Sustainability means doing the minimum necessary to avoid ecological or societal trauma, whether for one location or ecosystem, or worldwide. In other words, it’s a half-measure.
People like half-measures. Public discussions of sustainability tend to reflect giving people everything they already have, but in less-wasteful formats. We hear more about hybrids than encouraging people to have fewer cars, more about responsible forestry than about using less wood, and more about recycling than about ”reducing” or “reusing.”
That’s a start, and plenty for some people, but perhaps we need to work harder on the big stuff too.
Like density. We’re improving a bit, but we still strictly limit density in this region, making it more expensive than necessary (through bonus fees, additional process, lack of sites zoned higher than what’s already there, etc.) and therefore reducing its market share, which in turn adds to sprawl. Meanwhile, denser construction brings huge efficiencies in energy, materials, and land use, due to factors such as shared walls and reduced commute distances. (Transportation is sometimes forgotten in analyses of energy use!)
The trend toward smaller homes (or plateau?) is encouraging. Smaller homes use less materials and energy to build, use less energy to heat, cool, and light (all else being equal), and don’t leave so much room to fill with unneeded stuff. The trend toward multifamily helps for similar reasons, plus multifamily residents have the option of simply deleting the astonishing array of tools and materials often kept by house residents, from paint to edgers to four kinds of shovel.
It’s great that we’re focusing on transit, because transit benefits energy use, land-use, runoff, the need for parking infrastructure, and so on compared to driving. Biking and walking are even better. Density automatically makes all of these modes more viable. Of course we still don’t put our policies where our mouth is on pedestrian issues, with many “no crossing” points even in our most urban districts, our lax oversight of speeding and red light running, and so on.
It’s disgusting what’s happening with the global warming “debate.” In fact it’s a fake debate kept alive by certain industries and those who believe them. We’re exactly where the cigarette “debate” was a couple decades ago. Scientists agree that humans are a contributor to the problem, as much as they agree about anything, except the corrupt (bought) ones and a small number of honest devil’s advocates. The cigarette deniers are now seen as having contributed to countless deaths (and they still troll online bulletin boards, denying everything!). In the coming decades the global warming deniers will be reviled in the same way for the same reason. I’ll applaud any leadership Obama might provide on this issue, and we can all act locally as well, as an industry adding to the strides we’ve made, as a region with policy, and as individuals.