Love Your Earth

Get ready, tomorrow is Earth Day! Other than an image of a globe, what do you think of when you think of Mother Earth and Earth Day? Do you have a particular landscape that makes you realize how important the environment is or the true connection between historic preservation and environmentalism? Here’s just one of mine:

The South Dakota prairie, where you can appreciate the size and beauty of the earth. Kaitlin O'Shea, 2006.

Buzzword: Sustainability

We all love to talk about sustainability, green building, environmentalism, recycling, hybrid cars, walkability, local businesses, and so much more. All of these are buzzwords in the media and when you can talk about them, you’re considered hip (in some circles) or at least on top of the latest news in the green generation. And while it’s easy to casually bring up one of the aforementioned topics in a conversation and to focus your passionate discussion on one or another, sustainability is about more than that, more than just one of those. It’s a complicated issue, but one that makes so much sense when considering our future, ours and generations after us.

Maybe everyone else already consciously grasped this, but I feel as though my understanding of the web of sustainability is improving by taking a Community Design through Sustainability class this semester. It’s a class offered through the Community Development and Applied Economics department, but it’s an elective for many so there are about half environmental studies (and related fields) students, a handful of us preservationists, and a few other departments scattered in there.  During the first or second class, I had a moment when I thought to myself, “Wow, I live in Vermont.” Those who have lived here longer than a few weeks talked about living machines, cow power, towns without cars, wind farms, and so many environmentally friendly aspects of development. I, on the other hand, like the trained preservationist that I am, spoke of walkability and diversity in stores and living spaces. Some things, such as living machines, I had never heard of.

In addition to readings on sustainability, ecological design, and other topics, we draw maps, design towns based on topography and what we think is vital, all in preparation for our big semester projects: working with actual sites in order to design their future uses in a “sustainable” way.  Sustainable, huh – what does that really mean? Well, that’s what I’m getting at… generally I think of it as environmentally related, and for environmentally related I think of nature and green roofs and such things. But, now I’m realizing that sustainable is the big picture. It involves historic preservation, green building, communities where people want to live and can support themselves, machines and homes that use less energy and respect the environment. With one aspect missing, sustainability is not complete. Constructing LEED certified gold standard buildings when you have perfectly sound historic structures sitting next to it is not sustainable; it’s a waste of energy and resources. Storm water must have a place to drain that will not hurt other water sources. Vegetation should be native, not imported, in order to survive and to represent the unique environment.

Like historic preservation, sustainability can be a lifestyle that stretches far beyond one community. It would be impossible for one town to be completely self sufficient these days, but perhaps thinking locally, regionally will be much more beneficial than thinking internationally for certain products.

Many of these points are things I’ve known, some are things I’ve learned, but it still seems like a new way of connecting everything. Perhaps it is paying more attention to the ecological factors in connection with the built environment.  There are so many overlaps between my preservation classes and my sustainability class. In both we talk or read about Jane Jacobs and about the early era of urban planning and town design and the theories behind them. When designing my own town with only the topography given to me, I could think about Jane Jacobs’ theories or the Garden City movement (which, I should add, are very different philosophies). At first I hit a wall for designing a town. Design a town – as in put buildings there? I normally think of towns with existing structures. It was difficult and completely different to the majority of my education so far. But, it’s a great way to step out of the preservation box, while successfully melding it with another field (it’s also further assurance of how connected preservation is to other fields).

What do you think?

Coincidentally, while all of this was on my mind, a friend (thanks, Ellen!) sent me this link to a book review for Green Metropolis by David Owen.  From what I gather, the gist of it is how living in New York City is actually a “green” existence. Owens writes about how sprawl is driven by people looking for a “green” place to live. His book is based on an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004. Here’s how it begins:

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day. [David Owen, The New Yorker, 10.18.2004]

You expect him to say some little known “utopian” community, right?  Me too. And then he writes, “The utopian community was Manhattan.” I’m hooked. It looks like a great read and very relative to this sustainability buzzword.

Preservation + Smart Growth + Environmentalism = Friends?

In the historic preservation line of work, we want to save old (i.e. historic) significant buildings. The environmentalism (green and sustainability) movement wants to maintain and improve existing buildings, because the buildings previously constructed automatically require fewer resources than new construction. Smart Growth involves new development that is on par with values such as walkability, economic and building ranges, mixed land use, open space, and predictable development, among others. Note, however, that Smart Growth is not opposed to demolition, as preservationists often are opposed. Thus, these three movements, or fields, concerning our built environment (preservation, sustainability, and Smart Growth) are similar, but different. Theoretically, these philosophies and practices overlap in many instances, yet in practice, not as much.

On the Greater Greater Washington blog, David Alpert, discusses these issues in his post, Preservation and Smart Growth can be friends, not rivals.  In this post, Alpert reflects on a blog post by the Director of the Smart Growth Program in Washington DC, Kaid Benfield. Benfield’s post, In sustainable communities, architecture, and preservation, does beauty matter? Should it? Both writers bring up too many discussion points for one post on Preservation in Pink, but I’ll start with an overview of their written thoughts, and then pose some discussion topics, which can be explored in upcoming posts.

Benfield begins with a discussion on the fact that many buildings are approaching the “historic” mark of 50 years old, which means that it can be evaluated for significance, for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. And because this building, such as an ugly grocery store that the community does not like, is now 50 years old, possible demolition and replacement causes a stir. He asks, will we preserve Wal-Marts just because they are 50 years old?  Shouldn’t beauty and lovability of buildings be considered when determining what is worthy of preservation, what deserves our support? He touches on the idea that without standards other than “historic” at 50 years old, preservation can actually be a hindrance to sustainability practices.  In other words, sometimes, “historic” buildings without significance can actually hurt new, sustainable development because people are so afraid of what might go in its place (NIMBY).

Alpert, continues on this idea that there is not a designation between buildings worthy of preservation vs. those that should not be preserved.  If an entire community wants change, then preventing it is not helping the community. Thus, proponents of historic preservation and Smart Growth tend to be wary of one another, even though these fields go hand in hand. After all, historic communities are often the most walkable and illustrate the concepts of Smart Growth.  To this, Alpert adds that preservation is a political movement, as is environmentalism and one should not consider itself superior to the other. Everyone needs to work together.

As you can see, there are days of discussion topics here. Here are some questions to consider:

1. Does preservation, in fact, have methods of determining what is significant, i.e. worthy of preservation? It does. So, how are people abusing this? Are preservationists fooling those who are unaware? Do we sometimes forget about the National Register‘s standards for evaluating historic significance?

2. Will we ever get to the point of preserving Wal-Marts (and similar places)? How many of them? All of them or just examples?  What about suburban development tracts? Do we need to preserve every 1980s colonial revival house when they turn 50?

3. Does the 50 year mark need to change? Why was 50 chosen in the first place?

4. Why is there mistrust between preservation, Smart Growth, and environmentalism when they all speak of similar ideals? How can we create a friendlier discussion? What are the benefits and disadvantages of each of them? What would be an ideal situation for all three to work together and showcase their best efforts?

5. Aside from significance, is it ever okay, by preservation standards, to demolish a building for the construction of a new one? What about by environmental standards?

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This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is lively enough to spur some discussions and thoughts. If you find other topics worthy of discussion, please share. All opinions are welcome. To clarify, I don’t pretend to be any expert on any of these issues. First and foremost, I identify myself as a preservationist, but one who is interested and believes in preservation working with movements such as sustainability and Smart Growth. And now, I feel like I have given myself homework…

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Thank you to Andrew Deci for sending the blog links and suggesting a discussion on PiP.