Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Urbanism: once and forever "green"?

This month The Atlantic Monthly is featuring a series of essays and articles about the future of cities. One of these features is an interview with Andres Duany, the dude behind New Urbanism. He makes the case that New Urbanism is "the original green," meaning that it does not focus so much on high technology fixes. Rather, NU focuses on better design. Here is what he says about current environmental standards in building:
How does environmentalism play into all this? Back in the 1980s, no one was worried about designing "green" communities.

Environmentalism was very minor then. We stumbled across it because it was a more economical way to build. When the developers didn't have money to throw around, we would revert to very light infrastructure. So we've got examples of very light infrastructure that's 20 years old, and way ahead of its time.

Our take on environmentalism is what I call the "original green." Which is really about quite simple, economical things. One thing I don't like about the current environmental movement is that it's been captured by a very high tech ethos, which actually turns out to be more expensive. I think its absolutely absurd that people say that LEED-certified buildings might cost two, three, four, five times as much. And I say, "What are you talking about? How did you get there?" This thing about triple glazing and 8 inches of insulation and green roofs, my God it's so expensive. You can't say, "Yeah, I'll do it just to be popular." We have to go back to the original green--not the gold plated green.

Of course, environmentalism wasn't a factor in the original New Urbanism because there wasn't any money in being green thirty years ago. In Suburban Nation he writes about motorists as anti-social but does not mention pollution, emissions, climate change (global warming was mentioned in one footnote in the book) or other environmental concerns. Social and community concerns were of paramount interest, following the path laid by places such as Columbia, Maryland, Reston, Virginia and others built in the late 1960s-1970s. Other writers such as Peter Calthorpe similarly focused on the social themes, as well. During the time that these ideas were formed, meaning the late 1970s-early 1990s, cities were in decline and people were moving to the suburbs. Many scholars and policymakers felt that one undesirable outcome of suburban living was social isolation. The evidence about these claims is mixed, but social concerns are certainly important and at the time were viewed as a primary threat to our way of life. Now that cities are growing again our perceived threats have changed, and claiming a bold environmental stance helps keep New Urbanism relevant. Planning is as trendy as anything else, so you have to keep up with the latest concerns and make it sound like you were thinking about them all along.
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