Gleaming atop Madison's new Fire Station #12 sits its green crown jewel - a solar panel. Station #12 on the city's far west side is so green it was just awarded the U.S. Green Building Council's "Platinum" status. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is shouting the news from the mountaintops. Here it is, a full flowering of his Natural Step program for a sustainable city.
But there it sits, in car-mandatory suburbia, surrounded by pavement and plentiful parking, walkable to nowhere. Walkscore.com rated the fire station's address a 2 (out of 100), dubbing it "auto-dependent."
Contrast this with Fire Station #3 on Williamson Street. It's walkable to everything, deemed a "walker's paradise" with a Walkscore of 97. It is nestled between neighborhood retail and residences. It sits on one of the liveliest blocks in town. Streams of pedestrians, bikes and buses flow by. And it has a solar panel.
But this 1950s-era building will never win a green architecture award. The U.S. Green Building Council and others are too focused on new buildings, paying little heed to issues of context.
And therein lies the problem with the approach taken by Mayor Dave. The Natural Step, his citywide strategy to save energy and reduce waste, is a thoroughgoing, top-to-bottom, cross-disciplinary, holistic, green paradigm. But Madison would achieve far more if it focused on preserving natural and food-providing areas, instead of paving them over.
In the case of Fire Station #12, the car-mandatory nature of the neighborhood completely negates the green gains achieved through architecture, and then some.
Unfortunately, the problem's roots run deep. Engineers build big roads; that's just what they do. Planners plan communities with radically separate land uses (like residential neighborhoods without a store in sight); that's just what they do. And our political leaders have largely failed to end hyper-specialization and engineering megalomania, to the detriment of a truly green city.
We're facing a changing climate, increased energy demands and water shortages, each interrelated with the others. Madison has the brainpower to get a handle on these problems. The question is, will we?
So far, the answer seems to be no.
The city's road-building costs have skyrocketed more than five-fold over the last 10 years, a trend that's accelerated fastest under the current mayor. If we were even approaching our sustainability goals, as indicated by the Natural Step and the city's comprehensive plan, road-building costs would not have exceeded population growth plus inflation.
And while it may be true that what's built is built, there are many new developments on the drawing boards right now. Those could use a healthy dose of green thinking - and not just for one new platted neighborhood on the city's northeast side.
Poor urban design is a prime driver of the environmental ills we face. We won't find genuine solutions without a leadership committed to using less at all levels citywide, public and private.
Mayor Dave could begin by establishing baselines for energy consumption, paved acreage and vehicle miles. The city's sustainability guru, city engineer, planning director and others should then have their jobs rated by how effectively they reduce those numbers while maintaining Madison's economic vitality. (Job security tends to focus the mind and produce results.)
Madison shouldn't be playing the whack-a-mole game of saving resources in one area only to go off and blow the savings in another area.
A green ethic, a conservation ethic, sustainability, resiliency - whichever buzzword you choose - requires more than just a series of specialized technological fixes.
To be sure, technology-based efficiency has allowed us to use significantly less energy in certain areas. Without incorporating an ethic of conservation into our urban design, the gains will be lost at the altar of concrete.
And no, I'm not proposing hair-shirt lifestyles. If we act forthwith, that won't be necessary. Countries with higher standards of living than ours typically burn half the energy we do. And some of them are on pace to reduce energy use even further. We can live better without paving over the Dane County countryside.
Michael D. Barrett, an energy efficiency and community plan analyst with UrbanThoreau LLC, blogs at urbanthoreau.com/blog.