Regions Can’t Live By Oxygen Alone

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 15, 2014

Jack Jensen, an affordable housing and green builder in Ithaca, N.Y., is grumpy about Smart Growth.

Specifically, he's pissed off at the assumption that urban infill preserves green space. As  he wrote in his post on "oxygen-based development" on Friday:

Every time a downtown project is announced, the developers and officials announce loudly and proudly that they’ve preserved open space. Hooey. The owners of green space are still free to do with it as they please. Unless downtown developers are required to buy and hold enough open space to absorb the carbon dioxide from, and provide the oxygen for, the occupants of their urban unit, they have preserved nothing.

That's a fairly good point. Dense development only actually preserves green space if we assume the total amount of development is fixed, which it is not, or if it explicitly preserves the greenfields it's not sprawling into.

I can be pretty down with the idea that if we're serious about open space preservation and climate change and such, then pairing development with required open space preservation should be worth considering, something like Jensen's suggestion.

I also sympathize with his idea that rural areas are bound up with their cities and offer them benefits beyond agriculture for which we should be grateful. (His closing comment about how much the rural areas should bill city dwellers for the oxygen their land is producing reminds me of the flip version of my Metroland column The Unapologetic City, which discusses the various unpaid-for benefits suburban residents get from their core cities.)

Unfortunately, these cogent points get a bit lost in Jenson's desire to defend rural living against the urban scourge—an American impulse if there ever was one, but misplaced for several reasons.

First, he wants to make various ills of urban living out to be inherent and immutable:

First, urban environments are inherently and undeniably unhealthy, physically and psychologically. Concentrated toxins dominate city life, and too many mice in a small cage quickly start eating each other.

I guess that's why Manhattan is in the top 20 counties in the country for women's life expectancy. And I'll breathe Ithaca city air over the San Joaquin Valley air any day.

Now, not to be too flip, there are certainly health issues associated with today's cities, including air quality, and I'm sure it's worse for cities that have lost their surrounding green space. But toxicity is not inherent to urban life, any more than obesity is inherent to rural and suburban lifestyles, though they are correlated. Many of these health issues could be changed by designing greener and healthier cities—removing pollution sources, green roofs, street trees, reducing poverty, etc.

Reversing population drain, so that cities aren't too cash-strapped to make these kinds of far-sighted choices would help a lot.

Ironically, some portion of the toxins Jensen refers to are contributed by non-urban residents and their lengthy commutes to jobs, shopping, healthcare, entertainment, much of which they need to travel into the "dirty" city for—contributing to its pollution much more than they would if they lived there. 

Oxygen production is only meaningful as a measure if it is combined with carbon footprint, and the carbon footprint of a home includes the infrastructure required to support its location.

That doesn't seem to Jensen like an inherent problem with sprawling living, but rather one of the fuel in the cars:

We aren’t ignoring the carbon emissions rural residents produce when they drive. But we think that should be put that on the oil companies, and not on rural people who struggle to get by. We have to change what our vehicles run on, not tweak the distance people drive them, if we’re ever going to reverse the damage we’ve done to our environment.

His two different approaches to what should be considered changeable and what is inherent when it comes to city air versus driving patterns are startlingly inconsistent.

I am not, actually, arguing that rural living equals "eco terrorism" as Jensen fears. The idea he seems to be putting forth—requiring rural development to include green space preservation with in itself—has some promise. Perhaps it would be more functional than attempts at no-development greenbelts. It's intriguing.

But in any case, there are trade-offs in living choices from an environmental standpoint and I think they should all be considered using the same standards, not have some be dismissed as irredeemable and others unquestioned as untouchable.

Second, I do have to wonder if Jensen really thinks that Tompkins County would somehow end up better off in terms of oxygen and green space (not to mention pleasant rural communities for those who prefer them) if all its residents were spread out evenly throughout the county as opposed to having a dense city for its core?

There are 7.6 acres of land in the county per household—but that includes a whole lot of area already under conservation management in national forests, state parks, etc. It also includes campuses (Cornell = 745 acres), roads, and all of the commercial and institutional development that is required to serve people, which would increase if people were more spread out and more of them needed to drive to things and park at them. It's hard to imagine there being much room left for forest and farms without some level of density. 

By my calculations, dispersing the city residents throughout the county would increase population density elsewhere by 30 percent if you didn't take into account all the off-limits land and increased infrastructure footprint. Taking that into account would result in an even greater increase in density. Not enough for the benefits of a city, but perhaps enough to lose the benefits of living in the country.

While it may be true that building housing downtown does not automatically preserve green space, just building it farther out doesn't either.

Rather than bashing either urban or non-urban living choices, or urban or non-urban development projects per se, it seems like it would be best to focus on answering some underlying questions:

  • How can we actually preserve green space, and can we link that to development in a meaningful way?
  • How can all types of development be done in a lower impact way?
  • What does a sustainable region as a whole look like—from oxygen generation to percent pavement coverage, air quality, transportation, equitable access to services and jobs, and more—and how do we get there?
  • How can we make all the variety of places people live in and they ways they get around more sustainable, healthier, and more equitable? 
  • How can we recognize ourselves part of interdependent complex regions and acknowledge and appreciate each other's contributions to the whole, rather than seeing ourselves at odds with each other?


(Photo by Flickr user caribb, CC BY.)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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Jack Jensen
19 Sep 14, 11:10 am

I’m afraid you misconstrued some of my points, Miriam, and made some logic leaps of faith.  Where to start?

1.  Really, you’re going to argue with a straight face that urban
environments are healthier?  And use one statistic about life expectancy of women in MANHATTAN as your statistic?  Yes, Miriam, I imagine that the women of Monaco also live longer than the women in rural West Virginia, but I imagine income has more to do with that than environmental issues, don’t you? 

And why does nearly every diehard SmartGrowth New Urbanist I know immediately flee to the outlying areas as soon as their children are born? I can point to a hundred examples of this within my circle of NeighborWorks, Enterprise, and LISC friends.  I’ve built in the city and in the country for 40 years now.  In the city we run into giant toxic environmental issues every time we turn over a spadeful of dirt.  In the country, well, there was this one time we dug up a dead cow carcass. . .

2.  New Urbanist propaganda aside, Neighborhoods of Choice is an unethical doctrine.  It amounts to fighting street crime with the chests of
schoolchildren.  For example, while at NeigborWorks, I was touring a Chicago-based non-profit’s new project.  Overnight, it had been professionally stripped—not only of copper, but of every cabinet, window, door, floor covering, towel bar . . . There were neighbors on three sides within 15’ of the building.  Nobody called the cops or the non-profit.  The director was upset, but not surprised—this was fairly common.  My question for him was this:  unless the family you planned on moving into this neighborhood is a retired Navy Seal, is this a fair fight?  Urban crime rates are triple rural crime rates nationally, by population density—city people are in far more danger from crime than rural residents.  Yet every housing program we have aims to stabilize declining neighborhoods with low-income housing.  This is not only unethical, its completely ineffective.

I worked many years in Syracuse during the big Congressman Walsh-led push to stabilize that city in the late 1990’s.  Hundreds upon hundreds of millions were spent there, since Walsh at the time chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. He brought the pork, and NeighborWorks and Enterprise fell all over themselves flinging money at the problem.  But the only tool they used was downtown tax credit projects.  Care to check out educational attainment and crime statistics for Syracuse today?  It’s a hellhole.

3.  We don’t advocate sprawl—our proposal actually prevents it.  It actively protects greenspace while putting a premium on existing buildings and approved lots, putting the onus and expense on future development.  But we also fully acknowledge that people are going to continue to build—downtown and out-of-town, and we are taking direct action to control that growth and mitigate their inevitable impact.  At the end of your piece, you ask five thoughtful questions.  These same questions have been asked since the 1970’s, when Dr. Paul Erlich’s “Population Bomb” hit the bookstores, and professional planners, pols, and pundits have been talking about it endlessly ever since, without a hint of progress.  In the intervening 40 years, enough greenpace to cover three Midwestern states has disappeared to development.  We’re tired of tsk-tsking by the special interest groups.  This is our spaceship, and current policies are poisoning it. So by all means continue to discuss, Miriam.  We intend to act.

Miriam Axel-Lute
19 Sep 14, 11:24 am


First, by all means, please act. As I think I made clear, I have no problem with, and in fact support, both the kind of development you are doing and the quite apt proposal that you make that all development should be tied to some kind of open space preservation, which will not happen automatically on its own.

However, your somewhat bizarre apparent need to denigrate urban living in the process and to conflate distressed urban neighborhoods with the concept of urban-ness still baffles me, and, I think, is counterproductive to your cause.

To address some of your point and related implications:

No, urban environments are not necessarily healthier, but neither are they necessarily less healthy. There are, as I stated, trade offs. It’s absurd to compare urban areas broadly with non-urban areas broadly. Are you going to tell me with a straight face that Cancer Alley is healthier than San Francisco? Or farms where the wells have been poisoned by hydrofracking? It’s all context specific. If you were developing on a former mine, or a farm that had used arsenic-based pesticides you could find plenty of toxics. Talk to folks downstream from mountain top removal in West Virginia.

And, yes, I know Manhattan is wealthy, thank you. Though researchers have tried to tease out those effects on health, for these purposes it doesn’t matter, because it actually makes my point in another way. Most of the core cities you are talking about are not wealthy, while their outlying areas are more so. Therefore, if you are going to dismiss Manhattan’s life expectancy, then you also need to dismiss the health differences you reference in all those places as largely a function of wealth, or of the neglect that comes with poverty.

As for your ancedotal evidence about who moves where, I guess we know different people. Perhaps it’s generational. (And I’m not even of the vaunted city-loving Millenial generation.) But I can tell you that a large number of my peers are, like myself, currently happily raising healthy school age children in functional urban areas with no plans to move.

And they aren’t even die hard New Urbanists, but merely people who prefer to be able to walk to the library, the school, the park, the movie theater, the pharmacy, and the neighborhood farmers market, where we provide a nice concentrated market for supporting local farmers from our region. Oh, and people who care about being surrounded by diversity.

There is no possible fuel for a car that is better for the earth than the fuel for people walking and biking—food.

Meanwhile, Baby Boomers are aging. The best bet for keeping them living independently as they move beyond being able to drive is to provide them with living arrangements where they can walk or use transit to meet their needs—whether that’s in an urban core, or an urbanized suburban center, which many seem to really like. That demographic shift is coming soon and it is huge. As a society we won’t be able to handle it if they are all isolated on 5-acre lots or moved into institutional settings. It’s a demographic time bomb.

Remember too, that the doughnut hole pattern of American cities is unusual. Globally, cities are mostly rich in the centers, surrounded by farther flung poor. This is not necessarily a good thing either, but it makes it clear that there is not something in human nature than makes us eschew cities if we get the chance.

Are there neighborhoods city choosers would not choose? Are there zip codes of persistent poverty and high crime? Certainly. Of course, I know the data, and the stories. What confuses me is that you seem think that is because they are urban and not for a whole host of historical and policy reasons, and that all urban areas must be like that in face of substantial evidence to the contrary.

You know, taken as a whole, children in rural areas are more likely to die from speeding cars than anyone in urban areas is likely to be harmed by crime. I keep my kids in the city to keep them safe. And no, that isn’t a joke. ( at-cities-are-the-safest-places-to-live/)

I think the lessons from Syracuse are: (1) ramming highways through cities is bad for them. (2) Agreed, yes, building only the tax credit housing in areas that are already affordable and in need of revitalization doesn’t work. I’m not sure where anything I said argued against that. I absolutely believe that wealthier areas should be forced to accept their fair share of affordable housing. But building more in the outlying areas is part of what hurt places like Syracuse. Odd to consider it now the medicine?

The people living in the neighborhoods you like to disparage are not helped when you write off their communities as unsalvagable, inherently unhealthy, destined to be a hellhole no matter what. And the number of places once considered to be just that that have now become so popular they are instead fighting displacement says that that’s not only unhelpful, but also not necessarily true.

I just returned from a work trip to DC, and on my way back to the train, I walked through a veritable forest of new construction of luxury apartments. We are really missing an opportunity to not be getting affordable housing in that area now, and the lack of ability to predict that high opportunity areas would come back into DC is part of why we’re behind there and at a significant disadvantage.

Your development work and your proposals about open space preservation do not necessarily encourage sprawl, for sure. But perpetuating an outdated idea that cities are necessarily bad, unhealthy places certainly seems like it could. Or at least it will keep a lot of people who would potentially support your other work from taking it seriously.

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