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  • Writer's pictureLeslie James

Sustainability: Saving Our Future and Preserving Our Past

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

This is the post that just didn't want to be written. Each time that I sat down to write about sustainability over the last couple of months, my mind moves in a million different directions. Are we talking about environmental sustainability? Sustainable development? The ability for a physical structure or item to persist and be sustained indefinitely? An attempt to bring equity to marginalized communities so they are sustained rather than subsumed?

For me, all of these ideas of sustainability are intrinsically linked and drive much of my personal why and my daily how. I'll try to unpack these ideas a bit and explain how they all tie together (in my brain, at least).

Environmental Sustainability

Per the EPA, sustainability requires creating and maintaining productive harmony between humans and nature to ensure our collective wellbeing into the future. And while policies like NEPA help inform macro-level policies and oversight, our broken U.S. recycling ecosystem and books like the Zero Waste Home and have created a larger "zero waste" movement to reduce the environmental impact of our daily choices at home.

Use less, preserve more. Goal: zero-waste.

Ultimately, I think environmental sustainability can be simplified into the idea that if we use less, we have the ability to more easily preserve more of the green spaces, waterways, and other natural environments that sustain us.

Here are some of my favorite ways to start moving toward a zero-waste life:

Choose package-free products or glass, instead of plastics.

Glass can be recycled indefinitely while plastics only get 1-2 chances to be recycled (if they actually make it to the recycler at all). More retailers are recognizing their responsibility in reducing our dependence on plastics. I proudly support package-free body care options from Lush and refillable options from Bee-och Organics.

Melissa at Deliberate.Less also has great tips on making more sustainable choices. And there are lots of great zero waste stores and bulk options at existing retailers popping up around town.

Choose direct-to-home meal kits, especially local ones and mostly meat-free.

While many meal kit companies like Blue Apron have come under scrutiny in the past for their packaging waste, overall direct-to-consumer meal kits have been shown to reduce food waste and have lower greenhouse emissions than grocery store meal purchases.

Be more sustainable with Prefare meal kits
Prefare offers great easy-to-make meal kits with low waste. Image: In Good Taste Denver

In Denver, a local company called Prefare offers meal kits in a single, recyclable plastic tub (you supply the reusable cooler), and they are beta testing a reusable packaging option right now. Plus, they have a variety of vegetarian and vegan options to further reduce your environmental impact.

Reuse and recycle everything you can. Stop using anything you can't.

One of the biggest barriers to effective recycling (other than access) is wish cycling. Just because we want something to be recyclable unfortunately does not make it so. Thankfully grocery stores have started consistently recycling plastic film, and companies like Terracycle have stepped up to take on more of the hard-to-recycle items like granola bar wrappers, baby food pouches, cosmetics tubes and more.

Recycling bin from the Alliance Center
The Alliance Center accepts cosmetics containers, granola bar wrappers, batteries and other hard to recycle items.

Locally, the Alliance Center acts as a wonderful aggregator for these items so you don't have to directly participate in a million different Terracycle "brigades". The Happy Beetle (Whittier neighbor), Ridwell, and Recycle Almost Everything handle sorting and pickups of many hard-to-recycle items for a small annual fee. But the first step is to start cutting out unnecessary packaging waste out of your life entirely.

Reuse. Repurpose. Restore. Reimagine.

There's a reason it's my tagline. I see preservation and repurpose of architectural salvage items as a way to keep things out of the landfill and avoid unnecessary manufacturing. As Americans, we live in a capitalist, consumption-driven society. But does it have to be so? First, think about what you can reuse in your space. Just rearranging furniture can often make something function better for you. Second, think about how you can repurpose an item; a no longer needed side chair can become a plant stand.

Rerrange furniture instead of busing new.
Rearranging furniture and repurposing pieces is an easy way to refresh a space.

Third, consider restoring worn down items or a road side find, instead of buying new. Often furniture oil or paint can go a long way to making an antique work well, even in a highly designed space. Finally, think outside the box. A door can become a headboard. A sink, a planter. A kids' art table, a microwave stand. The only limit is your imagination.

But again, this is a pretty micro-focused, day-to-day list of choices that have an impact on environmental sustainability. As we think a bit broader, we also have to think about continued access to green spaces and prioritizing their inclusion in future development.

Continued access and environmental equity.

Coming on the heels of a settlement in the central i-70 project and concerns about "green gentrification" as lower income communities finally get improvements to nearby parks, the battle for access to green spaces is playing out locally as the conservation easement of the Park Hill Golf Course is being reconsidered. There are pro-development locals directly at odds with residents who want to see continued access to open spaces and a commitment to environmental equity across the city. This is actively playing out in the latest ballot measures: ordinances 301 and 302.

While I think affordable housing infill needs to be prioritized (despite rampant NIMBYism in many affluent, single family neighborhoods), taking away green space for more development that doesn't have a 100% commitment to that end seems foolhardy, especially when their are lots of other concrete jungles available nearby for development . I would think that adaptive reuse of existing buildings would better achieve affordable housing aims, while keeping parks and open spaces accessible for nearby residents.

A similar spat broke out earlier this year in City Park regarding car access within the park. While the green space itself wasn't up for redevelopment, there were heated debates on whether deprioritizing car traffic was pro-people and pro-environment, and more in alignment with City's stated mobility goals, or instead a form of green gentrification and redlining that limited access.

I personally got caught up in some public debates in which I was trying to provide information. Because it was such an emotional charged debate, it was uncomfortable. I reached out repeatedly to Denver Parks and Rec, but unfortunately got no clarity on their decision making. Ultimately, I am disappointed in DPR's incomplete surveying and then their backpedaling without actually solving for the issues that everyone was trying to discuss -- accessibility for all while prioritizing transportation other than cars -- in a way that brought people together instead of pitting them against each other.

For me, sustainability in this context is about ensuring everyone's continued access to green spaces, both existing places and new investments throughout our city, and moving our society to become less-car dependent.

Ditch the car. Ride a bike.

Did you know that nearly 60% of all vehicle trips in the U.S. were less than 6 miles? And every city mile on a bike saves one pound of carbon dioxide compared to driving a car, per Elly Blue in Bikenomics. I strongly believe that electric cargo bikes can solve transportation issues for most of those commutes.

Yes, even if you have a lot of stuff to schlep.

Yes, even if you have kids.

Yes, even if you are older with less mobility.

Yes, even if you are a low-income family.

Yes, even in the rain and snow.

Recently some fellow cargo biking moms and dads, along with MacKensie at Hardt Family Cyclery, held a cargo bike meetup in City Park to educate and share our stories with the local community. We got a lot of folks excited about the possibility of incorporating more cycling in their lives.

We commute by bike most days to school and work. I hope you will join us. And Denverites, while you are at it, consider taking the 2 mile pledge. I hope that Denver follows the UK's lead and starts to offer incentives for giving up a car and pursuing other forms of transportation instead.

Sustainable Development

The UN World Commission on Environment and Development: defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

I am by no means an expert on what that truly looks like. But I would think that it would involve three main areas:

Provide enough housing for our growing population, while preserving our past.

This means zoning that increases density while preserving neighborhood character through design. This means adaptive reuse. This means building new, especially in the missing middle. This can also be done with historic preservation in mind. Saving old places and preserving their stories isn't at odds with infill. Both can happen if we continue to have conversations, instead of defaulting to black and white, either or arguments, and if we actively participate in local government to advocate for better, more balanced solutions.

Pancratia Hall (Loretto Heights) is being turned into affordable housing. (Alayna Alvarez, Colorado Politics)

Zocalo is a local developer who's doing some great work repurposing buildings, making environmentally friendly decisions, and providing affordable housing. This is seen most recently in their Quayle project.

50 actions for 50 places campaign to sustain historic buildings

And the 50 Actions for 50 Places campaign from Historic Denver has crowdsourced landmarks that are important to the community, and will work to ensure that they survive to tell Denver's story well into the future.

Buy and build things that last.

As you probably already know, it's most environmentally friendly to use what you have, instead of buying new stuff (no matter how green the new product is). But when you buy new, whether that's fashion, household items, cars, or even housing, it's critically important that the items are built to last. As Sandra Goldmark states in her book Fixation, "Good stuff is well designed for a long life cycle, made of the right materials, has parts that are easily available and replaceable, and was produced in a socially and environmentally ethical process." That's why I feel so strongly about architectural salvage, shopping secondhand, buying local, and repurposing what you have. Many items from 50-100 years ago were built to last and when they failed, to be fixed, rather than thrown away. So not only are they still usable, they also provide a connection to our local history. We need to ensure that the housing we are building today limits its environmental impact now, while surviving well into the future. As I look at some of the ticky tacky boxes that have gone up in Five Points over the last five years, I've wondered whether they will survive even twenty years before needing to be rebuilt. 😬 I presume there's some planned obsolescence, as Joe Minicozzi mentioned at the Saving Places Conference earlier this year. Then we'll be right back to where we are now -- with a housing shortage and putting demoed building materials into a landfill so developers can start over and make even more money.

Make things affordable and accessible.

What if instead of building luxury 3-bedroom condos, we focus instead on building multi-use complexes with affordable (not just 80% of market rate 🙄) units that have the flexibility to be repurposed over time? Maybe that changes how we think about the building itself. Maybe units are modular and grow with you -- a studio turning into a 2-bedroom as your family or budget expand? Maybe buildings inherently accommodate aging in place? Maybe the buildings are set up as a co-ops that lower financial barriers to entry? Maybe spaces themselves are more inclusive and accessible? Maybe we look into more flexible home sharing arrangements? In addition to the housing stock itself, there are hundreds of local organizations like I Support the Girls, Impact Locally, and The Gathering Place doing work on the ground in Denver to support people, especially our unhoused neighbors, whatever their current circumstances.

Ultimately, affordability, accessibility, equity, development, environmental awareness, and making smart choices at home are all equally important to ensure that we build a sustainable future.


Have ideas on sustainability in Denver? Contact me and let's meet for coffee!

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