If the goal of environmentalism is to preserve the planet, we need to expand our priorities beyond the suburbs to our inner cities. #b#Marty Johnson#/b#, founder and president of the Trenton-based community development and environmental organization Isles, offers a different perspective on how New Jersey might reduce its carbon footprint.
Buildings, says Johnson, account for 40 percent of the entire footprint, and this has important implications for the environmental movement. “It is almost not intuitive,” says Johnson, “but the most important aspects of environmental action today do not lie with the preservation of open spaces or the typical environmental causes. It is a question of not just what we save, but how we build, what we build, and where.”
Because buildings affect our environment more than transportation or industry, says Johnson, the Obama administration and the state of New Jersey are making significant investments to react to retrofit more buildings.
But as important as these house-by-house changes are, what is more important is to encourage people to live in higher density areas. “Cities are the most efficient way to be on the planet,” says Johnson. “The most energy-efficient house in the exurbs, with the family driving a Prius, has a larger footprint than a house retrofitted in the inner city, where people are closer to their work.”
Johnson will speak on “Rethinking Environmentalism,” on Wednesday, April 21, at noon at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 609-570-3324.
Thus far most environmental organizations have spent most of their time and resources outside of our dirty and polluted cities even though their concentrated populations are healthier for the environment.
“Now we have this challenge,” says Johnson, “how to make cities more effective and how to make them become a key part of our survival as a species.”
Johnson says New Jersey has not committed itself to this effort. “New Jersey has a level of schizophrenia where people hate sprawl but also hate density,” he says. The good news is that organizations like Isles have found new, cost-effective ways to make cities better places to live.
“What we’re doing in Trenton is coming up with innovative ways to work with community folks and work with the environment and make cities more fun and livable places to be,” says Johnson.
#b#Retrofitting houses to be healthier and more energy efficient#/b#. Isles cross-trains people from the community to clean up environmental hazards like lead and dust and to perform energy audits and changes that will increase energy efficiency.
#b#Growing food#/b#. The suburbs have access to cheaper and higher-quality food than do city dwellers. To increase access to fresh food in Trenton, Isles has been creating partnerships with farmers to bring their produce to a farmer’s market in the city. It is also bringing inner-city students to farms in surrounding areas to grow food and learn how to prepare and eat it in a healthy way.
This is also part of an effort to target the levels of obesity in Trenton, which are the highest in the state.
#b#Developing high-efficiency buildings#/b#. Isles has been preparing to convert an old, vacant factory building of more than 200,000 square feet (the 110-year-old former Atlantic Products textile mill at 1 North Johnston Avenue in Hamilton) to a mixed-use building with offices, a training center, a school, housing, and spaces for artist studios, business incubators, and nonprofits. The kicker is that this development, Mill One, will use about half the energy of a normal building.
Johnson is hoping to close on financing for Mill One soon and expects construction to begin by September. “It will be an important model for how developers can take an old building and, for a reasonable price — a lot cheaper than buildings built on Route 1 — do energy-efficient development,” he says. And even if the price is a little more up front, such buildings save significant costs over the long term. “So we can’t afford not to do it,” says Johnson.
What has handcuffed people so far, he suggests, is an absence of imagination and design and construction capacity. Because developers do not have as much experience with this kind of building, says Johnson, Mill One will serve as a demonstration of what is possible.
“The role we think Isles plays is to create a development that others can replicate in other settings,” he explains. “We’re getting a bit smarter about building design but we need to be a lot smarter to deal with that 40-percent carbon footprint.”
#b#Cooling the inner city#/b#. Portions of Trenton and the first-ring suburbs are highly developed and without a lot of trees; therefore, they are 9 to 10 degrees hotter than the suburbs, says Johnson. This excess heat creates expense in the summer and is unhealthy.
Isles promotes a variety of approaches to cooling the inner city — planting street trees, using cool green and white roof technology, and creating parks and gardens.
Johnson grew up in a blue-collar family in Akron, Ohio. He was the fourth of six children, and his father was a trucker. The family went through tough times financially, at one point losing their home, and he remembers trying to buy groceries while concealing his food stamps.
These experiences taught Johnson a lot about empathy and about how struggling people want to be viewed not as victims but as competent people going through tough times.
Johnson came to Princeton University on a football scholarship and worked in food service as a cook, to help pay his way and send money home. His major was cultural anthropology, and he spent time in northeastern Brazil studying the cultural impact of an industrial seaboard complex on a fishing village. As he observed the beginnings of an environmental movement to fight this polluting development, he starting thinking about and working on ways to promote appropriate development.
Johnson and several other students started an organization to promote development that would create jobs and economic value while also improving the environment.
The focus was on promoting self-reliance and a more sustainable environmental outcome. One project was on a Caribbean island, hence the name “Isles,” and another was with the Mohawk Indians.
Johnson and his coworkers incorporated in April, 1981, and Johnson graduated in June. The partners lived frugally and in October moved from Princeton to Trenton after a community group there asked Isles to help with a housing development project.
Over time Isles has gotten involved in many different and complementary initiatives: community gardening; urban environmental education; quality, affordable housing; neighborhood planning; job training, including the YouthBuild Institute; brownfield redevelopment; cleanup of lead and asthma triggers from urban homes; creating walking paths in Trenton; financial self-reliance; and microlending.
Now is the time to bring our cities back to life, suggests Johnson. “It starts with a call to the environmental community to invest in and think about urban redevelopment, because it matters so much now,” he says. “The history of the last three generations in Trenton has been shrinkage, and that is a large part of the reason for sprawl out onto farmland and forests in the region.”
So how do we reverse this trend at a time when both state and federal governments are fiscally challenged? “We need to find cost effective ways for the community to come together and solve these challenges,” says Johnson. “The notion of a new environmentalism is focusing on those places that are high density and making them clean, healthy, and attractive as a way to reduce pressure on the rest of the state.”