Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Environment and Urban Planning--A Model?

I was quite pleased to read an article in the recent issue of Conservation in Practice about Michael Klemens, a biologist who specializes in making developments as wildlife-friendly as possible. What is his primary conclusion? That dense human habitation is much better for wildlife than spread out developments. And we're not talking about a suburban development here as the problem. The problem as Klemens sees it is perhaps the opposite of what one would think. It's developments with significant room between homes and roads. The problem is that many species of wildlife need more room than scientists used to think and that the space between homes in a development just cuts their habitat spaces to bits. He goes so far as to argue that conservation is a far greater challenge in suburban Westchester County, NY than in the developing world because Americans don't think conservation applies to them since we have Yellowstone and other designated "wild places." Klemens tries to get developers to redesign projects to allow for large sections of open space with fairly dense housing. Sometimes he's successful, sometimes not.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, conservation is as important in the cities as in the "wilderness." Saving land within urban developments means as much to species conservation and the quality of life for both humans and other animals as Yellowstone. Go to a nature preserve within an urban area. The Ijams nature center in Knoxville, TN is a great example. The sheer variety of animals, birds, and plants is spectacular. These places have immense value. If we can't stop development, it should be a priority of the environmental movement to make that development as friendly to the needs of both people and other animals as possible.

But I'll also use this opportunity to go a step further and suggest that dense urban living is the most responsible environmental action we can possibly take. Living near lots of other people allows for better social space, interactions with other people, development of strong community, fighting crime, tolerance for other kinds of people, and many other benefits. Spread out living makes all of these goals difficult. Furthermore, if more people live in dense urban housing, that leaves more space for wildlife outside of the urban core. How much better off would our endangered species be if we just didn't live in suburbs? A whole lot, I would guess. Even with responsible building, roads just destroy species. Studies have shown that even dirt roads that are rarely traversed have negative effects on species, both because they get run over, but also because they tend to migrate near the roads because they are warmer (thus making them even more likely to be hit) and also because the roads become a boundary that splits populations since many animals are reticent to go out into the open space that a road creates.

Americans may be some of the only people in the world who have this hangup against living around other people. I know that the time I spent in Asia really changed my position on this kind of thing. In South Korea, people were packed in at a density that most Americans would balk at, but it also allowed 44million people to live in a country the size of West Virginia and allowed for a significant amount of green space for farming, national parks, and other forms of recreation. Now South Korea has a horrible environmental record, but at least in the sense of their urban planning, they were light years ahead of the United States.

I have literally never talked to anyone in the US who agreed with me on this, but I believe that Asian-influenced urban housing developments are the single most responsible environmental move that we can make as individuals (through choosing to live in them) and as a society (by mandating building them). What do readers think about this?