Today Mayor Vincent Gray released "Sustainability DC,"http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/local/sustainable-dc-plan/52. "This Sustainable DC implementation plan lays out the challenges we face in: creating jobs and economic growth, improving health and wellness, increasing equity and opportunity, and preserving and protecting our environment in the face of changing climate. This plan also provides solutions in the areas of built environment, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, and water. Based on broad public input, forward thinking agencies, and best practices from around the globe, this plan offers more than 100 specific actions to deliver results for our city."
James Lileks, the indefatigable Minneapolis columnist, novelist, and blogger who writes The Daily Bleat, wrote a timely column on suburbs today (http://lileks.com/bleats/archive/13/0213/022013.html) that could serve as a counterpoint to Gray’s master plan. Lileks writes about a brief children’s book from the 1970’s that praises the suburbs, reprinted with an even briefer condescending put-down: "‘Much has been written about what makes a great city, with recent theories placing walkability atop the list of favorable assets, deeming suburbs among the least desirable, most unsustainable, most culturally insular places to live.’
"Well," Lileks counters, ‘if much has been written about it, it must be so. Recent theories must be correct, because they are recent. I value walkability, but it’s a loaded term: I’ve read pieces from local urbanists who decry Minneapolis walkability because one cannot walk anywhere from everywhere because highways come along, and you have to go six blocks north to cross. Of course, ‘walkability’ as a primary attribute would devalue autocentric burbs, which deems them the least desirable.
"To people who place walkability high on the list, and define it as ‘not having to walk more than 20 blocks to get what you need,’ that is. The first-ring suburbs are walkable, and you can get to a commercial node on foot. The second-ring, less so; the far-flung exurbs with their cul-de-sacs and gated communities, much less so, which is why they are occupied by people who do not place walkability high on the list — even though they may enjoy walking in the neighborhood for its own sake.
"‘Most unsustainable.’ Here Recent Theories shade into sloppy vogue-words. The big dense urban core is not sustainable. It cannot exist without constant infusions of resources it is incapable of producing. What the term means, of course, is ‘we will run out of gas, and before that cars will change the climate.’ You can believe that if you like, and endeavor to change our behavior through persuasion or the force of law, but I’ll note this: the first-ring suburb closest to my neighborhood is compact, served by public transit, walkable as noted, and affordable. It has sustained itself better than the areas of the inner core which rotted and decayed for reasons that had nothing to do with resource depletion or carbon output.
"The term ‘sustainable’ is never applied to individual behavior beyond resource consumption or recycling habits. Never to the ways in which one’s actions sustain the strength of society.
"‘Most culturally insular places to live.’ Ah, the sneer. Finally."
Lileks responds to the sneers with a defense of the virtues of the suburbs: "If a suburb appears ‘culturally insular’ to an outsider or touristy critic, it’s because they have such a weak understanding of human nature they think that everyone thinks alike because the lawns are generally mowed to a uniform height.
"Really, you don’t know what to do with someone who has such a spectacular failure of imagination. How a suburb can contain a hard-line Catholic and a lapsed Unitarian and a vegetarian child and an Internet-culture kid and a Greatest-Generation FDR-generation communitarian in the same house. To say nothing of the houses on the same side of the block. To say nothing of the houses on the other side of the block. To say nothing of the block across the street.
"The suburbs were freedom.
"Freedom from the shouting voices on the other side of the wall, the landlord raising the rent, the boiler that went out in February, the crash of the trash lids when the garbage man came, the heat of August, the street as a playground, the tired old look of the weary houses up and down the block, the streetcar in the dead of winter that never came, the trudge through unshoveled walks with the bags from the four-aisle grocery store, the streets where no one in his right mind biked, the blocks and blocks of unending asphalt without parks."
Commentators on Lilek’s column say things like, "‘Bittersweet? history’s greatest failure?’ Says more about the psychology of the writer than about suburbia. Urban sophisticates have been decrying the supposed moral horror of the rural, and later suburban bourgeois life, since forever. They should look around and see how the cities are doing. Walkability doesn’t mean much if you are afraid to go out." And: "Many of the complaints I’ve seen about suburbs or sprawl or unsustainability seem to boil down to the same unspoken premise: ‘I’m irritated that other people won’t let me run their lives for them.’ That trope used to be the Nosy Neighbor or the Know-It-All; for some reason now, it’s the Engaged Hipster. A pity, that."
Gray’s plan for sustainability is a combination of Nanny Bloomberg’s penchant for banning everything that he personally disapproves of and the eagerness of elected and appointed officials to tell us how we must run our lives. And it is written in the "sloppy vogue words" that Lileks treats with proper disdain. Washington and its suburbs used to live in comfortable symbiosis. Now Washington’s leaders treat suburbanites as those awful primitives with their crude cars, and pretend that we don’t need them. We can go it on our own.
The Missing Piece
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