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04/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Village Green: Some Fighting Words About Suburban Sprawl

  Craig Ranch development somewhere near Dallas (by: Justin Cozart, creative commons license)

“The biggest fight I think we’ll see in the next ten years is the fight between people in cities who are trying to transform them into ‘bright green’ cities and those economic interests in the [outer-ring] suburbs who see that as a threat to their livelihoods, and in some cases just despise it on ideological grounds.”

So says “bright green” advocate Alex Steffen, executive editor of WorldChanging, in an interview with Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes.

Steffen believes that mainstream environmentalists’ concentration on stemming global warming through national and international carbon caps has failed and will continue to have little chance of meaningful success but finds hope in other, more localized strategies, including reforming land use.  In an earlier article by Hiskes on Grist, Steffen points to “people working and volunteering in architecture, design, planning, community development, housing, building, local energy, local food, and alternative transportation” as among the more promising agents of change.

In last week’s interview, he elaborates that an array of allied interests – oil companies, highway builders, sprawl developers – is determined to stop smart growth strategies from being implemented and that mainstream green groups should work to help inner-ring suburbs join with cities to strengthen our position in what he sees as a “war” between sprawl and smart urbanism.  While I see these issues in far less divisive ways, and believe sprawl is weakening more and more with every new market trend, there’s no question that Steffen has a point when he says that the ostensibly minority political party has so stymied Congress from doing anything remotely progressive that it is time to look for new ways to move forward.

That doesn’t mean that he thinks reform will be easy.  Steffen is convinced that we cannot find “a vision of the future that will ever feel OK” to the interests supporting sprawl, and that they must be defeated, not convinced:

“But there are so many more winners than losers in this fight that it’s a smart fight to take on. We are becoming an urban planet. We are already an urban country. When you add together cities and inner-ring suburbs and allied small towns, it’s a solid majority of Americans.”

He has another very fair point when he observes that there is a strong strain of thought among many climate advocates that we should accept the sprawl paradigm as a given and try to work with it.  (Just read the oft-cited McKinsey report on climate strategies for strong evidence of that.)  But he also believes that continuing to accept sprawl is a loser for the planet no matter how many bells and whistles you put on it:

“It is very possible to have lives that are just as prosperous, and nicer, that use 5 percent of the fossil fuels and virgin materials we do now. But if we’re living anything like the average McMansion-ite, SUV-driving suburbanites, there’s simply no way that can be powered in a climate-friendly way.”

I think he’s right about that.  And my corollary is that trying to “fix” sprawl by building nicer, more walkable developments in new fringe locations is also a bit of a hoax.  Sprawl is sprawl no matter how you design it.  I think inclusive revitalization and retrofitting existing suburban places is the way to go. 

Where Steffen and I may differ is on the issue of whether we need “war” to continue the progress that I already see all around me.  But I am really glad he is out there provoking: he’s good at it.  Read his interview here.

Kaid Benfield writes occasional 'Village Green' commentary on Huffington Post and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard.  For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.