Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Arlington Earth Day recommendations: different strokes for different folks: a vote for high density urban living


The Arlington Earth Day exhibit in the Ballston Common a couple weekends ago had a nice cardboard handout and somewhat coercive-sounding "Pledge" (printed in ink-jet and very soluble I found out) to make personal lifestyle changes, of varying practicability.

Some are easy. For example, “purchase products online”. I do that with Amazon and Dell (and iUniverse), but the products have to be packaged and transported by UPS or USPS. I guess that’s more fuel efficient than driving a couple miles to the store.

Reduce “vampire electricity.” That would take some effort. The computer stays on, and some electronics may be better off if left on. Some items are turned off and disconnected (the laptop). During a storm it may be necessary to disconnect.

Oprah wants everybody to buy a reusable shopping bag. But that’s not enough for groceries. You have to tell clerks not to use plastic. I don’t need bags at the 7-11 any more.

Many of the recommendations require a lot more effort or money. Installing a solar hot water heater, buying a new hybrid car. Many are community projects and require time. When I was substitute teaching, one of the seniors at Wakefield had set up some kind of garden as an Eagle Scout project, and I could drive by it on Four Mile Run at any time.

Almost any community could install wind turbines in some areas, especially higher land, to capture energy from cold fronts (on the East Coast). There are large farms of turbines around Palm Springs, CA. Why not install them here?

The biggest issue is still the amount of driving, at least until getting a plug-in hybrid is practical. One factor in stopping subbing was the long distance to some schools. Many jobs require individual transportation to different locations, and many require working late, and carpooling or “slug lines” aren’t practical.

Much of the excessive driving and automobile size developed in the past few decades during suburbanzation. Employers moved to the suburbs (like along I-270 or I-66 in DC, or outside the Beltway, or north of I-635 in Dallas). But commutation patterns were complicated and driving distance remained long. For a single person, there is nothing more efficient and secure than high rise living in a city with most amenities (and, especially, your job) within walking distance or available by Metro or subway.

In Minneapolis, from 1997-2003, I lived in a famous downtown highrise, the Churchill and walked to work at ING/ReliaStar along the Skyway, about 1500 feet. I could even make it to work on crutches after my hip fracture in 1998. This energy (and economy) efficient arrangement worked great for four-plus years until the downsizing and “retirement” (severance, buyout – you know that many companies do this) at the end of 2001. One did have to pay for a car parking space. I later worked fourteen months at the Minnesota Orchestra, and still could walk on the skyway, just 20 minutes instead of 5 minutes. All efficient. High density living is efficient. Renting (away from high cost cities on both coasts) may be more efficient than buying, although its hard to predict how condos will settle out with the foreclosure crisis. (Prices there seem high until you compare them to New York, Washington and San Francisco). High density living also tends to require less time for adaptive tasks perhaps related to green living, although opportunities (like food coops) are available even in the cities.

In New York, I lived at 11th and Broadway in the Cast Iron Building (now a landmark) in the late 1970s, and took subway (usually the BMT) to work in midtown or lower Manhattan. The West Village and East Village were each a ten minute walk away. A car was unnecessary.

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