Category Archives: pollution

Fewer Plastic Bags means a Greener Provo

Los Angeles made history recently by becoming the largest city in the U.S. to ban plastic grocery bags. It’s an obvious-but-difficult step toward reducing garbage and waste. Why doesn’t Provo try something similar?

Perhaps what would be better — or possibly more feasible and politically palatable — would be discouraging the use of plastic grocery bags instead of outright banning them. Discouraging use is often done by charging consumers for bags.

This is an idea that leaders in Boulder, Colorado, recently considered. It’s also something I experienced  first-hand this long weekend in the tiny tourist town of Springdale Utah, and something I’ve encountered in European cities. If this approach would work in Boulder — which is similar to Provo in many ways — as well as tiny towns and big metropolises alike, it’s certainly something that could work in Utah Valley as well.

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Filed under environment, pollution

Greenwashing and New Development

Environmental consciousness has more or less become the default when building new structures, including in Utah. Think about it, the Utah Valley Convention Center, pretty much any new building on BYU campus, and other buildings come with various certifications assuring the community that they’re eco-friendly.

Much of this phenomenon is a positive thing, but some of it is also “greenwashing,” or an effort to make development seem environmentally progressive whether it is or not.

More specifically, DC.Streetsblog recently explained that greenwashing is currently happening with sprawl. As they point out, it doesn’t matter how environmentally certified a new building is if it’s located far from its resident’s destinations:

“The location matters,” McMahon said. “A project in a sprawl location is not truly green. And a building in an urban location isn’t really smart if it isn’t green.”

The article also mentions how “the greenest building is the one that’s already built” — something reported in this blog post from January — and argues that regulations are still sometimes making it easier to build cheap, low density housing on open land instead of greener housing in centrally located and walkable neighborhoods.

Of course, it’d be nice if we could live in houses on big lots in suburban style neighborhoods and pat ourselves on the back for being environmentally friendly. But we cannot and greenwashing new development, where ever it’s located, will only impede progress.

In addition, the population of Utah County is projected to grow rapidly in the coming years. If all those people move into sprawling neighborhoods on the edges of the city — or, worse, into even more sprawling neighborhoods in nearby cities — we will have failed in many ways, not the least of which will be environmental.

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Filed under building, BYU, construction, Downtown, environment, neighborhood, pollution, urban

We have one of the most eco-friendly ski resorts

Did you know that Provo has one of the most eco-friendly ski resorts in the West? I just found out that Sundance scores an 82.2% on the Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition rankings. That puts it in third place in Utah, and in ninth place in the entire western United States.

(To be fair, I only sort of think of Sundance as being in Provo, but we are the nearest city.)

I’m thrilled about this fact simply from an environmental standpoint. However, just as importantly, Provo should use as part of its marketing. As I’ve argued before, Provo would benefit by better marketing it’s amazing outdoors opportunities — opportunities that are far more attractive than those available in neighboring and rival Colorado. These are the sorts of things that attract innovative members of the creative class, and the fact that our ski resort is comparatively green could be a significant selling point.

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Filed under Development, economics, environment, mountains, pollution

College Parking/Environmental Responsibility

The Provo-Student Alliance has recently received a fair amount of attention and press for its efforts to involve students in local activities.  While it’s genuinely exciting to see another organization getting students more involved, this particular group is wrong about the very idea it was founded to protect: student parking. 

 

Like many college towns, Provo has serious parking problems.  The streets are filled with student cars, which I know frustrates permanent residents.  Related to (or possibly stemming out of) this conflict, Provo city has recently pushed a plan to require permits for students to park immediately south of campus.

 

The goals of the students fighting for the right to park near campus are understandable, but also painfully near-sighted.  For one, simply maintaining the status quo will merely postpone inevitable conflict; students will continue to park in increasing numbers on the streets, while residents get angry and city leaders eye student pocket books.  This isn’t going to change, especially since BYU slowly increases its enrollment over time.  More importantly however, the Student-Provo Alliance is arguing in favor of an activity that is environmentally destructive and practically unnecessary.  Driving pollutes, and student cars are typically among the oldest and dirtiest on the road.  Accordingly, advocacy of student parking implies advocacy of student driving and, subsequently, of student polluting as well.  Though I doubt that many in the Provo-Student Alliance think of the issue in these terms, their agenda will cause lasting and harmful collateral damage to the environment by fighting the curtailment of a destructive activity.  Ultimately then, when considered in terms of environmental impact, the students are on the wrong side of the debate when they argue that their own convenience trumps greater responsibility to the environment.

 

While I suspect that the motivation behind the permit proposal was ill-conceived and largely an exercise in resentment directed against students, the ultimate result of the idea—fewer cars on the streets—is a desirable one.  If students are required to buy parking permits, fewer of them will be willing or able to park (though I’d like to see the plan altered to not blatantly favor rich students over poor ones).  In the short-term this will create frustration, late nights looking for parking, missed classes, and a multitude of other hardships for students.  Basically, it’ll be rough.  However, as current students begin to graduate and move on (and take their cars with them), the lack of parking will become simply one of many other considerations new students have to think about.  With no place to store cars, fewer students will be able to bring them in the first place.  More people will have to walk, bike, or use public transportation.  The city will have to adapt planning and zoning practices to a populace that can only travel a few miles, as opposed to one that drives everywhere.  With time (at least five or six years, though maybe as much as a generation), the hardships immediately following the permit plan will recede, having become merely growing pains during a time of change.      

 

If the Provo-Student Alliance really wants to help students, it might pause to consider what will be most beneficial to students in five, ten, or fifty years.  Unfortunately, driving isn’t that thing. In addition to the many wonderful things that this organization is now doing (things like voter registration drives), it should shift its focus toward reducing students’ need for driving.  For example, the Alliance could petition the city for mixed residential and commercial zoning that would allow students to work and play closer to where they live.  For it’s part, Provo city could explain their proposals in better terms that demonstrate a benefit to students as well as residents (in the end, the problem with this most recent plan wasn’t so much the idea itself as it was the fact that its branding left it reeking of prejudice).  If that happens it’s likely that both long-term residents and students alike will assume greater responsibility for their shared community and our environment.

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Filed under community, commuting, driving, environment, pollution, Provo

Commuting/A Big Problem

One of the best things we could do as a country is reduce the time we spend commuting.  Of course this would require people to adjust their priorities, but in the end it would result in more free time, better environmental conditions, and a general increase in the standard of living. 

 

People commute for a lot reasons but one of the most common seems to be home prices.  While the American dream apparently includes homeownership, most people tend to find cheaper homes farther from their places of work.  Right now, for example, I live in Utah and it’s much cheaper to buy a house in West Jordan than it is in downtown Salt Lake City or even Sugar House.  Both Laura and I grew up in Southern California and the situation is even more extreme there.  Either you live in a “rougher” neighborhood in the city, or you live in a suburb and drive into town.  (L.A.’s notorious traffic leads me to believe that everyone in Southern California lives quite a distance from their places of work).

 

Another big reason people commute is schools.  When my family moved to Utah, for example, they chose to live farther from my Dad’s work so that the kids could attend the better school.  I can’t argue with the numbers that say which school districts are better, but I do question just what “better” means.  Obviously if you’re choosing between Glendora (where I grew up) and Compton,“better” probably means fewer gangs and drug problems.  On the other hand, if you’re choosing between Provo and Alpine, “better” apparently means a more homogenous student body.  In any case, many people aren’t choosing between a great school district and a terrible one.  Instead they’re choosing between an okay district and a slightly better one.

 

There are a lot of other reasons that people commute, but in the end I haven’t found any that are particularly compelling.  If you’re buying a house, a smaller, more centrally located home could be just as satisfactory.  For that matter an apartment could also probably work.  The point is that we could shift our values so that they no longer include big houses (that sit empty while we drive around all day).  The same goes for schools; we could choose to attend schools with slightly lower rankings and accept the fact that the degree to which a child succeeds at school mostly hinges on the home environment.  Better yet, we could try to improve the communities and schools closest to where we spend most of our time. 

 

Ultimately, whether people choose to shorten or eliminate their commutes for altruistic reasons or not this problem needs to be addressed.  I suspect that people would be generally happier if they weren’t in their cars so much.  Even if that’s difficult to prove, the environmental impact of commuting is not.  Just because a person rakes in a decent salary doesn’t mean that they should have the right to pollute at will.  (I don’t care what kind of car you drive it still pollutes more than walking or biking.)  Instead, I suggest we invest in our happiness, our future, and the future of our planet and start living closer to where we work. 

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Filed under community, commuting, driving, environment, pollution