Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Florida: Let's Grow Smarter and Healthier

Cities like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon often top the list as the “Greenest” cities in America for reasons including the number of available bicycle lanes, progressive recycling policies, and energy efficient buildings.  These “green” cities also boast respectable ridership statistics within their public transportation systems.  In Portland, Oregon a little over a quarter of daily commuters use public transportation - an impressive number for a city that size.  On the other hand lets consider Manhattan.  82% of Manhattan residents commute to work using public transportation per day! The reason for this is obvious and happened quite by accident.  The city is surrounded by water on three sides which caused development to concentrate inward and upward. Manhattan’s population density is more than 800 times that of the nation as a whole.  The average Manhattan resident doesn’t own a car (because they're so inefficient). They run most of their daily errands on foot, live in very small spaces (relatively speaking), and use very little energy thereby contributing to one of the smallest per-capita ecological footprints in the world. I’m sure that the founders and early developers of New York City were not considering “smart growth” in their early planning. However, as it turns out Manhattan embodies nearly every accepted smart growth principle: mixed land use, compact building design, livable/walkable neighborhoods, and development directed towards existing communities with a variety of transportation choices. Concentrating human activity concentrates pollution and also reduces the need to travel long distances.

Who knew Manhattan could be so “green?” 

It seems counter-intuitive that concentrating human activity is the answer to some of our most pressing environmental concern. However, it’s time we change our thinking regarding what it means to be “Green.”  Concentrating development and providing efficient transportation alternatives that reduce vehicle miles traveled also reduces the amount of fossil fuels we burn, the amount of smog and ozone we emit, and the number of doctor visits that result from respiratory illnesses triggered by these pollutants. Florida has surprisingly unhealthy air and 1 in 10 children suffer from asthma. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Granted, the average city in Florida is a far cry from Manhattan.  However, the consensus seems to be that Florida’s growth management and transportation policies are inadequate to support our growing population.  Urban sprawl is a serious issue in Florida and the argument could be made that it is a direct result of poor planning and regulatory frameworks. While Florida cities may never be as dense or have as many commuters that use alternatives to cars as Manhattan does, we can better serve a growing local demand for transportation choices and by so doing, grow in a way that creates far less sprawl.

The Florida Healthy Air campaign is poised to draw the connection between transportation, public health and our dependency on fossil fuels.  We need to build a community consensus that providing transportation alternatives and fostering livable communities is essential to ensuring that we will all have healthy air to breathe and a pristine environment to enjoy. It would be nearly impossible to imitate those policies adopted by NYC because of the innate uniqueness of that city- but we can argue that it is time for Florida to move past our archaic transportation policies that emphasize building more roads or widening existing ones. Those objectives do nothing but induce more traffic, exacerbate urban sprawl, and keep Floridians helplessly addicted to oil. Florida has an opportunity to make our communities distinct and livable by following a few examples provided to us by this accidental “Green City.”

 You may never ride the bus or train but you will nevertheless benefit because someone else did. When Floridians are given the same transportation choices that the majority of American’s enjoy, our air will get cleaner for everyone to breathe. Bottom line: Transit means Smarter, Healthier, Cleaner Communities. That is something we can all get behind. – Britten Cleveland, Sierra Club Conservation Organizer for the Florida Healthy Air Campaign

For more information on the Florida Healthy Air Campaign, contact:
Phil Compton, Regional Representative, phil.compton@sierraclub.org
Britten Cleveland, Conservation Organizer, britten.cleveland@sierraclub.org