Rachel + Jane

Two important  books  seem to be meeting each other in my mind these days.   Almost as though the two authors began with a conversation in my head about the environment vs. urban planning, and they’ve gradually come to embrace each other as two sides of the same coin.  Or perhaps two chapters in the same book of life.

Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, was published in 1962.  She could probably be credited with almost single-handedly making the environment a public concern.

In 1961, writer Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities  was published.  The book critiqued urban development trends of the day and attributed the decline of many great neighbourhoods to those trends.  Her ideas for improved urban planning have become the “bible” to many urban planners today.

Today, most people seem to realize that environmental degradation and climate change are now a serious threat to human survival.   Most people I know try to do their part by recycling or reusing, and many are even trying to be less materialistic.  Some have watched http://www.storyofstuff.com and felt appropriately shocked or shamed.  So Rachel’s book has had a significant impact.

But Jane’s book, less so.  Is that because it’s easier to make amazing documentaries about wildlife and the ‘natural environment’ than about urban development?  Is it easier to have TV shows like CBC’s The Nature of Things, than to televise concepts of densification, or how we live together in the ‘built world’?

It just doesn’t seem to register at the level of citizenry, that our negative impact is about so much more than recycling a few million tons of tin cans and bottles.  It’s not just about using dishwashers, instead of handwashing dishes because that uses less water.  It’s not because I buy liquids in glass bottles instead of plastic.

No.  It’s also about looking around and seeing how we ‘grow’ and expand our accommodation, our habitat, and how we use far too much material and space and vast excess miles of infrastructure that shouldn’t exist.  It’s about urban density vs urban sprawl.  It’s about using sustainable energy instead of petroleum products, creating high-speed ‘environmentally friendly’ transit, and so on.  And we need to cuddle up and intensify the way we build our neighbourhoods – more people per meter of sewer, might be one way of looking at it.

I find that even well educated, caring people seem to look at environmental issues and urban planning/development issues as if they were unrelated to each other.  They can care passionately about polar bears and the Amazon Rainforest, but just can’t get into urban densification or affordability.  I guess it’s hard to relate to, compared to the antics of lovable bears.  Or the visible, concrete horror of cutting down trees.

Much of the world has recognized links between sustainability and poverty (and affordability).*  The UN has established goals for “sustainable urban development,” monitoring hundreds of world cities.**  Many cities in the world are busily pursuing progressive goals for sustainability, like high speed electric transit, “green” buildings, etc.

Where are we locally?   It’s hard to know there’s a problem.  Federally, it’s “studies” and “analysis” and “monitoring”.   Ontario’s ‘green belt’ seems awfully flexible, and Toronto sounds like it’s mainly about tin cans.  There appears to be no marketing the densification idea and turning it into new bylaws.  Raising alarms seems to be the job of voluntary organizations.  Otherwise, it’s business as usual. As long as my house is worth $100,000 more than awhile ago, and I can walk to cool restaurants and clothing stores, everything is fine.  Writer X had to move away?  Not my problem.  The more shopping I can do, the more interesting my city is.

Is the whole ‘urban thing’ just not exciting or entertaining enough?  We are fed a constant diet of more dazzling stuff.  Are we entertaining and consuming ourselves to death?  I wonder what Rachel and Jane would think….

* http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/03/21-3?

**http://www.unhabitat.org/content.asp?typeid=19&catid=10&cid=927

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