I recently returned from South Africa and the Seventh World Wilderness Congress, where I presented a paper on the link between wilderness and the built human habitat. I reported that the citizens in Berkeley are revising the city’s General Plan and that there is a growing show of concern for the environment and the health of cities through support for the Ecocity Amendment – four sustainable land-use policies that will enable us to address some of the ecological imbalances that currently exist in our city.
The connection between the overall health of the community and the way we build is only now being explored in greater depth. Doctors and researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now report several primary connections between suburban sprawl and public health. Their findings include that increases in vehicle miles traveled has resulted in an increase in air pollution and in the incidence of respiratory diseases. The report also found that lack of pedestrian friendly features in a community becomes a factor leading to illness and even death. In 1997 and 1998, 13 percent of all traffic fatalities – 10,696 people – were pedestrians. They also concluded that residential development can pose unique health and quality of life hazards.
The way we build not only impacts our lives but the lives of the plants and animals with which we share the land. The impact on the built environment on species extinction has been recently evaluated by the National Wildlife Foundation. Their study found that 61 percent of the threatened and endangered species in California were in that category due to the direct effects of sprawl development.
But what does Berkeley have to do with suburban sprawl and species extinction? The answer is plenty. We’ve added almost no housing stock to the city since the 1970s, while creating thousands of office jobs. We are the ones that generate sprawl. We’ve allowed our city streets to become crammed with commuters without creating more housing near jobs or pedestrian environments linked with alternative transit options. We’ve done studies on restoring creeks, but we’ve not yet tackled the next step of opening up and bringing nature back into the city.
We have the opportunity to set long range ecologically healthy goals that will reflect our community’s commitment to making our human habitat far healthier for both people and nature. Over 106 mostly local groups and businesses have endorsed the Ecocity Amendment. The policies call for green design features in buildings, pedestrian centered orientation, ecological demonstration projects and ways to fund environmental restoration within the urban environment.
Next year, I hope to attend the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and report to the 65,000 people that will be attending that Berkeley is an emerging world leader in demonstrating truly innovative and progressive measures that will begin balancing our built environment with natural systems. The adoption of the Ecocity Amendment will allow these ideas to come to the front of community discussion and implementation, and on behalf of the supporters of the Ecocity Amendment, I am writing to urge our elected officials to support our community’s commitment to the health of cities and nature by including the policies in the General Plan revision. Many of the Earth’s citizens wonder if a first world country, a country that consumes 50 times more resources per person than the average citizen of India, will be able to change enough to make a difference for the basic survival of the rest of the planet. I think we can show them that we can change, and that we can do it in a way that benefits both people, nature and the economy.