American environmentalism makes a fundamental error when it defines the ideal condition as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. European environmentalists don’t make this error, because there’s no pristine wilderness left to protect in Europe. This American error makes almost all human actions a degradation of the ideal, and something to be avoided. This view places humans apart from nature, and the logical conclusion is that the best thing for the earth would be for the humans to die so that the whole world could go back to wilderness.
Some extreme city-lovers make an equally erroneous mistake in the opposite direction. They correctly observe that many metrics of environmental impact are better for city-dwellers than for those in the suburbs because urbanites don’t have to drive nearly so much. But then they take that observation and use it to argue that the city is the ideal condition, and that humans shouldn’t live elsewhere. Interestingly, the city-lovers’ view is similar to the American environmentalists’ view in this respect: by saying that we should all live in the city, it also implies that we should stay away from the wilderness and therefore not spoil it.
Both of these views are incorrect for two reasons: because each view tries to make a single setting the ideal to the exclusion of all others, and because each view misrepresents the proper relationship of humans and nature. We’ll address the single-setting problem in a moment, but let’s first look at the relationship of humans to nature. This book firmly takes that position that humans should be seen as being part of nature, not apart from nature. How can this be?
the Relationship of Humans to Nature
Let’s start by comparing a natural place and a man-made place. Look closely at this image. What do you see? This appears to be a completely natural scene, with no evidence of human intervention. What are the components of this scene? We can see green things that are living. We can also see dead wood that was once alive, but no longer is. And we can see rocks that have never been alive. And we can assume that various creatures probably scurry, slither, or crawl across this scene from time to time, even though none of them appear to be here at this moment.
Now look at this next image. What do you see? This is clearly a place that has been built by humans. What are the components of this scene? We can see green things that are living. We can also see things that were once alive, but no longer are, like the wood in the shutters, windows, and doors. And we can also see brick, stone, and metal that has never lived. And we can assume that various creatures (mostly humans, but probably dogs, cats, birds, and other creatures) run or walk across this scene from time to time. Matter of fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that one fellow is in the picture now, walking along the sidewalk under the gallery.
So it’s clear that both the natural place and the man-made place have some of the same categories of materials. Their arrangement, however, is completely different. The natural scene is arranged by forces of nature, while the man-made scene is arranged by human hands for the shelter, comfort, and convenience of the humans that live there.
But we’re not the only creatures that make homes for ourselves. Birds build nests. Bees build hives. Beavers build lodges on ponds they’ve created by damming streams. Rabbits build underground warrens, as do many other burrowing creatures. Bears find and inhabit caves. Spiders build webs. Ants build anthills. Many creatures build or find their own particular type of home. The homes that humans build are more elaborate, to be sure, but we are by no means the only creatures that modify the natural world to shelter and protect ourselves.
Some creatures are exceptionally clever because rather than building their own homes, they entice other creatures to build homes for them. This is a picture of my puppy Sally. She was only three months old when this picture was taken, but she’s such a sweetheart that I bought this bed for her. And that’s not even half the story, because really, my whole house and garden is hers, too. Really clever.
Nature, then, is shaped not only by natural forces like gravity, wind, water, and sunshine, but also by all the creatures that make their homes there... including humans. But humans have built many horrific landscapes in recent years. It’s an impossible stretch to say that a coal power plant or an auto junkyard is a part of nature, isn’t it?
What standard can we use to distinguish between places like this hamlet, that can reasonably be seen as being a natural part of the landscape, and places like a boarded-up suburban strip mall, which nobody would ever consider to be a part of nature?
How about using the standard of sustain-ability:“keeping things going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.” A “healthy way” means that we should leave it better than we found it, but it’s better yet not to leave it at all, like this hamlet that has likely been inhabited for centuries.
A sustainable place is a place where you want to stay, not a place that you want to leave. So many places built in recent decades are so bad that we discard them as quickly as possible, littering the landscape with cast-off places that are far worse than the places they replaced.
It’s clear that the error of the American environmentalists’ view of nature stems from our recent track record of building horrific places and quickly discarding them. That truly does spoil the environment. Interestingly, there has not been pristine wilderness in Europe for a very long time, so environmentalists there are much more likely to see humans as a part of nature rather than apart from nature like their American counterparts.
the Problem of Single Settings
The other problem identified earlier is the problem of establishing a single ideal environmental setting whether it’s wilderness or city, and then trying to make everything fit into that setting. People don’t live in only one type of settlement (the city, for example) We need to know how to build the city sustainably, and also its suburbs. We need to know how to build towns sustainably. We need to know how to build villages sustainably. And we need to know how to build hamlets sustainably, too.
It isn’t just the cities, suburbs, towns, villages, and hamlets that need to be sustainable. All of the parts of those cities, suburbs, towns, villages, and hamlets need to be built in a sustainable way, too.
The best tool available today for building all of the parts of cities, towns, villages, and hamlets in a sustainable way is a set of ideas known as the Transect. It was originally developed a century ago as a management tool for the natural environment. The Natural Transect illustrated above shows a series of adjoining habitats. Each has its own set of conditions, and it’s own set of plants and animals that thrive there. For example, sea oats thrive on the dune, but would die in the ocean.
In the late 1990s, New Urbanist planner Andrés Duany realized that the Transect could also be applied to human habitat. The Transect of the human habitat begins at t1, which is most rural, and runs to t6, which is most urban. Specific Transect zones are:
T1 Natural: This zone is untouched nature, or a park designed with no apparent human hand. Nobody lives here except the forest ranger. t1 could be dangerous; something might bite you, or even eat you.
T2 Rural: This zone is largely agricultural; it is made up mainly of farms, orchards, and meadows. The human hand can be seen here, but only very lightly, like a fence across the land, or a country road disappearing in the distance.
T3 Sub-Urban: This zone is found primarily near the edges of neighborhoods, where the houses are spread more thinly. Large swaths of t3 are the main ingredient of many suburbs, which often suffer from having too much t3.
T4 General Urban: This zone makes up much of the fabric of good in-town neighborhoods. Trees line the streets, which are flanked with fences with porches behind them. Townhouses and occasional corner stores can be found in t4.
T5 Urban Center: Think of t5 as Main Street, with bustling sidewalks fronted by shops and restaurants with apartments above. Buildings sit tight to each other in t5, with offices, townhouses and apartment buildings on less busy streets.
T6 Urban Core: This zone exists in larger cities, but not towns or villages. This is where the buildings are the largest, the lights are the brightest, and things are happening until late at night.
Each Transect zone provides certain unique attributes and has certain needs. For example, we’ll see later that if we want to build sustainable places, then most of the people need to be able to make a living where they’re living. There are plenty of places to make a living in t5, but not in the less urban zones. It’s clear, then, that sustainable places need to have some t5 in nearly every neighborhood, or at least in the adjacent neighborhood. But t5 has several special needs. For example, if there’s not enough traffic (whether pedestrians, bikers, or cars) then it will starve because the businesses won’t have enough customers. Once we know the important attributes and needs of each zone, the Transect allows us to very intelligently calibrate the sustainability of a place.
This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #8 in the top 10 items we can do.