standards as performance criteria
Our volunteer group, organized by the USGBC Minnesota Chapter and Loring Park residents, has just begun the certification process for the neighborhood. This process will be a great opportunity to document the challenges of applying LEED ND to an existing neighborhood and review the rating system’s usefulness for a community planning process. Stay tuned.
This video from Criterion Planners shows a step-by-step process to use LEED ND to assess “smart” locations in a city. This process could be used during a plan update, or to make changes to the zoning code. Knowing the process, and which parcels are eligible, can also help the city increase the number of eligible areas using regulatory tools.
This process is very similar to the method I used to assess LEED ND eligibility and “location efficiency” for the Twin Cities metro region in previous posts.