Environmentalists and development: a complex relationship in a hyperbolic election season

In election races in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, candidates are claiming they “support the environment” or “are for smart growth.” Some of those candidates also seem to be against most development, while others are more supportive. It’s hard to make sense of all this. What’s the green view of growth?

The environmental movement is not unified on this. Staunch environmentalists in the California State Senate sponsored and supported a recent bill to allow more housing near transit stations, while the California Sierra Club fought against it bitterly.

Is this green? Transit-oriented development emerging at the Greensboro Silver Line station in Tysons Corner. Photo by Tracy Loh.

To truly protect the environment, the green movement needs to move towards a more nuanced position on urbanization. Similarly, developers need to understand that being green is more than slapping a “LEED” on it.

Environmentalism has long worked to fight (some) development

Much environmental activism involves playing defense and stopping bad projects. Whether it is a new incinerator in South Baltimore, an oil pipeline through Appalachia, or mining in national monuments, environmental activists are often fighting human economic activity (“development”) that has negative consequences in terms of generating pollution and/or destroying wilderness habitat.

Protecting the natural world from human greed is a deep thread in environmentalism, so it’s easy to see how activists could end up defaulting to opposing most projects. Around the nation and world, plenty of bad projects get proposed and built. For Baby Boomers in particular, earth activism is also rooted in the Zero Population Growth movement of the ‘60s, which linked environmentalism and human overpopulation of the planet.

March to stop Baltimore incinerator, December 2013. Image by United Workers licensed under Creative Commons.

“Smart growth” agrees with developers sometimes and in some places, but not all

Meanwhile, “smart growth” as a concept emerged from the environmental movement, and our region’s explicitly smart growth organization, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, is still formally part of the Piedmont Environmental Council, an area environmental group.

Smart growth distinguishes itself from other and earlier iterations of environmentalism by believing that we should allow more development near job centers, transit, and commercial corridors while protecting more wetlands, forests, and farms. People have to live somewhere, and the least environmentally-damaging place for them to live is in areas that are already developed.

To some environmentalists, an apartment building is not green since it has no trees or grass, while a suburban house is green because it’s built on maybe 10% of the lot and has landscaping on the rest. But in fact, the suburban house is contributing to more vehicle emissions and, for most approaches to lawn maintenance, substantial water pollution as well.

This means that a smart growth stance about “development” varies based both on what you are talking about developing and where. In exurbs, smart growthers and developers (especially suburban house developers) are at odds.

In our region, the top issue for the Coalition for Smarter Growth for 20 years has been opposing an Outer Beltway. Landowners and developers in exurban and rural piedmont Virginia support that in order to unlock development opportunities at the fringe of the region. Smart growth groups are often allied with people who are fighting change there, or in upcounty Montgomery, or greenfield “town center” developments far from transit in Prince George’s.

Meanwhile, a smart growth stance in Tysons Corner, Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda, Silver Spring, New Carrollton, Largo, or DC is generally in alignment with much but not all development. Since these areas have substantial job clusters and/or Metro stations and are not farmland, a smart growth view holds that we should put more homes and jobs there (instead of in western Loudoun, or Frederick County, or Upper Marlboro). Here, then, smart growthers tend to be allied with “developers,” while people who oppose change adopt some language of environmentalism along with preservation.

Master plan stock photo from p-jitti/Shutterstock.

What about preserving open space?

Of course, we still need green spaces even in the densest areas. We need parks, playgrounds, and plazas for human health and happiness. But how much, and where? What should it look like? Since “what” and “where” and “how much” is not always clear, open space also becomes an easy and common lever to pull when someone is trying to build or pave something.

Like anything else in a city, how much and which land to devote for parks is a question of balancing competing needs. A community needs parks, but it can in fact have too much of a good thing if there’s so much parkland that most of it goes unused and it results in a more environmentally-damaging, spread-out development pattern

Ideally, there should be enough park space for everyone to easily access and enjoy, but not so much that it’s vacant and neglected — nor so much that it prevents environmentally-friendly, walkable, and transit-supportive urbanism.

It may sound technocratic and process-obsessed, but this is literally what planning is for. Park and public space master planning can bring a community together to answer these questions and determine the most sensible land, resources, policy frameworks, and operating dollars to meet a community’s open space needs at the neighborhood, municipal, regional, and even state level.

Going through that process helps a community decide how and where to balance its competing needs for parks and other land uses. Haphazardly calling for any undeveloped piece of land to become a park not only ignores the many other critical needs of urban life, it also ignores the conditions necessary to create an effective park system, as opposed to merely a lot of empty land.

The McMillan Sand Filtration site. Is this a park we are saving or creating? Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Without good plans and processes, it’s harder to work together

Many urban environmentalists end up opposing projects because they are bad projects on one or more environmental metric, and most activists have seen this play out time and time again.

If over and over you see attempts to drain wetlands or pave floodplains in the name of economic development, it is easy to become cynical. Political leaders are often so anxious for economic development that they have little incentive to hold projects to high standards or, worse yet, to be seen as “unfriendly to business.” This sets activists up to have to fight for high standards for every project while encouraging lowest common denominator thinking among developers.

Here’s the thing: environmentalists aren’t wrong to oppose bad projects, and in fact urbanists should take this stance more often. Yes, affordable housing and density near transit are badly needed, but if it comes in a “gray” building that generates stormwater runoff or other forms of pollution, is the tradeoff worth it?

An even better question is why these interests have to be pitted against each other. Putting people near existing infrastructure is good for the planet and so is not paving over wetlands. This is why it is so important for jurisdictions to set a high bar for new development, as Prince George’s County is trying to do with its zoning rewrite. Supporting improvements to the development review process can be a green issue.

Some anti-developer sentiment is actually frustration with planning and zoning processes generally. The public often doesn’t feel heard on these decisions. We need to rethink public engagement and public meetings to do this better. This doesn’t mean pandering to NIMBYs, and in fact may mean the opposite.

Better public processes may allow a more representative cross section of public opinion to be represented. Ideally, public processes should help a community identify what it does want after weighing all the competing needs. Technical processes should then allow that vision to happen.

The new community engagement and green building standards in the Prince George’s County zoning rewrite are a real example of this. Voters who are skeptical of “bad development” and “developers” should be looking for county leadership that will support these zoning reforms.

A greener Greater Washington

Greater Greater Washington has not focused very intently on environmental issues, though some individual volunteer contributors are passionate environmentalists. This year the Editorial Board chose environmental sustainability as one of five areas to focus coverage on.

The GGWash mission statement is “Greater Greater Washington promotes an inclusive, diverse, growing Washington, DC region where all people can choose to live in walkable urban communities.” This touches on social and economic goals that may not always be compatible with environmental ideals. Nonetheless, this election season has been a provocative motivator to reach out to environmental allies to share our perspective.

How do you see environmentalism and urbanism working together, or not?

This blog entry was originally published here.

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