Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Do You Walk the Walk?

Dateline: 2:52 pm December 14, 2007 Filed under:

Al Gore has been chided recently for the “incovenient truth” that his home in Tennessee is huge and therefore contributes to global warming. The reasoning goes that he, of all people, should have a smaller, energy-efficient, even carbon-neutral home and ride a bike to his speaking engagements around the world, right!? Honestly, I’ll let him off the hook if he makes thousands of others change their ways or impacts policy decisions on the issue. Still, it got me thinking, so I asked my colleagues if they practice what they preach. After all, if our industry is promoting transit usage, smart growth, green buildings, walkable cities and other solutions to save the planet, what do we all do in our private lives? The results are very interesting, and symbolic of just how much work there is to do.

Responses covered the gamut – everything from hybrid cars to rain gardens. Michael Leccese, Director of ULI Colorado, commutes most days via bus from his Boulder home to his downtown Denver office. According to him, that is 240 miles per week not spent using gasoline and emitting pollution. Walking and biking cover many of his errands in his mixed-use community in Boulder.

Company owners often choose a transit-friendly location for their offices. Bob Close of Close Associates explained that they moved their offices three years ago to downtown Minneapolis, and are a half block from a light rail station. The result is transit usage among his staff has gone from the exception to the norm. Many of his staff happen to live near the light rail line in Minneapolis, and several even bike to work in the summer.

Several of my colleagues around my age, particularly in Minneapolis, report with no small amount of guilt (myself included) having moved from a dense neighborhood in or near downtown to a more residential neighborhood farther from the core. This is often following a marriage and/or childbirth. Many of us offset this move my biking or taking transit to work, but we are a little disappointed that so many of our other trips are made by car.

Still others simply live downtown. David Motzenbecker, who is with Oslund and Associates and president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission, recently bought a condo in a renovated building in the Minneapolis North Loop neighborhood. He typically walks seven minutes to work, or to any number of nearby clubs, restaurants, theaters, and parks.

Closer to home, Tim Rood of Community Design + Architecture has a solar hot water system in his house. Adam Arvidson of Treeline in Minneapolis replaced most of his lawn with vegatable gardens and perennials, and is planning a rain garden next summer. Carol Coletta managed to start a recycling program in her building in Chicago, which she says is hard to do in that city despite its numerous recent green achievements. Others remodel and improve insulation, keep the thermostat low or rarely use the A/C if they have quality shade in the summer months.

Other respondents mentioned buying and eating locally, which keeps money in the local economy. That is a whole other piece of the sustainability puzzle, but all of this goes to show that a vast number of our colleagues make some very conscious choices about a huge range of issues that affect our built environment and the energy required to sustain it.

Of course, plenty of our colleagues admitted to wishing they drove less, flew less, took shorter showers, etc. I guess urbanists are human, too! Still, the responses were heartening to me, and I hope that our personal decisions can inspire the work we do to make for a more sustainable future. We shape the built environment, and we need to keep improving our practice so more people can indeed walk the walk.

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