When Captains Amadas and Barlow landed on North Carolina’s eastern shores in 1584, they declared, “This is the goodliest land under the cope of heaven.” Yet over the centuries, we have not been good stewards of this “goodly land.” With wanton disregard for our natural systems and disrespect for our regional history and culture, we have embraced a throwaway society that will leave our children a shadow of what could have been if we had embraced a notion that comes naturally to our European counterparts: sustainability, the ability to make something continue to exist.
We may not have intended a throwaway society, but we’ve been living it for at least 65 years. As a result, our landfills are stuffed with the debris of our existence. We trash our finite natural resources. We trash our future through overindulgence and waste. And we trash the futures of our children by not showing them the world they will inherit from us — a world deplete of resources and opportunities — if we don’t put a stop to rampant, throwaway development.
The nations of Europe deserve a shining place in world history for combining sensitive design of their built environments with their natural systems. Europeans have an innate way of looking at and nurturing nature. They respect nature as a landscape within which they live, not as something to be bulldozed down and thrown away. We relegate representations of our natural systems to state parks, presumably so they will be protected. But the inculcation of what these parks represent to our consciousness and education does not exist. We know no more about these natural phenomena than the fact that, on a daily basis, we destroy most of them with the trash of our developments.
Europeans also respect their cultural history and the creative process. They visit their museums. They love their artists and musicians. And they are involved in the growth of their cities, often demanding full-scale models of public buildings’ facades so they may fully grasp the impact on the existing landscape.
Immediately after the Nazis bombed Rotterdam during World War II, Dutch planners went underground and worked for four years to plan how they would rebuild the city back to the way it was. With the help of our Marshall Plan, Germany rebuilt its landscape back to the way it was, complete with public spaces. They modernized their infrastructures (roads, sewers, public utilities), but they did so concurrent with reestablishing their cultural history. Italy survived the war relatively unscarred. But what was destroyed has been replaced in its historic context. The same can be said of England, Spain, Belgium and France.
Europe is not littered with poorly designed “throwaway” buildings with false facades of plastic and glass. That remains America’s province. Europeans design and build for permanence and sustainability. Their buildings’ interiors may be used for different purposes over the centuries, but the overall impact on the urban fabric remains the same.
By comparison, we are fundamentally illiterate about culture and the arts. We have been almost desensitized to man-made creation. We make excuses for not getting involved in public projects. The occasional project might pique our interest, but only if it effects our own backyards and pocketbooks.
Our lack of appreciation for nature is at the root of the problem, because understanding nature creates an appreciation of beauty and, in turn, of art. Nature, beauty and art are the cultural equivalent of the religious Holy Trinity.
What can we do to stem the tide of destruction and embark upon a journey of sustainability? First, as we develop our cities, regions and our state, we need look carefully and critically at development projects from inception, envisioning how they will affect the rest of the urban environment.
We need to insist that the design of our homes, attached or detached, are informed by the natural and cultural characteristics of our region, and that they are designed to save energy, water and materials. And we need to insist that all buildings are designed to be permanent, built of permanent materials.
We need to set limits on growth. My generation, blessed with postwar planning objectives, encouraged the growth of our cities to the point that they sprawled into the countryside, creating neither city nor country. And we need to demand more public spaces. Shopping malls, private clubs, gated communities, etc have replaced our traditional civic commons. We need to demand that developments include truly public spaces.
We need to combine residential and commercial development. American cities once had shops, homes, government buildings and public squares built closely together. Postwar planning ended this tradition, separating residential, commercial and industrial areas into single-use entities accessed by highways and cars. We need to amend zoning objectives and to encourage developers to reuse existing structures, rather than tear them down and cart their remains to our landfills.
Lastly, we must not allow the educational system to debilitate our personal wellbeing. We should demand that our schools teach respect for our natural systems and our cultural heritage.
Sustainability must be the watchword for our future.
— Dick Bell