Two strains of environmental thinking could pull you in opposite directions when it comes to the preferred location for a green house.
The dominant idea nowadays is built on the assumption that the really big environmental problems — climate change, land use, water quality, transportation — get worse as people spread themselves thinly.
On purely analytical terms, the Smart Growth Approach is hard to quibble with. There are a lot of us, and for the most part, we live in cities. Once we start commuting to work or looking for a place to put our waste, the environmental benefits of short distances, mass transit and sewer lines start adding up. At least when it comes to single-family homes, small lots in walkable neighborhoods, close to our jobs, with bus and train service, are the best recipe for reducing our impact.
The alternative view is favored by people who would have been known a few decades ago as “naturalists.” Call it the Walden Approach: low impact, simple living. Build a cabin in the woods. Live on an organic farm. Camp in the wilderness. Live off the land while treading lightly.
Under the right circumstances, the Walden Approach can pay big dividends. Growing one’s own food, rather than buying food shipped from all over the world, can have as big an impact on land use, carbon emissions, chemical pollution and a heap of other environmental barometers as, say, trading in your Cadillac Escalade for a bicycle. Preserving or restoring a natural ecosystem — rather than farming on it — can have a similar beneficial impact on storm-water pollution, wildlife and carbon sequestration.
But the Walden Approach digs deeper than any quantifiable (if not easy-to-quantify) measure. It cuts to the core of our relationship to the Earth. There’s a spiritual argument for smaller scale and simpler living that’s not easy to express with technocratic arguments.
Essayist and agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry captures that neo-Thoreau view as well as anyone. “Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening,” he writes. “A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”
Berry goes on to point out that, to be truly meaningful, one’s relationship to the land must be on an intricate, human scale: “There can be no such thing as a ‘global village.’ No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.”
That’s difficult to do in a town home or an apartment, even though the average person who lives in a town home or an apartment surely uses less water, land and coal-powered electricity than the person who lives in a standalone house on a large lot does.
I know it sounds a bit convenient (probably because it is convenient), but we think we can get make both the Smart Growth and Walden people happy. Theoretically at least.
While not exactly Manhattan, our Candler Park neighborhood is very pedestrian and bicycle friendly. We live across the street from a park, and right on a bike path that connects to paths all over the city.
The leading green home rating program, LEED for Homes, gives projects a fair amount of credit for being placed on previously developed lots, for avoiding floodplains and fragile habitats, and for relying on existing infrastructure like water and electric lines.
We reckon we qualify for a lot those points, plus we have enough “community resources” (stores, restaurants, entertainment, recreation, etc.) within walking distance to be considered “outstanding” in that category. In other words, we’re all about Smart Growth.
At the same time, by a happy quirk, we have a large enough tract of land to do a some good things for Mother Nature. Here’s what happened: The developer of our neighborhood laid out 50-foot-wide, 150-foot-deep lots along our street. But it was the late 1920s, and (I guess) because of the Great Depression, the street that was platted out behind ours never was built. In the 1950s, homeowners got the opportunity to buy those additional lots, and just a couple of years ago, the right of way of the unbuilt street came up for sale.
The result: Our lot is as narrow as originally envisioned, for tiny working class bungalows — 50 feet wide. But the property is now deep — 265 feet — and more than half that depth is undeveloped land.
That’s may not compare to a true nature preserve out in the country. But it’s a pretty good bit of territory to rack up a bunch of points in the LEED for Homes’ Sustainable Sites category.
LEED encourages builders to plant trees and shrubs, to shade sidewalks patios and driveways, and to ensure that water soaks into the ground (rather than runs off of the lot). We also can score points for making room for a vegetable garden and rainwater storage, as well as for using rainwater for irrigation.
The points are one way express an idea: Our aim is to nurture a Waldenesque site in Smart Growth neighborhood.