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Our Built and Natural Environments

2013 June 19

By Melissa Kramer

I remember like it was yesterday the first solo drive I took with my newly minted drivers’ license. Being able to drive myself where I wanted to go meant so much to me as a 16-year old who had no real alternatives to a car for meeting up with friends, getting to my first job, or going shopping. Somewhere along the way though the freedom and excitement that I felt behind the wheel was replaced with frustration as I sat in traffic, anxiety any time I had to drive unfamiliar roads, and stress about the cost of keeping my old clunker running.

As a resident of Washington, D.C., I have left behind the life where a car is necessary for most things. I live in a vibrant, bustling neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. Most days I walk to work, but I can also bike or take the bus. My husband commutes 8 miles by bike to work in Arlington, Virginia, and is happier and healthier for it. There are at least a half dozen grocery stores, a couple of hardware stores, countless restaurants, and just about anything I need close by. Several major bus lines run within two blocks of my house, and the Metro is just a 10 minute walk away when we need it.

EPA’s new report Our Built and Natural Environments helps explain how the kind of places where I live can minimize the environmental impacts of development. While the population of the United States roughly doubled between 1950 and 2011, the number of miles traveled increased nearly six-fold, and with it air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and stormwater runoff from roads have increased. Choosing where to build our communities to safeguard sensitive ecological areas; redeveloping already developed places; and putting homes, workplaces, and services close together near transit can help preserve natural areas that provide many ecosystem services. Beyond where we build, how we build is also important. Building compact neighborhoods, mixing uses to reduce travel distances, designing streets to make walking and biking safer, and using better building practices also help protect the environment and human health. This report describes the research documenting these environmental benefits and helps explain why neighborhoods like mine are not just great places to live, but also help minimize residents’ environmental footprints.

Find the report .  Learn about the Our Built and Natural Environments webinar on July 24.

About the author: Melissa Kramer, Ph.D., is a biologist working in EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. She likes biking, cooking, and tending to her native plant garden

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Response leave one →
  1. Verle Hansen permalink
    January 21, 2015

    This document illustrates that our communities should be compact, mixed-use, have street connectivity, be oriented around transit systems, buildings should be green, and care should be taken to be sensitive to the environment. All these are admirable traits that will certainly lower the cumulative human impact on planet Earth. However, as a community planner, I could design a community to have all of these characteristics and still not protect habitat, natural productivity, biodiversity, soils or water (except possibly by chance). A planner can adequately consider these if he/she has been given the criteria. What plant and animal species need to be protected? How much habitat will be required to maintain minimum viable and effective populations of those species? What are the characteristics of habitat for those species that will accommodate activities and behaviors of those species? What is the required distribution of those species across the landscape? What is the connectivity that will be required between habitats? How much precipiation will the landscape need to accommodate? How much land will be required to accommodate it so that erosion and runoff are not exceeded? How much water will need to be held and for how long so that downstream flooding is not increased by development? What must the landscape be like to assure groundwater recharge?
    With such information it is possible to design where buildings, roads, and infrastructures are placed so as to assure the environment performs as it must to sustain human life. And, having such information allows communities to take stock of what remains of the natural environemnt and what has been lost so that communities can design programs that start to recover/restore essential attributes of natural systems. Once this is in place, every land user can make decisions that meet present socio-economic objectives in ways that also keep natural systems intact and functioning…and participate in programs that build capacity back into natural systems.

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