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Greenfield development: where do we draw the line?

A major part of what sets Biohabitats’ corporate culture apart from that of a “typical” environmental consulting firm is our strong ethic of social and ecological responsibility. Our work reflects our internal vision of who we are, how we define ourselves, and what we value.

Within that context, there is an important and vibrant discussion that needs to occur: to what extent should people participate in Greenfield development projects that may ultimately result in sprawl expansion and fragmentation of neighboring ecosystems?

We have touched on this issue before, but a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science demonstrating that housing growth is the main threat to protected areas in the United States again brings it again to the forefront.

As land use patterns are major factors in driving consumption, accelerating climate change, reducing biodiversity, and encouraging social stratification, is there a point where we all step back? Site selection that ignores existing infrastructure, leapfrogs development and mandates dependency upon the automobile can never be truly offset, no matter how many platinum LEED buildings are built or how many regenerative stormwater systems are installed. Can we make a bad development plan better? Sure. But the overall impact on a regional and national level will still be a net negative.

Over my professional career I have walked away from many projects that I knew conflicted with my fundamental value system. Did someone else do the work? Perhaps, but meeting a demand for a service does not make it ethical. The legal status of the service being sought is irrelevant.

Brownfields, urban infill, retrofits of existing infrastructure – these all offer tremendous opportunities to reduce our ecological footprint while striving for a truly equitable and just society. This is where we showcase and educate people as to what can be done.

Second homes, resort communities, large lot collections miles from the town core – these are inherently unsustainable, no matter how many site-specific best management practices are implemented. Here we do not educate and foster change. Here we may merely create a veneer of sustainability and perpetuate a lifestyle that impoverishes future generations.

Where do we draw the line in the sand and refuse to participate? Where do we say “no thank you?”

7 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    what irks me the most is to see many of these new greenfield developments lay dormant and unoccupied. Why build the homes, lay infrastructure, and disrupt an ecosystem before the houses are even desired by a homeowner? How can the developers get away with this?

    A promising non-profit that I recently came across is de-pave, which encourages a grass roots approach at removing unused impervious surfaces. Looks like a good group, from Portland, OR, though. Lets see if we can bring that effort out East.

    http://depave.org/

  2. Anonymous says:

    Yet by walking away because it is not consistent with your values, one essentially divorces oneself from the bigger issue. The impact will still occur won't it? Perhaps there needs to be involvement in these types of projects to lead to better outcomes and then at the same time, perhaps we need to be involved in larger policy based resource management decisions that lead to preservation and conservation and provide some sort of transfer development right to land owners who inherently have the right to develop the land. Tough issues to be sure.

  3. Kevin Heatley BIO ISM says:

    I disagree, no one is "walking away". What we would be doing should effectively be characterized as “boycotting”. As the original blog poster said, "did someone else do the work? Perhaps, but the demand for a service does not make it ethical". To think that the type of best management practices that firms like Bio implement can offset the massive social and ecological impacts associated with sprawl development is wishful thinking. In fact, our presence on such projects adds an air of legitimacy; green marketing capital for the developer. Where something is fundamentally wrong for the biosphere and society we need to firmly avoid getting involved. To do otherwise undermines our core principles and allows ill-advised land conversion to be sugar-coated.

    Should firms like Biohabitats also be involved in larger policy decisions? Sure, but private sector concerns need to focus resources on areas that offer the prospect of financial return. We can add our voice to the discussion but we are not a non-profit advocacy group. In the meantime, there are ample opportunities to earn a living improving the planet and creating an equitable and just society. Opportunities that do not compromise core ethics.

  4. Ted Brown says:

    Let's agree to disagree. I would say that by looking to be involved in some of these types of projects (I think that we should evaluate each one that presents itself) we further our capabilities as a ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design firm. We get better at what we do and we develop the ability to more concretely show what is possible and also what is not possible. I actually think we have a better chance of affecting change by participating than by boycotting.

    Placing this into an "ethical" vs. "unethical" or "advocacy" vs "nonadvocacy" context oversimplifies the issues in my view.

    To suggest a blanket prohibition on being involved in any "greenfield" development project seems short-sighted to me.

  5. Kevin Heatley BIO ISM says:

    I disagree on agreeing to disagree.

    The benefits you describe in being associated with inadvisable greenfield development all accrue to Biohabitats. At the expense, I would add, of regional and global sustainability.

    No one is advocating avoiding all greenfield development. Urban infill is certainly an acceptable compromise. What are being discussed are projects that blatantly ignore existing infrastructure and encourage sprawl.

    Framing this as an ethical issue accurately reflects the dilemma at hand. There is no technical solution to sprawl as it is a reflection of societal values and the inadequacy of our current market system to internalize externalities and include the interests of future generations.

    What makes Biohabitats unique is our common ethical paradigm. Consensus, or non-consensus, on this issue will speak to how we view ourselves and our work.

  6. Ted Brown says:

    Ok. Last post by me on this string. I have enjoyed understanding your perspective better. I don't have your ability to draw lines so clearly on the issue. For me, there are lots of shades of gray, which causes me to prefer to evaluate each project opportunity on a case by case basis.

    I sometimes struggle with defining what is greenfield versus what is infill versus what is redevelopment. In fact, there was a robust discussion on this matter last Friday at the Maryland Stormwater Forum.

    For example, is BRAC related growth along the I-95 corridor in Maryland and Delaware sprawl or smart growth? Is it infill or greenfield development or all of the above? I don't know.

    But if there is a prospective client that is interested in developing a piece of land that is within this designated "growth corridor" and has a demonstrable interest and commitment in creating a community space that reflects thoughtful site planning and design founded on sustainability and resource conservation principles, then I think we might have a lot to offer a project like that.

    I imagine we have varied opinions on this issue at Biohabitats. I think what makes us unique is that we can have this dialogue and have it feed into the decisions we make. I don't, however, think any one of us is more or less ethical than the other based on our position on this topic.

  7. Kevin Heatley BIO ISM says:

    Bummer, just when the discussion gets interesting and challenging it ends. That's disappointing.

    I agree, there are many shades of gray, however, there are many more examples where it is obvious what is sprawl. As the wise sage once said, "You don't have to be a chicken to smell a rotten egg".

    A case by case evaluation is certainly reasonable and flexible. Yet without a firm institutional consensus as to what constitutes an unacceptable project we will ultimately lack consistency and undermine any legitimate claim to truly pursuing environmental sustainability.

    While it is a matter of ethical perspective, no one is claiming ethical superiority. What we are striving for is consistency. If we truly believe in a biocentric perspective and recognize that the inappropriate, consumptive conversion of land is a major threat to ecological sustainability, at the very least we should be able to define where a project is inconsistent with that perspective.

    Thanks for your input Ted. Looks like this issue won't be resolved on a blog. Best we could hope for is consciousness raising. Mission accomplished.

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