It's the Environment, Stupid.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Impervious Suburbia

I grew up in suburbia – which could be any-sprawl-USA – (although I like to think it was a time before sprawl went SPRAWL.) I didn’t actually realize I disliked it so much until after I returned from traveling abroad. I had a severe case of reverse culture-shock. Gas guzzlers, franchise restaraunts, videostores, more and more shopping complexes, monster stores ending in "depot" and their competitors, all of which just add up to a massive expanse of asphalt and concrete .

One example of this increasingly expanding sprawl outside of Seattle is Issaquah – which only keeps expanding because it’s at the “edge.” Beyond it lies old “rural” areas, and trees and more trees that gradually turn into the Cascade Mountain range. (Issaquah is also next to Redmond, home of the ever expanding Microsoft – not the reason for sprawl of course, but a bunch of rich people have needs...)

While there are a few mini-McMansions in Issaquah, most of the houses are cookie cutter developments that look like the American dream threw up – manicured front and back lawns, sidewalks, three car garages, etc. (In Seattle, the McMansions are reserved for the islands in the Puget Sound, many of which are accessible only by ferry, private boat, or helicopter.) To build these, developers come in, clear out the trees and get to work. And down the road, to accommodate the happy families that have attained the American dream, more trees have to be cleared to make way for grocery stores, dry cleaners, banks, McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Blockbuster.

So what was once just trees is now a paved over, built up happy neighborhood. Only, the residents aren’t too happy when there’s word of a cougar sighting. Squirrels cute, raccoons we can deal with, but cougars – how dare they invade our neighborhood! Our small children and dogs are in danger! Well what about the cougars? They kind of got screwed over royally on the real estate deal.

Residents also don’t like the rain so much – especially when there’s a lot of it in the winter time. (They also don’t like that there’s not enough rain in the summer time when their lawns turn brown). It doesn’t down pour in Seattle very often, but it can rain a nice steady rain for what seems like days, and days and days. After all these days of rain, the rivers can fill up and there can be flooding here and there. Mudslides occur. There’s usually some heavy road or property damage yearly. The funny thing is – like the cougars – people point fingers at the rain for causing their problems. When really, the increasing amount of sprawl is just compounding the problem. By paving over and building up on what used to be nature’s drainage system (the trees and ground) there’s no place for the water to go.

In Los Angeles (sprawl on steroids) there is an organization called Tree People. A reforestation group that has planted millions and millions of trees since they began in the 1970's. Recently, Tree People founder Andy Lipkis branched off into watershed management. He convinced the city to let him try out a new way for LA to manage its water, and instead of building more concrete culverts he's retrofitting school yards and back lawns with cisterns and infiltrators to help handle the flow. The T.R.E.E.S. project - Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability - "employs technologies that mimic the “sponge and filter” function of trees. It also demonstrates the technical and economic feasibility (and desirability) of retrofitting a city to function as an urban forest watershed." The great thing about the T.R.E.E.S project is it works.

Working with nature is better than battling with it. We (many humans) tend to think we’ve in fact conquered nature – but the reality is the war is far from over and nature isn’t going down without a fight.


  • (I would like to apologize beforehand for the bad language and bad English you will probably encounter in this comment).

    Yes, I know what you mean. People in the anti-anti-suburbia crowd (and they are legion) are always trying defend sprawl because it's a "lifestyle choice." Well, that's a load of old bollocks as far as I am concerned. The only reason why I might consider moving to the asphalt wilderness would be to seek better education for my kids. I think that's not the solution: if urban schools were more academically rigorous, then everyone would win.

    In my high school in Spain, grades were posted in the hallway. I think America can and should do better than that: BRING BACK THE DUNCE CAP AND THE STEEL RULER (to be used in cases of extreme stupidity). PE should be replaced by PT, and Coke machines should be replaced by juice, milk, and sugar-free Red Bull machines. In fact . . .

    Well, that's not the point. This is: people will move to the Puget Sound region (among the new immigrants are alarming numbers of SoCal refugees --the most car-addicted mofos on our poor, besieged planet) because of its natural beauty (hell, I want to go back there); paradoxically, they will fuck it up in twenty or thirty years and wonder what the hell happened. The little patch of flat land around Puget Sound shan't fare so well at all, I'm afraid: it's windless and stuck between two rather high mountain ranges. I have reason to believe the whole place will soon resemble the interior of a water bong: dank, crusty, smoky and quite malodorous.

    I think prospective home buyers should make conscientous decisions about the types of communities in which they choose to live. That sounds really dumb, but I couldn't think of any other way to word that sentence. It would be really awesome if the state government were to boot Amtrak and spend federal highway funds on light rail, BETTER commmuter rail (Sound Transit is a joke --the last train from Everett to Seattle leaves at 10:00), and maybe even a high-speed express system linking Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.

    Of course, if such an intricate and expensive project were begun, there is no guarantee that people would use it. A rail system would not necessarily solve the issue of urban planning (one of America's biggest problems, directly related to the obesity epidemic, traffic jams, the ENVIRONMENT, &c.).

    You know, I talked to a professor of urban planning . . . he said that urban planning in WA was, "not so bad." He cited the large number of parks. PARKS!? Sure, I like parks and I think a town with no parks would really suck. How about NO MORE FRONT YARDS? Nobody needs a yard; a yard doesn't produce crops and it's not even particularly appealing . . . not to me at least. How about building townhouses for energy conservation (and lower heating bills), mixing family housing units and locally-owned businesses to encourage walking and cycling, commissioning local artists to create more interesting civic art, and increasing gas taxes? That would make a real difference.

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