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February 20, 2013


Dear Sustainables:

Today Mayor Vincent Gray released "Sustainability DC," "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 ( 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.

Gary Imhoff


The Missing Piece
George Idelson,

Missing from much of the controversy surrounding the Zoning Rewrite is a discussion of the significance of the Comprehensive Plan. By law, the Comprehensive Plan, adopted by the council in 2006, is the Rosetta Stone of any new zoning regulations. So what does the Plan tell us? As with the Bible, you can read different meanings into it. But some things are quite clear. From the get-go, it declares we are an "inclusive city." Elsewhere, it describes us as a "city of neighborhoods." Throughout, it speaks of weighing any new zoning against the impact on the affected neighborhoods. The Home Rule Act, which fathered the Comprehensive Plan, directs the mayor to include residents in the process. But nowhere in the Home Rule Act or the Comprehensive Plan is the mayor or his agents instructed to tear the city apart. To pit young against old. Bicyclists against drivers. Downtown against uptown. Nowhere does it instruct city planners to take away existing rights of citizens to weigh in on neighborhood zoning, and transfer those rights to developers. Sadly, a clumsily executed Zoning Rewrite has a left us with a city divided. It doesn’t have to be that way. On March 6, the council will hold oversight hearings on the Office of Planning. Shortly thereafter, OP will take its "baby" to the Zoning Commission for approval. Can you imagine what might happen if scores of residents showed up to demand we get the Rewrite right?



DC Citizens Federation, Unlock Gridlock: The Key Is Thee, February 26
Anne Renshaw,

Robert Thomson, aka Dr. Gridlock, will be "in the house" on Tuesday evening, February 26, 6:45-9:00 p.m., for the DC Citizens Federation’s interactive session with community leaders about citywide transit and transportation challenges, including the bête noir of DC planning and transportation officials, parking. The Assembly, which is open to the public, will be held at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church Hall, 2300 Cathedral Avenue, NW, near the Woodley Park Metro on the Red Line.

Mr. Thomson is The Washington Post’s popular veteran "I share your pain" transportation editor. His twice-weekly column, "Dr. Gridlock," is must-reading, especially for DC commuters. Mr. Thomson also writes a daily blog and connects with readers via on-line chats about navigating through and around the nation’s capital. Topics confronting Dr. Gridlock on February 26 will range from the heated citywide parking debate, traffic congestion, transit zones, and the reliability of a near-capacity Metro system. DC residents ("the key is thee") are invited to brainstorm with Dr. Gridlock about rational transportation and parking initiatives dismissed by city planners.

All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, 2300 Cathedral Ave., NW (off Connecticut A venue) is near the Woodley Park Metro on the Red Line. The Church parking lot is on Woodley Place, behind the church. Use the entrance down the garden steps from the parking lot. The door will open at 6:30 p.m. For further information, contact Anne Renshaw, President, DC Citizens Federation, 363-6880.


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