The Antidote to Billboards and Sprawl

via Bull City Mutterings by Reyn on 5/4/12

Something didn’t seem right in news stories about a poll last month by Harris Interactive reporting that only 27% of Americans describe themselves as environmentally-conscious, so I drilled down a bit.

A more accurate statement would be that only 12% report that being environmentally-conscious doesn’t describe them at all.  Everyone else to a degree was environmentally-conscious, 28% somewhat, 33% fairly, 18% very and 9% completely.

Before we obsess too much about “12% who apparently don’t give a flip or possibly just own billboards, there has been an uptick since 2009 in the overall percentages which now show that 20% of Americans describe themselves as conservationists, green 17% or environmentalist 16%.

That may not seem large but by comparison it trumps the current popularity of the US Congress (10%) or the North Carolina General Assembly (18%) or Tea Party (12%.)

Illustrating why 79% of Americans yearn for far more and better coverage of the environment, a local city official recently stopped me in mid-sentence to ask me what I meant by the term “green infrastructure.”  It wasn’t a trick question nor was it only because environmental consciousness has been brutally politicized.

What news coverage occurs about the environment (e.g. 1% of stories last year) has become politicized by a phenomenon described by co-authors of an op-ed last week in the Washington Post (one from a conservative think tank and the other from a progressive think tank):

“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”

By now all Americans, especially anyone working in government at every level but especially local, should understand that:

“…green infrastructure is the ecological framework needed for environmental, social and economic sustainability—in short it is our nation’s natural life sustaining system. Green infrastructure differs from conventional approaches to open space planning because it looks at conservation values and actions in concert with land development, growth management and built infrastructure planning.”

More specifically, as defined by the Green Infrastructure Work Group:

“Green infrastructure  is our nation’s natural life support system —  an interconnected network  of waterways, wetlands, woodlands, wildlife  habitats, and other natural  areas; greenways, parks and other conservation lands; working farms, ranches and forests; and wilderness and other open spaces that support  native species, maintain natural ecological  processes, sustain air and water resources and contribute  to the health and quality of life for America’s communities and people.”

That definition is strategic and overarching.  Some have narrowed the term to be more tactical such as this guide the how to value green infrastructure for storm water management.  Still others think of it only in terms of a “green roof” on a building.  But I prefer the more all encompassing, strategic sense of the term.

“Green” infrastructure is every bit as crucial as what is called “gray” infrastructure such as utilities, roads, sidewalks and buildings.  Just like social and cultural infrastructure, they require a careful balance.

As sense-of-place champion Edward T. McMahon co-wrote a decade ago, green infrastructure may be a new term to some but it is not a new idea, and because it balances conservation and development it differs from traditional open space planning.

A fascinating new book entitled American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation by environmental lawyer Eric Rutkow explains historically that even before the founding of this country, people understood that sustainable development was enabled by a balance of infrastructures.

Development is far more sustainable and valuable when informed by holistic green infrastructure planning which includes a series of hubs and links throughout a community.  Without it sprawl gnaws away at the character of a community.  Without it inter and intra agency silos result in what we see in the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Within NCDOT roadside environmental engineers carefully plant trees, turf and wildflowers and protect scenic by-ways for economic, health and aesthetic reasons, but maintenance is done by another department, which as we’ve seen recently along Interstates here, can be scalped and clear-cut or surrendered to private billboard companies even in violation of the department policies, federal guidelines and with no disregard for local regulations.

As documented in the 2004 book Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles and the American Landscape, by Dr. Catherine Gudis at the University of California – Riverside, sprawl did not begin after World War II.  It began much earlier in the years after WWI and in the absence of zoning was fueled by the outdoor billboard industry which first desecrated downtown buildings and then wallpapered roadways as fast as they were built while fueling development that even today is many times what would be justified by the growth in population.

To me the antidote to sprawl and blight, such as billboards and unsustainable development and the desecration of community character, is more coherent infrastructure planning beginning with a development-balanced, overarching and strategic green infrastructure plan.

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