Before Henry David Thoreau borrowed an axe and withdrew to the woods at Walden Pond, he spent a great deal of time daydreaming of owning a proper farm. He writes that “at a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” Toward this end, he had “surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live. In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession.” He imaged how he would transform the land “into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture” and decided “what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door.”
It seems that no one, not even the sage of Walden Pond, can escape from the pull of home ownership. In many ways it is the American Dream—white picket fence, grassy lawn, dog rolling in autumn leaves, every home a castle and every homeowner the king or queen of their castle. Entire television programs—no entire television networks—are based on the premise of buying, building or rebuilding the perfecting home (e.g., “House Hunters,” “Property Virgins,” “Curb Appeal,” and my favorite, “Flipping Out”—who can resist Zoila?).
Being against home building is like being against procreation: It is pointless. But for as long as I can remember, being a member of the Chesapeake Bay environmental community has been synonymous with being against development (against development on Kent Island, against development near the Blackwater Refuge, against development in the critical area, against development in rural areas, against development of the Montgomery County, Md., Inter-County Connector…).
I like a good yurt as much as the next guy, but the fact of the matter is most people, environmentalists included, live in houses. So it cannot be that the environmental community is against homes. A cynic might suggest that they are against other people’s homes, but that too does not ring true. The fact is that the environmental community is not against homes, what they are against is the environmental harms created by antiquated building techniques. Specifically they are against the environmental harms created by adding outdated buildings in areas with rivers that are already severely degraded by years of thoughtless building practices.
The harmful runoff from homes, which poison our rivers and threaten the Bay, is not an unavoidable consequence of home building. Living roofs, storm water catchment areas, pervious surfaces and countless other techniques can dramatically reduce the environmental impact of construction. And using these practices in the built environment to replace or rebuild outdated urban structures can actually produce environmental benefits. That is right, development, if done intelligently can lead to environmental gains. Moreover, this does not require limiting all future development to industrial brownfields. What it mean is implementing environmentally sound building designs into new projects, while at the same time setting side enough resources to correct the misdeeds of the past.
So build new homes, build as many as you want, make them as big and fancy as you want, but make sure they lead to no net pollution gain in our already impaired waterways. And if you cannot make them big, fancy, plentiful and environmentally benign, than just make sure that they are environmentally benign.