Museum Leads ‘Greener Good’ Discussion

Posted September 21, 2007 at 4:35pm

Near the end of the 19th century, the country’s largest cities were polluted, disease-ridden places that proved fatal to many of their residents. Suburbs developed as a greener, healthier alternative to living in dense inner cities.

But the tide is turning, says University of Michigan architecture and urban planning professor Robert L. Fishman. Cities have become more sanitation-conscious and have taken steps to curb pollution. Meanwhile, suburb-dwelling commuters spend hours in their cars everyday, resulting in a dearth of exercise that could be hazardous to their health, according to studies recently cited by the Centers for Disease Control.

So, on Sept. 26, a panel consisting of Fishman, economist Margaret Walls, Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, and Glen Barnard, vice president of developer KB Home, will examine the possible health ramifications of suburban life in the provocatively titled “Can the Suburbs Kill You?”

The discussion is the first of a series at the National Building Museum called “For the Greener Good,” which will explore issues of domestic sustainability on a number of topics ranging from “greener” suburbs to the pros and cons of using nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel. The four discussions between now and December constitute the series’ inaugural season, and additional seasons will be sponsored by the museum continuously over the next two years, NBM spokeswoman Sarah Kabakoff said.

The series is being funded by a two-year, $600,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation. The goal, according to the NBM’s press release, is to “assemble some of the world’s leading minds … to discuss solutions [to] our most pressing environmental issues.”

Kabakoff said that while the museum hopes to attract a broad public audience to the discussions, some of the talks — particularly the ones dealing with nuclear power (Oct. 22) and the carrot vs. stick approaches to promoting environmentally friendly building (Nov. 19) — will attract more of a niche audience, with energy lobbyists, environmental folks and policy people expected to show.

Kabakoff emphasized that the panel discussions will focus on tackling issues with a “solution-oriented approach.” In dealing with the challenges facing suburb-dwellers — too much driving, not enough walking or biking — Fishman said developers and urban planners must rethink the way they design suburbs. Suburbs designed to include sidewalks along all its streets, along with bike trails, can help negate the deleterious health effects the increased driving can have on its residents. Making “collector roads” safer to walk along and to cross also can help encourage more walking, he added.

Walls said some economists argue that homes in suburbs with walking and biking facilities, as well as well-designed open space, are more highly valued by homebuyers, and that the increased prices home builders can get for such houses can make developing walking- and biking-friendly suburbs profitable. She cautioned, however, that she has yet to find evidence that this argument holds true.

In any case, she says, those wanting to promote this kind of suburb need to focus on using incentives, not restrictions. Those who rely on “stick” measures such as zoning regulations “fight a losing battle against personal initiative,” she said. Walls added that communities that want to encourage open space need to focus on integrating open space “the right way,” rather than simply requiring a certain percentage of land to be left open. Otherwise, she said, developers are more likely to bunch houses together, leaving large swaths of open space both untouched and inaccessible.

“Can the Suburbs Kill You?” takes place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Admission is $12 for museum members and students and $20 for nonmembers. Tickets to all four discussions can be bought for $30 for members and students and $60 for nonmembers. Pre-registration is required. For more information, call 202-272-2448.