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Current patterns of land use and development are at once socially, economically, and environmentally destructive. Sprawling low-density development literally devours natural landscapes while breeding a pervasive sense of social isolation and exacerbating a vast array of economic problems. As more and more counties begin to look more and more the same, hope for a different future may seem to be fading. But alternatives do exist.
The Ecology of Place, Timothy Beatley and Kristy Manning describe a world in which land is consumed sparingly, cities and towns are vibrant and green, local economies thrive, and citizens work together to create places of eduring value. They present a holistic and compelling approach to repairing and enhancing communities, introducing a vision of "sustainable places" that extends beyond traditional architecture and urban design to consider not just the physical layout of a development but the broad set of ways in which communities are organized and operate. Chapters examine:
The authors address a variety of policy and development issues that affect a community -- from its economic base to its transit options to the ways in which its streets and public spaces are managed -- and examine the wide range of programs, policies, and creative ideas that can be used to turn the vision of sustainable places into reality.
The Ecology of Place is a timely resource for planners, economic development specialists, students, and citizen activists working toward establishing healthier and more sustainable patterns of growth and development.
The New Planning Agenda
The problem of the 21st century is how to live good and just lives within limits, in harmony with the earth and each other. Great cities can rise out of cruelty, deviousness, and a refusal to be bounded. Livable cities can only be sustained out of humility, compassion, and acceptance of the concept of "enough."
—Donella Meadows, "Can Los Angeles Learn to Live with Limits?"
Our nation and its communities are at a critical juncture in terms of how they will grow, evolve, and deal with increasingly urgent environmental and social concerns. American communities, and indeed the American people, have important choices to make about the types of places they wish to inhabit and the kinds of environments they hope to leave their children and grandchildren.
In many ways, this dilemma stems from competing visions of the future. One path continues the status quo by simply projecting our current patterns of development into the future. This scenario is one of continuing to accommodate the march of low-density, auto-dependent, sprawling growth; facilitating the loss of natural landscapes that sustain us and other life on the planet; perpetuating our irresponsible patterns of waste and consumption; and witnessing the continuing decline in the bonds of community and the quality of our living conditions.
But there is an alternative vision, one that imagines a different future. This future is one in which land is consumed sparingly, landscapes are cherished, and cities and towns are compact and vibrant and green. These are places that have much to offer in the way of social, cultural, and recreational activity, where the young and the old are not marginalized, and where there is a feeling of community, an active civic life, and a concern for social justice. In these communities, the automobile has been tamed, many transportation options exist (including public transit and walking), and fundamental human mobility and freedom are enhanced. These are communities in which the economic base is viable as well as environmentally and socially restorative. This vision of place emphasizes both the ecological and the social, where quantity of consumption is replaced with quality of relationships. In short, the vision is about creating places citizens can be proud of—places of enduring value that people are not ashamed to leave to their descendants.
This book introduces an expanded vision of what places can be, and of how we might plan for them. It builds on the ideas and power of recent concerns about ecological sustainability, but transforms those ideas in some important ways. First, the vision explored here is one that celebrates place. It recognizes that questions of ecological sustainability are fundamentally and inextricably tied to patterns of human settlement—to metropolitan regions, cities, towns, and villages. These patterns are directly influenced by natural processes and forces, including rivers, topography, and natural disasters. Just as they themselves are impacted, so do human settlements exert tremendous pressures on ecosystems, from the generation of pollution and wastes to demands on resources for food, electricity, and water. Perhaps most striking, at least in terms of the clarity with which its progress many be monitored, is the consumption and destruction of ecological capital through the conversion of natural landscapes and farmland to urbanized uses.
However dire its anticipated consequences, in this fundamental recognition lies the hope and promise of places that can actually support and help to achieve long-term ecological sustainability, rather than work against it. Land use and growth patterns can be shaped to minimize resource consumption; development needs can be focused onto already committed and degraded lands; and the processes of urbanization and community building can be used to repair and restore rather than degrade and destroy.
At the same time that this alternative vision explicably connects human settlement patterns to ecological conditions, so too does it emphasize the needs of humans and the quality of human communities. Environmental advocates are sometimes accused of showing concern for the ecological integrity of the planet to the exclusion of the needs of humans. The vision of sustainable places, or sustainable communities, presented in the following pages is explicitly human. Just as it seeks to protect, sustain, and restore the environment, it also strives to create livable, inspiring, enduring, and equitable places—regions, cities, and towns where the quality of life and the long-term quality of human existence will be enhanced rather than degraded. Hence, there is a unity of purpose in the vision of sustainable places that is at once environmental and ecological, as well as social and human, in its orientation.
To realize fully the potential of such a vision, Americans must begin to rethink in fundamental ways their approaches to planning, designing, and managing place. Such an approach seeks a way of living on the planet that respects the limits of its ecological health—the finiteness of land, biodiversity, and other natural resources—while finding hopeful alternatives to the many ways in which current approaches to planning and place making are unsuccessful at meeting human needs and desires.
The vision presented in this book is about creating and nurturing sustainable towns, cities, and regions—"sustainable places." As the underlying basis for the new approach to planning, the notion of sustainability is fundamental to the many strategies that this volume will describe and advocate. A clear understanding of this concept is therefore a necessary starting point for creating sustainable places.
To many, sustainability and sustainable development are just the latest buzzwords to make their way into the planning field—another set of trendy phrases. There is no question that these terms are used increasingly to describe what planners do and what their professional mission is. Their meanings are not immediately obvious: sustainability and sustainable development require definition and elaboration, as do terms such as freedom, justice, or quality of life.
There is a general sense that sustainability is a good thing (and that being unsustainable is a bad thing), but will we know it when we see it? This ambiguity will likely remain, but the very fact that planners and citizens are questioning what is or is not sustainable, and exploring what the idea means and calls for, is a very positive sign. It opens opportunities for critical dialogue and serves as an important catalyst for thinking clearly and systematically about the future we wish to create.
Sustainability finds many of its roots in biology and ecology, and specifically in the concept of ecological "carrying capacity"—the notion that a given ecosystem or environment can sustain a certain animal population, and that beyond that level, overpopulation and species collapse will occur (for a detailed discussion of the history of sustainability, see Kidd 1992). Central to this concept is the idea that certain physical and ecological limits that exist in nature, if exceeded, will have ripple effects that bring population back in line with capacity.
The meaning of sustainability is perhaps clearest when applied to renewable resources such as ocean fisheries, forests, groundwater, and soils. Terms such as optimal sustainable yield have been explicitly incorporated into, for example, U.S. fisheries management law (Kidd 1992). The growing advocacy for sustainable use of a variety of renewable resources—sustainable forestry, sustainable fisheries, sustainable agriculture—is premised on the idea that these resources can be harvested and used in a manner that allows them to renew themselves and that preserves their long-term productivity (Aplet, Johnson, Olsen, and Sample, eds. 1993). Sustainability is also a useful concept in planning for the use of nonrenewable resources, the waste-assimilative capacities of the earth, and the natural service provided by the environment (e.g., climate regulation; Jacobs 1991).
The use of the term sustainability in environmental planning and policy circles is relatively new. It began appearing in the literature in the early 1970s and emerged as a significant theme in the 1980s. The term of preference became sustainable development, which focused on how human interventions—especially international development programs and projects—failed to respect the integrity of the natural systems in which they were sited. Projects of international development agencies such as the World Bank were highly criticized as the antithesis of sustainable development. Sustainability has since been strongly embraced by such nongovernmental organizations as the Worldwatch Institute and World Resources Institute (Brown et al. 1994; WRI 1994), governmental organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a number of international study groups (Kidd 1992). Most recently, the President's Council on Sustainable Development has examined the role of sustainability in American communities as well as its implications for the future of the nation (PCSD 1996).
Particularly in the last decade, there have been a number of attempts to define sustainable development formally. Probably the most frequently cited definition is that put forth by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also commonly known as the Brundtland Commission, which defined sustainable development as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED 1987, p. 8). More recently, the National Commission on the Environment has defined sustainable development as
a strategy for improving the quality of life while preserving the environmental potential for the future, of living off interest rather than consuming natural capital. Sustainable development mandates that the present generation must not narrow the choices of future generations but must strive to expand them by passing on an environment and an accumulation of resources that will allow its children to live at least as well as, and preferably better than, people today. Sustainable development is premised on living within the Earth's means (National Commission on the Environment 1993, p. 2).
These definitions share an emphasis on certain important concepts and themes. They stress the importance of living within the ecological carrying capacities of the planet, living off ecological interest, and protecting future generations. They envision a society that "can persist over generations, one that is farseeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support" (Meadows, Meadows, and Randers 1992, p. 209).
Community Planning in the Context of Global Environmental Crisis
The urgency of current environmental trends clearly necessitates a new approach to living on the planet—one that sustains our basic biological and ecosystem functions while offering opportunities for a meaningful quality of life to all. In the United States, we lose some 3 billion tons of topsoil yearly, extract groundwater faster than it is recharged, and continue to harvest the few remaining old-growth forests (Bouvier and Grant 1994). We have filled and destroyed more than half of the wetlands that existed in pre-Columbian times and continue to destroy and degrade the few that remain. The global loss of biodiversity is astounding—some predict that by the year 2020 we will have lost as many as one-quarter of the species that existed in 1980 (Wilson 1992)—and fisheries are being depleted throughout the world.
Moreover, humanity is modifying the very functioning of the global ecosystem. The ozone layer continues to diminish in size, accompanied by increases in ultraviolet radiation and a variety of ecological ripple effects. Anthropogenic increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will likely lead to a significant rise in global temperatures and its attendant effects, such as sea level rise and changing precipitation patterns (Houghton, Jenkins, and Ephram, eds. 1990; see also U.S. Office of Technology Assessment 1993).
Most daunting, perhaps, is the exponential growth of the human population. While predictions vary, we are poised to move from a current global population of more than 5.8 billion to some 8 billion in 2025 and to 9 to 10 billion by the year 2050 (WRI 1994; Population Reference Bureau 1997). The population of the United States is projected to rise from 260 million to nearly 400 million by the year 2050 (Bouvier and Grant 1994). These projections raise real questions about not only future environmental degradation, but the ability to feed, house, and otherwise sustain future population increases (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1991).
The global trend toward more and more immense "megacities" underscores the urgency of the population problem and of the need to adopt new planning and urban management approaches. The World Resources Institute reports that rates of urbanization continue to rise much faster than rates of absolute population growth, such that by the year 2000, more than half the global population will live in urban areas; by 2020, this figure will rise to 60 percent (WRI 1996). With the United States a leader in the global economy, the rapid growth of cities around the world has tremendous implications for sustainability in our country, and vice versa.
The Unsustainability of Current Development Patterns
By almost any measure, our current use of land and resources is unsustainable. Contemporary land use patterns do not acknowledge the fundamental finiteness of land, air, water, and biological diversity. Nowhere is this tendency more conspicuous than in the sprawling growth of urban and suburban areas throughout the United States, where low-density development is literally eating up natural landscapes.
One striking measure of this trend is the amount of land consumed for development or converted to developed uses. In the Chicago metropolitan area, for example, while residential population grew by only about 4 percent between 1970 and 1990, the amount of land devoted to housing during that period rose by 46 percent. During this same time frame, the city of Los Angeles grew 45 percent in population but nearly 300 percent in size of the developed area (Leinsberger 1996). Such land-consumptive sprawl is evident throughout the United States, with dramatic examples including South Florida, Southern California, and Phoenix, Arizona, among others. Meanwhile, nationwide, some 1.3 million acres of farmland are converted to more developed uses each year (Zero Population Growth 1996).
Aside from the fact that the country's land base is in finite supply and ultimately cannot accommodate such growth, our sprawling development patterns manifest themselves in a range of economically and socially disturbing ways. To the majority of citizens, traffic congestion is perhaps the biggest obvious inconvenience. For those individuals who are too young, too old, too poor, or otherwise unable to drive or own a car, participation in many everyday activities—whether shopping, school, employment, or entertainment—is often impeded. As development marches out beyond the urban fringes, new infrastructure and services must be provided, often at the expense of higher property taxes levied on long-time residents. Meanwhile, the infrastructure that is left behind, particularly in the inner city, is left to decline, as are the income-generating powers of local businesses, residents who cannot afford to commute to jobs in the suburbs, and municipal governments that see their tax bases shrink (Bank of America 1995).
Few places around the country are immune to the destructiveness of sprawl. A recent series of articles in the Kansas City Star documented the host of problems brought about by the tidal wave of sprawl there. While population growth in Kansas City increased by less than 30 percent between 1960 and 1990, land devoted to housing and development rose by 110 percent. The study documents a dramatic shift in the "golden ring" of the region's most valuable homes; since 1970, every two years the location of the highest-valued homes has moved two miles farther away from downtown. There are always short-term winners in this sprawl process, particularly developers, builders, and owners of speculative land. At the same time, however, there are a multitude of losers, including businesses in older suburbs and "inner-ring" communities. Existing homeowners often experience the greatest losses: as their property taxes rise to fund the necessary new infrastructure and services, they may see their property values stagnate or decline (Lester and Spivak 1995).
Excerpted from The Ecology of Place by Timothy Beatley, Kristy Manning. Copyright © 1997 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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