Again and again and again: WHY do we use public money, public projects and public places to pollute the environment, promote climate change, and kill local jobs? There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be using public places in ways that have regenerative effects on local ecologies and economies….
In the era of corporate suburbia, you can travel the entire US and never realize you’ve left home. Suburb after suburb is built out with the same restaurants, the same houses, the same building materials, and of course, the same public places.
This is good if you happen to be a member of the culture that prizes the totems of suburban life. It’s bad if you happen to be anyone else.
That’s because there’s little room in the corporate suburbia culture for anything else: other skill sets, cultures, products, businesses, lifeways all get drowned out by the suburban flood.
And so, if you’re American and you value the life experience of visiting new places, having new experiences, meeting new people, and learning about other cultures and ways of life, you have no choice but to travel to exotic locales. Meanwhile, we have interesting, unique communities and cultural inclinations that never get to express themselves right here at home, because they’re suppressed by the suburban instinct.
And of course, this sends our money out of town, and kills local high-skill jobs. But that is, after all, the main point! It allows corporations to cut into the cost of local experts and local skilled laborers, replacing them with unskilled labor and centrally planned products. For consumers, it cuts out the costs of skilled local labor and expertise. And consumers get a cheap way they can conform to their neighbors and the aesthetics of corporate suburbia. It saves money, though some would consider that a short-sighted bargain.
Worse still, one-size-fits-all solutions typically come with increased environmental costs and decreased economic sustainability. Such is the case with our public places, especially in the suburbs. These parks are almost always charactarized by a suite of highly impactful, unsustainable features:
1. Ecologically harmful materials. Concrete everywhere, especially where it isn’t even needed: concrete slabs, concrete pavers, concrete infrastructure and buildings. According to the US Government, the concrete industry uses more fossil fuels than any other single industry! And according to research by Columbia University, the concrete industry is responsible for a whopping 5% of global carbon emissions!
2. Wrong plant, wrong place. While rule #1 in classic horticulture is “right plant/right place,” this goes against the idea of “one-size-fits-all.” Instead, you see the same 5 or 6 bland plants in every soil, in every aspect, in every park in America. Usually, they look unhealthy and unattractive, too, but that’s not the point! The plants aren’t there to look good, they’re there to prove you’re doing your best to conform.
3. Lots of lawn. Lawn costs fossil fuels to maintain, contributes to climate change and harms wildlife and soil life.
4. Poor water infiltration. Cement and lawn are both very poor at infiltrating water. Not only does this waste water, fail to refill aquifers and contribute to erosion and water pollution, it costs tax payers extra money to maintain the storm water system.
5. Little or no value to wildlife.
6. Little or no integration of social function. Most of these parks have no use, and consequently, rarely get used.
The irony of all this is that most of these “parks” are required “green space,” intended to have benefits to water, wildlife and human inhabitants, yet the implementation often gives us NEGATIVE impacts on all these areas! It would probably be better all around to just leave it a wild thicket, or in some cases, even turn it into another development.
Luckily, we already know how to solve this problem We have many better patterns from the world of horticulture, Permaculture, indigenous land use, and historic urban planning. I mention just a few in the video above.
And it doesn’t take much thought to come up with a few basic rules for how we could do a better job. Here are just a couple to consider:
1. Do the Math. It’s easy to assess the impact of a park project on water infiltration, carbon emissions, and wildlife. There’s no reason a public park or green space should ever have a negative impact when it’s easy, easy, easy to insure these have a regenerative effect on all 3. A good public place should infiltrate most of the water that falls on it, should sequester more carbon that in emits, and should provide better habitat for wildlife than the surrounding land uses. And it’s easy to do these calculations.
2. Consider highest best use for materials. Don’t needlessly use large amounts of concrete, pavers, and blocks unless there’s a good reason. These materials are unattractive, don’t age well, and are often unnecessary. meanwhile they come with a huge ecological cost.
3. Right plant right place. Hire a plantsmen, horticulturist, Permaculturist or gardener for the love of god.
4. Consider native plants and other plants that have high wildlife value.
5. But don’t be a native purist at the expense of the environment. Oftentimes the impact of “native plant gardens” are very high, requiring continued energy use, tilling, and spraying that harm wildlife and reduce biodiversity.
6. Integrate wildlife habitat.
7. Integrate social space for humans. Parks should be designed to be enjoyed. Not to make us feel comfortable as we drive past on the way to the next suburb.
Beyond these rules, there are several paradigms and resources that can help.
In fact, public places could be enormous opportunities to heal the earth, fight climate change, sequester carbon, add to community resilience, provide real economic opportunities and invest in high-value skilled labor and expertise in our communities.
If you’re involved in the planning, design, or oversight process for public places, I hope you’ll do your part to make the most of that opportunity. In most of our communities there are certified Permaculture Designers who are familiar with radically sustainable design patterns. These, or sustainability professionals should be able to help you assess the impact of your project, and likely even save your project money on wasteful materials!