Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day Green

This week's newspaper column: Read it in the Hattiesburg American.

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Given the hype, you might think Presidents Day was set aside for selling cars, socks, and iPods. Alas, no.

Originally celebrated as George Washington’s birthday on the 22nd of February, the third Monday in February has now been broadened to honor Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is February 12th, and – loosely - every US president.

Looking back, and in keeping with the “green” theme of this column, who were our most environmental presidents?

Teddy Roosevelt is maybe the best known environmentalist having famously encouraged citizens to develop a greater appreciation of and respect for nature. Along with the establishment of the US Forest Service in 1905, some of the highlights of TR’s tenure included the preservation of 150 million acres of old-growth timberland, the creation of 50 wildlife refuges, and the establishment of 5 national parks. Teddy Roosevelt, for the first time in this country’s history, brought the idea of environmental stewardship into the national spotlight.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, created as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, was responsible for planting over 3 billion trees across the United States as well as the construction of campgrounds, trails, and infrastructure in our national and state parks, many of which are still in use today. Under FDR’s administration, the Soil Conservation Service was established for the purpose of fostering long-term soil health and ending unsustainable farming practices that had led to widespread soil erosion leading up to the dust bowl days of the Great Depression.

Lyndon Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and set aside 9 million acres wilderness land, but he was overshadowed by his wife – Lady Bird Johnson – who tirelessly advocated for the protection of natural resources and the beautification of America up until her death in 2007.

You may be surprised to know that Richard Nixon was one of our country’s most prolific environmental presidents signing into law the Clean Air Act and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, Nixon’s presidency gave us the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act among other pieces of environmental legislation.

But Jimmy Carter sits atop all others in his advocacy for environmental causes. Along with overseeing a laundry list of environmental protections, Carter created the Department of Energy with the expressed goal of establishing a national energy policy that promoted clean and alternative fuels.

In what would turn out to be a major part of Carter’s undoing, he urged citizens to drive slower, conserve more, and begin a dramatic and comprehensive conversion to alternative energies. As an example for the country, he installed solar panels on the White House while donning a sweater and turning the thermostat down to 68 degrees.

If we as a country had followed his lead, the United States today would be a very different – and much more sustainable – place to live.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Old Folks at Home

This week's newspaper column:

With all our assorted human differences, there’s one thing we all have in common: Nobody is getting any younger. Barring some unfortunate fatal illness (or a much-too-casual relationship with heavy machinery), we will all at some point negotiate the world as senior citizens.

A few generations ago, the elderly among us depended almost solely upon the good graces of extended family for support and care, often living in the home of a child or some not-too-distant relative. Absent those accommodations, senior citizens might have found themselves – if they were lucky – in what was popularly referred to as the “old folks’ home.” Neither was a panacea, but in the so-called good ol’ days, average lifespans were considerably shorter and family life was more predictable, so people made do.

But as recent advancements in medical care and public health have added decades to our lives, seniors make up a much greater percentage of society than ever before. (In the twentieth century alone, the average lifespan in the US has increased by over 30 years.) And now, as the baby boom generation grays, we are on the verge of seeing an explosion in the demand for senior-friendly housing.

Among architects and planners, what was once called “elderly housing” has now given way to more politically-correct terms such as “retirement community” or “senior living” facilities, in part for marketing reasons, but also in recognition of the fact that we can expect an increasing number of years living active lives as we grow old. But almost always, those facilities – by design – have segregated seniors from the rest of society.

Think about the happiest people you know who are, shall we say, “up in years.” To a person, they seem to embody a strong sense of independence along with a level of activity that belies their years. It is no secret that consistent physical activity and mental stimulation promotes longevity and healthy aging, and that means interacting with those across the age spectrum and having the ability experience the world without the help of others.

Getting around in modern-day strip-mall America can be challenging enough for able-bodies behind the wheel of a car, but for seniors who may not have razor-sharp driving skills, or who have given up driving altogether, striking out on their own is simply out of the question.

So, what is the future of elder housing? (I use the term elder because the word implies the qualities of someone held up as a community leader or sage rather than the word elderly, which infers the quality of being old, and possibly in the way).

Drop “retirement” from “retirement community” and I think you’ll have the answer. The next generation of healthy senior living environments will involve the complete integration of elders into the greater community. Thus, new community infrastructure must be designed for walkability; housing must be situated near services, and continuous sidewalks must be the standard in all new neighborhoods.

Walking may be considered old-fashioned, but for healthy aging, it’s the new frontier.