New Urbanism irks even green Westerners


 In my last post, I explored what appear to be conflicting views on what we today call environmental justice in Edward Abbey’s cult classic Desert Solitaire. The book is fun to assign to my Environmental Rhetoric students because between the lyrical descriptions of Utah wilderness and the fist-pounding Luddite rants it’s guaranteed to provoke lively discussions, even among the usually sleepy and stealth-texting back row. The upshot of these conversations, if there is one, is that Abbey’s a tough nut to crack, and his brand of environmental consciousness resists pigeonholing.

We’re certainly not the only ones invoking the ghost of Abbey lately; Michael Branch’s recent HCN essay memorably related an episode where he and his friends applied the question WWEAD (What Would Ed Abbey Do) to the seductive temptation of dislodging a precariously-perched hillside boulder. The virtuous greenie would “leave only footprints,” and feel pretty guilty even about those. Though Abbey was green at heart, Branch implies, he wouldn’t be opposed to shaking things up a bit, “freeing” the boulder, even (perhaps especially) if it infuriated the virtuous.

So in the spirit Abbey’s cantankerous brand of environmentalism, I’m going to come right out and confess that I’m not completely on board with the whole virtuous New Urbanism thing. I’ve been stewing about this for awhile, but a recent series of posts in Grist, especially this one which advocates the New Urbanism-friendly plan of abandoning one’s car for a bike and a smart phone, really got me fired up.

To be fair, the New Urbanist idea is eminently sensible and sustainable: Design communities that are walkable and human scale, where all socioeconomic groups can come together and interact, shop, work, live, play, and worship without long commutes or other unhealthy, expensive barriers. Parks and other green spaces provide Agritopiabalance to the necessary increased density. Despite the name, the idea isn’t new; European villages are partially the inspiration for this model, and European villages are indeed delightful and fun to visit. Many Americans who currently live Old Urbanist or Suburbanist lives obviously long for such an existence, and New Urban developments like Celebration, Florida and Agritopia in Arizona (Phoenix area) are popular, though debatably accessible to certain parts of the socioeconomic scale. (Also see HCN's recent story on a New Urbanist development in the Albuquerque suburbs)

We should embrace New Urbanism, and I’m trying. But it wasn’t so long ago that members of my family fled those picturesque European villages and took up residence in the big wide open spaces of the West, where life was tough but success meant your neighbor couldn’t hear your toilet flush and you could plant any kind of tomatoes you wanted to in your garden without getting the approval of the neighborhood committee.

If we want a more environmentally and economically healthy and diverse society, then New Urbanism is probably the way to go, but I say this with a sigh. The dreams of the suburban – and rural -- West die hard, and it seems evident that today’s immigrants and less fortunate folks haven’t given up on them either. Can’t we be sustainable and long for some personal space to call our own?

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Dr. Jacqueline Wheeler is the Writing Programs Associate Director at Arizona State University.

Agritopia image courtesy Flickr user Brandon Hunt.

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