Earth Day was Monday of this week, and each year people find ways to gather in parks as they plant trees and talk about recycling to emphasize our commitment to the only habitable planet we know of. It’s important to take care of our home. Leaving things better than you found them should be a basic tenet of any sustainable society (and I don’t think we want to be part of an unsustainable society). However, when we talk about environmentalism in the United States, too much of the discussion revolves around “stuff” (technology, reuse, etc.), and too little thought is given to behaviors.
Every person on the planet makes daily choices, and those choices have environmental impacts. While we may have peer pressure to buy certain “green” products, or recycle the products we have already purchased, there is considerably less peer pressure to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors. Adoption of behaviors that mitigate or reduce environmental impacts really starts with taking a look at how you consume energy in repetitious patterns, and finding ways to reduce that consumption. When we look at where people utilize energy, our travel and building patterns hit towards the top of the list, and our behaviors are influenced by community design.
1. How far do you live from work?- The actions we take repeatedly have a tendency to add up. If you travel a significant distance every day for work by vehicle, the cumulative yearly total of your energy usage can be quite substantial. In rural areas, some people commute to work while a spouse stays on the farm/ranch, and that is completely understandable. Shared transportation, like carpooling, can minimize energy consumption. The most “Earth friendly” travel is a dense community pattern that allows for a short distance between your home and work.
2. How do you get to the places you play?- Similar to the “work” question, if you are driving all over the country for entertainment/shopping options, you can have a significant energy consumption and negative environmental impact. The vast majority of millennial households are choosing housing options that are either integrated with, or adjacent to, work and play options within their community. Not only do they reduce their carbon footprint, but they also save money on transportation related expenditures.
3. When you buy, is it quality or quality?- Higher quality merchandise lasts longer. The “cheaper” alternatives often end up in landfills. Consider where your items are made. Remember that items made in the US don’t require shipping from a far off land.
4. When you access institutions, do you have various transportation options?- When people don’t consider bike or pedestrian options to allow for convenient travel to buildings, you often end up with a line of cars vying for access (because there are no other viable options). Good community design emphasizes grid based systems that include good sidewalks and bike options. The more alternatives for travel, the less congested our streets.
5. Do you reuse, or dispose? I’m not just talking about products. We often allow for policies that lead to dilapidation and eventual demolition of structures. It’s strange that we live in a society that will object to throwing away a pop can (instead of recycling it), but we embrace eradicating structures without much thought to long term planning. Policies that encourage sprawl, allow for continued deferred maintenance, or pursue an “it’s better than what we had” infill strategy that doesn’t adhere to the fabric of the neighborhood will eventually create disposable buildings.
Our behaviors either enhance or detract from environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, altering our behaviors is a uncomfortable topic that upsets people. With Earth Day in the rear view mirror, let’s take a brief moment to dream about how we can plan communities that are more environmentally sustainable by their basic design. Are we willing to alter our behavior to enhance our planet?