Walking the walk (?) and shaping our future

Walking the Walk: The Association Between Community Environmentalism and Green Travel Behavior. Matthew E. Kahn and Eric A. Morris, Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 75, No. 4, Autumn 2009

This American study asks if greenies ‘walk the walk’ and travel more sustainably than non-greens.

It also raises a fascinating political question: what might the political landscape of New Zealand (and USA, of course) look like today if the majority of new development in the past twenty years had been specifically oriented at creating more sustainable urban forms – to what extent has building sprawl-type and car-dependent development fostered anti-environmental and right-wing political views?

First of all, yes, apparently people who express a ‘green ideology’ do tend to travel in a more sustainable manner (with the caveat that it is not clear to me, without looking at background the data, whether this includes overseas/long-distance air-travel).

But the authors note that there is a question of causation that remains undetermined by the study, with possibly important policy implications:

“If greens self-select into dense, central, and transit areas, the demand for these characteristics may rise if green consciousness does. Alternatively, if these characteristics cause green consciousness, their promotion promises to increase green behavior.” (p.1)

“If greens conserve because they derive utility from it, then environmental education and persuasion may bring about more sustainable travel. Alternatively, if green travel behavior causes green beliefs, it is possible that attracting more travelers to alternate modes and reducing vehicle miles traveled may increase environmental consciousness, which may in turn promote other types of pro-environment behavior.” (p.1)

In other words:

“If a rising tide of green belief will translate into increased demand for dense, central, transit-accessible areas, it may augur well for infill developments in the future. Moreover, this information could be helpful in siting green projects. Might they be more likely to succeed in Massachusetts than in Texas? Conversely, if causation flows from residence in dense, central, transit-friendly built environments to enhanced green beliefs and values, it indicates that new sustainable developments will have important collateral benefits, as they may foster a range of pro-environment ideas and behaviors.” (p.2)

One possibility that immediately sprang into my mind is that both mechanisms may be at work: after all, there’s no obvious reason for them to be mutually exclusive (see for example, our discussion of the WWF report Weathercocks & Signposts).

But, regardless, if the second mechanism is significant, and we are serious about building a sustainable society, then we have even more reason to fight for more compact, transit-friendly urban-forms: in laying down roads and neighbourhoods we are shaping not only our physical infrastructure to act sustainably, but our social & political ability to act sustainably. And perhaps Dr Brash and Demographia understood that all along?

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