The Rise of YIMBY Environmentalism: a Personal Journey for Earth Day

walkability in New Orleans' Vieux Carre

Recently, I attended the annual conference of the American Planning Association, where I was invited to speak. We met in New Orleans, one of the world’s most welcoming and culturally rich cities, the horrors of Katrina and limitations of longtime poverty notwithstanding. It is, among many other things, a city rich with historic, walkable neighborhoods. It was a well-suited venue for experiencing, contemplating and sharing the ingredients of community and how to make a better built environment.

What’s a YIMBY?

Working for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I direct the smart growth program (“direction” meaning mostly having the sense to support and stay out of the way of very talented colleagues with plenty of initiative), I approach most professional issues from an environmental perspective. APA’s membership – the audience at the meeting – is composed largely of city and town planners, working for municipalities across the country. I think of many planners as ‘accidental environmentalists’ whose traditional intentions may not be explicitly environmental but whose current (and in many cases longstanding) causes of thoughtful placemaking, great communities, and efficient transportation almost by definition reduce the weight and scope of our human footprint upon the earth. They get it, intuitively.

In fact, I would argue that they (along with many in CNU, more on that below) get it better than many environmentalists did for a long time, given our movement’s traditional distrust of cities, development, and commerce. One would have been hard pressed to find a self-identified environmentalist at the time of the first Earth Day, in 1970, who supported land development of any kind, orderly or not. But this is no longer the case, and I and many of my colleagues in the environmental community are living proof.

Many of us now think of ourselves as passionate advocates of development done well, no longer NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) but YIMBYs for smart, green urbanism. We know that land development – residential, commercial, civic – is going to happen with our country’s population growth and cannot (and should not) be wished away. We absolutely must say yes, especially in our back yards, to making it as beneficial for the environment and as nurturing to the human spirit as possible.

Earth Day and becoming a ‘recovering litigator’

It took us a while to get here. This week brings the 40th anniversary of that first Earth Day, providing a good opportunity to reflect on where the modern environmental movement has been, and where we are today. I’ve evolved a lot during these decades, and so has our cause. (By the way, we should not forget that there was also a ‘pre-modern’ environmental movement: Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson certainly didn’t wait for Earth Day to get started. Neither did proto-urbanist Jane Jacobs, for that matter.)

I began my professional career as a litigation lawyer and it took me forever to shake the label. After stints in the federal government, including the environmental division of the US Department of Justice, and in private legal practice in Washington, DC, I joined the staff of NRDC in 1981. I’ve never left.

But, though I was a successful litigator – maybe too successful for my own good – the law firm, Justice and NRDC liked me as a litigator more than I liked to litigate. NRDC in particular wanted to, and did, deploy me before administrative agencies and the federal courts to stop environmental damage, particularly in our national forests. When we needed someone to manage a large and important case where NRDC was a defendant, I was deployed for that, too. (Trust me: it’s more fun being the plaintiff.) But the world of arbitrary deadlines, constant jockeying for position with abstract arguments about procedure, and being adversarial for a living isn’t for everyone.

Over time, I wanted to work directly on solutions rather than just stopping bad things. How could I get from NIMBY to YIMBY, I wondered, and would there be a place for YIMBY thought and advocacy in the environmental movement?

Working to create good things, not just stop bad ones

Yes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, NRDC’s energy program, perhaps more than any other group of advocates in the mainstream environmental movement, became champions of a new wave of solutions that recognized that all business wasn’t evil, that with the right programs we could become partners instead of adversaries. My colleague (and future Heinz laureate) Ralph Cavanagh was blazing a new trail, figuring out a way for electric utilities to make more money from managing demand for electricity than by building or expanding power plants. My colleague (and future MacArthur laureate) David Goldstein was devising a way for mortgage lenders to make money by investing in “location-efficient” neighborhoods that required less driving and thus freed up borrowers’ incomes to make homebuying more accessible.

Our energy program’s solution-oriented strategies were even producing better results for the planet, frequently, than we were getting out of litigation and adversarial lobbying. When the energy team was looking in the mid-1990s for someone to address transportation efficiency, I could not have been more ready.

It took about five minutes for me to discover that transportation efficiency was really about land use. And so were a lot of other environmental challenges, from conservation of the landscape to healthy waterways to clean air to wetlands preservation and more. But what was still missing was the ‘aha’ solution for land use: sprawl was certainly the villain, but what could be the land use equivalent of Ralph’s industry-friendly utilities reform?

Becoming a YIMBY at last

Enter new urbanism. I didn’t really become a YIMBY until I read of CNU co-founder Andres Duany’s pioneering work in creating a nonsprawling community in Seaside, Florida, and of co-founder Peter Calthorpe’s work in articulating (and naming) ‘transit-oriented development,’ walkable communities built around neighborhood conveniences and public transportation stops. These templates addressed land use and transportation at once, and made for convivial neighborhoods, too. That was something positive to advocate. It was good for developers, good for residents, and great for the environment, compared to sprawl.

As I was soon to learn, I wasn’t alone. There was a growing group of us, arriving at the same conclusions at the same time. Well, frankly, some were already ahead of us, including Duany, Calthorpe and the other CNU founders, and a whole bunch of enlightened people in Oregon. But now the enviros and advocacy organizations were getting on board – elements of the solutions were being developed not just within architectural and planning circles but also at places like the Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Neighborhood Technology, EPA, Sierra Club, American Farmland Trust, Conservation Fund, Surface Transportation Policy Project, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Enterprise Foundation and more.

Parris Glendening gave our movement a name, making ‘smart growth’ his signature issue as governor of Maryland. Eliot Allen of Criterion Planners began to use sophisticated technology and brainpower to measure the environmental impacts of neighborhoods, almost universally finding that those that were well located within their regions, designed to be walkable and transit-accessible, and efficient in their use of land produced superior results to sprawling subdivisions and commercial strips. I believe the most powerful solutions for the environment were produced when the design principles of new urbanism were married to the location principles of smart growth that strove to keep development in the right places, and out of the wrong ones.

We found industry partners in the Urban Land Institute and CNU, and professional organization partners such as APA. We created organizations like Smart Growth America, the Smart Growth Network, and the Growth Management Leadership Alliance to support the cause and, eventually, LEED for Neighborhood Development to rate and certify it. Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Senators Jim Jeffords and Carl Levin became our early legislative champions.

How is being a YIMBY different?

The smart growth movement became, and remains, much more about making friends and building alliances than slaying enemies. There are still folks within NRDC and other organizations who fight the bad stuff and don’t back down in fierce legislative battles, and you should be very glad of it. (We need them even to fight preservation battles in New Orleans, where important neighborhoods are at risk as I write.) And there are still some folks in the environmental movement who don’t quite know what to make of us YIMBYs, even though one of the better-kept secrets is that we’re winning: central cities are growing again after years of decline, driving rates are declining, sprawl developments are losing money, all this even before the recession, and nearly every community in America wants to jump on the smart growth bandwagon, one way or another.

Zoning ordinances are being reformed left, right, and center to support walkable and transit-accessible neighborhoods. California now has a smart growth planning law to reduce carbon emissions, and so many jurisdictions are adopting complete-streets laws to make sure that walkers, cyclists, and transit users are accommodated fairly alongside cars that I can’t keep up. There is no question that market forces are trending our way. Collaborating for solutions works.

Back to New Orleans

When I spoke to the planning audience at the New Orleans meeting, I opened by saying, “[Most of] you already know what to do to make better, more sustainable communities. I see my job as building public and political support to enable you to do it.” It’s not completely that simple, of course: we still have much to learn together and from each other. We have a lot more implementation to accomplish and great neighborhoods and communities to build. But I knew I was among friends, by and large.

I then demonstrated my YIMBY credentials by arguing for more, not less, development in some places. It can be counter-intuitive to some, but we actually reduce per capita environmental impacts by concentrating them. We use less land, emit less carbon, reduce the spread of pavement that way. But I also argued that we must be thoughtful about it. We must make the places where we build "> better and much greener. We should only be YIMBYs when the development earns it.

The day after the talk, I spent several hours walking around the Vieux Carré, the French Quarter. It is the essence of a lively, walkable neighborhood with tons of character. Yes, it can be very touristy, what with conventioneers like myself ambling around; but there are always plenty of locals about, too. It can be boisterous and loud in places at night, but it has quiet, restful spots, too. You can even find a parking spot if you need one, which you won’t, unless you’re coming from or going to a place less convenient. And you can also sample some of the world’s best music and food, which you should, because post-Katrina New Orleans is still recovering and needs your business to strengthen its municipal coffers. The Quarter has proved itself quite literally sustainable, having survived three centuries more or less intact.

You’re actually limiting your environmental footprint while you’re having a good time here, because you’re using your feet, not your car. And, if you want a change of scenery, you can hop aboard one of the country’s oldest streetcar lines, part of which rides on a green rail bed. You have to try really hard to have a bad time in old New Orleans.

You see, it’s easy being green when you’re in a great, walkable neighborhood. We need more of them. And, as I reflect on this 40th Earth Day, I look forward to more collaboration between we YIMBY environmentalists, CNU, and other partners to make that happen.

A somewhat different and longer version of this post, with more photos, appears on my NRDC blog, where I write almost daily. Please visit my home page for updates.


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