29 August 2008

LEED us not into temptation

Watching a show on HGTV called "Hidden Potential" reminded me of the things that I hate most about the craze of "green building" and the likes of LEED certification. Most people might take this as a crass swipe at tree-huggers. It's not. I more than adore my flora loving friends. But, what I don't love is this mentality that we can build our way out of our environmental situation. This show, for instance, features a couple who lives in Portland, Oregon (of course), and has spent the past six years converting their home into a green paradise. So now they wanna upgrade Beyonce style, and they want it to be "green."

So the designers take the couple around to three different houses and show them how they can convert these places to be "green." Two of the houses are mid-century (20th) or later models on generous lots, apparently somewhere far away from the infamous Portland light rail. The third house is a hundred year-old Victorian that is clearly in a relatively urban neighborhood (though not by dense, big city standards). This house is dismissed by the "green" couple as basically being too urban. For those who don't know, being urban is far-more environmentally sensible than energy efficiency from solar-bio-recycled everything else. But I digress.

So after considering fantasy upgrades to make the 20th century crap homes with spacious yards green, the couple settles on a 1976 "cabin" that requires extensive renovation and major additions. The couple loves that it has a yard the size of a "major park" (with lots grass to mow, maybe using a solar lawn mower?). So let's do an audit for this couple. We need to take into account the change from a more urban location to the middle of nowhere, the costs of new construction and renovation, and of living on acreage that would normally sustain an entire third world village. When you add it up, the "green" sensibilities of the couple is little more than self-serving fiction to ease their own conscience.

Sadly, this is just a neatly packaged example of the mindset that drives the fetish known as the green-building" movement. Consider for instance, that a building can be declared LEED certified and yet be surrounded by a sea of impermeable asphalt in the outer-belt of metroples sprawl (after a farm or habitat was demolished). Consider that a building can obtain LEED certification with hundreds of water-table invasive underground parking while being located literally on top of a major transit line. Consider that a well-built/well-maintained historic home, despite being somewhat less efficient in some standards, still outperforms the embedded energy and resources required for new-fangled renovations or so-called "green building." As Don Rypkema of Place Economics appropriately observes, LEED stands for "Lunatic Environmentalist enthusiastically Demolishing."

This is not to say that I am against building new structures in a "greener" fashion. That much makes sense. What doesn't make sense is to go through so much effort and ignore the idea that a green building that requires individual, auto-centric transport is not green. What doesn't make sense is that our cities (despite some recent resurgence) overwhelmingly have more capacity in existing (vacant or underutilized) structures and land. What doesn't make sense is that people think that they can live a consumption-focused life-style on a cul-de-sac, while working in an office park, and shopping at a strip mall and somehow think that they can be "green."

28 August 2008

Urban Planning: Beyond Saving the MBTA

Bostonians who suffer, but love the MBTA, must often wonder, how this really is one of the best transit systems in the country. For the average passenger the system is erratic and dated; often failing at the moments most personally important. Talk about amazing technology, a system that will fail when you personally need it most. Activist (T Rider's Union, Bad Transit) and transit enthusiasts must be further concerned. It has had a series of general managers that are openly anti-transit. The current GM, Dan Grabauskas, a relative-believer in transit at least, has managed to make station and operational improvements but is bogged down in debt and an inexplicable malaise in the State to treat transit seriously. While the turnpike and roadways get bailouts, transit is left drowning in unfair obligations. These obligations, many steaming from "Big Dig Mitigation" projects, were financed by the T, unlike the roadways, which are treated as capital improvements.

So it's not difficult to see why passengers and transit advocates can barely focus beyond keeping the T alive; at a time when transit elsewhere is resurgent. While this slow-action drama continues, the city and region risk being passed-up by progressives such as Denver, Portland, and even LA who are making bold moves to invest in transit for the future. In a time of energy crisis and climate change where transit has never looked better, and when dozens of cities across the nation are making strides towards building or expanding systems, Boston is stuck. Worse still, the current ideas for expanding and improving the T are tepid and inadequate to the needs of a world class city. The silver-line, an unquestionable failure is now promised to be followed by the "Urban Ring," another BRT idea that is even more poorly conceived with more never-to-happen tunnels. I know that is hard to believe if you have ever had to suffer the Silver Line, but imagine a rapid transit bus somehow ploughing through the LMAA on surface roads. Further, worthwhile projects such as extending the Green and Blue Lines are going nowhere. Worse still, there is no room for new ideas such as expanding capacity in the central core of Green line subway, now congested beyond belief, with quadruple tracking or new tunnels...or regaining ground by extending the E line back to Centre Street, if not to Arborway.

I would argue that the time is now to resolve the T's constant fiscal crisis (operating and capital) with a sustainable solution (beyond the sales tax). Now is the time for the T to evaluate the whole system (Commuter Rail, Rapid Transit, and Bus) to imagine and plan for a system worthy of a world class city of the 21st Century. Now is the time to move beyond dated ideas (i.e. the pseudo-BRT Urban Ring Scheme) and make room to consider a new future.

Urban Planning is a series of posts meant to prompt dialogue on major urban issues, with a focus on ideas and solutions.