By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Debra DiPaoloWith each passing hour in the United States, 365 acres of open space — wilderness, countryside, farmland and native habitat — disappear under the foundations of brand-new houses. Sited far from the urban centers where people do their work, every development creates a new class of people addicted to cars that pollute, lawns that suck water and air that requires conditioning. Their construction paves over wetlands, interferes with the migratory patterns of wildlife and uproots the old oaks lucky enough to attract activists to sit in them (the unlucky ones just get cut down).
Plus, they’re butt ugly.
Unlike so many other ecological nightmares these days, however, this one has a solution: apartment life. Where once the nature-lover’s imperative was to carve out a space in the wilderness and get off the grid, many now realize that polluting the air on long commutes and paving over open space so you can live on it is fast becoming unhip: The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club now hand out pamphlets and fliers on "smart-growth" and "transit-oriented" housing; New York City is heralded as a haven of greenness.
"It’s an organic community," says Lois Arkin, founder of the Los Angeles Eco-Village, L.A.’s own sustainable-living trend-setter. Sustainability is fashionable; city living, the radical new trend.
"Sustainability," wrote Grist magazine founder Chip Giller in an Earth Day editorial, "is the new bling."
And density is the new Rocky Mountain high. "At a certain density you have many more opportunities for the kind of shared infrastructure that saves resources," says Ted Bardacke of Global Green USA, an affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Green Cross International, with offices in D.C. and Santa Monica. "Whether it’s heating or cooling or composting or [wastewater] recycling, as you get closer together and start linking apartments up it gets cheaper to do everything." Because apartments share walls, they also share heat in the winter and insulation from the heat in the summer. And unless you’re on the top floor, you don’t have a roof. In terms of maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature efficiently, he says, "that’s a major difference."
Bardacke notes that not every apartment building squanders less than a single-family home: "From an energy standpoint," he says, "a well-constructed single-family home is better than a poorly constructed multifamily building." But in the larger context of traffic, climate change and sprawl, the multifamily unit wins every time. "There’s that real, positive linkage between our air quality and building up within the city," says Bardacke. "Unless you get to a certain density, mass transit doesn’t work."
To the city’s credit, Los Angeles has included the density-equals-fewer-cars equation in its building codes: A single-family home requires two parking spaces per bedroom; an apartment building only requires one. And real estate development has begun to embrace multifamily buildings near transit hubs. Gold Line–connected downtown Pasadena, for instance, is a transit-oriented community, as is the maturing loft-conversion movement in downtown Los Angeles. Even Santa Monica has its transit-oriented side: You can get from the Third Street Promenade to UCLA or downtown Los Angeles on an express bus.
By this logic, even Playa Vista, the hotly contested 111-acre housing development environmentalists have long fought on the city’s Westside, is more environmentally sound than a riverside ranch in Ojai: 90 percent of Playa Vista’s units are condominiums or apartments. No local environmentalist I know will touch this, but it’s true: There are far more wasteful ways to live. Half of L.A.’s water gets dumped onto those live green carpets called lawns, flushing fertilizer and dog feces down into the city’s storm drains, where they’ll eventually sicken surfers and poison marine life. A high-density environment with shared open space, then, might rank low on the city’s worries.
As much as apartment life benefits the planet, however, it may take a toll on residents’ lungs: Last month, the California Air Resources Board issued an ominous report more than 300 pages long claiming that indoor air pollution is rising from cigarette smoke, gas stoves and manufacturing chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is present in composite wood products. Apartment dwellers are likely to suffer worse than homeowners from bad air for the same reason multi-unit dwellings save energy: Apartment units have less ventilation than houses, and renters have less individual control over their air quality. Many carpets "off gas" (emit toxic fumes for years after manufacture), as does paint high in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Air purifiers don’t help: They work by generating ozone to kill germs and neutralize chemicals, but ozone itself irritates lung tissue and triggers asthma.
To Bardacke, whose own Santa Monica condominium is included on the city’s Green Home Tour — it has bamboo floors (bamboo is a fast-growing grass, not a tree), for example, and a dual-flush toilet — the impact of the indoor environment on the tenant is no less important than the impact of the tenant on the planet. You may not get your landlord to bring your building up to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, but you can at least improve your own unit.