Green Neighborhoods: Culture Clash?

In the last year, I’ve gone without a vehicle.  That seems like a pretty simple situation for many who live in areas where public transit is easily accessible, along with grocery stores, parks, and libraries within walking distance.  Luckily, I now live in an area which more easily enables the car-less lifestyle on a number of fronts.

dont-walkBut, my daughter and her mum live in an area of Greater Vancouver where car ownership seems to be assumed, and where public transit is not a first choice for most people living in the area in some cases because it is too far away.  When I go to see them, I am all too aware of a sort of culture clash between my neighborhood and theirs. Public transit is available in some areas, but entirely absent in others.  Bus frequency is lower, and less comprehensive relative to the spread of residential areas.  Direct connections between points A and B are rare. In some regions,  taking the bus requires a lengthy walk beside busy, noisy, and (frankly) smelly roadways.  This being the case, my mind often drifts to the idea of how values take shape in the way that neighborhoods are planned and how we choose to live in our neighborhoods.  What remains is the product of those values.

Perhaps this is a reflection of economic realities too.  My neighborhood has a lot of renters and lower income families.   Car ownership is perhaps not as much of a given, especially when accessible public transit will help close the transportation gap.  But, I think values are what’s really being reflected.   I think that when certain things are important to us, we invest in them even if they aren’t objectively essential.   This is not meant to a judgmental statement applied to current residents in any given area on the issue of car ownership or any other issue.  But, I think it does show that we are the inheritors of certain cultural values that have shaped our expectations for the areas in which we live and the lifestyles that come out of that.

Some of the trends in green building for the upcoming decade are not only about retrofitting individual buildings to increase the ‘green factor’, or about the development of new individual buildings for the same.  The idea of  entirely green neighborhoods or Eco-towns are also being put forward as an upcoming trend.  A big part of this type of planning involves a concurrent development of more extensive and affordable public transit systems, as well as commercial and community spaces that are accessible by foot and by bike.  But, to me, the question of the culture clash remains.

What if there was extensive public transit provided to every corner of an urban area, including in suburbs?  What if schools, stores, libraries, restaurants, performing arts venues, were all within walking distance of all residential blocks?  Would this mean that more families in these areas would think twice about car ownership, or use their current cars less than they do?  I’m not so sure.   A lot of these issues are pretty deep-seated on a cultural level, as well as on an economic one.  And thinking about this leads me back to the underlying point that I’ve noticed since I started writing this blog; that green building, and greener living requires a values shift of some measure, which in turn requires action to reflect those values.

When it comes to how builders, homeowners, city planners, and other influencers who have a say in how neighborhoods should be organized or re-fitted in this next decade, I think a meeting of the minds, and a meeting of the values are definitely the first item on the agenda.  And further, how politicians and industry leaders approach fossil fuel dependence, and how that in turn impacts the average consumer will also have a powerful effect on how our neighborhoods, and by extension our cultural expectations will change in the coming decade too.  Examining and solidifying values are always the first step in any transformative process.

And it’s transformation that is required as we step further into our century.

For more information and resources about green neighborhoods, check out Green Communities Online.



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