Do We Have The Courage To Build Sustainable Cities?

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On Earth Day, I jumped into my 5,000-pound pickup truck and drove 14 miles into and across town to Shasta College, where I listened to people in a windowless, overly air-conditioned lecture hall talk about sustainability.

Irony is alive and well.

But I’m not here to flagellate myself over my lifestyle choices, or to ridicule Shasta College’s sustainability conference. The event itself was worthwhile in part because it brought together such a nice cross-section of students, faculty, professionals from the community, farmers and people simply interested in learning.

No, I’d rather discuss the “built environment.” My wife is rolling her eyes right now, I’m sure. But after writing about land use planning – essentially, the practice of determining what gets built and where – since the 1980s, I have come to believe that the form of cities and the buildings in those cities dictate how people live their lives. In Redding, as in most of the United States, those cities and buildings make a sustainable lifestyle nearly impossible to achieve.

Start with the location of the main Shasta College campus. Located in the far northeast corner of town, the campus is entirely automobile-dependent. Good for you if you carpool or take the bus to campus, but walking and bicycling to the school are not options. The location is remote from population centers, and there is not a single bike lane or sidewalk leading to campus. Ever try to walk from Shasta College to Simpson University, two institutions of higher learning only about a mile apart? It’s unpleasant, dangerous and I bet you wouldn’t do it twice.

There’s a lot to like about the Shasta College campus itself – the oaks and redwoods, the pastoral ambiance, the prominent athletic facilities, the walkable scale. But most buildings are almost hermetically sealed, and many rooms have no natural light. Thus, the HVAC systems run nonstop and the lights burn all the time. (Give credit to Shasta College for building a solar field that, as of next month, will provide 37% to 40% of the campus’s electricity.)

To summarize: Bad location, bad buildings. Neither of those things makes Shasta College unique. Like dozens of community college and California State University campuses across California, the current Shasta College campus was built during the era shortly after World War II ended. The post-war period was a heady time of growth, a time when the internal combustion engine and other energy-dependent technologies were viewed as saviors that could deliver people from the evils of overcrowded big cities. We built low-density suburbs with houses in one location, shopping malls in another, office parks over there, and schools somewhere else. To get from one to the other, you drove a motorized vehicle or found a ride in one. What could ever be more convenient? And what could be more comfortable than sealing up buildings tightly so they could be climate controlled between 68 and 72 degrees around the clock?

In 1950, we didn’t know any better. In 2010, we do. The lifestyle reflected in the post-war development patterns and buildings is the very definition of unsustainable, because it is fully dependent on non-renewable resources. And, as anyone who has ever bought a car, paid a heating bill or even stopped at a gas station lately knows, it is a very expensive lifestyle not only for the planet, but for our wallets. Turns out that those nasty old big cities are a lot more environmentally sustainable than our modern suburbs.

So it was exciting for me to hear Redding architect James Theimer talk at the sustainability conference about the new Redding School of the Arts campus now under construction just off Shasta View Drive. According to Theimer, geothermal, wind and solar sources will provide all of the electricity for the 77,000 square feet of buildings. Rainwater collected from rooftops and stored underground will provide all of the landscaping irrigation. Large oaks were left on the site to provide shade. There is space for a school community garden that will provide both an outdoor classroom and actual food. Out front is an honest-to-goodness traffic circle, which eliminates the need for an electric traffic signal and greatly reduces automobile idling. All of this is a long way away from most post-war school campuses.

Is the School of the Arts campus in the “right” location from a land-use planning standpoint? I’m not so sure, but at least the neighborhood has some sidewalks and bike lanes.

Urban development is not inherently good or evil, sustainable or unsustainable. But development is necessary to accommodate new people, businesses and institutions, and to replace facilities that are outmoded. The question for me, on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, is whether we will choose development that supports a sustainable lifestyle. Because we can no longer say we don’t know any better.

shigley-mugshotPaul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and co-author of Guide to California Planning, a reference book and college text. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at pauls.anewscafe@gmail.com.

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has been a professional journalist since 1987. For 12 years, he served as editor or senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a statewide trade publication for land use planners, real estate development professionals and attorneys. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter or editor at newspapers in Redding, Grass Valley, Napa and Calistoga. Shigley's work also has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Planning magazine, Governing magazine, California Law Week, National Speed Sport News and elsewhere. In addition, he is co-author of Guide to California Planning, a college text and reference book, and is currently working on a book for the American Planning Association about the Bay Delta and California water resources. A graduate of California State University, Sacramento, Shigley has contributed to A News Cafe since 2009. He and his wife, Dana, live in western Shasta County.
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6 Responses

  1. Avatar Dana Shigley says:

    Okay, so I did roll my eyes a little, but he is right on this one. The title says it all…do we have the courage? Cities can adopt all the general plan policies they want to encourage infill development, but when that developer comes along who wants to build a sales-tax-producing shopping center on the nice, cheap field of dirt just outside of town, will cities say no? With the financial crises facing cities today, is it even prudent to say no? Right now, there are few developers wanting to build big shopping centers (although there are a couple out there looking for entitlements, evidently…), so cities may not be asked to answer these questions today. But, when the economy picks up again, how will we respond? Will we have the courage?

    Dana (the wife)

  2. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    There was a bike lane to Shasta College at one time but apparently it was swallowed up by roadwork/widening of 299 – about the same time the Shasta College bus system was downsized so far as to become virtually nonexistent.

  3. Avatar Pamela says:

    Well, Paul, I hope you will come out to the Shasta College Teaching Garden. It's in the open air; you can walk over from the main campus; you can get exercise by helping to dig garden beds or lay irrigation pipe. And, what's more, you will be helping to produce food for local Food Banks. We will be offering a series of workshops–outside. This summer, some folks may wish we were inside, but we can rest under the shade of some large trees.

    We will have our next workshop on Mother's Day–so do something good for your mother and come on out! Breathe in the fresh air, and we might even plant some seeds.

  4. Avatar Charlie Peters says:

    Mary Nichols, CARB Chair, on AB32 global warming performance.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zl-Nrep74qg

  5. Avatar Richard Douse says:

    This is a thoughtful article. I hope a lot of readers pay attention.

    We have, however, used up the time required to fix our planet. It would be nice if sustainability could help us but I don't believe it can. The very word suggests we will be okay if we keep what we have and don't make things worse. Sadly, we have already set forces of nature at work that will change civilization or maybe even destroy it. What we need to do now, as a people, is to re-assess what we humans really need. Do we really need 5000 sq ft homes? Or even (like mine) 1800 sq ft? Walk through the Mount Shasta Mall (or any mall) and look in the windows of all the stores and ask yourself how much of what you see is vital to your life, or if it is created simply capture your money.

    We need to figure out how to be happy in a new economic model. One not dependent on growth.

    In the 1950s a few people did "know better." I clearly remember my biology teacher, Mr. Turner, telling our disbelieving class that our planet could only sustain perhaps 500 million humans before we would cause lasting harm to our world. That was in 1955 and our planet had already passed that mark a century or two earlier!

    My wife and I have lived "off grid" for 12 years. We collect rainwater off our metal roof and store it in tanks for year round domestic use. We raise most of our own vegetables with the help of two photovoltaic wells – and still we are not "sustainable." We are still dependent upon gasoline and diesel fuel and propane to run the generator when the sun doesn't shine. It's frustrating.

  1. April 23, 2010

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