On this Earth Day Anniversary: Hints of Convergence

Green meets Smart Growth meets Healthy Communities 

earthdayAs 21st century crises and concerns began stacking up, it had begun to look as if Smart Growth priorities were going to have to compete for attention and resources with other burning issues. Such as: Climate change, peak oil, community affordability, health care costs, and now the struggling global economy. But on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, it was impossible not to notice how these apparently parallel concerns are beginning to overlap. Which is good news for a movement like New Urbanism that assumes the interdependence of challenges and opportunities and promotes comprehensive solutions.

Thanks to the work of organizations like the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the T4America initiative from Smart Growth America and its partners, connections between transportation planning, community affordability, and healthy communities were already getting more attention. Now, as the frenzy for all things green increases, coupled with the reawakening of the Environmental Protection Agency under a new presidential administration and a similar invigoration of public health policy, we’re seeing a dramatic convergence of strategies with broad implications for community planning. Here are three key components of that convergence:

The increasing interest among environmental scientists in the advantages of compact, walkable, communities. For instance: Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies recently included on its website an analysis by Bruce Stutz called “The New Urbanists: Tackling Europe’s Sprawl”. Here’s the blurb associated with the post: “In the last few decades, urban sprawl, once regarded as largely a U.S. phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Now an emerging group of planners is promoting a new kind of development — mixed-use, low-carbon communities that are pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-oriented.”

The explosion of green building interest in the private sector. Best example: The ever-multiplying territory of Greener World Media, Inc., which operates www.greenbiz.com and other sites linking business with green building, climate change,  and other environmental issues once considered the domain of environmental wonks. Because they’re aimed at the ROI crowd, the company’s websites, surveys, research, and newsletters have a no nonsense feel that is likely to significantly advance the green discussion with economic development types and others who aren’t sympathetic to warm and fuzzy arguments for environmental responsibility.

The intersection of public health policy, environmental concerns, and urban planning. The overlap was always clear to many professionals working in the field,  but now it’s beginning to feel embedded in the thinking of policy makers. By far the biggest stride towards connecting the dots is the EPA’s just-announced intention to consider regulating greenhouse gas emissions because of their threat to public health. The move is considered a nudge to Congress to act before the Executive Branch writes the regs. So the battle is joined.

Also: Consider this video of Dr. Howard Frumkin, national director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Dr. Frumkin appeared before architects and planners at the National Building Museum, using part of his time to caution them against making scientific-like claims for community design without the backing of sound scientific research. Yet most of the presentation feels like a New Urbanist guide to creating and sustaining compact, walkable communities.

For more specific references to community design and public health, take a look at:

A recent study from the University of British Columbia on a correlation between riding transit and fitness. (Thanks to Laurence Aurbach for this tip.)

A source for research into opportunities for addressing obesity with neighborhood design.

And a recent New York Times column on social netwoks and community health.

— Ben Brown

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