Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Low Hanging Fruit isn't necessarily the best to pick.

A friend sent me a link to the NY Times book review of a new book by David Owen: Going Green: What Cities can Teach the Country. Owen's main point is that the huge metropolis of New York City is actually the greenest, most environmentally responsible place in the US, due in large part to its density, walkability and infrastructure.

Although I'm not sure I'm buying his entire argument (especially since I've only read the book review), I completely agree that to be truly green, cities must be densely populated rather than spread out across the horizon, and they must be correctly laid out to take advantage of urban density. This is where New York, and many other cities, beat Indianapolis hands down. There are few places in Indianapolis where one can walk or even bike to the grocery, dry cleaner, drugstore, doctor, bus stops, and other consumer needs. Within the Milesquare downtown, Broad Ripple and Fountain Square, where I live, are the only areas where that's possible in this city. In these few spots we have smart growth left over from the era before that name had a meaning. It's here in these innercity neighborhoods where we can and must proselytize our lifestyles. Developers can talk about New Urbanisim all they want, but West Clay will never be as smart as Fountain Square.

Going green is the best argument for innercity development that could be made. If we reopen the shopping nodes that once offered up goods and wares on neighborhood street corners, then we are being smart. When we put money into our urban areas we are also meeting all three of the greenies "R"s: reduce, reuse, recycle by filling up existing homes, not by building new ones on the city edges.

The review of Owen's book makes note of something that dovetails nicely with a message I've been preaching for the last few years. It says that Owen critizes those "who waste money on "inappropriate technology" such as solar panels while failing to beef up roof insulation, drive less, downsize or purchase more efficient HVAC systems." This is a mirror of how I feel about those who insist that to be "green" and not waste energy they must put new, Energy Star windows in their old house. When what they really need to do is insulate their roofs, recaulk their beautiful old windows, buy some insulated drapes which they close to keep out the sun in summer and open for solar gain in winter, and plant a tree in front of the window to create shade in the hot months.

Windows in old homes appear to be the low-hanging fruit which seems ripe for the picking. And it's true that those old windows may never be exactly as efficient as the hyped new ones. But if they are made to be as efficient as they can be, where they already exist, they are also preventing the need for manufacturing and shipping a new set of windows and for landfilling the old ones. Again: all three Rs.

And a P. Preservation.

I hope that as we environmentalists think about the future world we want to leave in good shape for our children's children, we also consider the architectural legacy we can leave for them. Pulling out the old windows from your Victorian or even your Mid-Century home means that it can no longer convey its history at a glance. It isn't the historic home anymore. And it may not have gained much in the way of conservation, either. It certainly doesn't gain you as much conserved energy as spraying cellulose insulation into your attic would have, or installing a new HVAC, or insulating your foundation.

So if you live in the city, and particularly if you live in an old home, be Smart. Be Green. Old house owners who live in a walkable community can be the greenest of all the citizens. We are triple R-ers!

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