Questions on Anti-Urban Biases in Environmentalist Thinking
July 30, 2010 § 37 Comments
There’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, that I’ve recently run into from a few sources, so I figure I would explore the idea here at L.A. Creek Freak, though I don’t know all the answers yet. (Warning: long meandering post ahead)
I’ve been thinking about cities and how our environmental movements value or don’t value nature in them, and how environmentalists’ anti-urban biases can impact overall movements toward sustainability.
This week, I was reminded of these questions – during an interview with a graduate student. She asked me about the sort of folks who are interested in and supportive of the L.A. River, with a comment to the effect that folks who are environmentalists and birders would likely be the core support. I responded that the river is actually somewhat overlooked by more stereotypical environmentalists, meaning folks who do a lot of bird-watching, who join the Sierra Club, who drive Priuses. Those folks tend to have the means to get to the wilder parts of Southern California: more remote locations in the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains.
Much of the core interest in the L.A. River (beyond folks who actually live along it) tends to be architects, landscape architects and urban planners. These urban re-envisioners tend to treat the river as a blank canvas, ready for transformation into well-designed urban nature. Though I don’t have any of those professional credentials, I do consider myself one of those urban re-envisioners.
The grad student responded that when she tells people that she’s studying the Los Angeles River, folks expect that she’s studying one of those urban design professions, and not environmental science.
I told the grad student this story: A few years back, I led a Los Angeles River walking tour for a college freshman class, including a couple of professors. One of the professors, I think was an Urban Planner. He and the students thought that the river was an enjoyable place, surprising natural for its proximity to the heart of the city. They marveled at the carp being caught by the fishermen. The other professor was a biologist; I think he studied coral reefs. He was unimpressed. What he saw was a highly degraded, low biodiversity man-made channel. He saw the carp as an invasive species – “the cockroaches of the fish world.” (I confess that I’ve actually conflated a couple of tours into this re-telling.)
During my tenure with Friends of the Los Angeles River, I had tried to involve some college chemistry and biology professors in projects on the river. For the most part, they declined. In many ways, the chemistry and the biology of the L.A. River seem to fairly predictable. Fish species didn’t vary all that much between studies in 1993 and in 2007. Water quality monitoring, to the extent that I understand the myriad data being collected by agencies and non-profits, shows a predictable dilute mix of pretty typical urban pollutants. The local biology professors head for the desert to study animals inhabiting less common niches; the chemists experiment in their laboratories.
There’s no shortage of urbanists ready to draw, though – and plenty of Creek Freaks like me like to gobble up those images. The images are popular posts here. They’re fun and they help us envision possible futures.
Then I think about why many of those bird-watching environmentalists are not enamored with the river. To an extent, I conflate this with an anti-urban bias in environmentalist thinking. The line of thinking is something like this: cities are people places; wild places are where the environment happens and the two don’t overlap.
I think that these sorts of distinctions are becoming rather dangerous. The way we live, mostly in “urbanized areas” (cities and suburbs), really impacts the overall environment. The ways that each of us lives has massive cumulative environmental impacts – stuff including global warming, massive oil spills, bio-accumulation of toxins, plastic litter in our seas, depletion of resources, and more.
I recently read a book which I highly recommend. It’s David Owen’s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. Let me first say that there are quite a few things I don’t quite agree with in the book, but I found it very thought-provoking. It helped me to crystallize some thinking on how urbanism and density can be really important for solving environmental problems, and how we environmentalists can overlook those solutions. Owen’s basic premise is that dense, walkable cities in general (and New York City in specific) are really good for the environment.
(Creek Freaks might want to check out my earlier post at CicLAvia about one part of this book. To sample some of Owen’s main themes, read his earlier New Yorker article Green Manhattan which he expanded into the later book.)
At this point, I’m going to quote pretty extensively from the first chapter of Owen’s book, where he explores some of the roots of these sorts of urban environmental biases. Owen states:
The hostility of many environmentalists toward densely populated cities is a manifestation of a much broader phenomenon, a deep antipathy to urban life which has been the heart of American environmentalism since the beginning. Henry David Thoreau, who lived in a cabin in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, between 1845 and 1847, established an image, still potent today, of the sensitive nature lover living simply, and in harmony with the environment, beyond the edge of civilization. Thoreau wasn’t actually much of an outdoorsman, and his cabin was closer to the center of Concord than to any true wilderness, but for many Americans he remains the archetype – the natural philosopher guiltlessly living off the grid.
John Muir, who was born twenty years after Thoreau and founded the Sierra Club in 1892, viewed city living as toxic to both body and soul. The National Park Service, established by congress in 1916, was conceived as an increasingly necessary corrective to urban life, and national parks were treated in large measure as sanctuaries from urban depravity.
To me the early National Park Service goals Owen references sound similar to the City Beautiful movement, which was taking place around the same time. The monumental historic bridges over the L.A. River grew out of this movement to uplift the lives of downtrodden urban dwellers living in squalor.
The modern environmental movement arose, in the 1960s and 1970s, when a growing sense of ecological crisis, first inspired nationwide by Rachel Carson’s extraordinarily influential book Silent Spring, combined with other social forces, including the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the power of OPEC, to create a sense among large numbers of mainly young people that just about everything wrong with the United States was urban in essence, and could be combated only by establishing, or reestablishing, a direct connection to “the land.”
Owen then quotes Daniel Lazare, author of America’s Undeclared War: What’s Killing Out Cities and How We Can Stop It:
“Green ideology is a rural, agrarian ideology. It seeks to integrate man into nature in a very kind of direct simplistic way – scattering the people among the squirrels and the trees and the deer. To me that seems mistaken, and it doesn’t really understand the proper relationship between man and nature.
Cities are much more efficient economically, and also much more benign environmentally, because when you concentrate human activities in confined spaces you reduce the human footprint, as it were. That is why the disruption of nature is much less in Manhattan than it is in the suburbs. […]
Manhattan seems to be a supremely unnatural place because of all the concrete and glass and steel, but the paradox is that it’s actually more harmonious and more benign, in terms of nature, than ostensibly greener human environments, which depend on huge energy inputs, mainly in the form of fossil fuels. In order to surround ourselves with nature, we get in cars and drive long distances, and then build silly pseudo-green houses in the middle of the woods – which are actually extremely disruptive, and very, very wasteful.”
Further on, David Owen continues:
… barring a massive reduction in the earth’s population, dense urban centers offer one of the few plausible remedies for some of the world’s most discouraging environmental ills, including climate change. To borrow a term from the jargon of computer systems, dense cities are scalable, while sprawling suburbs and isolated straw-bale eco-redoubts are not.
Anti-urban naturalists like Thoreau and Muir make poor guides for anyone struggling with the increasingly urgent problems of how to support billions of mobile, acquisitive, hungry human beings without triggering disasters that can’t be contained.
The environmental problems we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s nonrenewable resources, is not how to make our teeming cities more like the countryside. The problem we face is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents currently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with.
Owen’s book is full of bold challenges to Things Environmentalists Like – from LEED to locavorism to straw-bales to Muir and Thoreau. Some of it can be abrasive, but I think he’s right on in terms of looking at the forest, and not just the trees. Environmental sustainability is in the overall system and not just the individual component. Owen’s description of this:
The crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a “sustainable” house, office building, or household appliance […]
Every house, office building, and appliance, no matter where its power comes from or how many of its parts were made from soybeans, is just a single small element in a civilization-wide network of deeply interdependent relationships, and it’s the network, not the individual constituents, on which the future depends. Sustainability is context, not a gadget or technology.
To tie all these environmental heresies back into urban creeks, I want to bring in one more voice. Here’s a ted.com talk, which I briefly shared with Creek Freaks earlier, but want to return to. It’s Ellen Dunham-Jones talk entitled Retrofitting suburbia and well worth watching.
I think that Dunham-Jones speaks almost directly back to David Owen’s statement that “dense cities are scalable, while sprawling suburbs … are not.” Turns out that suburbs are! and I would consider much of Los Angeles to be unsustainably density-lacking suburbs.
And Dunham-Jones plans that restoring the local ecology, including daylighting creeks – in tandem with urban density – can be a key solution to retrofitting.
At this point, I need to acknowledge that my fellow Creek Freak blogger Jessica Hall was way ahead of the curve on this one. In her 2001 thesis Seeking Streams: A landscape framework for the upper Ballona Creek Watershed, she introduced me to these ideas. She proposed conservation/restoration buffer easements along daylighted creeks accompanied by increased density elsewhere – all in the neighborhood where I live… which seems somewhat difficult for me to imagine. Perhaps it says something about my biases that I can lean more heavily on Dunham-Jones Atlanta-based ideas than I can on Hall’s L.A.-based ones. (It’s difficult for me to imagine the local political will necessary for all this.)
At about minute 16:00, Dunham-Jones overviews a study she did looking at the future of growth for Atlanta for the next 100 years. Her projections proceed from three assumptions. From the talk transcript:
… we chose to try to reverse sprawl through three simple moves — expensive, but simple. One, in a hundred years, transit on all major rail and road corridors. Two, in a hundred years, a thousand foot buffers on all stream corridors. It’s a little extreme, but we’ve got a little water problem. In a hundred years, subdivisions that simply end up too close to water or too far from transit, won’t be viable. And so we’ve created the eco acre transfer to transfer development rights to the transit corridors and allow the re-greening of those former subdivisions…
This is a lot easier to do in theory than in practice. It’s politically nearly impossible to displace single-family homes in Los Angeles… but it could be viable incrementally over a time frame like 100 years – especially if isolated single-family homes gradually become less desireable in a future where gas prices skyrocket.
What do you think intrepid creek freak readers who’ve gotten this far? Can Los Angeles environmentalists embrace density? (Is that important or necessary?) Can we welcome and restore nature as part of densification? or are my suburban environmentalist biases clouding my vision for the future of Los Angeles?