Individualism Ultimately Undermines Environmental Management.

Reposted from here.

Originally, this was intended to be one of the points I would brush over in “Getting Real about the Environment”, however, I felt it deserve a more detailed discussion and so decided to set it aside on its own.

While many environmentally engaged people would proudly state that they are not so individualistic – indeed desire more equal, sharing communities – I fear individualism hides within many of their ideologies. At the same time there is also another side to environmentalism which is openly individualistic in that they enjoy the open spaces and dislike regulation on such resources.

The most obvious example to begin with comes from the less environmentally engaged, who desire these new estates with a nice sized plot, overlooking open fields and gold courses – all within a short drive of CBD’s. It is a desire heavily coupled with abundant personal vehicles.

Of course, only so many people can settle in these estates before the remaining agricultural land is worth more as development space, leading to ever more houses and the new region ultimately looks just like any other. The once quick commute is now frustratingly clogged with peak hour travellers.

The general energy hungry house design, the congested road ways, the once fertile food producing land now under housing slabs and soaked by runoff from washing SUV’s on the front lawn all represent a ticking time bomb for food and potable water security and climate and environmental management.

It is this same desire for connectivity with open spaces in the more environmentally engaged that I believe undermines their premise. They wish to have great connection to open spaces, but they cannot expect to be alone with this desire.

You cannot blame development. It’s simply a thoughtless process based on public demand. That slabs stretch as far as the eye can see over what was once green, quaint (often agricultural) landscape is only because it’s what we wanted. We were willing to pay to chew up these spaces. Whether it’s because we yearned for the quiet semi-rural lifestyle for environmental or other reasons means little. It’s not some hidden, evil conspirators making big bucks out of environmental destruction, but only a provider and the eager consumer paying for environmental changes.

It’s not fair for anyone of us to want such a lifestyle at the exclusion of others and thus sprawl is inevitable. That’s the problem. That’s the inherent individualism that undoes good environmental management (which couples the discussion in the previous posts mentioned above).

We require a rethink, as a large and somewhat expanding group, of what we want from the human designed landscapes rather than continue to pursue this illusion of escape that feeds sprawl. If we want to escape urban landscapes we should be asking ourselves where we went wrong in their design in the first place.

If we design more functional urban landscapes that don’t continue to degrade the surrounding environments and demonstrate, with our “pockets” that the market is there for such a change (and the public demand it also through voting policy changes), change will in turn occur. After all, it’s a terrible business plan (and political suicide) to ignore public demand.

Here are a few points that I believe most people want from the environment in which they live, to get the ball rolling;

  • Easy access to essential goods and services,
  • Easy access to open spaces (ie. manicured parks, recreational parks and nature reserves),
  • Good air quality,
  • Ease of movement throughout the urban landscape,
  • Reduced noise pollution,
  • A high sense of safety,
  • Highly aesthetic,

They also tend to want from their actual homes;

  • Comfortable climate,
  • Low maintenance and upkeep effort and cost

Inherent to the urban environments, people also expect;

  • Reliable, good quality water and energy supply

These goals can be mutually supportive, rather than ultimately self-destructive as we witness within sprawl and the yearn to escape, however it would require separating some of the individualistic principles that have come to be cornerstones of the modern era.

The biggest of which is a reduction in personal vehicles.

They are wonderful machines that belong to a less congested age. There are massive benefits in urban design based instead around mass transit, such as;

  • A massive reduction in pollution from noise, exhaust, runoff and hard waste in worn tyres,
  • A reduction in commuting times,
  • A large amount of space freed up for residential, industrial and open space use,
  • Generally significant personal savings,

That isn’t to say that personal vehicles should be scraped entirely, but rather that the need for their use in urban environments is greatly reduced through infrastructural changes. They should instead service a more communal / temporary use between and around highly populated areas.

Streetscapes are already great arteries which could be retrofitted for mass transit and pedestrian travel while providing space for revegetation, which in turn assists with limiting noise pollution, improving air quality, water management, climate control (ie. less exposed concrete) and improving the aesthetic appearance of the region. If cleverly done, it would also allow greater species movement through urban environments and resource availability, increasing the biophilic nature of the urban environment for species protection.

Of course, there would need to be a re-localisation of services, thereby encouraging mixed-use developments (rather than the current separation of essential goods and services from residential areas). In turn, it is likely that the density of such places would increase, simply because the lifestyle itself now fits many of the goals addressed above, leading to new, low-to-medium density housing.

Here, smart design, such as that outlined in Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. (Kutscher et al. 2007) could address the goals discussed above for the home.

That the surrounding environment is more inviting and meaningful to the householder also leads to less of a need for personal yards – again changing the shape and function of such urban environments.

The urban environment is our home and so should look and feel how we want it. Clearly it’s not and even though the above is in reality, my own suggestions, I know it’s not for everyone. I’m not trying to say that my ideas are the best, but rather throw one person’s argument out into what is pretty much a void, hoping to stir a much broader discussion.

It’s clear that current urban design is unsustainable, largely unattractive and expensive, yet we’re willing to buy that! It’s not good enough and unless we expect better – based on sensible ideas – we will continue to be provided the same package time and time again until all high quality agricultural land is lost beneath our feet as we spread out to avoid suburbia.

As with a number of the points I make in “Getting Real about the Environment” it all comes down to community actions. We should be voting and spending our money based on good judgement and sustainable development if we truly want change. We’re not the passive victims in this situation.

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