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THE NEW GREEN: Balancing nature with urban cities

By Kelsey Sullivan
On March 14, 2014

In her essay, "The Lived-In City," urbanist Jane Holtz Kay states that migrating to cities is: "this fragile planet's last, best hope - the only alternative to settling on the ever-contracting fringes, consuming the last chance landscape, extinguishing resources and species. If we are ever going to become ecofluent, as the green warriors put it, the strengthening of our lived-in cities is where it must take place."
There is plenty of data to back up Holtz Kay's assertion. While sprawling suburban development eats up over two million acres of U.S. open space every year, cities offer the opportunity to capitalize upon already-existing infrastructure. It's true that suburban areas emit less greenhouse gases when measured by area, but these numbers are misleading because, as urban planner Jeff Speck explains: "Places should be judged not by how much carbon they emit, but by how much carbon they cause us to emit." Case in point, the average New Yorker emits one-third less carbon than the average American.
Luckily, a great portion of the population is poised to migrate to cities. Young twenty- and thirty-year olds are flocking to cities in droves, and so are their empty-nesting parents. The migration is so large that it constitutes the single largest demographic event since the baby boom.
This is certainly great news for the environment, but what about those of us who do not want to leave for the city? Will we really be forced to choose between protecting nature and living close to it?
I believe that we can learn to reconcile these desires, but it will require a new understanding of the relationship between cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas. In particular, it may be prudent to account for the fact that people pursue different environments at different stages of life. Travel writer Jay Walljasper describes how some countries are already putting this wisdom to use: "...Denmark's policy makers bring a broad regional perspective to issues of struggling city neighborhoods...the inner city is seen as an incubator where young people and immigrants can live cheaply as they launch their careers. And if many of them choose to move to bigger homes in outlying areas as they prosper and raise families, this is interpreted not as the failure of city life, but as a sign of its success. In concrete terms, this has resulted in a change in Denmark's tax codes: "This view of the metropolitan region as a single, unified community in which people choose to live in various areas at different times in their lives has led to an enlightened policy in which local tax revenues are shared between wealthier and poorer municipalities."
Regional planning has enabled much of Europe to achieve a graceful transition from urban to rural. There is the city, and there is preserved country, but there aren't hundreds of miles of sprawling "in-between" development. This is a result of very intentional planning, and laws like Denmark's, which requires that "nearly all new stores to be built within existing commercial center of cities, towns, or villages" and that "most new workplaces must be within a short walk of a transit stop, while stores, offices, and factories must make accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians."
Europe has shown us that it is possible to have both thriving cities as well as healthy and sustainable neighborhoods on the city fringe. There is never a reason to build sprawl - as American planner Andres Duany states: "everything you build should be either a neighborhood or a village." Through intelligent land-use policies and tax codes, we can preserve the natural and enhance the urban.
  


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