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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010 09:02 pm

Green is as green does

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A while back I remarked that Mayor Tim Davlin has his work cut out for him if he wants to see Springfield ranked as the top environmental city in the U.S. (“Greener than thou,” Sept. 16) Installing LED traffic lights reduces a municipal energy budget the way that ordering a Diet Coke with your double cheese reduces your waistline. More fundamental changes are needed in the ways that the city is designed, built and managed.

To save the most energy, one needs to do less of what uses the most energy, or do it more efficiently. For individuals and families, that means taking fewer trips in commercial jetliners, moving closer to work and insulating – really insulating – one’s dwelling place. A green municipal administration can do little to affect the first (unless it is making Springfield a place people wish to leave less often) but it can abet the last two through its regulatory and tax policies. Green-minded zoning and building codes can reduce the energy required to erect and use buildings, and low-carbon alternatives to cars make a difference in the amount of energy required to move people and goods among them.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to retrofit a building to make it green than it is to retrofit a city. City hall’s options are limited by land use policies made by past city councils, in particular their commitment to car-based dispersed development that makes public transportation uneconomical, bike transit inconvenient and the provision of basic infrastructure expensive.

Up north, the city of Evanston also has officially vowed to make itself “greenest city in America,” and to achieve that in 2008 adopted a Climate Action Plan that targeted carbon emissions from transportation, buildings, energy and food production and recycling. But Evanston would be greener than Springfield even if it does none of those things. That’s because it is a densly populated and compact (and thus walkable) city with a large bike-using college population, many condo and apartment dwellers and frequent and affordable public transit links to Chicago and the rest of the North Shore.

Lacking those advantages, cities such as Springfield must resort to diktat in the form of building and zoning codes that at least implicitly take into account the energy costs of new development. As practiced in this country, that usually means giving preference to high-density, multi-unit and mixed use developments that put housing atop retail or office space and put people closer to shops and jobs, preferably located near existing travel nodes where traffic is already concentrated, the better to exploit existing public transit links and to generate demand sufficient to support new ones. Such places exist in Springfield only on paper, as does the plan by Chicago’s Lakota Group to rejuvenate South MacArthur Boulevard around Cherry Road. (See “Plugging leaks in MacArthur’s market,” Sept. 16.)  

Other cities suggest what might be done. In California a state law allows local government entities to recover money loaned to local property owners for energy improvements by placing a tax assessment on the property that owners pay off over a period of up to 20 years as part of their property taxes. Construction and demolition ordinances that mandate the salvage and resale of building materials are in wide use. London and Paris are experimenting with clever rent-a-bike schemes that might appeal to some of the thousands who flee the Statehouse and downtown medical complexes every day for the lunchtime car trips to outlying fast food joints by making a bike ride to nearby downtown eateries possible without the hassle of cars. Portland, Ore., offers a green building “feebate” that waives conventional construction fees for green improvements. Large-scale composting of yard and food waste is being tried using anaerobic digestion systems that use the methane thus produced to generate saleable electricity.

There are of course limits to what a city government can do. (The City of Springfield has no direct control over sewage treatment, schools or public transit, for example.) There also are limits to what a city government will be allowed to do by the public. Green building regulations that raise the cost of new housing developments in New Springfield might make reusable old housing more attractive to buyers, thus indirectly redirecting development back toward the old city. That’s a win-win when looked at through green-tinted glasses. New housing becomes more efficient and old housing gets reused, which itself is a major saving in energy, since an old city building that is sensibly adapted for reuse is greener than any green building in a cornfield. Such regulations are also likely to drive new residential development outside the city borders, however, so that people will drive even farther to Springfield jobs, which rather defeats the purpose.

Almost any green regulation that makes a difference will be unpopular to the extent it makes a difference, if that means limiting housing choice or forestalling favorite driving choices.  Unfortunately for Mr. Davlin’s ambitions, most people do not want to save the planet. They just want to not feel bad about wrecking it.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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