Vermont: A Green State or Just Green Mountains?

Vermont is known by its nickname, The Green Mountain State. (Really, it’s on our license plates.) And we are a green state. We Vermonters recycle just about everything. People are active and love the outdoors, have urban chickens or large rural, gardens. Reusable plastic bags are commonplace. People live off-grid and have solar powered houses. Living machines clean water at the rest area on I-89 in Sharon. There is a huge focus on local food and local businesses.  It’s an entirely different culture than I’ve lived in before. Sometimes the organic, granola, hippie image fits.

Yet, our towns and villages are spread far apart and many people live down winding roads, far from neighbors. Vermont is not immune to sprawl, poor development. Perhaps our population of just over 600,000 keeps it from being as noticeable as it is in other places. Vermont is not known for its public transit. Rural environments are beautiful, but it means that people often drive for every errand or outing. Small towns lack basic amenities because there is not enough population to support it. For all of the fuel-efficient cars out there, just as many or more drive larger, gas-guzzling vehicles. Vermonters drive a lot because they have to.

Overall, that doesn’t sound very green, does it? An interesting Environment 360 article from a few years back (2009) argues that New York City is the greenest place on earth, not Vermont, which is what most people think (read below).

…Vermont, in many important ways, sets a poor environmental example. Spreading people thinly across the countryside, Vermont-style, may make them look and feel green, but it actually increases the damage they do to the environment while also making that damage harder to see and to address. In the categories that matter the most, Vermont ranks low in comparison with many other American places. It has no truly significant public transit system (other than its school bus routes), and, because its population is so dispersed, it is one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country. A typical Vermonter consumes 545 gallons of gasoline per year — almost a hundred gallons more than the national average.

Fast forward to 2014 (5 years after the above article), and Vermont does have public transit. It’s not significant, but it’s improving and is used by many commuters. For my own experiments, I’ve been attempting to take the bus to/from work (Burlington – Montpelier) because it actually is cheaper than driving, and it uses my time more efficiently. It’s easy enough to do a few per week, but could I get along without a car. It would be a lifestyle change. Living in Burlington or Montpelier is easier than other places if you’re trying to live car-free. Some crazy, intrepid folks bike to work year-round! And with the Burlington-based CarShareVT (similar to Zipcar), more and more people are learning to live car-free or one-car-per-household. Of course, some lifestyles do not allow this. Students are often able to do this, but those of us in the working and commuting world have a more difficult time.

Lately, I’m pondering how life would be without a car in Vermont. I like to think of it as going urban: living downtown, getting around on bike or bus, staying local, traveling by plane for greater distances. It’s not something I’m immediately ready or able to do, but it’s floating around in my head. Going urban in Vermont would be a challenge, though if you’re a core downtown area with everyday services, it’s not impossible. And it would come with great benefits, but challenges, too. Perhaps the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In some places in Vermont, it would be impossible. The question that this brings to mind is: just how urban (read: environmentally friendly) can you go? Where do you live? Can you live car-free? Would you take that jump to do so? What do you think of Vermont? Green living? Green in color?

And, is living a sustainable lifestyle connected to preservation, for you? To me, it keeps the focus on the local environment and local economy, which is most definitely affiliated with historic preservation.

Red & Green Richmond Truss

Perhaps a red and green bridge is more appropriate for Christmas than February but who doesn’t want to see a bridge that is currently two colors?

The Bridge Street truss bridge in Richmond, Vermont is currently half green & half red.

It is currently undergoing a rehabilitation project.

Red or green? Which do you think is the new color?

View looking away from Richmond Village.

Red is the new color of the bridge. It stirred quite the debate in Richmond.

Who likes a red truss bridge? I do! Or do you prefer green? How about half and half? It’ll be two colors for a while since painting in February isn’t ideal. In the meantime, it is a funny sight. Learn more about the project here.

Friday Links

Happy Friday! In case there is a rain cloud heading your way, here are some fun links to check out:

Want some information about greening your home? Head over to the Virginia Preservation Toolkit and the Interactive Preservation House where you can click on windows, doors, walls, etc. to learn what you can do to improve the energy efficiency in your home. (Thanks to Missy for sending it along!)

Isn’t sprawl way more noticeable in the summer when you’re road tripping and just to see scenic America? I think it is. Is sprawl increasing since 1980? Do we have too much stuff?  It’s a good time to speak up — head over to Time Tells by Vince Michael (of the NTHP) and share your comments on his Retail Sprawl post.

PreservationNation has had some great posts lately, which warrant response thoughts here (coming soon). Talk about sustainable communities and turning young adults into preservationists.

Love Monticello? Thomas Jefferson? Heirloom gardens? Historic landscapes? Visit Vintage Food, Fresh Wine to read about part of Jen’s experience at the Historic Landscape Institute.

Ever heard of the neighborhood Preservation Park in Oakland, CA? Love the name. Interesting — requires more reading before I make up my mind.

Have a great weekend! The flamingos are flocking to Virginia for yet another wedding!!

Your car wants one too.

Preservation Month 2010

It’s Preservation Month! May 2010’s theme is “Old is the New Green.”  It’s my pleasure to use the National Trust of Historic Preservation’s proclamation for Preservation Month (get it for your organization and community too!)

WHEREAS, historic preservation is an effective tool for managing growth and sustainable development, revitalizing neighborhoods, fostering local pride and maintaining community character while enhancing livability; and

WHEREAS, historic preservation is relevant for communities across the nation, both urban and rural, and for Americans of all ages, all walks of life and all ethnic backgrounds; and

WHEREAS, it is important to celebrate the role of history in our lives and the contributions made by dedicated individuals in helping to preserve the tangible aspects of the heritage that has shaped us as a people; and

WHEREAS, “Old is the New Green” is the theme for National Preservation Month 2010, cosponsored by Preservation in Pink and the National Trust for Historic Preservation

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Kaitlin O’Shea, do proclaim May 2010 as National Preservation Month, and call upon the readers of Preservation in Pink to join their fellow citizens across the United States in recognizing and participating in this special observance.

What can Preservation in Pink help you do for Preservation Month? It’s simple — share what you’re doing and make your own proclamation. Preservation + Sustainability and “green” can be taken in so many ways. What does it mean to you? Local shopping? Environmentally friendly products and building materials? Walking? Visiting historic sites? Heritage tourism?

Share your thoughts and ideas here — and stay tuned for fun Preservation Month posts (and goodies, perhaps) from PiP throughout the month!

Eco-friendly House

Consider this: mom, dad, 2 kids, + 1 dog live in a house (in the United States). What would you figure to be the square footage that they need? Would that change if they were building an “eco-friendly” house or would just the materials change?

The Burlington Free Press ran an article over the weekend about a Waitsfield, VT family who built their dream home, which they labeled eco-friendly. The specifics include: 5 bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, and about 3100 square feet of living space plus the garage and basement. The eco-friendly factors come in with the materials, generally all local : Vermont slate and marble, local timber, on site fieldstone used. And, of course, the mechanical systems are environmentally friendly: a geothermal heating system, solar panels in the yard to provide electricity, and a passive solar hot water collector, triple pane windows, energy star appliances, and LED bulbs.

Still, the house is 3,100 square feet. Isn’t that too big for a family of 4? But, is that a fair judgment? Should I separate green and size? Is there a fine line between reconciling large buildings and houses and making them green? I don’t want to imply that the Waitsfield family did a horrible thing, they should be commended for their efforts; but I think it brings up an important question of size and space and truly being eco-friendly. My scale for houses is a bit skewed because I grew up with 2 parents, 3 sisters, and multiple pets in a 990 square foot ranch house; we eventually finished part of the basement but that only increased the size to somewhere around 1400 sq ft. (That was awesome because I finally had my own room — which is what every teenage girl dreams about.) And now, as mentioned before, I live in a 350 sq ft. apartment with Vinny and our cats. Anyway…

Thank goodness people who are building homes, large and small,  are considering ways to go about reducing the environmental consequences and reliance on fossil fuels, but perhaps the article stands as a reminder that we still have a long way to until we’re successfully practicing what we preach? Perhaps this relates to LEED? What do you think – about all of this?

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.