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Could it be that we're shifting toward smart?

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

 It had a wonky title - "Sustainable Community Essentials, - but yesterday's Smart Growth Conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center was exhilirating.

More than 200 people forwent a gorgeous day to sit indoors and talk about the ways their townships, boroughs and cities can turn population loss into economic gain, creatively divert stormwater (for economic gain), solve land-use problems (for economic gain), design minimal-waste housing developments (for economic gain), preserve buildings (for economic gain) and, most of all, to RETHINK.

I shout that word because it seems to be the new mantra. I think the dictate should simply be THINK. Some people can't rethink because they didn't think in the first place. Those who have progressed beyond dereliction of duty have rethought already.

If you keep allowing developments that need new sewers while old sewers deteriorate, you aren't thinking. If you keep allowing developments that need new sewers, you're probably sprawling where future residents will have to drive even further.

Planning to help developers make money is not thinking.

Oops... fell off the soapbox.

***

So anyway, the conference featured Douglas Farr's keynote speech.

It was so good, I hope you all catch it on WDUQ radio, 90.5-fm. It will air at 6 p.m. either on June 21st or 28th in its entirety.

Sustainable Pittsburgh, the head sponsor of the conference, picked the right guy. He is a sustainability guru whose company, Farr Associates of Chicago, (www.farrside.com) has been a leader in green building and finding ways to show what rethinking looks like, how it feels to walk around in and how exciting it can be to change the way we live, in a mesh of great architecture, great planning and a great natural environment.

Municipalities are shooting themselves in the foot by requiring the opposite of smart growth, he said. For instance, some towns have rules that new homes must be spaced a certain distance apart and codes that require a certain amount of off-street parking.

"Stop it!" he said. "Fix it!"

He showed the "walk scores" of three places we all know a little about - East Liberty, Mount Lebanon and Cranberry. East Liberty had an 89% walkability score, Mount Lebanon a 66% score and Cranberry a 17% score.

"How do we make driving the new smoking?" he asked, suggesting that it's possible: Once, you could smoke on planes, at work and even in the meat aisle at the market; people on TV and the movies all smoked. Now, you're a pariah who can't even smoke outdoors in lots of places.

"We have gone from recreational driving to addiction," he said.

His book, "Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature," is expensive but invaluable as a smart-growth bible.

***

When people ask me "What the heck does ‘sustainability' mean, anyway," I break it down to the root, sustain.

Webster's Dictionary is helpful here: sustain: v. 1. To keep in existence.

If you are profligate and wasteful and don't replenish, you will cease to exist.

Smart growth encourages density for pedestrian scale, mass transit to discourage driving and an integration of planning. A plan to plant street trees could be done in coordination with a rainwater-diversion water feature planned as part of a housing development. One housing development Farr cited has a loop water system that brings rain water down to flush toilets.

It sounds like a fantasy, even in this day, to imagine that Americans could shift so drastically from the car-mall-landfill-riding mower-obesity that we're mired in. But I talked to a lot of people at the conference who all seem to think we are shifting. Some people reported their township managers are loathe to go green, maybe not convinced yet that a sustainable township is a less wasteful, less costly, healthier, more appealing one. But others are starting to understand there is money to be made and saved. That's the message that hits home with most people.

"If parks are too spread out, you are losing real estate value," Farr said.

Real estate values. Now that's something the denial crowd might perk up for.

Of all the people in attendance - members of various city councils (none that I saw from Pittsburgh), township managers, public works folks, planners and architects, staffers for environmental non-profits, neighborhood leaders and people from NGOs - just one was a mayor.

Kenneth LaSota, who is paid $85 a month to be the mayor of Heidelberg, is also a geology professor at Robert Morris Unviersity.

"Our borough is involved in trying to build a rain garden along the Route 50 corridor that runs through Heidelberg," he said. (A rain garden is strategically planted to catch run-off.) It's been three or four years in the planning, he said.

Etna, too, is planning a sustainable Main Street, John Tokarski told me. He's Etna's Main Street manager, a former Weed and Seed coordinator for the city of Pittsburgh.

"We are soliciting green incubator businesses," he said. "Chatham University just finished a rain study for us, and we're seeking stimulus money " to turn what has been a regular flooding problem on its ear - a way to use the water.

Michael Stern told me that his firm, Prada Architects, is working on a green strategy with the neighborhood of Larimer. Sustainability is "a core part of our practice," he said.

Almost to a person, the attendees want to be part of the solutions to waste and bad design, including the waste of blighted houses. Everything is interconnected, and smart-growth proponents get that.

But Farr said 20 percent of people think climate change isn't true, that it's macho to deny it.

So, if people pooh-pooh the environmental benefits of smart-growth, bring it around to a concept they understand. Make it an economic argument. Whatever works.

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