Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Less is more: The local scale

My city is currently developing plans for a green buildings program to encourage homes and commercial buildings to make efficient and effective use of energy, water, and natural systems. As we approach some early recommendations and a public comment period, I’ve made myself a guinea pig by contacting our permitting office to ask whether or not I need a permit to install a drain-heat recovery system. A friend of mine who works for a different part of the city government posited, “They’ll tell you need a mechanical permit. They won’t know why, but they’ll tell you that you need it.” So far, I haven’t heard from the office.
This all brings to the fore the critically important issue of sustainability at the local scale. It’s common to hear people talk about environmental policy at the national scale and beyond. It’s sometimes hard to avoid reading rants about Kyoto, pollutant trading, EPA’s statutory responsibility to manage carbon, and CAFE standards. But, many people are completely unaware of the environmental policy closest to home.
Most people live in areas where building is influenced or directly governed by a county or municipal government. Local governments execute planning, zoning, and building codes. All of these have a substantial effect on how much gasoline, water, electricity, natural gas, and other resources we use. They have a similarly large effect on the impact our lives have on our surroundings.
Small changes to building codes, such as incentives for the use of better insulation, rain barrels, pervious paving, or solar energy systems can improve local property values and provide a little boost to local businesses by helping residents save money, while reducing the burden on aging infrastructure. Even something as minor as simply allowing new energy-saving technologies like drain-heat recovery systems can have a positive impact. Better still, the local government could consider evaluating a handful of new technologies every year or two to potentially add them to the building codes.
Local governments can also begin to consider their impacts on surrounding communities. An ISO14001 compliant environmental management system can help the community identify what its specific impacts are and manage those impacts more effectively.
Local government is more accessible to the individual than state, regional, and national governments are. In many cases, an individual is free to directly address his or her local elected officials in certain forums. Likewise, many local governments are supported by the work of concerned citizens who volunteer their time, opinions, and expertise. For readers who genuinely want to improve their lives and make the world a better place to live, their local government can be one of the most effective ways to do this.

Image source: Wikimedia


Sue said...

Good points. I noted however, where you said: "Most people live in areas where building is influenced or directly governed by a county or municipal government. Local governments execute planning, zoning, and building codes." Some of us live where there are no planning, zoning or building codes of any kind. Buildings constructed with state or federal monies have some requirements (e.g., not in a flood zone) but that's about it. There's no controls over private home or business construction. So we're battling much more basic battles before we can even begin to think about "green" issues.

E. R. Dunhill said...

While the urban shift means that more and more people live in population centers, you're absolutely right that there remain large numbers of people outside of urban and suburban areas. For people in these places, there's sometimes an emerging and unmet demand for planning/zoning/codes. Starting this process is difficult. Often building codes or changes to building codes come as the result of an accident- a collapse or a fire- that could have been prevented by better standards. For many others, it may simply be more effective to focus on changes on the personal scale.