Posted by: jdantos | February 23, 2006

Urbanism as Leave No Trace

Environmental values underlie a good deal of why I like studying and helping American cities. I tried to elucidate this in my admissions essays to grad schools, but last night I thought of a better metaphor to describe it.

Leave No Trace is an organization that promotes responsible treatment in outdoor recreation. I first encountered their principles while backpacking across Vermont on the Long Trail a couple of years ago. They make practical recommendations like don’t make campfires, pack out trash, and the like — but their camping rules stem from a set of philosophical environmental core principles:
1. In popular areas, concentrate use. Use only existing facilities. Minimize impacts.
2. In pristine areas, disperse use. Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

Modern urbanism, as a land use prescription, is built around the same idea: Concentrate population growth and human impact in cities where it is easiest to achieve environmental economies of scale, stop greenfield development, and clean up our act. Preserve open spaces and natural resources for less damaging and more sustainable land uses than suburbanization. Minimize impacts throughout. In theory, environmental progress is more feasible and effective in cities and an atmosphere that enables collective action: point-source pollution, mass transit, public awareness projects, natural resource demand management techniques, and the list goes on.

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