The Evolving Attitude of Environmentalists

Passage of a bill in Berkeley that allows taller buildings to be built in the city's downtown illustrates changing attitudes about development amongst environmentalists.

Instead of merely opposing growth or development, environmental groups are increasingly focusing on directing that growth to places where it works or is more appropriate, according to this piece from the San Francisco Chronicle.

"A big reason for the success, I'll wager, is that the backers included the Sierra Club and Greenbelt Alliance, organizations with long track records and solid green reputations.

'The concept of environmentalism is maturing,' suggests Jeremy Madsen, Greenbelt Alliance's executive director.

The group until 1987 was known as People for Open Space; from the start, it took the position that growth should be steered toward existing cities, rather than farmland and bare hills. Only in the past decade has the alliance taken assertive steps regarding what happens inside the greenbelt."

Full Story: Younger greens reject old ideas about urbanity

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Mistaken History of Smart Growth

"The group until 1987 was known as People for Open Space; from the start, it took the position that growth should be steered toward existing cities, rather than farmland and bare hills. Only in the past decade has the alliance taken assertive steps regarding what happens inside the greenbelt."

Not true. In 1983, People for Open Space issued a report named Room Enough, which showed how the Bay Area could accommodate population growth with infill development in already developed areas, specifying where the growth could go. That sounds to me like an assertive step.

In 1990 or so, I was on the Sierra Club San Francisco Chapter's Urban Growth Policy Committee, and we developed a chapter policy supporting infill development and backed some specific developments. We called it "compact growth," because the term "smart growth" had not been invented yet.

This is not really an issue of older environmentalists vs younger environmentalists (the evolving attitude of environmentalists). It is the same old issue of environmentalists vs NIMBYs. The differences are:

1) Awareness of the environmental position has spread, leaving NIMBYs in a weaker position. Back in 1990, the NIMBYs hadn't even heard about about the issue. Parris Glendenning invented the phrase "smart growth" in 1994, and the idea has spread widely since then. As a result, most NIMBYs now are defensive about their position.

2) This success has made some smart growth advocates more extreme, turning the issue into a debate over highrises rather than a debate over infill development. I think this extremism may cause a backlash that works against smart growth, because most people do not want to live in highrise neighborhoods.

Charles Siegel

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